The Britten SA-1 Sheriff – a rescue job


Sometimes, if you can do just ONE thing right, it makes it all worthwhile. I was appointed as Assistant Keeper, Aviation in the Leicestershire Museums Service, and then seconded to the East Midlands International Airport (EGNX), one of the UK’s regional airports. Here I was to construct an Airport Visitor Centre and establish an aviation collection on a 12 acre site, immediately to the south of the threshold of Runway 09. This was in 1983, and it was be the first of its kind on an international airport in the U.K., and only the third in the world at that time.

Designing the displays, and planning the education facility, constructing an aircraft viewing mound and recruiting staff went well, but what to do about an aircraft collection? Over the next year or so, the Museum Service and the volunteer body I had set up, the AVA, put together a display/collection which included everything from an Avro Vulcan bomber to a Vickers Varsity trainer, but we were always on the look-out for more! We were on a civil airport, yet the hardware we had on display was predominantly military; that was acceptable, as the airport had originally been an RAF Operational Training Unit (equipped with Wellingtons) during WW2. However, we needed more civil aircraft to enable us to tell our story properly. It is here where we had immense luck.

John Britten had met Desmond Norman at the de Havilland Technical School, and it was not long before they decided to establish an aviation business, together. This eventually lead to the Britten-Norman Islander, which first flew in 1965. This simple, rugged, high-wing, twin-engined transport aircraft (and its three-engine development, the Trilander) have not only been spectacularly successful, but developed versions are still being sold today, principally to police and armed forces around the world. John Britten was described in ‘Flight’ magazine, as being ‘a first rate mathematician and a master of aerodynamics’. Indeed, he was such a perfectionist, that overwork certifying the new wing for the Islander almost certainly led to his first coronary in 1967.

This might well have figured in his decision to leave the company, that year, and form his own firm. He immediately began working on the design of a radical, low-cost light twin aircraft. It was to be called the Britten SA-1 Sheriff, an all-metal (with the exception of a fiberglass nose), low-wing monoplane, with a simple retractable tricycle undercarriage of a trailing link design. This would have, like the Fokker S11 Instructor and ERCO Ercoupe, made for easier, smoother landings. Since Britten had proposed the Sheriff as either a two-seat trainer, or a four-seat ‘family/club’ aircraft this was a very desirable characteristic. Other useful features for a trainer included a generous flap area, and a twin tail/rudder assembly, with the control surfaces being directly in the propeller wash of the engines. Those powerplants were to be Lycoming O-320-D1A 4-cylinder, aircooled piston engines each of 160 hp, which would give the SA-1 a top speed of around 168 mph, and a range close to 680 miles.

All was going well, with the prototype – registered as G-FRJB – being 70% complete, when the unthinkable happened. On the 7th July, 1977, John Britten collapsed and died. He was just 48 years old. The tributes were lavish, and it was obvious that the U.K. had lost an aeronautical designer of great promise. His former partner, Desmond Norman, remarked that John’s attitude to design changes was a simple one – ‘No aircraft can lift its own paperwork’.

Britten’s company was wound up, and eventually, his estate began to dispose of the assets. It came to my knowledge that the part-completed Sheriff was sitting – literally – in the weeds on Bembridge Airport, Isle of Wight, and that it was going to be reduced to scrap if someone didn’t move fast, like within the next 7 days! I made an appeal to my boss, and went down on a reconnaissance. We decided it was well worth saving. A low-loading truck was organized, and our new ‘toy’ arrived within a short time.

On delivery, the fibreglass nose was still its natural green colour, the front fuselage was chromate green, and the rear unpainted. There was nothing ahead of the nacelle firewalls, which mean that engine bearers,’simulated’ engines and cowlings and two-bladed propellers would have to be mocked up. By December, 1986 we had painted the aircraft all-over white, and it was on external display, still in an unfinished state.

It is at this point that my story and that of the Sheriff diverge. The East Midlands International Airport, which had been owned by the Counties of Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and the City of Nottingham, was privatized under a central Government edict. All the airport staff who were County employees were handed back to the their respective bodies – and I was out of the Sheriff’s life! The airport was privatized, the original Visitor Centre and ‘Aeropark’ site was built on, and the collection displaced to a remote site on the other north side of the runway.

Work continued on the Sheriff, as the former volunteer body now ran the operation. Progress continued at a slow pace (I sometimes visited, on my periodic trips back to England); above you can see a photograph I took of the state of play in 2009, with the SA-1 undercover and being worked on intensively. Mock engines and a support structure for the engine nacelles were in place by the middle of 2010. In September, 2010, the nacelles and props were in place, the painting was complete, and the SA-1 looked as John Britten had intended her to do so! The only tiny problem was that the aircraft was rather tail heavy, due to the fact that the mass of the engines, propellers and accessories was absent. That has been solved by the addition of a strut underneath the tail.

The AVA is to be congratulated, and I am totally delighted to see the Britten SA-1 Sheriff take its place amongst the list of British civil prototypes. If I have done nothing else in my career, then having had a hand in saving a prototype aircraft will do nicely, thank you!

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2 comments on “The Britten SA-1 Sheriff – a rescue job”

  1. Most well done, Ross! You were a driving force in saving a unique aircraft which was designed by an incredible man. I am sure that History thanks you.

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