Armstrong Whitworth Ensign

The Armstrong Whitworth Ensign was a British four-engine airliner built during the late 1930s for Imperial Airways. It could seat 40 passengers and was designed for European and Asian routes, connecting Britain with further seaplane flights to Australia and South Africa.

A.W.27 Ensign
AW.27 Ensign G-ADTC in typical 1940 markings
Role Airliner
Manufacturer Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft
First flight 24 January 1938
Introduction 1938
Retired 1946
Primary users Imperial Airways
Number built 14

In the Second World War, they were used for transport duties to and from the area of Middle East command. After the war, they were withdrawn from service – and with no buyers forthcoming – scrapped.

Design and Development

Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft started on the A.W.27 Ensign in 1934 after receipt of a specification from Imperial Airways for a monoplane airliner with four Armstrong Siddeley Tiger engines. Government policy was to send all first-class mail by air and Imperial Airways were increasing their fleet. The first aircraft was ordered in September for a cost of £27,000 (design) and £43,300 (manufacture) of that year, with delivery expected in 1936. Eleven more (at £37,000 each) were ordered in May 1935.[1] An order for a further two aircraft (£40,000 each) in December 1936 brought the total to 14.[2]

The Ensign was a high-wing cantilever monoplane of light alloy construction and an oval, semi-monocoque fuselage with a conventional tailplane. The wings aft of the single box spar were fabric covered as was the tailplane and fin. It had retractable landing gear and a castoring tail wheel. The main landing gear was hydraulically operated and retracted into the inner engine nacelles. The cockpit had side-by-side seating for two pilots with dual controls; there was also accommodation for a radio operator. The fuselage was divided into separate cabins, either four cabins with accommodation for 40 passengers or three cabins with room for 27 by day or 20 at night with sleeping accommodation.[3]

Production of their Whitley heavy bomber for the Royal Air Force was a priority, and work on the Ensign proceeded slowly. Construction took place not at the main Coventry factory, but at the production line of Air Service Training Ltd (another member of the Hawker-Siddeley group) in Hamble. Constant changes were requested by Imperial, slowing production further. As a result, the Ensign's maiden flight did not take place until 24 January 1938 with Charles Turner-Hughes at the controls assisted by Eric Greenwood.[4] The first flight showed a problem with applying full rudder that was cured by modifying the servo. On the second, the undercarriage was retracted for the first time. The prototype then went on for more exhaustive tests before passing to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) for Air Ministry testing. On her fourth flight, the engines cut out due to incorrect settings of the fuel cocks and it had to be glided down to RAF Bicester where it made a perfect "dead-stick" landing. Imperial Airways named the prototype "Ensign" and as such the "Ensign Class" was applied to the whole fleet. The aircraft were fitted out for either Empire routes (eight aircraft) or European routes (four aircraft). The former carried 27 passengers in three cabins or 20 sleeping; the latter 40 passengers across three cabins and a four-person "coupe" aft of the third cabin. The only difference in crewing was a "flight clerk" replacing one of the two stewards on Empire routes.[5]

Despite its Tiger engines making it underpowered, the aircraft was certified, and full airline service began between Croydon Airport and Paris, France in October of that year.

Operational History

Three more Ensigns – G-ADSS Egeria, G-ADST Elsinore and G-ADSU Euterpe – were completed by Christmas 1938, and were dispatched to Australia with the holiday mail.[1] All three suffered mechanical problems and did not reach their destination;[4] consequently, all five Ensigns were removed from active airline service and returned to Armstrong for improvements. Reliability was improved, and more powerful (935 hp) Armstrong Siddeley Tiger IXC engines aided performance somewhat. The aircraft were delivered back to the airline, starting in June 1939, along with the sixth to be built.

The plan to use four Ensigns with Indian Trans-Continental Airways, operating from Calcutta, did not come to pass, due to the modifications and the onset of war, although registrations and new names had been made and, in one case, painted on the aircraft.

11 aircraft were in service at the outbreak of the Second World War, with a twelfth following soon after. All were withdrawn in October 1939; they were to be camouflaged before flying a new route from Heston Aerodrome to Le Bourget Airport, Paris. The aircraft remained in service after formation of BOAC that November, but instead of being taken up for military service, remained civilian under direction of National Air Communications.

