Dinger's Aviation Pages

Willoughby Delta "F" in flight, later renamed the Delta 8.

One of the saddest stories of any "might-have-been" aircraft project is that behind the Willoughby Deltas. In the 1930s many assumed that the all-wing aircraft, the so-called "flying-wing", was the way ahead for future large airliners. Surely to cut out the drag of the fuselage and simply have a large wing seemed logical. Yet even today a commercial flying-wing aircraft has never entered service, and only the unique needs of stealth led to the production of the Northrop Grumman B-2 flying wing bomber. The problems with building a true flying wing airliner are: 1) the aircraft has to be vast to accommodate passengers within its wing structure. 2) The lack of elevator control surfaces far away from the centre of gravity to give leverage requires powerful control surfaces on the wing. 3) Lack of fuselage and rudder area leads to lack of directional control (like the difference between trying to skate with ice-skates and normal shoes, you need something to "bite" into the air to maintain direction). The last two problems can be solved today with computerised "fly-by-wire" and powered controls (hence the ability to build the B-2 Stealth bomber). However, in the 1930s, all three problems were impossible to fix with the current technology. This led to some compromise designs like those from Vincent Benelli. A far more elegant solution was that worked out by one Percival-Nesbit Willoughby. His thinking was that if you need to have elevators some distance from the centre of gravity why not support them on booms, and make those booms big enough to accommodate passengers. Then blend those booms in with the wing so that they also generate lift. Willoughby called his approach a "rectilinear wing" and you can think of it as the whole aircraft being one big wing out of which chunks have been cut to give the desirable centre of gravity and still provide places where the control surfaces had enough "leverage" to enable crisp control. One of the advantages of this approach, at least in theory, was that it should allow a very low stalling speed, and hence slower, shorter landing runs. In 1931 he set up the Willoughby Delta company with the aim of getting his designs into production. Willoughby went about his research methodically, paying for wind-tunnel tests of his designs in both the UK and USA. The results looked very promising, they seemed to indicate that it would be impossible to stall such an aircraft!

Delta 8 (F)

In order to validate his design, it was felt necessary to build a small flying demonstrator. This was initially called the Delta F but was renamed as the Delta 8 later. For ease and quickness of construction, it was built of wood. It had accommodation for a pilot and single passenger behind the pilot, both accommodated in a central "pod" and was powered by two American Menasco C-4 Pirate engines, each of 128 horsepower. It had a fixed 3-point tailwheel undercarriage. The Delta 8 made its first flight on April 1939. Published details of the testing of this aircraft seemed to vindicated everything that had been hoped for in the design. apparently viceless flying characteristics, very slow landing speed and yet had a surprisingly high performance on its tiny engines. Most importantly it allowed a high payload to be carried for a low structural weight of the aircraft itself. With the name "St Francis" painted on the nose and registration G-AFPX, the aircraft was shown off at the Royal Aeronautical Society's garden party at Heathrow (then a tiny airfield) on 14th May 1939, piloted by A.N. Kingwill.

You can see a video of the Delta 8 in flight on youtube.

Delta 8 at Heston

The Delta 8 was designed as a demonstrator only, and was never intended to be put into production itself. The view from the cockpit was obstructed by the two engines on either side and the positioning of the tail-wheel in the middle of the tailplane might have led to issues if a bumpy landing was made. But its remarkable performance on such small engine-power, along with its short-field performance certainly makes one speculate if a refined version with longer nose had been built that it might have made a very serviceable alternative to the Auster in the AOP role in the upcoming war. Perhaps a stretcher case could have been loaded through the rear of the pod for emergency evacuations. A sort of "mini" OV-10 Bronco.

It was the looming war that made Willoughby press ahead with increased speed on his airliner project. It was unlikely that there would be much support in Britain for a new airliner, what government finance there was being directed at the
Fairey FC1 and Short S.32 pressurised airliner projects. In the prevailing business climate, it was natural for Willoughby to look to the USA, the only country where unsubsidised airliners were a commercial viability. He seems to have made contacts there and he sounded out his workforce about the prospects of moving their entire operation to the USA. To gain funds he would have needed to have the Delta 8 flown for evaluation by other pilots. So it was felt necessary to add the refinement of a trimming tab on the elevator. This was fitted in early July and on 10th July Willoughby went up as the passenger with Hugh Olley, an instructor of the Whitney & Oxford Flying Club, piloting to check that the new control worked okay. It crashed close to the village of Caulcott near Middleton Stoney in North Oxfordshire, killing both Willoughby and Olley. Tragically the Air Ministry investigation into the crash found that the mechanical "stops" on the elevator tail trim had been omitted after the modification and this was assumed to have caused the crash.¹

Willoughby Delta 8.

