By William Pearce
In 1914, Adolf Karl Rohrbach started working for Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH as the company began to diversify from airship construction into building heavier-than-air aircraft. Claude Dornier was also employed by Zeppelin and was tasked with designing airframes out of metal, rather than wood. Rohrbach worked with Dornier on the design of several aircraft before Rohrbach was reassigned in 1917 to the Zeppelin plant in Staaken, near Berlin, Germany. At Staaken, Rohrbach worked with Alexander Baumann and was involved in the design of large R-Plane (Riesenflugzeuge, or giant aircraft) bombers.
Immediately following World War I, Rohrbach designed the Zeppelin-Staaken E.4/20. Like Dornier and Hugo Junkers, Rohrbach was pioneering the construction of aircraft using metal and stressed skin. The E.4/20 was an all-metal, four-engine airliner that made its first flight on 30 September 1920. However, the Treaty of Versailles prevented Germany’s possession of large aircraft, and the E.4/20 was scrapped in 1922. That same year, Rohrbach founded Rohrbach Metall-Flugzeugbau GmbH (Rohrbach Metal Aircraft, Ltd) in Berlin. To work around the Treaty of Versailles, aircraft designed at Rohrbach in Berlin were built at an assembly plant in Copenhagen, Denmark or licensed to be constructed elsewhere.
Following World War I, the British Air Ministry became increasingly interested in all-metal aircraft. In 1923, the Air Ministry issued specification No. 18/23 for a large, all-metal, experimental transport, and order No. 445337/23 was awarded to William Beardmore & Company, Ltd in Dalmuir, Scotland for the construction of such an aircraft. At the time, Beardmore was involved in building ships, locomotives, aircraft engines, and airships. In addition, the company had built aircraft under license during World War I. Beardmore was to collaborate with Rohrbach on the design of the transport aircraft. Beardmore outlined the aircraft’s basic specifications, Rohrbach supplied some of the detailed drawings, and Beardmore built the transport. The aircraft was known as the Beardmore AV 1 Inflexible, or the Rohrbach Ro VI, or the BeRo 1—a combination of Beardmore and Rohrbach. Most commonly, the aircraft is referred to as the Beardmore Inflexible. It was not until 1924 that Beardmore obtained the license from Rohrbach and construction of the aircraft began.
At Beardmore, the design of the Inflexible was initially laid out and modified by William. S. Shackleton. The project was later taken over by Rollo A. de Haga Haig. The aircraft’s design was tested in the Royal Aircraft Establishment’s wind tunnel at Farnborough. Except for its size, the aircraft possessed a fairly conventional layout. The monoplane trimotor had shoulder-mounted wings and taildragger landing gear. One engine was mounted in the nose, and an engine was mounted on each wing. Each engine was a water-cooled Rolls-Royce Condor II that produced 650 hp (485 kW) and turned a wooden, fixed-pitch, two-blade propeller. The radiator for the nose-mounted engine was directly below the fuselage, and the radiator for each wing-mounted engine was located under the wing between the engine nacelle and the fuselage. The two-place, side-by-side, open cockpit was positioned just forward of where the wings mounted to the fuselage. Below the cockpit on the left side of the fuselage was a small propeller for a wind-driven pump. The pump supplied oil to a servo system that boosted movement of the ailerons and elevator.
The Inflexible was made of duralumin, an aluminum alloy that incorporates copper, manganese, and magnesium for increased strength. The fuselage had a rectangular cross section and consisted of front and rear sections that were bolted together. Both sections were made of duralumin sheets riveted to a duralumin frame. Mounted to the rear of the fuselage were the horizontal and vertical stabilizers. The elevator spanned the entire length of the horizontal stabilizer. A Flettner servo tab trailed behind the rudder and controlled its movement.
The wings were formed by a wing box that bolted to the fuselage and made up the center wing section. An outer wing section bolted to each side of the wing box and was supported by two spars. Like the fuselage, the wing was covered with sheets of duralumin. A cable that kept each wing in tension while in flight connected the rear spar, at about two-thirds the span of the wing, to the lower fuselage. This cable was tensioned to about 3,000 lb (1,361 kg). The wings had a six-degree dihedral. Sections of the leading and trailing edges of the wings were hinged for access and inspection of the inner wing. The aircraft’s 656 US gal (546 Imp gal / 2,482 L) of fuel was carried in four wing tanks. The Inflexible did not have any flaps, but its large ailerons spanned the outer half of each wing’s trailing edge. Extending from each of the aircraft’s control surfaces was an aerodynamic balance horn.
