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What made Filton fly? From Box Kites to Concorde and beyond...

Dave Harvey | 15:27 UK time, Thursday, 18 February 2010

"He didn't invent the aeroplane - but he did invent the aeroplane industry". I heard it first from Sir George White who is, rather confusingly, the great-grandson of Sir George White.

A hundred years ago today, Sir George went to the board of his Bristol Tramways Company with a rather weird proposal. "Gentlemen, it might sound bizarre, (Ok, I'm paraphrasing here) but why don't we build a flying tram?"

The Bristol Box Kite on the DownsThe board bought it. They had some big sheds at the end of the tramline in Filton, they could use those. Six years ago those American brothers had got an aeroplane off the ground, it couldn't be that hard. By November, they had a Bristol Box Kite, ready to fly. Ever the salesman, Sir George advertised a maiden flight on the Downs, and what better way to get there than by tram?

Fast forward a hundred years, and those same sheds house a hi-tech aerospace business called Airbus. Five and a half thousand people work there, either for Airbus or for GKN, the manufacturing partner. Across the road, another 3,500 make Rolls Royce engines, also descended from the Bristol Aeroplane Company.

This isn't a history of aviation in Bristol. The web is already full of those. But I've been wondering what made Sir George's company stand and grow? Here's my (rather incomplete) answer: war, vanity and heroic failure.

"Regrettably, the two wars were responsible for a lot of Filton's growth, yes." I'm talking with Oliver Dearden, the master of all things aero-historic in these parts. He is Chairman of the Bristol Aero Collection and lists the great leaps forward in both wars. The Bristol Fighter. The Blenheim, later the Beaufighter. 107,000 engines which came out of Filton in WWII.

Blenheim bombers in WWIIThe Blenheim - seen here in action in North Africa - is a bit of an unsung hero outside the world of history buffs. Before Spitfires and Hurricanes came along, the twin engined light bomber was the mainstay of the RAF.

"When the war broke out in 1939 there were more Blenheims on the strength of the RAF than any other aircraft," Oliver tells me. "It was a Blenheim that made the first sortie of the war."

And the whole thing - airframe and engine - was made in Filton. The plane's origins give you an insight into the vanity that so often kick-started production.

In the mid 1930s Lord Rothermere, the newspaper magnate, was worried the Americans were getting ahead in the air. So, as you do, he challenged the British aero industry to make a small plane for him. Filton answered the call, and he rather liked the result. But then he discovered, rather embarrassingly, that this new toy went 50 mph faster than anything the RAF had. So, as you do, he gave it to the nation, calling his aircraft "Britain First". The RAF turned this into the Blenheim - and during the war 9,000 of them came out of Filton. Even the vainest of newspaper barons wouldn't have ordered quite that many.

Heroic Failures? Well, the best example will play host to the birthday party tomorrow. I am already ducking for cover as I describe the Bristol Brabazon as any kind of failure, but let's just say they never made a second one.

Contracted by the government after WWII, the Brabazon was huge. The largest passenger jet in the world - its wingspan was 35ft greater than a modern Boeing 747 - it was the first designed to fly non-stop to America. Again, go search the web for the detailed history - it's a fabulous tale - but here are some highlights.
The first with 100% powered flying controls; the first with hydraulics; the first with AC power onboard. It was designed as an ocean liner of the sky, BOAC considered each passenger should have roughly three times the space of a modern family car. Now that's what I call legroom.

They built one, it flew, it was a triumph. "But it was the wrong aircraft for its time," Oliver muses, "although much of its technology was used on Concorde, and without the Brabazon's huge hangar, would they have made the Concorde in Bristol at all?"

Of course there are other, more prosaic reasons for Filton's success. Hard work by the tens of thousands who worked there. Brilliant engineering. But without a war, a vain newspaper baron and a heroic failure - would Filton Aerodrome be the centre of aviation is still is today? Discuss... go on, you know you want to.


  • Comment number 1.

    Somebody hasn't done their homework. The picture above is a Bristol Britannia and not the Bristol Brabazon.

  • Comment number 2.

    Glad to see that Sir George White and the contribution of the BAC was celebrated in style today and well done to easyJet for naming an aircraft in the founder's honour.

    I'd like to point out that some of the information on the Bristol Brabazon is not correct. The Brabazon was one of a number of aircraft designed by the Brabazon Committee of 1943 which set out the requirements for commercial aircraft for the post-war period. Other aircraft which resulted from the Committee's work were the de Havilland Dove, Airspeed Ambassador and de Havilland Comet and the Bristol Britannia. The Bristol Type 167 Brabazon had a protracted development and made its first flight on 4 September 1949 - my father, then 13, rode his bike from his home in Horfield to stand at the end of the runway to watch the first flight. The aircraft made appearances at Farnborough Air Shows and did some proving flights for the then BEA and a second turboprop powered aircraft was being produced when the project was cancelled in 1953 when it was apparent that the aircraft was already out-dated compared to newer types being produced in the UK and US. Some of the development work on the Brabazon was read across to the Britannia - but I doubt there was much that Concorde learned from it!

  • Comment number 3.

    An interesting article made too simplistic and suffering from sloppy research.
    It is however a painful reminder that the ingenuity and endeavour of British entrepreneurs and engineering once competed with the rest of the industrial world - Where are the men of vision now? Pockets of excellence exist but its all too much of a cottage industry and excepting Rolls-Royce, where are our British world leading companies? Ask the man in the street to name a British company that is world renowned and the fingers of one hand will be under utilised.

  • Comment number 4.

    Dear Bob Jones, thanks for pointing out our photo-howler! Yes, the Britannia has now been removed and I'll look out a nice shot of the Brabazon. Thanks to Andy64 and Peter for your comments - I realise this is specialist territory - angels fear to tread and all that! Fair point perhaps about the Brab going mostly into the Britannia, but you have to concede that certainly the Brabazon Hangar was home to Concorde, and there are people who see its technological lineage too.
    As to Peter's point about modern British innovation, I guess today people would point to "Silicon Gorge", and all the digital and IT innovations coming out of the greater Bristol area - Xmos and beyond. But thanks for the comments - its a debate that will run all year. Here's a question back to you: could we make a whole plane anywhere in the world on a single site today?


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