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Fairey Ultra-Light

This light two-seater pressure-jet helicopter was built to meet two particular British Army requirements: air observation and so-called "air runabout" duties.

The engine is a French Turbomeca Palouste gas turbine, re-engineered by Blackburn-Turbomeca and General Aircraft Ltd, with the turbine in Nimonic 90 alloy.

Air from an oversize centrifugal compressor arrives at the blade tips, where it is joined by fuel from the same tank as that supplying the gas turbine and carried by centrifugal force to the sparking-plugs, which produce ignition of the mixture in the small combustion chambers.

The controls used are of the direct-tilting head type.

The pilot's seat is on the right; from his seat on the left, the passenger has a clear view forwards and backwards.

In September 1956 the helicopter, which can be transported on a three-ton lorry, was exhibited at the Farnborough Air Show and made some inclined climbs at approximately 6.75 metres per second, and some auto-rotation descents at about 20 metres per second.

The Ultra-light comes into the same class of helicopter as the "Djinn" built by SNCASO in France.

P.Lambermont "Helicopters and Autogyros of the World", 1958

The prototype Ultra-light Helicopter, in its original form and with the serial XJ924, being demonstrated at the SBAC Show, Farnborough, in 1955, three weeks after its initial flight

Of the interesting British prototypes not adopted in the fifties, the Fairey Ultra Light is worth mentioning.

This was a tiny two-seater which used most of the jet from its French Turbomeca Palouste turbine engine for propulsion. Air from the centrifugal compressor was sent to the blade tips where it was mixed with the same fuel as was supplied to the turbine, to create additional thrust using tiny combustion chambers.

The project was originally developed to meet a British Army specification for an aerial observation platform and, in September 1956, was displayed at Farnborough, operating from the back of a standard truck. It demonstrated outstanding capabilities, in particular, a rate of climb of 6.75m/s and a rate of descent in autorotation of 20m/s. Subsequent development included trials with the Royal Navy, operating from the deck of a destroyer, HMS Undaunted, but the project was eventually cancelled in 1959.

G.Apostolo "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Helicopters", 1984

During 1953 the War Office collaborated with the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Supply in the formulation of a specification for a simple and relatively inexpensive small helicopter for use by the Army for reconnaissance and other secondary duties such as casualty evacuation and training. The requirements were severe in terms of vertical climb performance, in tropical as well as temperate conditions, though endurance and speed were less stressed. The helicopter had also to be capable of being dismantled and assembled easily and quickly and of being transported on a standard Army three-ton truck.

The specification was sent to helicopter manufacturers in the British aircraft industry, with requests for tenders, and some half-dozen designs were submitted. Fairey eventually won the contract in July 1954 and a preliminary order for four prototypes, to specification H.144T, was placed. Two more were planned as a private-venture investment.

Work on pressure-jets in preparation for the Jet Gyrodyne (which had already flown) and the Rotodyne led Fairey to believe that a rotor-tip drive would be ideal for the Ultra-light Helicopter (as it was named), and preliminary studies showed that a tip-jet-driven version could be designed to do better than meet the requirements. A suitable small turbojet power source was already available in Britain — the French Turbomeca Palouste BnPe.2, which had been re-engineered and was built under licence by Blackburn and General Aircraft.

To provide tip-jet air pressure in addition to residual thrust an oversize centrifugal compressor was fitted, and the excess delivery was bled off from the casing surrounding the annular combustion chamber. Untainted air was thus obtained at an initial maximum pressure of about 2.8kg/cm2. With this available pressure it would have been possible to design the rotor for operation, as in the case of the similarly-sized French Djinn helicopter, using simple air jets, but, with their background of experience of fuel-burning pressure-jets, these were employed.

The compressed air was delivered, via a lagged duct, to the rotor head and, with metered fuel, to the tip-jets. There was a manually-operated blow-off valve for use when the engine was being ground-run, and, later in the test development, when rotor-power needed to be cut so that rapid autorotative descents could be made.

With the ample power available the rotor was designed to operate at high revolutions and to have a small diameter (8.53m), thus meeting the need for compactness. Two of the later variants were fitted with a slightly bigger diameter rotor (9.75m) so as to improve the performance. The small diameter of the rotor permitted the mechanical design and control system to be simplified. No drag hinges were employed and the two blades formed a see-saw combination without individual flapping hinges.

