‘Avro’ HS 748

Alliot Verdon Roe was another of the world’s almost-forgotten aviation pioneers. In 1909, only six years after the Wright brothers first flew in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, young Roe designed, built and flew the first British aircraft in Hackney, near London.

A.V. Roe and his brother Humphrey formed the Avro aircraft company in 1910. Their first successful model was the Avro 504 biplane that served in the First World War. The type was very popular for its benign handling characteristics, and served post-WW1 as a trainer, with almost 9,000 being built; a record for its time. A few 504s are still in flying condition, regularly delighting enthusiasts at air shows.

Military aircraft

After a financially fraught peacetime operation that brought the A.V. Roe Company near to bankruptcy and forced a move to Woodford in Manchester, the firm came into its own during the Second World War. A number of Avro aircraft as they were branded distinguished themselves during the conflict. The Lancaster was the most famous of these, a four-engine bomber that carried out most of the RAF’s raids on Germany.

After the war the Lancastrian was developed from the bomber and achieved modest success as an airliner. Examples of the type operated to and from Colombo during the closing stages of the fabled Qantas trans-Indian Ocean nonstop service between Perth, Western Australia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Among Avro’s last military aircraft was the delta-winged Vulcan bomber, which served with the RAF for 28 years. The Vulcan famously featured in long-range flights to bomb Argentinean forces during the Falklands War in the 1980s.

Merger with Hawker Siddeley

The UK’s post-war aviation industry was forced by the government into a series of mergers. Among these was the absorption of Avro by the Hawker Siddeley group, which also owned Avro Canada and would later acquire other storied stalwarts such as de Havilland, Gloster, Vickers-Armstrong, and Blackburn.While these mergers were being planned, Avro’s were busy designing an aircraft to replace the world’s rapidly aging fleets of Douglas DC-3s and other unpressurized airliners. A small regional airliner with a pressurized fuselage and turboprop engines was seen as a desirable combination. Some debate ensued as to whether the high-wing or low-wing format would be best.

Rival Fokker (based in the Netherlands) had just unveiled the F.27 Friendship, which had a high wing, allowing good ground clearance, a level floor throughout the cabin, and excellent passenger visibility. Avro’s design team, however, opted for a low-wing configuration with an eye to ease of engine maintenance, stability at low speeds, and passenger protection in the event of a crash landing. A sturdy landing gear and good short-field performance would facilitate operation from less-developed airfields. The Rolls-Royce Dart RDa 6 was the engine selected for the type.

Initial sales

The first two prototypes were used for certification in the livery of launch customer Skyways Coach-Air of the UK. Argentina also showed interest in the new airplane, and the first production model delivered was to Aerolíneas Argentinas in January 1962. The Avro 748 entered scheduled service in Argentina in April that year after a few ad hoc flights. It proved immensely popular, and the Aerolíneas order was increased from nine to 12 aircraft.

The Avro’s short-field performance and ease of maintenance were key features that brought the type to the notice of the Government of India, which was keen to produce aircraft locally. Shortly after the final design was approved by Hawker Siddeley, a deal was clinched to manufacture the ‘748’ at a dedicated facility in Kanpur, India.

In 1963, the board of Hawker Siddeley Group made the decision to retire the other names and the type officially became ‘HS 748’. However, in countries such as India and Sri Lanka it will always be known as the ‘Avro’. (Later and much more advanced pure-jet aircraft of radically-different design bearing the resurrected Avro name never achieved popularity in the region – but that’s another story.)

Sales continued under the new name, with Air Ceylon, Thai Airways, Philippine Airlines and Fiji Airways in the Asia-Pacific region placing orders. Central and South America proved to be another fertile source of sales as airlines in Brazil, Panama, Venezuela, Mexico and the Bahamas began buying 748s, the majority being Series 2s examples with more powerful Dart RDa 7 engines.

Military sales

The Royal Air Force and Brazilian Air Force were the first military customers for the type. The Royal Australian Air Force ordered eight fitted as navigation trainers, and two for VIP duties. The RAF Queen’s Flight and Royal Thai Air Force operated the VIP version. So did the governments of Venezuela, Argentina and Zambia.

