ARMSTRONG WHITWORTH ATLAS, AJAX & ARIES
Credit painting by David Gibbings
Atlas and Ajax prototype aircraft.
Developing a new aircraft for the RAF in the mid 1920s was for the fledgling aero manufacturing companies a very risky undertaking. Air Ministry practice was to give the required specification to several companies who would compete at their own expense for the final contract. Inevitably there were winners and losers and considerable amounts of money and effort could be expanded to no avail.
During 1924 Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft (AWA), to meet the Air Ministry Specification 20/25 for an Army co-operation aircraft, developed and built two almost identical planes, the Atlas and the Ajax.
Two Ajax versions were completed in 1925 and both were acquired by the RAF for evaluation. Later that year they ordered two more. There is no record as to how the RAF made use of them and they don’t appear to have entered operational squadron service. This is something of a paradox, because an almost identical Atlas was evaluated against several other contending aircraft before being selected as the RAF preferred choice.
The final report of the evaluation concluded that the Atlas was ideally suited to army co-operation duties although it was noted the aircraft could not be sideslipped at a steep angle. To address this issue the aircraft was returned to the factory for modifications. When tested again in 1926 the aircraft had suffered deterioration in flying qualities with no improvement in sideslip abilities. Further modifications were made including the fitting of swept back metal wings fitted with automatic slats and by 1927 the aircraft was considered to be finally ready for service. The production Atlas MKI, therefore, was a conventional two-seat biplane with a fabric covered steel tube fuselage and single-bay swept metal wings. Power was provided by a direct drive version of the Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar IVC engine developing 400 hp at 1700 rpm.
For ground to air communication, the Atlas was equipped with a two-way radio transmitter. For those situations where radio communication was not possible, messages could be collected from a cord strung between two posts stuck into the ground. A hook on a long pole was hinged to the aircraft's undercarriage, which could be lowered, allowing the communication to be collected. The plane was also capable of carrying up to four, 112lb (51kg) bombs under the wings.
The Atlas was also equipped with a camera for photo reconnaissance work, which, whilst normally operated by the observer had a remote control for the pilot.
For armament, the aircraft was equipped with two Vickers 0.303in (7.7mm) machine guns which were fired by the pilot through the propeller whilst the rear cockpit had a single .303in (7.7mm) Lewis Gun mounted on a mounted on a SCARF RING.
The plane was also capable of carrying up to four, 112lb (51kg) bombs under the wings.
The Atlas TM was developed as a dual control craft for the purpose of aircrew training. This version carried no armament. The Atlas MKI entered service with the RAF in 1927 with six RAF squadrons being equipped with the army co-operation version and five training schools having the TM version. The RAF received over 470 Atlas aircraft and they remained in service until 1935.
Armstrong Whitworth Atlas MKI
Other Air Forces that adopted the Atlas MKI & TM
Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF)
The RCAF received 11 Atlas MKI's and 1 TM trainer some of which remained in service until 1941.
Royal Hellenic Air Force (RHAF) of Greece
The RHAF received 2 AWA built Atlas MKI's and had 10 built under license by the Phaliron Aircraft Factory in Greece.
1 Atlas MKI was supplied to Japan.
1 RAF aircraft was shipped to Egypt
Mk 1 AW Atlas, note the lowered hook for picking up messages
The Atlas MKII was essentially a MKI with an improved fuselage and horizontal top decking together with a much deeper stern post; the fixed fin was also much larger. The aircraft was generally cleaned up by sinking the navigation lights into the wingtips. The engine was the improved Jaguar now known as the Panther IIIA and it was cowled with a double Townsend ring. Compared to the MKI it had improved handling qualities and its slow flying ability was regarded as outstanding.
This version was not adopted by the RAF and considerable efforts were made to sell the aircraft overseas. A civilian MKII made a 4,000 mile tour of Scandinavia during October to December 1931 where it encountered continuous bad weather which included snow, fog, rain, gales and extreme cold; this was an impressive performance which regrettably resulted in no sales. The aircraft did finally gain an overseas order with 14 MKII’s being delivered, under UK and Hong Kong civil registration letters, to the Kawangsi Provincial Airforce of China in December 1932.
Armstrong Whitworth A.W. 17 Aries
The Aries, which made its first flight on 3rd May 1930, was an improved version of the Atlas MKII with an emphasis on the ease of maintenance and to this end, it had quickly detachable fuselage panels for easy access to the internal equipment. The wing was of the Warren-truss type with few bracing wires.
There is no record of the power plant fitted but in keeping with the then company policy, it would have been an Armstrong Siddeley engine. There was only one example built which carried the RAF serial number J9037.
Nine Atlas's were registered as civil aircraft, one was the prototype, one was a MKI (later converted to a MKII), two were new build MKII's and five were built as TM trainers. Four of the trainers were built in 1931for the Armstrong Whitworth flying school.