Sheds, Shoeboxes and Sherpas – The History of Short’s Turboprops

In April 1901, brothers Oswald and Eustace Short set up a business manufacturing aerial balloons in Hove, Sussex. The venture proved lucrative, and two years later, the company had expanded to larger premises in London.

Now joined by their elder brother Horace, by 1909 they had moved to powered flight, after being awarded a contract by Orville and Wilbur Wright to construct six biplanes. These were used by members of the Aero Club of Great Britain to gain the first pilot’s licences issued in the UK. 

The Short Brothers – Hugh Oswald Short (L), Horace Leonard Short (Top R) and Albert Eustace Short (Bottom R).

In 1936, the Air Ministry merged the company with Harland and Wolff shipbuilders, who had also diversified into aircraft manufacture. The new company ‘Short and Harland’ then established a new aircraft factory and airfield in Sydenham, Belfast, near the adjacent shipbuilding docks, today George Best Belfast City Airport (BHD). 

After World War II, the company became known simply as Short Brothers. It became involved in pioneering aeronautical research, including Britain’s first vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, the Short SC.1.

The Skyvan

In the late 1950s, Shorts formed a Light Aircraft Division and began developing a small and simple utility aircraft capable of performing short take-offs and landings (STOL).

Billed as a “general purpose” aircraft, Shorts wanted to ensure that cargo and/or passengers could be carried comfortably. So designers came up with the boxy fuselage that would become synonymous with the planemaker. 

The Short SC.7 Skyvan was born, and the construction of the prototype began in 1960. Designed to be flown by just one pilot, although a copilot could also be carried, the twin-engined, high-wing, unpressurised airliner took to the skies on January 17, 1963.

Skyvan prototype (G-ASCN) pictured inn 1964. (Photo: Ralf Manteufel (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

It could carry up to 19 passengers or 12 stretchers and medical personnel in a medivac role. Skis could be added for winter operations and low-pressure tyres for rough-field operations. A roller floor was available as an option for cargo carriers, and the type could handle payloads up to 2,085 kilograms (4,600 pounds). 

A large rear cargo door and a tail ramp were also included to assist with the loading and unloading of freight. In later life, the cargo door would make the Skyvan the perfect aircraft for para-jumpers, with many airframes finding a second life as such.

Short Skyvan (SX-BBN) in Olympic Airways (OA) colours which was used for domestic operations in Greece. (Photo: See image for ©)

The “Skyliner” was a dedicated passenger variant which, with the rear loading ramp removed, could carry up to 22 passengers and had a toilet, small galley and cabin door. British European Airways (BEA) ordered two of the type in November 1972 to replace its de Havilland Heron’s on their Scottish highlands and Islands services, including landing on Barra beach. 

BEA/BA “Skyliner” (G-ASZJ). (Photo: Peter Ashton)

Following its entry into service, the Skyvan proved its worth with many different operators as a functional, reliable and economical aircraft. It also found a niche with airlines in developing countries where paved runways and suitable airfields were still being developed.  

Buoyed by this success, Shorts decided to look at designing a bigger and better version of the Skyvan, one that was more refined and potentially more appealing to Western airlines.

The American Dream

One market of particular interest to Shorts was the United States. Here, airlines had begun to move to a hub-and-spoke system of operations whereby smaller commuter aircraft would feed passengers to larger jets at an airlines major hub. 

Market research carried out at the time predicted demand for approximately 300 aircraft in the regional category in the US alone between 1972 and 1981. 

An aerial shot of the Shorts 360 (front) and 330 (behind). (Photo: © unknown)

However, the US Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) had limited the number of passengers that could be carried on these routes to just 20. This proved problematic for airlines struggling to keep up with the growing demand.  

Shorts wanted to build an aircraft that could carry up to 30 passengers, so the planemaker took their designs directly to the CAB and told them that their plane was ready to go and would more than suit the demands of the growing market. In July 1972, the CAB relented, allowing the use of 30-seat aircraft for commuter flights. 

Rather than develop a completely clean-sheet design, the 330 bore many similarities with the Skyvan to keep costs down and develop the aircraft quickly. A government grant was given to the company towards development costs. Design work was finalised in early 1973, with the official go-ahead of the 330 given on May 23, 1973. 