So ended the life of the brilliant Percival-Nesbit Willoughby. With no designer and no aircraft to demonstrate the company folded and became only a tragic footnote in British aviation history.

Another view of the Delta 8.

Delta 8 plan

Delta 8 Specifications
Max speed; 183 mph (294 kph)
Cruise; 165 mph (265 kph)
Landing Speed: Approx: 60 mph (96 kph)
Span 34ft 6 ins (10.51 m)
Length: 26 ft 1in (7.96 m)

The Delta 9 Project

A model of a Willoughby project that appeared in the contemporary French "Ailes" magazine. It shows a bat-like gull-wing with wing extensions that tapered in a "V" to meet at the tail. Presumably, this is one of the Willoughby Delta 1 through to 7 designs and it seems to me that it is likely that it was this tapered "V" configuration that initially gave rise to the name "Delta" for Willoughby's designs.

If Willoughby had lived to build his Delta 9 airliner what would it have looked like? An article in Flight magazine from February 1939 gives a lot of details. It would have been powered by three liquid-cooled engines in the 1,000 hp class (the Rolls Royce Merlin would seem the obvious choice). Two pressurised cylinders would carry the passengers, 18 in each, to give a total of 36. Each pressurised cylinder would be in a boom in the aircraft and be linked to each other, and the pilot/navigators compartment, by an emergency unpressurised passageway in the thickest part of the wing. Early versions would likely have been built with no pressurisation for the pilot/navigator compartment. The crew (except for one steward in each passenger compartment) would have had to rely on oxygen masks and risk the dangers and considerable discomfort of unpressurised high altitude flying. The reasoning for this approach was that the main problem of keeping pressure inside a compartment was the efficient sealing of the holes required for the mechanical linkages for the aircraft controls. If you only pressurised the passenger compartment you did away with this complication (The contemporary Fairey FC1 was certainly designed to have only the passenger compartment pressurised). Advances in technologies developed during the war (on the Wellington V and VI high altitude bomber and Spitfire VI and VII high altitude fighter) solved the problem of sealing control linkages. Each passenger cylinder had its own set of retractable air-stairs, toilet, small galley and steward. Because each compartment was buried in a tail boom there was nowhere to put traditional windows for passengers to see out, although there were 6 circular "skylights" in the roof of each compartment to let in light. To give the passengers a view of the ground it was hoped to use a camera obscura type device to project an image from the outside of the aircraft onto the table-tops of the passengers.

Model of the Delta 9. Note the "skylight" windows above each of the two passenger cabins in the booms

Above is a rough sketch of the Delta 9. Each boom contained a cylindrical pressure cabin for 18 passengers (36 in total). Each cylinder was served by its own set of "air-stairs" that retracted into the boom and each had a toilet, galley and steward. The two cylinders and the crew compartment was linked by an emergency unpressurised access tunnel at the thickest part of the wing section. It is not at all unlikely that the crew compartment might not have been pressurised, at least on early production examples, with the pilot(s) and navigator using oxygen masks and enduring the dangers and discomforts of high altitude flight.


I've painted the projected Delta 9 airliner as if it had been pressed into service by the RAF during the war, (imagine it carrying high-value passengers and parts to Malta or ball-bearings from Sweden).

Assuming there had been no crash of the Delta 8 and Willoughby had lived, and that his backers in the USA had come up with the funding, then it's possible to envisage a crash programme to set up a production line in America, perhaps aided by an existing manufacturer. Whereas Britain stopped all civil aviation development and production at the outbreak of war the attitude in the USA was the opposite. After Pearl Harbour the Americans realised to fight a global war you need as many transport aircraft as possible, so production and development were accelerated. An aircraft like the Delta 9, with the possibility to outrun and outclimb long-range interceptors, would have had a certain amount of appeal for the higher-risk transport links in the Pacific and Mediterranean. Perhaps with Packard-built Merlins, the Delta 9 might have proved a welcome addition to the Allies transport fleet and gone on to have a useful role after the war into the early 1950s and the advent of jet airliners. Could the rectilinear wing have lent itself to applications with jet engines? Would a rectilinear wing be useful on a modern UAV? Now there's a couple of thoughts!

