Although it was a gifted design, only a small number of Shorts Belfast heavy-lifters were built. Stephen Skinner details its
relatively brief military career and its post-service use.
Shorts came into being at the turn of the 20th century, as one of the pioneers of British aviation. It developed to become a major manufacturer of flying boats and is best remembered for the Sunderland maritime patrol aircraft. Post-war, the company became mainly state-owned with minority holdings held by Bristol Aircraft and Harland & Wolf Shipbuilders. In the 1950s, Shorts engaged in several of its own projects, but also carried out manufacture under licence of English Electric Canberras and of all the 23 Bristol Britannias ordered for the RAF, as Bristol did not have sufficient capacity to handle production. As part of this relationship between the two companies, Shorts was given design rights to further developments of the Britannia.
BIRTH OF THE BELFAST
During 1957, the RAF identified a need for a heavy freighter, so Shorts proposed a high-wing development of the Britannia called the Britannic. There were two other contenders for this specification: the Blackburn B.107, powered by four Rolls-Royce Tynes, and the Handley Page 111 derived from the Victor bomber.
The Britannic appeared to offer the lowest development cost and least risk, but when the RAF increased its payload demand to 30,000lb (13,608kg) and range to 3,600nm (6,667km), the Britannia wing was increased in span with a new centre section adding some 16ft 6in (5m) to its overall dimensions and the gross weight rose to 230,000lb (104,326kg). Many parts and systems were common to the Britannia, only the huge fuselage was wholly new. For the latter, Shorts elected to use a circular cross-section capable of accommodating a 12ft (3.7m) square load by 86ft (26m) to facilitate the carriage of exceptional cargos such as the Blue Streak missile, which needed to be transported to Australia for trials at the Woomera test range. The exceptionally large fuselage could also carry a Chieftain battle tank, or two Polaris missiles, or three Westland Wessex helicopters or 150 fully equipped troops. It had been intended to power the aircraft with Bristol Orion engines, but when this was cancelled Rolls-Royce Tynes with 5,730ehp were selected.
There were positions on the capacious flight deck for two pilots, flight engineer, navigator and loadmaster. The aircraft had a large galley with sleeping quarters for six below this area.
The UK government considered the Shorts entry as the best offering and announced its choice in January 1959. In 1960, an order was placed for ten for RAF Transport Command (which became Air Support Command in 1967), to be known as the Belfast C.1. Shorts needed orders for just 30 to break even on the project and hoped to attract civil sales.
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Photo caption: The first example, XR362, which took to the air on its maiden sortie on January 5, 1964. Key Collection