Top Gear

The real history of the Top Gear Track

  • 1938

The BBC Top Gear track has been laid out on the main runway of the former WWII RAF and RCAF air base.   The perimeter roads used for Gambon and the finish line were laid over the route of original B-Roads that were ripped up when the airfield was constructed in 1941.  One cottage, Broadmead, was situated where the TopGear FollowThrough is now, but the cottage was lifted whole and winched half a mile on rollers to the otherside of the airfield.

Broadmead cottage original location in 1942 now at FollowThrough of Top Gear track

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VTOL sites

The main runway has the rarity of the Vertical Take Off and Landing pads, (VTOL) used for the tethering of jump jets such as the Harrier, Kestrel and the P.1127  . These are also located on aprons that but up against the main runway and are within the Operational Readiness Platform [ ORP]. Beneath these gratings is a large void chamber to take the hot air, condensation and gases from the downdraft of the jet engines of the aircraft. Also within the eastern Engine Testing Pen there is a similar arrangement that is a unique feature to Dunsfold. Continue reading “VTOL sites”


The Hawker P.1127 and the Hawker Siddeley Kestrel FGA.1 were the experimental and development aircraft that led to the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, the first vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) jet fighter-bomber. Kestrel development began in 1957, taking advantage of the Bristol Engine Company’s choice to invest in the creation of the Pegasus vectored-thrust engine. Testing began in July 1960 and by the end of the year the aircraft had achieved both vertical take-off and horizontal flight. The test program also explored the possibility of use upon aircraft carriers, landing on HMS Ark Royal in 1963. The first three aircraft crashed during testing, one at the 1963 Paris Air Show.

Improvements to future development aircraft, such as swept wings and more powerful Pegasus engines, led to the development of the Kestrel. The Kestrel was evaluated by the Tri-partite Evaluation Squadron, made up of military pilots from Britain, the United States, and West Germany. Later flights were conducted by the U.S. military and NASA.

Testing at Dunsfold in the engine detuning pens

Related work on a supersonic aircraft, the Hawker Siddeley P.1154, was cancelled in 1965. As a result, the P.1127 (RAF), a variant more closely based on the Kestrel, was ordered into production that year, and named Harrier – the name originally intended for the P.1154 – in 1967. The Harrier served with the UK and several nations, often as a carrier-based aircraft.

Following the end of the Korean War, a number of aircraft companies in both Europe and America separately decided to investigate the prospective of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, which would eliminate the requirement for vulnerable runways by taking off and landing vertically as opposed to the conventional horizontal approach. In addition to military applications, the prospect of applying such technology to commercial airliners was also viewed with considerable interest by the mid 1950s, thus the value of developing viable vertical take-off systems was judged to be substantial. However, even during this era, few companies had envisioned that a VTOL aircraft would also be realistically compatible with the characteristics of high performance military aircraft.

In 1957, jet engine engineer Stanley Hooker of the Bristol Engine Company informed aeronautics engineer Sydney Camm of Hawker Aircraft that Bristol had been working a project that combined major elements of their Olympus and Orpheus jet engines to produce a directable fan jet. The projected fan jet harnessed rotatable cold jets which were positioned on either side of the compressor along with a ‘hot’ jet which was directed via a conventional central tailpipe. The original concept upon which the engine, which had been named Pegasus,  was based came from Michel Wibault, a French aviation consultant.  Several adaptions and enhancements were made by Bristol to reduce size and weight over Wibault’s original concept.

Around the same point as Hooker’s approach, Hawker had been working upon the development of a replacement fighter aircraft for the Hawker Hunter, designated as the P.1121. However, the P.1121 was cancelled shortly after the publishing of the 1957 Defence White Paper, which had advocated a policy shift away from manned aircraft and towards missiles. In light of this cancellation, Hawker found itself with the available resources to commit to a new project, and thus decided to study the use of the projected Pegasus engine as a basis for a new military aeroplane that would be able to conform with an active NATO specification that sought a new Light Tactical Support Fighter to replace the Fiat G.91, particular attention was paid to meeting the specification’s performance and load requirements.

