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UK Aeronautics Industry - Great War

The extraordinary growth of the British aeroplane industry might well be gauged by the progress shown at the Olympia aero show, held 16-21 March 1914. Six years earlier there was not a single English firm engaged in the manufacture of heavier-than-air machines, yet an analysis of the aircraft shown at Olympia indicated that many firms are constructing excellent machines, while some six or seven were producing aeroplanes which compare satisfactorily with the beautiful French and German products. Three firms at least were regularly supplying biplanes, which in point of efficiency and design undoubtedly led the world.

It is strange but true that lack of novelty was a very pronounced feature of the show, which suggested that aeroplane design had become standardized to a remarkable extent. The importance of the aeroplane from the military point of view — that of defense — is also reflected by the number of machines which had been specially designed with the object of carrying weapons of small caliber or for use as reconnaissance vehicles.

A large variety of motors, both foreign and home-products, were shown. The great number of stationary cylindered types exhibited showed the tendency to get back to the motor car types, which, of course, had proven so reliable and in long runs more economical. Another tendency was that of greatly increased power. Practically all the engines were rated at above 100 horsepower, while a "mammoth" Clement-Bayard of 225-horsepower for aero-hydroplanes and dirigibles was shown.

There was when War broke out no realisation on the part of the British Government of the need for encouraging the enterprise of private builders, who carried out their work entirely at their own cost. The importance of a supply of British-built engines was realised before the War, it is true, and a competition was held in which a prize of £5,000 was offered for the best British engine, but this awakening was so late that the R.F.C. took the field without a single British power plant.

In Great Britain there were a number of aeroplane constructing firms that had managed to emerge from the lean years 1912-1913 with sufficient manufacturing plant to give a hand in making up the leeway of construction when War broke out. Gradually the motor-car firms came in, turningtheir body-building departments to plane and fuselage construction, which enabled them to turn out the complete planes engined and ready for the field. The coach-building trade soon joined in and came in handy as propeller makers; big upholstering and furniture firms and scores of concerns that had never dreamed of engaging in aeroplane construction were busy on supplying the R.F.C.

Prior to the war aircraft were built in Great Britain as a sporting proposition, by one or two of the automobile makers, who had been very successful in the development of the racing automobile engine. By 1916 the cash invested in the aircraft industry in England was $375,000,000. There are 66,000 employees. They had a capacity of 41,000 airplanes in a year.

The command of the air rested very largely indeed with that side that produced the best single-seater fighter. Provided, of course, that it was produced and used in sufficient quantity. This state of affairs is so clearly recognized in France and Great Britain that particular attention was devoted to the improvement of this type, with the result that new and improved designs were built and tested as fast as possible. This resulted, of course, in many new designs being produced, of which, however, only a few showed outstanding merit and were consequently reproduced in quantity. Of the designs hitherto popular some survived a year, some six months, and some have only had a life of usefulness on the Western Front of three months.

The designs that lasted a year always finally overstayed their welcome, and probably a “vogue-period” for a single-seater fighter type was never much more than six months. The real reason of this was, of course, that it took the enemy not more than six months in which to get to know all about any particular type and copy or improve it, if he had not already something better of his own. Then something better had to be forthcoming or command of the air would have to be conceded.

By 1915 hundreds of different firms were building aeroplanes and parts; by 1917 the number had increased to over 1,000, and a capital of over a million pounds for a firm that at the outbreak of War had employed a score or so of hands was by no means uncommon. Women and girls came into the work, more especially in plane construction and covering and doping, though they took their place in the engine shops and proved successful at acetylene welding and work at the lathes. It was some time before Britain was able to provide its own magnetos, for this key industry had been left in the hands of the Germans up to the outbreak of War, and the 'Bosch' was admittedly supreme, being as near perfection as is possible for a magneto.

The end of the War brought a pause in which the multitude of aircraft constructors found themselves faced with the possible complete stagnation of the industry, since military activities no longer demanded their services and the prospects of commercial flying were virtually nil. That great factor in commercial success, cost of plant and upkeep, had received no consideration whatever in the War period, for armies do not count cost. The types of machines that had evolved from the War were very fast, very efficient, and very expensive, although the bombers showed promise of adaptation to commercial needs, and, so far as other machines were concerned, America had already proved the possibilities of mail-carrying by maintaining a mail service even during the War period.

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Page last modified: 25-08-2016 12:35:46 ZULU