A direct tilting-head type of control was employed in the first prototype, but an irreversible hydraulically-powered system for the cyclic-pitch control was designed (together with a flexible pylon) and fitted to this and to later aircraft. The pilot's controls were those normal for helicopters — with a collective-pitch lever which carried a twist-grip throttle for increasing engine revolutions and consequent air pressure for the tip-jets, and a stick for control in roll and pitch, but the rudder-pedal directional control was through a steel-skinned rudder on which the jet efflux impinged.

The Ultra-light was very simple in construction, the basis of which was a large light-alloy box containing the bag-type fuel tank. From the centre of this box rose the rotor pylon on which the remainder of the aircraft was, so to speak, hung. To the rear was attached a box-girder boom, under which the engine was slung, carrying the rudder — or rudders and an adjustable tailplane in later versions. This boom had a transport joint aft of the engine mounting. The crew's seats (the observer facing aft in the proposed Army version) were on the basic box structure. The undercarriage consisted of a pair of skids attached to tubes running across the underside of the box.

The initial flight of the first prototype, XJ924 (F.9423), was made at White Waltham by W. R. Gellatly, on 14 August, 1955 - only about 13 months from the start of design work — and it was shown and flown at the SBAC exhibition and display at Farnborough early in the following month. Progress on the original basis was, however, to be overtaken by events. Before mid-1956 the Ministry of Supply had, for reasons of economy, ceased to support the Army project, and development of the Ultra-light was continued by Fairey on a private-venture basis, with considerable and expensive efforts to develop the original design and to sell it to prospective Service and civil operators. In 1957 it seemed that success might not be far away. The Piasecki Aircraft Corporation of Philadelphia, USA, had obtained an option to build and the US Army was evaluating it for uses similar to those originally envisaged by the British authorities. Nothing, however, was to follow from these developments.

There have been some considerable differences, among semi-official and other records, of the actual identities of the various Ultra-lights, of the total number completed and of the sequence in which they were produced. The principal difficulty in straightening the records has been caused by the fact that the original order 'bookings' were changed. As mentioned earlier in the narrative, four (F.9423—9426) were planned to meet the original Ministry of Supply contract and two more (F.9427—8) were built by Fairey on a private-venture basis. After a certain amount of work had been done there were interchanges of components and then, following the Ministry cancellation, Fairey increased their private-venture programme.

The serials XJ924, 928, 930 and 936 were allotted to the first four and three of the six were civil-registered following the withdrawal of official support. In order of c/ns, but not necessarily of completion or of initial flights, the six appear to have consisted of the following individual aircraft. The first prototype, XJ924 (F.9423), was the first to fly and was later modified with the hydraulic cyclic-pitch control and flexible pylon already mentioned. The second prototype, XJ928 (F.9424), became a Fairey de velopment aircraft for which a modified cabin was designed so that different loads, such as a stretcher case, could be accommodated; this was registered G-AOUJ and fitted with the hydraulic controls, flying for the first time in the revised form on 1 September, 1957. The third prototype, XJ930 (F.9425), was delivered to the Ministry of Supply. The fourth, XJ936 (F.9426), flown on 24 August, 1956, was the first to be fitted with the hydraulic controls and the flexible pylon; it appeared at die SBAC Display in September 1956 registered G-AOUK, and was the company's principal demonstration and trials aircraft. The first of the two original private-venture aircraft, F.9427, was apparently used only for resonance tests and for ground-transport trials. The second, F.9428, was registered G-APJJ and flown initially in 1958; this had a cabin similar to that of G-AOUJ and was used for trials by the Royal Navy before going to the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Bedford, and later to the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield.

Some uncertain confirmation of the sequence of the completion of the Ultra-lights can be found in the press reports of the SBAC displays of the period. One such report for 1956 said that four had by then been built, the fourth being G-AOUK; another, after the 1957 display, said that five had been built, including G-AOUJ, which was at the show with G-AOUK, and that a sixth, G-APJJ, was under construction. The demonstrations at these displays and that of 1958 were impressive and breathtaking, with take-offs from and landings on a three-ton truck, first stationary and later in motion (simulating the landing platform of a naval frigate), and with rapid autorotative descents culminating in last-moment checks and brief hold-offs using rotor inertia.

Meanwhile other demonstrations were being made and versions offered without ultimate sales success. In the autumn of 1957, for instance, G-AOUJ underwent trials aboard the frigate HMS Grenville to determine the practicability or otherwise of operating small reconnaissance helicopters from platforms at sea. More than 70 landings and take-offs were made in winds of up to 62 knots, with the deck sometimes pitching through 3.05-3.66m and rolling up to 14 degrees each way. During 1958 both G-AOUJ and G-APJJ were being evaluated by the Royal Navy.

