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Early British Aviation Industry

The American and European aviation industries began to develop within a few years of each other, but Europe took the first formal steps to establish dedicated aircraft companies in the early decades of the 20th century. During this time, there was a shift from aircraft designers, builders, and pilots all being the same people to having entrepreneurs who ran the business and built the planes and others who flew them.

The history of flight in England from 1908, when Mr. Roe and Mr. Cody first flew, to 1912, when flying became a part of the duty of the military and naval forces of the Crown, is the history of a ferment, and cannot be exhibited in any tight or ordered sequence of cause and effect. Before the Government took in hand the building up of an air service, there were many beginnings of private organization. A man cannot fly until he has a machine and a place for starting and alighting. These are expensive and elaborate requirements, not easily furnished without co-operation. The Aeronautical Society did much to make flight possible, but its labours were mainly scientific and theoretical.

In England, the Short brothers-Horace, Albert, and Hugh, three experienced balloon-makers, established the first British airplane manufacturing company in 1908. After two unsuccessful planes, Albert obtained a license from Wilbur Wright in February 1909 to manufacture six Wright airplanes in Britain. This order made the Short company the first to produce a series of planes, rather than one of a model.

The brothers went on to design and build their own aircraft. Horace designed their first successful airplane, the Short biplane No. 2. In 1913, they produced a seaplane with folding wings that allowed the plane to be parked on a ship. In 1915, the Seaplane 184 was the first aircraft to sink a ship with a torpedo, when it sank a Turkish merchant ship in the Dardanelles. This bomber saw service until better heavy bombers came along and the Short was reassigned to reconnaissance duties. They also built a small number of land-based bombers and what some claim to be the first twin-engine plane to fly-the Triple-Twin biplane.

A.V. Roe & Co. was another early British entry into the aviation business. Established in 1910, by Alliot Verdon Roe, the company (which soon took the name Avro) built some of the first planes with enclosed fuselages and celluloid windows for the pilot. The 1912 Avro F was the world's first cabin aircraft to fly.

The company went on to build the 504 series, beginning in 1913. This World War I plane has been ranked as one of the greatest planes of the era, seeing duty as a fighter, trainer, bomber, and reconnaissance plane and continuing in use as a civilian training plane until the 1930s. It could fly at more than 80 miles per hour (129 kilometers per hour) and it set a British altitude record of 15,000 feet (4,572 meters).

The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company (soon known as Bristol Aeroplane Company) was formed in February 1910 by Sir George White. Bristol's first successful aircraft became known as the Bristol Boxkite. The plane was a great commercial success and remained in production until 1914. In all, 130 were built.

Also in Britain, the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough evolved from His Majesty's Balloon Factory. When it became apparent that fixed-wing powered craft would replace lighter-than-air craft, the balloon factory, under the direction of Mervyn O'Gorman, began constructing heavier-than-air craft. The factory had no funds but relied on donations of used aircraft. In 1910, it managed to acquire a wrecked Blériot monoplane with a tractor propeller from the Army. O'Gorman and his designers, F.M. Green and Geoffrey de Havilland, who would establish his own aircraft company in 1920, "repaired" and transformed the craft into the S.E.1 single-seat biplane with a pusher engine. Not surprisingly, the plane crashed soon after takeoff.

Its next plane worked better and lasted almost three years. It began as a Voisin pusher biplane that Farnborough acquired in 1911 and ended up as the B.E.1 tractor biplane. The B.E.2 appeared early in 1912. It was the first British aircraft to reach France at the outbreak of World War I. First used for reconnaissance, it was used in combat after a machine gun was added. The plane was difficult to maneuver swiftly, which made it a target for the "Fokker Scourge" of 1915-16 and "Bloody April" of 1917. More than 3,200 B.E.2 aircraft were built and many were used as trainers after the war. Farnborough also produced the B.S.1 in 1912, which was the first single-seat reconnaissance plane and predecessor to every future scout and fighter plane.

Another British company, Sopwith Aviation Co., Ltd., got its start during this time. Incorporated in 1912 by Sir Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith, it started by rebuilding and modifying aircraft. Although the company was known mostly for traditional airplanes, the first plane it built was the Bat Boat, one of the world's first amphibious airplanes and the first in Great Britain. Sopwith built several aircraft for World War I, including the Pup, an important pursuit aircraft, the 1-1/2 Strutter, and the Triplane. But its most famous plane and most important was the Sopwith F.1 Camel, which was regarded as the finest British fighter of the war although difficult to fly. It was known as the adversary of the German "Red Baron," and scored more victories against German aircraft than any other Allied plane in the war. The company prospered during the war, but faltered during the poor post-war market and was dissolved in 1920.

One of the worst things in 1916 was that time was wasted by the Cabinet in trying to get some sort of co-ordinated method of supplying aircraft; there was a great deal of delay, not in examining the position, but in deciding what should be done. That was the position in the spring of 1916. In May of that year, the Air Board came into being, but it was not functioning properly until February, 1917. It coordinated various services, overcoming the battles that went on between the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. The result was that by June, 1917, a very short time afterwards, more machines were produced in a week than had hitherto been produced in a month, and by the end of the year 10 times as many machines were produced as in the year before.

Britain started with little experience and had only 113 aeroplanes, and worked up to an output of 1,229 a month, and in four years to 2,668 a month. The UK built over 55,000 aeroplanes during the Great War.



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Page last modified: 09-05-2013 17:37:48 ZULU