A Name that Rolls off the Tongue

history, aviation, technology
Written By J. Mac McClellan

The British have a long history of colorful aircraft names. Who can forget the Spitfire and Hurricane that won the Battle of Britain or the Comet that launched the commercial passenger jet age? How about the tiny jet trainer, flown by the Royal Air Force Red Arrows aerobatic team called, appropriately, the Gnat? Or even the Chipmunk two-seat trainer that replaced the Tiger Moth biplane? Granted, the fighters had much more ominous-sounding names than the trainers, but colorful names nonetheless.

The British also named their aircraft engines. The most famous piston aircraft engine of World War II was arguably the Rolls-Royce Merlin. The Merlin powered most of the British fleet, including the revered Supermarine Spitfire and the North American Mustang. In the United States, Allison built a V-12 piston engine that was similar to the Merlin, but Allison called its engine simply the V-1710. We all know which engine won the battle for fame — it was the Merlin, named after a bird of prey. While the V-1710 was a greater aeronautical success, the engine name was still just a collection of numbers.

As the turbine engine evolved, legend has it that the fine folks at Rolls-Royce were examining the circuitous path air follows as it is compressed, burned and expelled in a turbine engine and thought that the twisting and turning path resembled the route of a river flowing through the hills of Scotland. And that’s how Rolls-Royce jet engines came to be named for rivers, not birds of prey.

Rolls-Royce continued the tradition of naming its engines when the company entered the turbine age with the popular turboprop engine named the Dart (after the River Dart). Renowned for reliability, the Dart was selected to power the very first Gulfstreams — many of which are still in service.

The first two Gulfstream jets, the Gulfstream II and Gulfstream III, are powered by the Rolls-Royce Spey engine, named for the Highland river that flows through single malt Scotch country. The Spey is such a versatile and rugged turbine engine that, in addition to powering many different aircraft, the power plant is also used to propel warships and even generate electricity for utilities across the world.

The first two Gulfstream jets, the Gulfstream II and Gulfstream III, are powered by the Rolls-Royce Spey engine, named for the Highland river that flows through single malt Scotch country.

The Rolls-Royce Tay, a more efficient engine than the Spey, powers the Gulfstream 400 series. The Tay gains its fuel efficiency and generates less noise because the fan on the engine is much larger than the fan on the Spey. This is known as “high bypass” because the fan forces most of the air through a lower velocity section of the engine, while only a minority of the airflow is compressed and used in the combustion process. The Tay is the longest river in Scotland so it makes sense to name an engine that added so much efficiency — and thus longer range — for the longer river.

But the long heritage of eclectic British engine names came to an end with development of the engines used on the Gulfstream 500 series, and the new G650 because Rolls-Royce teamed with BMW of Germany to develop the engines. The history of naming cars or aircraft or engines in Germany is limited to combinations of letters and numbers, so sadly Scottish river names have dried up and the engines are now BR710 for the G550, and BR725 for the G650.

As you may suspect, the “B” stands for BMW, the “R” for Rolls-Royce, and the numbers are from a development sequence. Logic rules in the names for the new engines, but there was a certain amount of logic mixed with lore in the old Rolls-Royce Scottish river names. While we may all want to sip a dram of Scotch whisky on the banks of the River Tay, we’ll have to be satisfied with the combined names of two companies famous the world over for high technology and performance. BR it is.

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