Quirky Quadjet: 40 Years Of The British Aerospace 146

Yesterday marked a significant anniversary in the world of regional airliners. Specifically, September 3rd, 2021 marked 40 years to the day since the British Aerospace 146 made its first flight. Let’s take a look back at the four decades of flying that this quirky high-winged quadjet has managed to accumulate since its maiden voyage in 1981.

British Aerospace 146
It has been four decades since the British Aerospace 146’s first flight. Photo: Getty Images

In the beginning

The British Aerospace 146 started its life as a concept design in the early 1970s. Specifically, August 1973 saw Hawker Siddeley propose a 70-seat regional jet, which it dubbed the HS 146. With this design, the British manufacturer looked to fill the gap between its HS 748 turboprop, and existing small jetliners like the Boeing 737 and BAC 1-11.

The British government at the time was convinced by the idea, and agreed to fund 50% of the project. However, in October 1974, development stopped as the world experienced an economic slowdown. This arose due to the previous year’s oil crisis.

Nonetheless, development continued behind the scenes. It was planned to have a T-tail and a high-wing configuration, with not two but four turbofans providing power. By 1978, Hawker Siddeley had been succeeded by British Aerospace, who elected to relaunch the program. This saw it become known as the British Aerospace 146, or BAe 146 for short.

British Airways Hawker Siddeley HS 748
The BAe 146 was the brainchild of Hawker Siddeley, which wanted to produce a larger aircraft than its existing HS 748 turboprop. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

Launching the BAe 146

When British Aerospace launched the BAe 146, it emphasized the aircraft’s quietness and low consumption levels. The type made its first flight 40 years ago yesterday, on September 3rd, 1981. This came three months after the series had received its first order, from former Argentinian carrier LAPA (Líneas Aéreas Privadas Argentinas).

Following the first flight, British Aerospace produced a further two prototype BAe 146s. At the beginning of the aircraft’s production, there were two variants: the smaller 146-100, and the larger 146-200. Despite predicting the -100 would be the more successful version, as orders rolled in, it became evident that airlines preferred the larger -200.

The cost of a BAe 146 at the time was £11 million (equivalent to £38 million / $52.7 million today). With a total program cost of £350 million, British Aerospace forecasted in 1982 that it would require 250 orders to break even with the project.

BAe 146
The BAe 146 received its first order three months before its maiden test flight. Photo: James via Flickr

Entry into service

In February 1983, the BAe 146 received its Certificate of Airworthiness. This allowed it to enter revenue-earning service, which it did with Dan-Air in May 1983. At the time of its introduction, it was considered to be the quietest jetliner in the world. Dan-Air’s inaugural flight with the BAe 146 was a service from London Gatwick to Bern in Switzerland.

Outside the UK, the BAe 146 became popular with several US-based carriers. For example, Pacific Southwest Airlines ordered 20 of the quirky quadjets, with the first arriving in July 1984. Meanwhile, Wisconsin Air used it to replace its Fokker F.27 Friendships.

In Colorado, Aspen Airways used the BAe 146 to become the operator of the first-ever scheduled jet-powered flight into Aspen’s 7,280-foot high Pitkin County Airport. In 1987, the aircraft’s short takeoff and landing (STOL) capabilities saw it become the first jet-powered aircraft to be able to use the short runway at London City Airport.

Dan-Air BAe 146
Dan-Air operated the first commercial BAe 146 flight. Photo: Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons

A new variant

1984 saw British Aerospace reveal its first proposals for a longer BAe 146-300. The initial -100 was 26.19 meters long, and seated 70-82 passengers. Meanwhile, the 28.55-meter long -200 could hold between 85 and 100 ticketed guests. With the -300, it planned a further extension of 3.22 meters to accommodate up to 122 passengers.

In the end, British Aerospace had to compromise on a 2.34-meter stretch. This would see the BAe 146-300 seat 100 passengers in the aircraft’s classic five-abreast configuration, with each guest enjoying 31 inches of seat pitch. Winglets were also proposed, as well as more powerful engines, but neither aspect made it onto the final product.

Just over four years after revealing its plans to produce the BAe 146-300, British Aerospace made the first delivery of the type in December 1988.

BAe 146
The BAe 146-300 was the longest of the family’s three variants. Photo: Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia Commons

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The next generation

As it happened, the -300 variant wasn’t the only development of the BAe 146 that British Aerospace made. Indeed, as the 1990s got underway, the company reworked the series to produce the upgraded Avro RJ family. These shared the BAe 146’s dimensions, but had more powerful Lycoming LF 507 turbofans compared to the original ALF 502.

The Avro RJ series also had three variants. These were the RJ70, RJ85, and RJ100. Each number alludes to the aircraft’s approximate capacity, and they correspond to the BAe 146-100, -200, and -300 respectively. The new RJ planes, which Avro introduced in 1993, also boasted a more modern, digital cockpit than their analog predecessors in the BAe 146.

Avro RJ
While the Avro RJ series was visually identical to the BAe 146, it boasted several internal improvements. Photo: Jake Hardiman | Simple Flying

The Avro RJ series remained in production until 2001. A next-generation RJX series was planned, although this concept never made it to mass production. Overall, 221 BAe 146s and 166 Avro RJs were produced, giving a total figure of 387. This is more than enough than the 250-aircraft target initially set by British Aerospace to break even on the project.

The smaller RJ70 has the greatest range, clocking in at 3,870 km (2,090 NM). The mid-size RJ85 can fly for up to 3,650 km (1,970 NM), with the larger RJ100 managing 3,340 km (1,800 NM). All three variants have a ceiling of 35,000 feet, and they cruise at Mach 0.7 (404 knots / 747 km/h). Their maximum speed is Mach 0.74 (426 knots / 789 km/h).

Avro RJ
The BAe 146 and Avro RJ families remain in service today. Photo: Markus Eigenheer via Flickr

Where are they today?

Let’s finish by looking at where you can still find active BAe 146s and Avro RJs today. Taking a quick dive into data from ch-aviation.com, we can see that there are presently 29 active examples of the original 146 series left in the world.

These are spread far and wide, in Australia, Canada, Chile, Iran, the Philippines, the UK, and the US. Certain UK examples being to the RAF, which has used two BAe 146s as VIP aircraft for politicians and even the royal family (Queen’s Flight) since 1986.

Being a younger aircraft series, there are even more active Avro RJs still knocking around. 52 of these quirky quadjets remain operational, in countries such as Bahrain, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Dubai, Iran, Libya, the UK, and the US, to name just a few.

What do you make of the British Aerospace 146? Have you ever flown on one of these quirky quadjets? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!