How The Rolls-Royce Aviation Superiority Was Born From Tragedy

You might be familiar with the ultra luxury line of automobiles by Rolls-Royce, and you might even know of the company that is one of the leading manufacturers of turbine engines in the world, but what you probably didn't know was that Rolls-Royce's aviation legacy almost ended before it began.

Rolls-Royce designs and manufactures turbine engines that power flight on some of today's foremost mega airliners like the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A380 as well as for military jets. They even have a line of successful turboshaft motors for use in helicopter and other rotary wing aircraft like the V-22 Osprey that the US Navy has recently picked to replace the C-2 Greyhound for carrier operations.

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In addition to being a mainstay of the current airline fleet, Rolls-Royce is on the cutting edge of engine design, including counter rotating open fan designs that reduce noise without sacrificing efficiency and establishing new cost effective techniques integrating composite carbon-titanium fan blades that are projected to reduce fuel consumption by 15%. All of these modern day successes harken back to the dawn of aviation where the Rolls-Royce association began. And almost ended.

Though the airplane might have been born in the middle of America in the first years of the 20th century, it took the United States much longer to accept this strange new technology, while Europe was quick to embrace aeronautics starting with the popularity of ballooning and adventure sports like race car driving. Many entrepreneurs and rich playboys alike flocked to the French epicenter of exploding transportation innovations. If you're interested in more information about these daredevil pioneers of aviation I recommend reading Wings of Madness by Paul Hoffman and if you're not the reading type check out the PBS documentary of the same name. Among these whom were drawn to flight was son of the 1st Baron Llangattock and English car-manufacturing co-founder Charles Stewart Rolls. At the age of 18 he traveled to Paris to buy his first car, a Peugeot Phaeton, believed to be the very first car ever owned in his hometown of Cambridge.

Charles went on to start one of Britain's first car dealerships, initially offering a small selection of French and Belgian vehicles. Soon after, he was introduced to Henry Royce and was quite impressed with the two-cylinder Royce 10. An agreement was made and Rolls-Royce was officially born.

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During this time, Rolls (the man) was quickly making a name for himself as an aviation pioneer. He was an accomplished balloonist making over 170 balloon ascents and was a founding member of the Royal Aero Club in 1903. Rolls moved to powered flight after the Wright Brothers made their European public debut at a horseracing track in Le Mans, France. The Wrights quickly turned the French media scorn and accusations of bluffing into instant fame as Wilbur completed a series of technically challenging flights that far surpassed the abilities of the European aviation pioneers of that day.

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The Wrights went on to license production of their flyer in England and none other than Charles Rolls bought one of the six aircraft built by the Short Brothers aerospace company. As his passion for aviation grew, he was unsuccessful at convincing his partner, Henry Royce, to design an aero engine.

Charles Rolls went on to complete over 200 flights, until that tragic day in 1910 when his biplane broke up in the air and crashed during Bournemouth Aviation Week, making him the first British pilot to lose his life flying an aeroplane. Any hope for aviation at Rolls-Royce was now lost with the company's founding partner until world wide upheaval forced their hand.

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Despite dwindling demand for luxury cars when World War I broke out, Rolls-Royce was reluctant to turn their manufacturing to aero engines believing the conflict would be short lived. Finally persuaded to enter the market by the War Office, their first aero engine was completed in 1915 and throughout the war struggled to produce the quantities required to support the effort.

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By the late '20s, aero engines made up most of the companies business and by the '30s Henry Royce would design his last engine, the Merlin, a powerful supercharged V 12 engine fitted to many aircraft used in World War II including the English icon of air superiority, the Supermarine Spitfire. The Merlin, ironically, also found its way into a Spanish built variation of the German Messerschmitt ME109s.

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Rolls-Royce would go on to make significant advance in jet engines after acquiring gas turbine assets from Rover. Turboprop engines developed from these advances became particularly important, powering many airliners and allowing them to cut flight times on smaller routes. This provided room to design larger airliners for longer journeys that required higher powered turbojet and later turbofan engines.

The decades following the second World War were hard on the British aerospace industry and many companies become consolidated. Rolls-Royce seemed to be the industrial victor acquiring military engines like the Olympus that went on to power the Concorde supersonic airliner, and the thrust vectoring Pegasus that is still used in the Harrier. Meanwhile, the company continued work on bypass turbofan engines for large airliners specifically to power a new wide body design by Lockheed, the L-1011 TriStar.

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Financial woes at Rolls-Royce threatened the development, but in the early 1970s the government nationalized the company and was split into Rolls-Royce plc and Rolls-Royce Motors and work continued on engine development. This line of engines later became know as the Trent Series that is currently installed on many airliners like the Boeing 787 the Airbus A350 XWB which is exclusively powered by the Trent XWB.

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When Rolls-Royce was privatized in 1987 they only held 8% of the market share compared to the roughly 40% of wide-bodied aircraft that they hold now. Who knows if Henry Royce would have agreed to enter aviation without experiencing the enduring passion he found in his partner business Charles.

Photo credit: Getty Images


Chris is a pilot who loves airplanes and cars and his writing has been seen on Jalopnik. Contact him with questions or comments via twitter or email.

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