Their first duties after the German invasion of the Low Countries was ferrying supplies to France. This was followed by evacuation before France capitulated in June. Despite operating away from their maintenance base for weeks at a time, Ensigns managed 100% availability and impressed folk with their short take-off run, even when fully loaded.

Three Ensigns were destroyed by enemy action in 1940: G-ADSX Ettrick and G-ADSZ Elysian in France, and G-ADTC Endymion at Bristol Whitchurch in November 1940. Ettrick, which had been abandoned at Le Bourget after being damaged by bombs on 1 June 1940, was rumoured to have been used by Germany, and later given Daimler-Benz[4] engines. This is considered by most experts on the Luftwaffe to be a myth which may have its roots in a Flight article by P.W. Moss in 1957.[6] [7] However, the Database section in the March 2015 edition of Aeroplane Monthly states that the Germans may have fitted Daimler-Benz engines to G-AFZV Enterprise.[8]

As the aircraft were found to be lacking in performance for their wartime role, it was decided to give the remaining eight aircraft Wright Cyclone G.102A engines.[7]

The final two aircraft that had been ordered by Imperial in 1936, were equipped with more powerful Wright Cyclone geared radial engines and completed as A.W.27A Ensign Mk IIs.[note 1] The new engines significantly improved performance and allowed the Ensign to be used in hot climates and at high altitude. At the same time, other modifications were incorporated and the prototype Mark II, G-AFZU Everest first flew in June 1941, with G-AFZV Enterprise following at the end of October.[7]

All eight surviving airframes were upgraded with these newer engines in 1941–43, as they were completed they were transferred to the Middle East and worked for BOAC on Africa to India routes.

Ensigns flew throughout the war. On a ferry flight to west Africa, following trouble with her engines, Enterprise made a forced landing in the desert in French West Africa (at that point under Vichy France control) about 300 miles short of their destination. Codebooks and other paperwork on board were destroyed, except for that required to show that the crew were civilian. They were picked up by an RAF Sunderland flying boat and taken on to Bathurst in Gambia. Enterprise was found by the French authorities, repaired and used as a hospital plane at Dakar before being flown to Vichy France. (During her service with the French, Enterprise was initially registered as F-AFZV, later becoming F-BAHD[8]). After the German occupation of Vichy France, she was taken by the German Air Ministry and tested, before being used as transport for officers.[9] It was scrapped in Toulouse in 1943. Of those left in service, several were broken up for spare parts to support the remaining fleet.

From 1944, towards the end of their service, the Ensigns were used between Cairo and Calcutta. When taken out of use for their Certificate of Airworthiness overhauls, the camouflage dope, which, in combination with the heat, had been rotting the fabric surfaces, was removed and thereafter the Ensigns were in a "natural" finish.

After the end of the war, in part, due to their performance and the problematic maintenance of the fabric surfaces, it was decided, eventually, to remove the Ensigns from service and to return them to the UK. Euterpe, which had been out of use since February 1945, was sacrificed to make repairs to the others.[10]

The final Ensign passenger flight took place in June 1946 when G-ADSW Eddystone flew from Cairo to Hurn via Marseille, having been delayed in the Middle East by repairs. Conversion of the Ensigns was considered and they were offered for sale, but the projected costs were too much for those who showed interest. The aircraft were broken up at Hamble in March and April 1947 and removed to Cowley, Oxford where they were reduced to scrap.[11]

