Jubilee Special: 60 Years of Aerospace and Defense

This article is part of The Motley Fool's Diamond Jubilee Special! Alongside the rest of Britain, we're celebrating the Queen's 60-year reign -- but in our own Foolish way. In this series, we look at how the investing world has changed over the past six decades. Click here to read the introduction, complete with links to all the other articles in this series. Cheers, jubilant Fools!

LONDON -- Sixty years ago, in 1952, the young Princess Elizabeth famously returned to England from Kenya, flying on board a Canadair Argonaut piloted by Captain Ronald Ballantine.

The aircraft was operated by British Overseas Airways Corp. (BOAC), which merged with British European Airways in 1974 to become British Airways -- which, of course, following the merger with Spain's Iberia in 2010, duly became the International Airlines Group.

Propeller-driven, and powered by four Rolls-Royce (ISE: RR.L) Merlin engines, the Argonaut was a derivative of the Douglas DC-4, itself a development of the hugely successful wartime Douglas DC-3, more popularly known as the Dakota.

And in a curious way, that flight home in 1952 would epitomize much of what subsequently happened in the FTSE's aerospace and defense sector over the coming 60 years.

In short, some names then redolent with promise would come to see that promise fulfilled. Others, equally promising, would fall by the wayside and become subsumed in another characteristic of the early part of those 60 years -- a government tendency, practiced by both major political parties, to engage in central planning, picking winners and engaging in national industrial policies of a type that seems very alien today.

By the time he retired in 1966, for instance, Captain Ballantine -- whose flying career had begun in the mid-1930s as a young second officer on the Croydon‑Brussels‑Cologne route -- had gone on to fly the Bristol Britannia, the ill-fated de Havilland Comet, and finally the Vickers VC-10.

But the Comet -- the world's first production commercial jetliner, remember, which first flew in 1949 -- struggled against Boeing because of a spate of mysterious midflight catastrophic crashes eventually tracked down to metal fatigue. The Bristol Aircraft Co., meanwhile, while initially successful in the postwar world with its Brabazon and Britannia propeller-driven airliners, struggled in an increasingly jet-oriented world.

And Vickers, despite the relative success of its Vanguard and Viscount small turboprop airliners, was eventually merged by the government -- along with English Electric, Bristol, and Hunting Aircraft -- to become the publicly held British Aircraft Corp.

BAC launched the successful BAC-11 jet airliner and co-built the Concorde -- which was partly based on a Bristol design -- but continued to struggle against Boeing and Douglas.

Partly to blame -- at least in government eyes -- was the tendency of state-owned BOAC to prefer buying Boeing designs -- like the company's Boeing 707 and Boeing 747 -- instead of British-built designs such as the VC-10. Hawker-Siddely, meanwhile, despite strong military offerings, struggled in the civilian sector, not least due to the fact that its Trident airliner was firmly based on the needs of British European Airways, rather than having broader appeal with other airlines.

So while Hawker-Siddely initially avoided being merged into BAC, despite successive governments declaring this to be their preference, its declining aviation interests eventually made this inevitable, and the company was eventually merged with BAC and Scottish Aviation in 1977 -- by which time the Queen was celebrating 25 years on the throne -- to form British Aerospace, now BAE Systems (ISE: BA.L) .

British Aerospace, of course, was still publicly owned -- and would be until 1981. But so too, surprisingly, was Rolls-Royce, which powered many of the aircraft British Aerospace produced, both civil and military. For in 1971, to great shock, the company had suddenly collapsed, despite enormous success building engines for aircraft manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic.

To blame? Over-investing in the development of one particular engine type, the RB-211, intended for Lockheed's Tri-Star. Nationalized after its collapse by Edward Heath's Conservative government in 1971, Rolls-Royce would eventually be privatized in 1987 by Heath's eventual successor as a Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

A year after being privatized, in evident rude health, Rolls began an acquisition spree that is still ongoing, and that has seen it capture famous names in both German and American industrial history -- companies like American engine manufacturer Allison, for instance, a development that would have doubtless surprised observers in austerity Britain circa 1952.

Rolls acquired famous British names, too: Northern Engineering Industries, a group of heavy-engineering companies mainly associated with electrical generation and power management, which brought businesses such as Clarke Chapman, Reyrolle, and Parsons into the fold. These days, Rolls-Royce power plants can be found not just in aircraft, but ships, submarines, and power stations as well.

BAE Systems, too, has expanded significantly, branching out far beyond its aerospace roots to become something of a defense-related one-stop shop, with its range of military aircraft now augmented by having shipbuilding, tanks, ordnance, electronic warfare, and missile systems all on offer. And this time, the driving force hasn't been government policy -- at least, not so overtly -- but the chance to buy distressed assets and work them harder.

By acquiring GEC-Marconi's significant defense interests, for instance, the company bought names and businesses such as Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering, Plessey, Ferranti, and Yarrow Shipbuilders.

And fittingly, perhaps, echoes of the 1952 Coronation continue today. BAE is presently building two enormous Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy. HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to enter service in 2016, and HMS Prince of Wales in 2018.

Perhaps more poignantly, the same austerity-based budget that confirmed the order back in 2010 also saw the RAF's Nimrod early-warning aircraft squadrons disbanded, and BAE ordered to abandon a program to upgrade the aircraft and cut up completed jets for scrap.

The Nimrod, of course, is a development of the Comet -- the world's first jet passenger aircraft, and one which dates right back to the Coronation.

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At the time thisarticle was published Malcolm was born two years after the Coronation, and has flown on several of the heritage aircraft types mentioned here, including the Vickers Vanguard, Viscount and VC-10, the Dakota and BAC 1-11. He owns shares in BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, but in none of the other companies mentioned in this article.The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.
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