British ‘Thunderbirds’ designs from 1960s unearthed

BAE Systems archive design of a Fighter Jet Take-Off Platform
BAE Systems archive design of a Fighter Jet Take-Off Platform

Inventions designed by British engineers in the 1960s have been brought to life in a display more in keeping with an episode of the Thunderbirds.

The forgotten designs, which have been unearthed in BAE Systems’ archives, include a hypersonic space-plane capable of travelling at five times the speed of sound, a jeep that leaps over enemy blockades and a commercial aircraft able to take off and land vertically in densely populated cities.

BAE has used animation to show how the projects might have looked if developed further, with many worthy of a place in the fleet of International Rescue in the Thunderbirds science fiction series of the era.

The display coincides with the opening of a new centre to celebrate BAE’s heritage at its military aircraft factory in Warton, Lancashire. It has more than one million historical documents and artefacts in its stores.

The unique designs were produced by engineers in BAE Systems’ predecessor companies including English Electric, Hawker Siddeley and the British Aircraft Corporation.

BAE’s heritage manager Howard Mason said: “Although 50 years have passed since these extraordinary designs were first put to paper, we can see how some of the technologies and ideas were developed over time and put to use now in aircraft like the F35 Joint Strike Fighter.”

Mr Mason hopes the examples of forward thinking will still inspire young people who are considering a career in engineering and considering the “endless possibilities” of what could be designed.

The designs, which can be viewed at, include:


In 1964, the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) designed a hypersonic aircraft capable of flight at five times the speed of sound, nicknamed MUSTARD (Multi-Unit Space Transport And Recovery Device).

The project would have created the world’s first reusable “space plane”, with the cost of development having been estimated as ‘20 to 30 times cheaper’ than that incurred by the expendable rocket systems in use that eventually put man on the moon in 1969.

The aircraft was formed of three separate crewed, delta-winged sections that are launched as a single unit. Two of those would act as boosters and launch the third into space, and then separate before returning to Earth like normal aircraft - followed by the third, once its intended mission was complete.

The government decided not to proceed with the project though, prompting Tom Smith - one of the developers - to comment that MUSTARD was too “far ahead of its time”, and that there was “nothing worse than being right at the wrong time”.

The ideas behind that original aircraft can still be seen today in current delta-winged space aircraft such as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, XCOR’s Lynx Mk.III as well as early designs for the US Space Shuttle.


The Intercity Vertical-Lift Aircraft design from the Hawker Siddeley company was an attempt to bring vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) to commercial aircraft, to allow airlines to put airports amongst densely-populated cities, open up more direct travel for passengers and to cut down on the amount of space required for airport runways.

A number of designs were drawn up over the 1960s, looking very similar to our passenger planes today; however featuring rows of lift fans on either side of the body of the plane.

The project was eventually dropped after it was decided that together with the cost of fuel required to fly the aircraft and the extra load from the frames housing the lift fans, combined with the weight of passengers, could lead to instability in flight.

VTOL systems inspired by the project are still in use today however, through the F-35 Lightning II, with adaptations of the vertical lift fans having been engineered by BAE Systems to improve some of the most versatile military jets in the world.


The “Jumping Jeep” was a concept reconnaissance vehicle capable of leaping over obstacles - a 4x4 transporter flanked by 12 vertical lift fans, whose angle could be adjusted dependent on the situation - allowing the jeep to overcome enemy barriers.

Developed by BAC Warton at the request of the British army in the 1960s, the design was an attempt to adapt vertical take-off and landing technology to vehicles and was developed with the Ministry of Defence’s Fighting Vehicle Research and Development Establishment.

But the project was cancelled in the mid-1960s due to assessments that production of the design would be too expensive.


The Fighter Jet Take-Off Platform was a concept platform that would rise vertically from the ground, and allow an aircraft to take-off from its back - allowing planes to operate from small airstrips or narrow forest clearings.

English Electric developed the P17A jet to fulfil the purpose of a tactical strike and reconnaissance jet, and rather than attaching a heavy vertical take-off and landing system to the aircraft, they collaborated with Shorts, who created the P17D - a platform that would stay steady above the ground and allow the P17A to take-off from its surface.

With no less than 56 jet engines, the P17D gave the P17A the desired effect of being able to take off from tight spaces. On its own, the P17D would also have been able to fill the role of a VTOL freight transport, able to deliver equipment and supplies to less-accessible locations.

It was not, however, picked for further consideration by the Air Ministry at that time due to the complexity of its operation and a lack of available budget.