By far the largest military user was the Indian Air Force, with 72 aircraft flown over the years, all built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) at Kanpur, officially designed HAL-748, and powered by Dart engines also licence-built in India. Indian Airlines Corporation operated the remaining 17 Kanpur-built Avros.

The Sri Lanka Air Force took over and used the second of Air Ceylon’s Avro 748s (the first was destroyed on ground by a bomb in 1978) before progressively adding another four in the years to come. Later, the type was also operated by two private airlines in the country; Lion Air (Sri Lanka) and Aero Lanka. Confusingly for some, while the Avro ‘handle’ is still used by many early users of the HS 748, the type is also called ‘Hawker’ in Canada, and affectionately nicknamed ‘Budgie’ in the UK.

A modified version named the Andover was produced for the RAF. It had more powerful Dart Mk 301 engines, and a unique ‘kneeling’ landing gear to facilitate cargo loading through a modified rear-ramp. A total of 31 were built, six of which also served with the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

Modest success

The HS 748 was a moderately successful aircraft, with a worldwide presence. It was one of the last British ‘propliners’ manufactured in significant quantities. A total of 381 were built, 259 to export customers, including those produced by HAL in Kanpur, and the Andovers.

 

The 748’s short-field capabilities, which were designed into the type, were especially in demand, a Flight International report indicating that over one-third of scheduled operators routinely use rough strips with minimal ground support. The inherent simplicity of the Avro’s design and its ability to operate independently with limited maintenance were characteristics that endeared the type to its many operators.

A very crowded market

Further consolidation of the British aircraft industry led to Hawker Siddeley in turn being absorbed by British Aerospace. The HS 748 design was dusted off, given a facelift, and unveiled at Farnborough in 1986 as the BAe ‘Advanced Turbo Prop’ (ATP). With an extended fuselage, more powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada PW126A engines coupled to six-blade composite propellers, the ATP could carry 64 passengers: a significant improvement on the Avro’s capacity of 48.

The ATP entered service with British Midland Airways in 1988. British Airways also operated the type briefly. But the ATP was a far cry from the reliable and popular Avro; it was derided as overcomplicated and unreliable, while acquiring many derogatory nicknames along the way. A total of 63 ATPs were built before the aircraft was rebadged (again) as the BAe Jetstream 61, and fitted with more powerful PW127D engines. The Jetstream iteration did not prove to be a success either, and only four were built before the type was discontinued.

By then the regional turboprop marketplace was a crowded space. The Fokker F.27, a rival to the Avro 748 from the outset, was in its Fokker 50 iteration. De Havilland Canada’s Dash 8 (later the Bombardier Q400, subsequently marketed as the De Havilland Canada Q400) was also a competitor, as was Saab with the 2000 variant of its popular ‘340’. The Franco-Italian ATR 42 had also entered the fray. There were too many choices in a market niche not known for profitability. Today only two manufacturers, ATR and DHC, still produce a medium-sized aircraft of this capacity.

The ATP would find a niche later in life as a capable freighter. West Air Sweden (a.k.a. West Atlantic) began converting the passenger aircraft by using a HS 748 cargo door. An initial six aircraft proved to be profitable for the Swedish carrier, and another nine were converted. These aircraft remain in service, almost 60 years since the first Avro/HS 748 was delivered: an impressive lifespan for any aircraft.

This piece also appears on Propliner magazine on Medium

2 comments

  1. Barry Lloyd

    Hi Suren,

    I love that heading photo! I used to work selling the 748 and I’m currently writing a book on it. Is there any chance I could use that photo in the book? I would of course credit yourself.

    With best wishes

    Barry Lloyd

    1. Suren Ratwatte

      Barry you mean the B&W Air Ceylon HS748 photo? Sure but best you give the credit to Dhamseth Pallewela — it is from his personal collection. I can try to hunt up a hi-res copy if you need it?

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