The Tragic Tarrant Tabor
[The following is a condensed version of a previously unpublished article.]
During the Great War the Germans bombed London with their massive Zeppelins and their lumbering Gotha bombers. The British wanted nothing more than to exact revenge on the German capital. But the famous British bomber, the Handley Page O/400 lacked the range. In 1918 the aircraft manufacturer thus began working on a four-engine machine with the ability to fly from England all the way to Berlin.
In the meantime, W. G. Tarrant, Ltd., with no direct experience designing and building airplanes, took on the long-range bomber challenge.
W. G. Tarrant, Ltd. was owned by Walter George Tarrant, or as he preferred, W.G. Tarrant, of Byfleet, Surrey, England. Born in 1875, he grew into an imposing figure of at least six feet tall with a full, thick beard, a man of vision, unafraid of risks, doing things in a big way. A skilled carpenter and entrepreneur, he bought 964 acres of land in 1911 on St. George’s Hill with visions of creating an exclusive neighborhood for the wealthy. When the war began, the British government contracted him to build portable wooden huts for the British Expeditionary Force. With many men off to war, Tarrant hired women to build the huts then sent them to France with the disassembled buildings where they would reassemble them.
Tarrant met Captain E. T. Rawlings through mutual friend Henry Edmunds. Rawlings had served as a flight engineer on a Handley-Page bomber that had made a multi-stop flight from London to Constantinople in July 1917. There they bombed the battleship “Goeben” and dropped bombs on the city. “He [Rawlings] and Mr. Tarrant were mutually attracted to each other, and they discussed with much seriousness the construction of a new type of bombing plane, which eventuated in the great Tarrant machine,” Edmunds is quoted in the May 29, 1919, edition of “Flight” magazine.
Tarrant surrounded himself with people in the aviation business in his pursuit of designing a new plane. This group believed in their vision and believed in the ability of a massive machine to fly and strike the German capital.
Rawlings became the general manager. Also involved were Captain F. G. Dunn; Captain T. M. Wilson of the Technical Department of the Air Ministry; and Majors Turner and Grinsted of the Royal Air Force. Components were constructed at the Tarrant facility then moved to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough for assembly.
The resulting machine was impressive with a wingspan of 131 feet three inches; length of 72 feet two inches; and height of 37 feet three inches. Gross weight was over 44,000 pounds. One unique feature of the triplane was the fact that the span of the middle wing was greater than that of the other two. It was the only wing with ailerons. The tail was also a triplane design with elevators on the lower two horizontal stabilizers with the upper stabilizer used for pitch trim. Two vertical stabilizers with rudders completed the tail assembly.
The power was to come from four Siddeley Tiger engines which were still under development. The V-12 Tiger was predicted to produce 600 horsepower. Due to various glitches, it would not be tested until 1920 and then cancelled. In place of the Tiger, six 450 horsepower Napier Lion W-12 engines were installed. The 12-cylinder Lion had three banks of four cylinders, therefore, making the engine shorter than the planned-for V-12s. Four engines were mounted in twos in tandem between the lower two wings with the remaining two mounted between the upper two wings. The two forward-facing lower engines turned two-bladed propellers 12 feet six inches in diameter and the rear engines turned the pusher four-bladed propellers 10 feet and 7 and one-quarter inches in diameter. The two upper engines were tractor-mounted (forward facing) and used the two-bladed propellers.
The two pilots sat side-by-side in an open cockpit in the nose and a flight engineer was stationed at a control panel on the bulkhead behind the pilots. A master cutoff switch that killed all six engines at once was in the cockpit within reach of both pilots. This factor would later prove to be important.
The war ended before the Tabor flew, but this did not deter the builders. They shifted the focus from carrying bombs to transporting passengers and cargo. So confident in the aircraft’s success were the men that they began constructing a second airframe and planned a third machine designed to carry 100 passengers.
The article in the May 15, 1919, issue of “Flight” addressed the concerns of the Tarrant machine and its engine placement, words that proved prophetic.
“Probably, with all engines running, any discrepancy between the centre of resistance and centre of thrust will not be great, but one imagines that in case one of the top engines cuts out, it might be necessary to shut off one of the engines on the opposite bottom plane to equalize matters. Or, looking at it in another way, if the thrust is right with the two top engines at idle, forming, as it were, a reserve of engine power, then one would think that the switching on of these engines would raise the resultant centre of thrust, necessitating a considerable amount of tail plane trimming. When discussed with some of the Tarrant specialists recently, this point was more or less admitted, but it was then pointed out to us that any such tendency to bring up the tail would be counterbalanced by the down draught from the top plane. This is probably correct, and therefore the effects of the widely distributed engine placing may be smaller than one is apt to imagine at first sight.”
The massive wooden machine was finally ready for flight testing on May 29, 1919, at Farnborough. The Napier engines fired up one-by-one, the machine coming to life, shaking and shuddering. Engines running, the crew performed checks in nervous anticipation of taking the plane into the sky for the first time. Pilots were Captain F.G. Dunn and Captain E. T. Rawlings; engineer was Lieutenant Adams; other crew members included Captain T. M. Wilson, Mr. Grosert of the R.A.E., and two mechanics.
The lumbering machine made some taxi tests then was ready for its maiden voyage. The four lower engines were brought up to power and the aircraft slowly began its takeoff roll. The two upper engines, which had been idling, were brought up to full throttle, the tail broke free of the ground and continued to rise. The nose pitched down, impacted the ground and crumpled as the machine shuddered to a stop looking like a giant lawn dart implanted in the earth. The plane had not managed to leave the ground and the two pilots were killed. The other crew members survived with relatively minor injuries.
Fortunately, there was no fire. The master cutoff switched that killed all the engines likely prevented an even worse tragedy. Before impact the pilots had the foresight to turn the switch.
W. G. Tarrant left the airplane business, work halted on the second Tabor, and the 100-passenger aircraft never undertaken. Tarrant returned to his project on St. George’s Hill, the first gated community in England. It survives today as an exclusive neighborhood.
In addition to his work at St. George’s, Tarrant continued building for other projects including a contract for 83 houses on an eight-acre site at Stourton as part of the 1919 Housing Act to build homes for returning soldiers. He continued building until his death on March 18, 1942. He is buried in the churchyard of Eglwys Newydd, better known as Haford Church in South Wales.
To the best of my knowledge, W. G. Tarrant in this article is no relation to me.