Typical of the continuous effort being put into Ultra-light demonstrations was the use, early in October 1958, of the stretcher-carrying G-AOUJ, flown by Peter Twiss, in a nuclear-war casualty exercise by the RAMC near Aldershot; the Rotodyne also took part in this exercise. Interest in the Ultra-light had been shown in Canada, and G-AOUJ, with its bulged nose to take a stretcher, and with special navigation and heating/ventilating equipment, was shipped out there later in 1958 for cold-weather trials and demonstrations by Lt-Cdr J. G. P. Morton. In the spring of that year a new draft specification was being drawn up for a version suitable for operation from small ships on anti-submarine duties both in attack (with a homing weapon) and communication roles. This proposal was based on a draft naval staff requirement and was a variation of the aircraft described in a brochure of April 1957 in which a naval strike version had been offered. The three civil-registered Ultra-lights were necessarily designed to meet airworthiness requirements and G-AOUJ and G-APJJ were duly certificated in the autumn of 1958. Work on the project was finally abandoned in 1959.

H.A.Taylor "Fairey Aircraft since 1915", 1974

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Photo Gallery 

The second prototype Ultra-light, G-AOUJ, in Royal Navy markings, alights on a moving lorry, rigged-up to represent a ship's landing platform, during the 1958 Farnborough Show

The last Ultra-light, G-APJJ, was one of two originally planned as private ventures, and had an enlarged cabin, similar to that of G-AOUJ, for emergency load-carrying

The first Ultra-light to fly powered cyclic controls, in place of the rocking head of the prototype, was G-AOUK - originally XJ936 before Ministry of Supply support was withdrawn

Ultra-light G-AOUJ on the platform of the frigate HMS Grenville, during trials in the autumn of 1957. More than 70 landings and take-offs were made in heavy Channel conditions

The load-carrying extension and door of Ultra-light G-AOUJ in use during a nuclear-war casualty-evacuation exercise at Aldershot in October 1958

Fairey Ultra-Light

Technical data for Fairey Ultra Light

Engine: 1 x Turbomeca Palouste turboshaft, rated at 185kW, main rotor diameter: 8.61m, fuselage length: 4.57m, take-off weight: 817kg, empty weight: 290kg, max speed: 153km/h, hovering ceiling, IGE: 3109m, range: 300km

Allan Bowes, e-mail, 24.12.2016reply

I observed a demonstration of this helicopter at Camp Borden Ontario about 1959. My father was in the RCAF and part of the support. It was really different, climbed very quickly. Extremely noisy (loud banging from the tip ram jets), when starting rotor started to spin, then fuel introduced and then lit. A big ring of fire and then the loud banging. Would have been very useful in some areas.

Chris May, e-mail, 02.06.2012reply

G-AOUJ has returned to the Helicopter Museum and restoration continues at Weston super Mare, but various parts, and drawings, are missing. A particular problem now is the swash-plate mechanism, of which there are no details If anyone can help, do get in touch. Mike Lait is leading the work at the museum, (

roy green, e-mail, 23.01.2009reply

I was RN personel on board H.M.S Grenville September 1957 during trials of this aircraft. I have a photo of it on board which I recently discovered amongst my things.It was an amazing machine taking off and travelling horizontally at high speed.We were never told anuything about it but I made enqiries and found this web site. Now I know. Thanks Roy Green

Nigel Smith, e-mail, 07.11.2008reply

G-AOUJ is in the course of being restored to museum standard by the Cotswold aircraft Restoration Group (CARG)on behalf of the International Helicopter Museum at weston Super Mare

THE OPAL FACTORY, e-mail, 06.09.2008reply

Dear Sir / Madam
We are an Australian trade company, and we think this type of an aircraft will be the most use-full machine for heaps of Australian Rural and outback services as it sounds and looks like a very versatile fling machine!

If you about to look for an energetic representative company, we' ll be happy to promote your machines in the pacific region.

Please reply with your prices,

Sincere Regards

The Opal Factory Australia

Vic Brown, e-mail, 27.02.2008reply

I do not understand how this aircraft was not a success. I have seen trials at White Waltham that showed it's enormous flexibility, from landing on a lorry to recovery from dropping like a stone from the sky.

Do you have any comments ?

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