The aircraft’s immense weight was supported by two large main wheels and a steerable tailwheel. During component testing, wire wheels collapsed under the expected weight of the Inflexible. New wheels were designed and made from steel and aluminum. Mounted to the wheels were 90-in (2.29-m) tall tires, specially developed by the Dunlop Rubber Company. The weight of the large tires increased by 70 lb (32 kg) when they were filled with air. Each main wheel was supported by a shock-absorbing strut that extended from just inside the engine nacelle. An A-frame mounted to the lower fuselage secured each main wheel. The main gear had a track of 25 ft 7 in (7.80 m). For landing, the main wheels had a hydraulic braking system that could be automatically applied when the tail wheel connected with the ground. This system was designed by Rohrbach engineer Kurt Tank.
The Beardmore Inflexible had a wingspan of 157 ft 6 in (48.01 m), a length of 75 ft 6 in (23.01 m), and a height of 21 ft 2 in (6.45 m). The aircraft had a top speed of 110 mph (177 km/h) at sea level and 101 mph (163 km/h) at 6,500 ft (1,981 m). Its landing speed was 65 mph (105 km/h). The Inflexible had a climb rate of 359 fpm (1.8 m/s) and took 18 minutes and 06 seconds to reach 6,500 ft (1,981 m). The aircraft’s service ceiling was 9,350 ft (2,850 m). The Inflexible had an empty weight of 24,923 lb (11,305 kg), a gross weight of 31,400 lb (14,243 kg), and a maximum weight of 37,000 lb (16,783 kg). Reportedly, the aircraft could seat 20 passengers, but it does not appear that such accommodations were ever installed.
Construction of the Inflexible progressed slowly and was often delayed by various material shortages. The aircraft was initially given civil registration G-EBNG on 29 December 1925. This registration was cancelled on 12 July 1927, and military serial number J7557 was assigned. The aircraft was completed at Dalmuir, near Glasgow, Scotland, in mid-1927. It was then broken down into various sections and transported by sea from Glasgow to Ipswich, England. However, the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment had no way to transport the large components from the Ipswich docks to the nearby Martlesham Heath Airfield. Disassembled, the two fuselage sections were 41 ft (12.50 m) long, and the outer wing sections were 61 ft (18.59 m) long. Moving the large sections of the Inflexible to Martlesham Heath required the construction of a special transport with steerable axles. Once assembled, the Inflexible’s wingspan was larger than any hanger opening at Martlesham Heath. Special trollies were built that supported each of the aircraft’s wheels and enabled movement in all directions. With the trollies, the aircraft could be moved sideways into the hanger.
Initial ground tests were started in January 1928, and the Inflexible was soon ready for flight tests when the weather was clear. The aircraft’s first flight occurred on 5 March 1928 and was flown by Jack Noakes. A Beardmore mechanic was also on the flight. The Inflexible took off in about 1,014 ft (309 m) and flew for 15 minutes; at the time, it was the world’s largest aircraft to fly. The Inflexible was stable in flight and exhibited good controls. Further flight testing revealed the aircraft to be underpowered, and its pitch and roll control was lacking in rough weather and at slow speeds. Wake turbulence from the fuselage-mounted engine also caused vibration issues with the aircraft’s tail.
The Inflexible was displayed for the public on at least three different occasions. On 27–30 June 1928, the aircraft was flown during the Royal Air Force Display at Hendon, near London. On 18–20 May 1929, it appeared at the Norwich Aero Club Air Display at the Mousehold Aerodrome. On 10 June 1929, the Inflexible was at the Cambridge Aero Club Display in Conington.
Beardmore struggled financially after World War I, and the aircraft department closed in February 1929. Rohrbach also suffered financial difficulties, and the company merged with a Deschimag subsidiary to form Weser Flugzeugbau GmbH in 1934. Although the Inflexible had demonstrated the feasibility of all-metal, stressed-skin construction, it would be a few years before the technique was fully adopted by the British aircraft industry. In January 1930, the Inflexible was disassembled for static tests at Martlesham Heath. The aircraft had accumulated 47 hours and 55 minutes of flight time. The engines were removed and placed into storage. After the static tests, the wings, fuselage, and other components were left exposed to the elements for corrosion tests. Occasionally, parts of the duralumin skin were removed and repurposed, and the fuselage served as a space for guards to get out of the weather. The remains of the Inflexible were eventually scrapped in 1931. The only surviving component of the aircraft is one main wheel, which is on display in the Science Museum, London.
– Beardmore Aviation 1913-1930 by Charles Mac Kay (2012)
– British Prototype Aircraft by Ray Sturtivant (1990)
– Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1928 by C. G. Grey and Leonard Bridgman (1928)
– British Flight Testing: Martlesham Heath 1920-1939 by Tim Mason (1993)
– “Die Monster von Beardmore” by Philip Jarrett, Flugzeug Classic (May 2002)