According to Air Chief Marshal Sir Patrick Hine, Hawker’s interest may have also been stimulated by the presence of Air Staff Requirement 345, which sought a V/STOL ground attack fighter for the Royal Air Force (RAF).[9] Aviation author Francis K. Mason expressed a contrary view, stating that Hawker’s decision to proceed was independent of British government initiatives, and that the P.1127 project was primarily based upon the NATO requirement instead.  Hawker had a keen ally in its development in the form of Bristol, but by that point the latter was experiencing financial difficulties, and the lack of foreseeable commercial applications for the Pegasus engine in particular, coupled with refusals from HM Treasury, mean that development would have to be financed by NATO institutions instead. The close cooperation between Hawker and Bristol was viewed by project engineer Gordon Lewis as a key factors which had enabled the P.1127’s development to proceed in spite of technical obstacles and political setbacks.


Senior project engineer Ralph Hooper at Hawker promptly set about establishing an initial layout for a theoretical aircraft to take advantage of the Pegasus engine, using data provided by Bristol.  This proposed aircraft soon received the internal designation P.1127.  In July 1957, a modification made to the design was the incorporation of a bifurcated tailpipe, similar to the Hawker Sea Hawk, which was equipped with rotatable nozzles for the hot exhaust, similar those already used for the cold exhaust. The switch from a single tailpipe meant that the initial tailwheel undercarriage could also be discarded in favour a conventional nose wheel-led undercarriage.  The design process extended throughout 1958, being financed entirely by Hawker, while approaches were made to NATO headquarters to better establish the tactical requirements sought, particularly between the conflicting demands for a lightly armed supersonic fighter and a simpler multipurpose subsonic one.

The development process had involved extensive use of physical models; for one series of blowing trials, mixtures of focused hot and cold air were directed onto ground platforms to simulate the ground effect upon take-off.  This work was considered to be critical to the project as there was very little knowledge of the adverse effects which could influence the aircraft during the vertical takeoff process; as there was no airflow over the ailerons, tailplane, and rudder while the aircraft was held in a stationary hover, wingtip control jets were experimented with as an alternative reaction control approach.  These research included the development of an all-new control response simulator which linked a series of simple flying controls to a computer.  By the end of 1958, barely eighteen months after the start of the project, all the main features of the P.1127 were developed with one exception, that being the reaction control system, the development of which was completed by April 1959.

Throughout the development, Camm heavily emphasised the importance of the design’s simplicity, observing that “Sophistication means complication, then in turn escalation, cancellation, and finally ruination”.[12] In 1958, the design centered around a single Pegasus engine capable of generating 13,000 lb of thrust; when fully equipped, the aircraft was to weight slightly less than the maximum thrust, thereby allowing vertical takeoffs to be performed under all nominal conditions.[12] During late 1958, the rapid progress of the P.1127 project had been noticed by technical advisors at NATO, who began promoting the acceleration of the aircraft’s development and that member nations should skip over the next generation of support fighters in favour of the emergent P.1127 instead. In Britain, support for the program was also growing within the British Air Staff, from January 1959 onwards, rumours of a pair of P.1127 prototypes being ordered by the Ministry of Supply alongside those of a Air Ministry specification being drafted around the project frequently echoed.

As the P.1127 had been developed at a time of deep UK defense cuts, Hawker had to seek commercial funding, and significant engine development funding came from the U.S.  Research assistance was also provided by U.S.; including a series of wind tunnel tests conducted by NASA’s Langley Research Center using sub-scale models, which demonstrated acceptable flight characteristics.  Hawker test pilot Hugh Merewether went to the U.S. at NASA’s request to fly the Bell X-14.  In March 1959, the company’s board of directors (Hawker Siddeley then) decided to privately fund two P.1127 prototypes.

In February 1959, Hawker had completed practically all of the design work and thus passed the entirety of its manufacturing design work to the company’s Experimental Design Office at Kingston, London.[12] In April 1959, the Ministry of Supply formally issued a contract for the completion of a pair of P.1127 prototypes.  However, there were critics amongst the Air Staff of the project, typically disliking the P.1127 for its subsonic speeds, favouring supersonic-capable aircraft instead; Mason attributes this as having caused considerable delay in the issuing of a contract to Hawker. On 23 July 1959, Hawker authorised the application of maximum effort to complete the development of the P.1127.

On 15 July 1960, the first “P.1127 Prototype V/STOL Strike Aircraft”, serial XP831, was delivered to RAF Dunsfold, Surrey, to commence static engine testing. On 31 August 1960, the Pegasus engine was ran for the first time while inside the airframe. Some of the tests were performed from a purpose-built platform at the aerodrome, which functioned to deflect the hot exhaust gases away from the aircraft during early hovering trials while more powerful versions of the engine were developed.[20] On 13 October 1960, the first Pegasus flight engine, capable of generating 11,300 lb of thrust, was delivered to Dunsfold.