While the box-like fuselage of the Skyvan may have looked ugly, it became one of the key selling points of the 330. An extended fuselage, by 58ft (17.68m) and the ‘wide-body’ style cabin could comfortably accommodate 30 passengers in 10 rows of three-abreast seating, plus one crew member. Designed by Walter Dorwin Teague Associates of New York in collaboration with Boeing, the interior was made to feel like a modern airliner with air-conditioning, overhead lockers, toilet and galley area.

Construction of the prototype began in August 1973, and the first aircraft (G-BSBH) made its maiden flight on August 22, 1974. It attended the Farnborough Air Show two weeks later, gaining much attention from potential customers.

The prototype Shorts 330 (G-BSBH) pictured at the 1974 Farnborough Air Show. (Photo: Steve Fitzgerald (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

The flying test programme was then undertaken with two prototypes (G-BSBH and G-BDBD), spanning a total of 1,000 flying hours over 22 months. CAA certification was granted on February 18, 1976.

The initial production aircraft designated the -100 was powered by five-blade Pratt & Whitney PT6A-45A/45B engines. These were later replaced by the more powerful PT6A-45R in the later -200 series, which became the standard variant.

The 330 became the first of a new breed of 30-seat’ feeder liners. Thanks to the company’s rapid development, it allowed the aircraft to have a monopoly in this market.

As planned, the first order for the 330 came from the North American market, with Canadian regional operator Time Air launching flights with the type on August 24, 1974. Indeed, 52% of 330s built went on to serve in the US. 

Time Air of Canada Shorts 330 (G-BEEO) pictured at Farnborough. (Photo: Steve Fitzgerald (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

The first British order came from Scottish carrier Loganair, who took delivery of the first of two aircraft in 1979. The type was put to work on services on its ‘Translink’ feeder services from Aberdeen and Edinburgh to Prestwick, where passengers could connect to the vast array of Transatlantic flights that served the airport at the time without travelling to London. 

Loganair used the Short 330 on its ‘Translink’ feeder services. (Photo: Alastair BarbourCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sherpas

A forward cargo door was included in the 330s design as standard, facilitating the use of the aircraft in mixed passenger/cargo or all-cargo configuration with a maximum payload of 3,400kg.

This cargo capability was further developed when Shorts unveiled plans for a 330 freighter dubbed the ‘Sherpa’ and the 330-UTT (Utility Tactical Transport).

With a full-width, hydraulically operated, ramp-type, rear-loading door and strengthened cabin floor, the Sherpa first flew on December 23, 1982. 

A US Air Force Short C-23A ‘Sherpa’ seen inflight over Germany. (Photo: Camera Operator: MSgt. Bill Thompson, USAF, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The US Air Force (USAF) confirmed an initial order for 18 in March 1983 to be used as its European Distribution System Aircraft (EDSA), flying cargo and military personnel between Air Force bases within Europe. It entered service a year later, becoming the first British-built airliner to be operated by the USAF since the Second World War.

Several versions of the Sherpa were produced. The C-23A was the initial cargo-only model, of which 18 were built. This was followed by the C-23B, which had a more robust landing gear, paratroop doors and cabin windows; 16 were made. 

The C-23B+ or ‘Super Sherpa’ was a converted 360. Shorts had ceased production of the passenger variant of the 330 shortly after production of the 360 commenced. But an order by the USAF for a further 16 examples meant that second-hand 360s had to be sourced and then modified by the West Virginia Air Centre (WVAC). This involved replacing the rear fuselage with a twin-tail and rear loading ramp. 

Short C-23B+ Sherpa. (Photo: John MurphyCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, 47 aircraft were given avionic upgrades and designated the C-23C (43) and C-23D (4).

First announced in September 1982, the UTT was a military variant with a reinforced cabin floor and para-tool doors. It could carry 33 troops, or 15 stretchers and four seated patients or medical assistances for casualty evacuation. However, the model sold in small numbers, with only eight built.

Shorts 360

Buoyed by the success and popularity of the 330, the company looked at stretching the aircraft to accommodate more passengers. The -333 for 33 passengers and -335 for 35 were mooted, but it would be the heavily modified and upgraded design of the 360 that was chosen and first announced in mid-1980.

