The Airspeed Ambassador was one of the earliest British airliners to have cabin pressurisation. It had its origin in 1943 as a requirement identified by the Brabazon Committee for a twin-engined, short to medium-haul replacement for the Douglas DC-3 Dakota. The design offered seating for 47 passengers and, having a nose wheel undercarriage, looked more modern than the Dakotas, Lancastrians and Vikings that were then in use on Europe’s shorter airline routes. Great efforts were made to reduce drag, to improve performance and enhance cruising efficiency. The prototype first flew on 10 July 1947.
British European Airways (BEA), the only customer for the production aircraft, placed a £3 million order for 20 aircraft in September 1948, and operated them between 1952 and 1958, calling them their Elizabethan Class in honour of the newly crowned Queen. The flagship of the fleet was G-ALZN, appropriately named RMA Elizabethan. The first Elizabethan scheduled flight was from Heathrow to Paris Le Bourget on 13 March 1952.
While the Ambassador gave faithful and reliable service over 20 years, the type is unfortunately also remembered for the Munich Air Disaster on 6 February 1958, when BEA Flight 609 crashed on its third attempt to take off from Munich Airport in West Germany. On board the plane was the Manchester United football team, nicknamed the ‘Busby Babes’, along with a number of supporters and journalists. There were 23 fatalities from the 44 people on board, including eight Manchester United players. The crash was attributed to slush build-up on the runway, rather than any failure of aircraft or crew.
After disposal by BEA in 1958, the type helped to establish the scheduled and charter flight operations of Dan-Air, an important airline in the development of package holidays.
G-ALZO was delivered to BEA on 25 November 1952, who named it RMA (Royal Mail Aircraft) Christopher Marlowe. Less than a year after joining the fleet a heavy landing at Blackbushe airport on a crew training flight collapsed the undercarriage and the aircraft slid for over 700 yds before stopping. No one was hurt but the Ambassador was severely damaged. The wreck was returned to the BEA engineering base by road and the Airspeed company were consulted about possible repairs. It was decided that it would be uneconomic for Airspeed to repair the damaged plane, so BEA engineering decided to do it themselves, and after almost a year under repair the aircraft returned to the air and remained in service with BEA until June 1958, when it was stored at Cambridge airport awaiting disposal. In 1960 it was purchased by the Royal Jordanian Air Force for use on VIP and transport flights, based at Amman. In 1963 it was purchased by Dan-Air and used to carry both passengers and freight, having been fitted with a rear fuselage cargo door by Marshall of Cambridge.
On 28 September 1971 it flew from Jersey to Gatwick, the last scheduled flight operated by an Ambassador, and the next day it flew from Gatwick to Rheims and back on a special charter flight. Its last commercial flight was to Zagreb on 2 October 1971 with a replacement engine for a BAC 1-11, returning the following day. It was then retired to the Dan-Air maintenance base at Lasham. It remained at Lasham until 1986 when it was donated to the British Airliner Collection and transported by road to Duxford. After long-term restoration in Duxford’s Conservation Hangar, it was rolled out to join the other airliners in the Collection in April 2013.
|First flight:||10 July 1944|
|Powerplant:||2 x Bristol Centaurus 661 two-row, sleeve valve radials of 1958kW (2,625hp)|
|Wingspan:||35.1 metres (115 ft 0in)|
|Length:||25.0 metres (82 ft 0in)|
|Height:||6.4 metres (20 ft 10in)|
|Empty weight:||16,047 Kg (35,377 lb)|
|Maximum speed:||502 km/h (312 mph, 271 knots, Mach 0.41)|
|Range:||885 km (550 miles, 478 nmi)|
|Service ceiling:||7,620 metres (25,000 feet)|