On 21 October 1960, the initial tethered flight, performed by XP831, was conducted at Dunsfold; at this stage of development, this feat had required the airframe to have been stripped of all extraneous weight and restrictions on the engine meant it could not be run for more than 2.5 minutes at a time. Several tethered flights took place, partially so that the test pilots could familiarise themselves with the hovering controls; on 4 November, the first tethered flight without use of the auto-stabiliser system was accomplished. In mid-November, conventional taxying trials were performed at speeds of up to 70 knots.

On 19 November 1960, the first un-tethered free-flight hover of XP831 was achieved; a week later, the first publicity photos of the P.1127 were released.[20] Prior to the first flight, Hooker is claimed to have asked of Camm “I suppose you are going to do some conventional flying first Sydney?” and Camm replied “What for?” Hooker said “Well you know, just to make sure the aeroplane is a nice aeroplane, and everything under control.” Camm replied, “Oh, Hawker aeroplanes are always beautiful, nothing wrong with a Hawker aeroplane, not going to bother with that. Vertical first time”.[21]

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969 (RAF-T 6932) Two Hawker Siddeley P.1127 experimental VTOL aircraft in flight over typical English countryside. They were probably flying from Hawker’s testing ground in Dunsfold, Surrey. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969 (RAF-T 6800) A Hawker Siddeley P.1127 after landing vertically on the test pad at Dunsfold. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

On 13 February 1961, XP831 performed its first conventional flight, flown by Bill Bedford and lasting for 22 minutes.[22] Soon after this, XP831 was refitted with a new model of the Pegasus engine, capable of generating 12,000 lb of thrust, prior to embarking on new hovering trials in May 1961. In June, XP831 attained another milestone in the program when it performed the first transition from vertical hover to horizontal flight, initially flying the length of Dunsford’s runway at a height of 50 meters. 

On 7 July 1961, the second prototype, XP836, performed its first take off conventionally. Continuing tests of the two prototypes proceeded to close the gap between vertical take off and flight, a feat which was achieved on 8 September 1961.] During September, the feat was repeated multiple times by both prototypes, transitioning from vertical to horizontal flight and vice versa, including instances in which the auto-stabiliser was intentionally disabled.

During the flight test program, the issuing of NATO Basic Military Requirement 3 (NBMR-3) did not prove to be the opportunity as envisioned by Hawker, as NBMR-3 sought performance characteristics of which the P.1127 was not only unable to meet, but unlikely to be developed to meet in its current form either.  As such, in 1961, there was little military interest in the P.1127 program, although, in January 1961, Hawker was requested to provide a quote for the costs involved in a potential 100 production standard P.1127 aircraft. Meanwhile, Hawker believed that the continuing development of the P.1127 would serve a successful demonstration, acting to dissuade potential customers from pursuing competing ‘paper’ VTOL aircraft projects.

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969 (RAF-T 6899) A Hawker Siddeley P1127 experimental VTOL aircraft at Dunsfold, Surrey, with a company standing by. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969 (RAF-T 6901) A striking head on study of a Hawker Siddeley P.1127  aircraft at Hawker’s test centre at Dunsfold, Surrey. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

On 2 November 1960, the Ministry of Supply issued a contract for a further four prototypes to be produced, which were intended to develop the aircraft further towards being a realistic combat design, such as the refinement of the wing, engine improvements, and of accompanying operational equipment. Throughout this period, improved models of the Pegasus engine were rapidly developed, such as the Pegasus 3 being capable of 15,000 lbf (67 kN) of thrust. Apart from the improved powerplants, the first four P.1127 prototypes were quite similar; the fifth prototype, XP980, introduced the taller fin and tailplane anhedral which were later used on the production Harrier. The fourth machine was partially used to provide Hawker production test pilots with type familiarisation.[25] The first carrier vertical landing was performed by the first prototype on HMS Ark Royal in 1963. The last P.1127, XP984, introduced the swept wing.[25] It was eventually fitted with the 15,000 lbf (66.7 kN) Pegasus 5 and functioned as the prototype Kestrel.

The first three P.1127s crashed, the second and third occurring during development. In 1963, the first prototype, XP831, publicly crashed at the Paris Air Show; the accident had been caused by a speck of dirt in the air feed lines of the nozzle control motor, which had caused the engine nozzles to stick. XP831 was later fully repaired and resumed development flying. All the pilots involved survived.