UK: Mighty Olympus Turned Off for Good

hms sultan

The roar of Olympus no longer sounds at HMS Sultan as the mighty engine has been turned off for good. The gas turbine, which has powered frigates, destroyers and carriers, as well as Concorde and Vulcan bombers, will be phased out next year.

The greatest British engine of its generation has breathed its last as instructors at the Royal Navy’s engineering school switch off the ‘mighty Olympus’.

For 35 years, marine engineers at HMS Sultan in Gosport have learned how to maintain and run the Olympus, which has powered a generation of warships (as well as Concorde and the Vulcan bomber).

But with the very last Olympus-powered ship in the Fleet, HMS Illustrious, due to pay off next year, there’s no longer the need to train marine engineers.

So after burning 2.1 million gallons (9.5 million litres) of fuel – enough to fill the tanks of nearly 175,000 Ford Focus cars… or take your average family car to the moon and back 176 times) – since 1978, the gas turbine was powered down for the last time.

The Olympus traces its history back to the early days of the Cold War and the need to power the RAF’s nascent V-bomber force.

The Bristol Aero Engines company responded to the challenge and ran the first Olympus in 1950.

By the 1960s navies were looking to adapt the by-now-highly-successful engine in their ships as they began to shift from steam.

The RN experimented with HMS Exmouth, then Chief Naval Engineer Sir George Raper decreed that gas was the future.

Thanks to his vision – celebrated with Raper Block at Sultan, where marine engineering skills are imparted – gas has powered the workhorses of the Fleet for 40 years: Type 21, 22, 23 frigates, Type 42 destroyers, plus the Invincible-class carriers.

Four Olympus engines powering two shafts, generating 25,000 horsepower on each, propel the 22,000 tonnes of the carriers through the oceans at speeds up to 28kts.

With Invincible herself fitting out in 1978, the Olympus was installed in Raper Block. A then 31-year-old Arthur Baldwin, now Sultan’s Outboard Motor and RIB Mechanical Instructor, was shown the engine as a direct entry artificer beginning his RN career.

Three and a half decades later he was among the last people to instruct on the mechanics of the Olympus – and to see it depart.

 “The Olympus engine was newly installed and looked awesome,” said Arthur of his whistle-stop tour of the facility back in 1978, “but our PO stoker guide was less enthusiastic. Yeah, he said, impressive, but it’ll never catch on.

“That wasn’t an unusual attitude, as even in the late 1970s the RN was still very much a steam-driven navy. When I sat my Unit Watchkeeping Certificate in HMS Invincible in 1981, a third of the exam questions were still steam based!”

In 1997, Arthur was serving aboard Vince again when she dashed across the Atlantic from Barbados to Gibraltar before heading on to the Gulf.

 “The trip took us three days, running at full power on all four Olympus and I worked out that assuming that the navy paid 25 pence per litre for its dieso (probably a lot more), on that one trip we used £1.2 million worth of fuel!”

With all Type 21, 22s and 42s gone and Lusty around for only another 18 months, Sultan’s looking to the next-generation gas turbine, the MT30, which will drive HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales.

Generating 30MW, it’s one and a half times as powerful as the Olympus – and will take its place in Raper Block where its predecessor once stood.

“I was there at the beginning and there at the end,” said Arthur.

“Olympus was one of the best engines that I have ever worked with and I, for one, will miss it.”


Press Release, June 13, 2013