The Delta 9 "Flight 777" - An Alternate History

1st June 1943, Lisbon airport. B.O.A.C / K.L.M. flight 777 is starting to load passengers for the morning 7.30 flight to the U.K. Leslie Howard chats to his business manager Alfred Chenhalls. Slightly weary after attending the Portuguese premiere of "First of the Few" the previous night, they muse over this strange new "Delta 9" trimotor aircraft that has turned up to fly them back to England, in place of the expected DC-3. Howard remarks that it looks like something out of one of their mutual friend H.G. Wells' stories. The flight is delayed for 5 minutes when Howard remembers he has left a parcel at the customs desk. The increased capacity of the Delta 9 means it can take all the waiting passengers, rather than have to leave some behind, which would have been the case if it had been the expected DC-3 making the flight. Once onboard the passengers are a little anxious about the lack of windows, but once airborne they are entertained by a demonstration of the camera obscura device built into tables that allows a 360-degree panoramic view outside the aircraft. Howard, in particular, is most impressed by this new device. Onboard the flight Howard finds himself sitting next to Wilfred Israel. Chided by Israel over his character only rescuing an elite professor from Nazi Germany in the film "Pimpernel Smith" they strike up a friendship, one that inspires them to set up the great charity "Pimpernel" to try to save children from the Holocaust and help refugees after the war.

Some of the children on board, playing with the camera obscura device, notice aircraft tailing them. Their parents alert the steward who in turn alerts the pilot who piles on the power and takes the Delta 9 even higher. The eight German Ju88 long-range fighter aircraft struggling to intercept this strange new trimotor are left trailing well behind. Flight 777 arrives at Whitchurch in England ahead of schedule.

So impressed is Howard by the Delta airliner that he features one in his 1944 film "We'll All Be Back" (a sequel to "Pimpernel Smith" ) where it is central to the plot of flying refugees out of occupied Europe. In the film Howard shared top billing with his great friend
Humphrey Bogart who reprises his role of Rick Blaine from the film Casablanca (this was the first time they had acted in a film together since The Petrified Forest ). In the film Ingrid Bergman also reprises her role from Casablanca (she had also starred alongside Howard in the 1939 film Intermezzo).

In 1950, while crossing the Atlantic in order to attend the Oscars ceremony, in a Delta 10 Airliner, (the turboprop powered successor the Delta 9) Howard finds himself sitting next to Mr Percival-Nesbit Willoughby, chairman of the Willoughby Aircraft Corporation. Attempting to sustain a conversation about flying with the famous film star, Willoughby starts to tell the story of how he almost died during the testing of the Delta 8 but had remembered the vital mechanical stops had not been put back in position just before taking off for a test flight. Looking around Willoughby realises that Howard has fallen asleep. Relieved at no longer having to try to make conversation Willougby comforts himself that it is the smooth comfort of his Delta airliner that has lulled Howard to slumber....


¹ A two-part article by Peter Davis, in the Spring and Summer 2021 edition of Air-Britain's
Aviation World Magazine sheds new light on Willoughby's projects and highlights his frustrations on getting them into production and the limited budget he was operating on. Two sub-articles by Paul Jackson speculates that the true reason for the crash of the Delta 8 might have been a design flaw, and that Hugh Olley was not the principal test pilot of the Delta 8 (as reported in other sources). Perhaps the fatal flight was the only time Olley actually flew the Delta 8 and with no previous experience as a test-pilot he would have been ill-equipped to respond to the situation he found himself in. I strongly recommend anyone interested in the Willoughby Deltas to read these articles.


"The Willoughby Delta" a 5-page article by Arther Orde-Hume in the July 1981 edition of Aeroplane Monthly magazine.

"British Civil Aircraft 1919-1959" by A. J. Jackson Published by Putnam (Vol 2 page 463).

"Delaying the stall" - article in Flight magazine Feb 9th 1939.