Accidents and Incidents

  • On 15 December 1939, G-ADSU Euterpe was damaged in a forced landing at Bonnington, Warwickshire.[12] - See Talk page.
  • In December 1939, G-ADSU Euterpe overran the runway at RAF Chipping Warden and wrecked its undercarriage.[12] Unlikely - See Talk page
  • On 23 May 1940, G-ADSZ Elysean was attacked by three Messerschmitt Me 109 aircraft of the Luftwaffe whilst on the ground at Merville, Nord, France and was burnt out.[12]
  • On 23 May 1940, G-ADTA Euryalus crash-landed at RAF Lympne, Kent and was damaged. The aircraft was one of six that escaped after a Luftwaffe raid on Merville Airfield. The intended destination was Croydon. Approaching the English coast, first, she lost her port inner engine and the pilot set course for RAF Hawkinge. A short time later, her starboard inner engine also had to be shut down. The pilot changed course for Lympne. On landing, the starboard undercarriage was not fully down, causing the wing to scrape the ground and the aircraft to go through a fence as no braking was attempted. Euryalus was flown to RAF Hamble in June, but it was decided to cannibalise her to repair G-ADSU Euterpe which had been damaged in an accident at RAF Chipping Warden in December 1939. Euryalus was officially written off on 15 November 1941 and scrapped in September 1942.[13][14][15]
  • On 1 June 1940, G-ADSX Ettrick was abandoned at Le Bourget Airport, Paris, France due to the runway being strewn with time-delay bombs.[12]
  • On 9 November 1941, G-AFZU Everest was attacked by a Heinkel He 111 aircraft of the Luftwaffe over the Bay of Biscay. A safe landing was made at RAF Portreath, Cornwall. The aircraft was later repaired and returned to service.[12]
  • On 1 February 1942, G-AFZV Enterprise made a forced landing 1 nautical mile (1.9 km) from the coast of French West Africa due to problems with both port engines. The crew were rescued by a Short Sunderland of No. 204 Squadron RAF. The aircraft was later salvaged by the French and registered F-AFZV. It was later re-registered F-BAHD and entered service with Air France.Then captured by the Germans in November 1942 and re-engined with Daimler-Benz engines.[12]


A.W.27 Ensign I
Four-engine medium-range transport aircraft. Powered by four 850 hp (630 kW) Armstrong Siddeley Tiger IXC radial piston engines.
A.W.27A Ensign II
Four-engine medium-range transport aircraft. Powered by four 950 hp (710 kW) Wright GR-1820-G102A Cyclone radial piston engines.


Civil operators

 United Kingdom

Military operators

Vichy France
 United Kingdom

Specifications (A.W.27A)

Data from Jane's Fighting Aircraft of World War II[3]

General characteristics

  • Crew: 5 (captain, first officer, radio operator, two cabin stewards)
  • Capacity:
    • European routes: 40 passengers in 4 cabins
    • Asian routes: 27 passengers in 3 cabins
  • Length: 114 ft 0 in (34.75 m)
  • Wingspan: 123 ft 0 in (37.49 m)
  • Height: 23 ft 0 in (7.01 m)
  • Empty weight: 35,075 lb (15,910 kg) [note 2]
  • Gross weight: 55,500 lb (25,174 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 66,000 lb (29,937 kg) [16]
  • Powerplant: 4 × Wright GR-1820-G102A geared radial engines, 1,100 hp (820 kW) each


  • Maximum speed: 210 mph (340 km/h, 180 kn) at 6,700 ft (2,000 m)[16]
  • Cruise speed: 180 mph (290 km/h, 160 kn) at 5,000 ft (1,500 m)[16]
  • Range: 1,370 mi (2,200 km, 1,190 nmi) at 173 mph (150 kn; 278 km/h)[16] and 5,000 ft (1,500 m)
  • Service ceiling: 24,000 ft (7,300 m) when fully loaded
  • Rate of climb: 900 ft/min (4.6 m/s) at sea level

See also

Related development

Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era

Related lists


  1. Moss identifies the AW.27A as a "rail-launching project to Specification 13/38"
  2. Moss gives 36,586 lb (16,595 kg)[16] while Tapper states 36,590 lb (16,600 kg)[17]
  1. "Armstrong Whitworth A.W.27 Ensign." Imperial Airways, 20 April 2006. Retrieved: 31 January 2011.
  2. Flight 1957 p. 203
  3. Bridgman 1988, pp. 103–104.
  4. Jackson, A.J. (1973). British Civil Aircraft since 1919. 1 (2nd ed.). London: Putnam & Co. ISBN 0-370-10006-9.
  5. Flight 1957 p. 204
  6. Moss, P.W. Flight (1957) p. 206.
  7. Flight (1957) p. 247
  8. Aeroplane March 2015 p. 94
  9. Flight (1957) p. 249
  10. Flight 1957 p. 249
  11. Flight 1957 p. 250
  12. "Database: Armstrong Whitworth Ensign". Aeroplane. Stamford: Key Publishing (March 2015): 77–94. ISSN 0143-7240.
  13. Flight (1957) p. 203.
  14. Moss, P.W. "Ensign Class." Archived 6 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine Flight, 1957 p. 204.
  15. Flight, 1957 p. 205 Archived 6 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  16. Moss Flight 22 February 1957, p. 250.
  17. Tapper 1988, p. 254.
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