Birmingham European used this Short 360 to launch a twice daily service from BHX to NCL. You can read all about this airlines history here. (Photo: G B_NZCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

As with the Skyvan to 330, the 360 had many commonalities with its predecessors. However, the aircraft’s rear was completely redesigned with a single conventional tail-fin and upgraded engine, the PT6A-45R, giving a 10% increase in power. 

The fuselage, stretched by 91cm, allowed for 36 seats in a three-abreast layout or 39 in a high-density configuration. The extension also improved the models aerodynamic profile and reduced drag.

The incredibly spacious cabin of the Shorts 360. (Photo: RuthASCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The spacious cabin on the 330 had proved incredibly popular with passengers, and the same ‘shed’ like fuselage the 360 became a marketers dream. Promotional material sent out to potential customers highlighted the types’ Big jetliner comfort – small regional economy’ with the tagline ‘Fly the wide-body regional shuttle-liner.’

The prototype 360, appropriately registered G-ROOM, took to the skies for the first time on June 1, 1981 ahead of schedule by a few months. It was joined by sister-ship G-WIDE for test certification, received on September 3, 1981. 

The prototype Short 360 (G-ROOM) pictured at the Farnborough Air Show in 1982. (Photo: Tim Rees (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

On August 19, 1982 the aircraft made its first commercial flight with an American carrier, Suburban Airlines operating for Allegheny Commuter. Again, entry into service proved trouble-free with an in-service dispatch reliability of 99%.

In late 1985 Shorts unveiled a new version, the 360 ‘Advanced’ with higher-performing PT6A-65AR engines. This was followed in March 1987 by the -300 series powered by two PT6A-67R’s six-blade propellors. The -300 also had significant aerodynamic improvements giving a higher cruise speed and improved “hot and high” performance. 

A freighter variant, the 360-300F, which could house up to five standard LD3 containers of pallets, was also introduced. Indeed, many of the passenger variants went on to find a new life as cargo aircraft when they were subsequently retired. 

Short 360F (D-CRAS) in FedEX Feeder colours. (Photo: Felix Goetting (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

Flying The Shed

Stu Swift, a former First Officer who flew the 360 with Jersey European Airways, described what flying the 360 was like: “The Shed looked a bit ridiculous. She was a bit of an ugly duckling, but it actually flew very nicely. Those in the Jersey European fleet were completely manual, no auto-pilots or even flight directors, so all the flying was by hand, which was very good practice for pilots.”

“You always trimmed by hand, and as a result, you could feel the change in the centre of gravity when someone walked from the rear of the aircraft to the front. The plane actually started to gently nose down, and you had to slightly increase your back pressure to stay level. With a bit of intelligent deduction, you could predict when the cabin crew were bringing you coffee or sandwiches, as the galley was right at the back of the aircraft.”

Jersey European (JY) introduced the Short 360 in 1986. (Photo: Rolf Wallner (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

“Our airline used to conduct fear of flying courses, and the flying part of the course was done on, you guessed it, a Shed. If the poor souls were not scared before they walked out to the aircraft, they must have been when they saw it”

The Shorts 450

At the Paris Air Show in May 1985, Shorts unveiled a prototype model of a new 44 – 49 seat regional airliner, the -450. The new model was to be built as a joint project with Embraer. Sadly the type never got off the drawing board. 

What might have been, the Short 450. (Photo: © Unknown)

Pressurised airliners that could fly faster, higher and for longer were entering the market, and the writing was on the wall for the Short models. The aircraft’s simplicity, which had once allowed it to get ahead of its competitors, now became its downfall. 

In 1989 the Shorts company was sold to Bombardier, and its own aircraft production came to an end after almost 90 years. 

Air UK Short 360 (G-DASI) seen at Amsterdam (AMS) in 1991. (Photo: Felix Goetting (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

All three models became part of the manufacturer’s rich heritage and allowed Shorts to break into the American market, something most of its British contemporaries failed to achieve. Indeed, Shorts would go on to sell a total of 496 of its Skyvan, 330 and 360 models, making it one of the most successful airliners in British aviation history, outselling the BAe 146/Avro RJ, the Hawker Siddeley 748, Vickers Viscount and the BAC 1-11. 

Check out ours Short’s gallery by clicking an image below…

N.B. The author does not own the rights to any of the images included in this article unless otherwise stated.

© Jet Back In Time by Lee Cross

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