Bristol Aircraft and
The year 1909
was important in European aviation. A weeklong air show, held near the
French city of Reims, made it clear that airplanes now represented a
significant new technology. Within months a wealthy British industrialist,
Sir George White, put up funds for a group of four closely linked aviation
companies, with offices in his home city of Bristol. A factory took shape
in the nearby town of Filton.
airplanes were of French design: the Zodiac biplane, which never flew, and
the Bristol Boxkite, which did. The new company gained its initial
foothold by taking the view that prospective purchasers of aircraft first
had to learn to fly. With support from the War Office, Sir George set up
two flying schools. Prior to the outbreak of World War I, in August 1914,
nearly half of all licensed British pilots received their training at
those flight centres.
brought a vast upsurge in demand for new aircraft. The Bristol works
turned out hundreds of Bristol Scout biplanes, along with BE-2 fighters.
The demands of the war soon brought urgent requests for better aircraft.
Frank Barnwell, the company's chief designer, had been serving as a
captain in the British army, but in August 1915 he was sent back to
Bristol. He soon crafted one of the outstanding military planes of the
day: the Bristol Fighter.
It was a
two-seater with a pilot and a machine gunner. The pilot had his own gun,
which made the combination particularly deadly. The first War Office
purchase dated to August 1916; a year later, 600 of these biplanes were on
order. In July 1917, the War Office adopted the Fighter as the standard
model for all fighter-reconnaissance squadrons. This brought far more
demand than the Bristol works could handle, so production was farmed out
to other companies as well. By then the United States had entered the war,
as some production took place in America.
George V and his wife, Queen Mary, came to visit Bristol in Filton in
November 1917, their visit constituted royal recognition of the role of
aircraft in warfare. More than 5,000 Fighters were built, with production
continuing after the war. These aircraft also continued serving British
interests in India and the Middle East.
The end of
the war brought a sharp falloff in orders for new aircraft. However, the
company expanded into a new field: airplane engines. Wartime aviation
motors had been water-cooled, like those of automobiles. Even so, there
was much interest in air-cooled engines, which promised simplicity and
lighter weight. Research done by the government-run Royal Aircraft Factory
in Farnborough established many of the important design principles.
However, the government left the development of operational engines in the
hands of private companies.
work from the Factory, the firm of Armstrong Siddeley built an important
early air-cooled motor: the Jaguar. A competing company, Cosmos
Engineering, came in with another one: the Jupiter. Amid the post-war
falloff in orders, Cosmos went bankrupt in 1920, but Bristol took it over
and turned this company into its engine division. Government orders
spurred competition all through the 1920s, as Bristol and Armstrong
introduced improvements. However, Bristol put more effort into devising
new versions of the Jupiter than Armstrong did with the Jaguar, and by
1929, the Jupiter was clearly superior. Orders for the Jaguar dried up.
During the 1930s, Bristol was Great Britain's only producer of high-power
the chief designer Frank Barnwell crafted a succession of new fighters and
bombers: the Brownie, Boarhound, Beaver, Bagshot, Bulldog, Bullpup,
Berkeley, and Badminton. Most were biplanes and were built under
government order, in very limited numbers, to help the company stay
current with advances in the field. The Bulldog fighter was an exception;
nearly 450 were built from 1927 to 1934, for the Royal Air Force and for
eight other nations. In addition, the work of this period initiated the
practice of using Bristol engines with Bristol aircraft even when motors
from firms such as Rolls-Royce were available.
The year 1935
brought an upsurge in Bristol's fortunes, as the British Navy and the
Royal Air Force began rearming in expectation of a new war with Germany.
This date coincided with important recent advances in aircraft design. As
recently as 1930, even the best new types of aircraft amounted to
warmed-over versions of World War I biplanes. This was true in the United
States as well. The biplane fighters that attacked the gorilla King Kong
atop the Empire State Building in the movie of 1933 were among the Army's
mid-decade, new designs clearly foreshadowed the advanced fighters and
bombers of World War II. Streamlined monoplanes, built of aluminium, now
had retractable landing gear to reduce their drag for high speed. Powerful
new engines could cruise at high altitude, burning high-octane fuel for
large increases in horsepower. The historian C.H. Barnes writes that "had
rearmament begun two years earlier, the RAF might well have been equipped
with large numbers of biplanes and braced monoplanes, which indeed proved
a handicap to the French and Italian Air Forces when war eventually broke
designer Barnwell was ready for the build-up. He had designed a
twin-engine monoplane that was 50 miles per hour (80 kilometres per hour)
faster than the RAF's latest biplane fighters. Bristol built it as a
private aircraft for a wealthy landowner, Lord Rothermere. Modified for
military use, it became the Blenheim bomber. The Bristol firm received a
large production contract later in 1935, and went on to build nearly 5,500
buildup also led to a government request for a torpedo bomber. Bristol
responded with the twin-engine Beaufort. Late in 1938, with the threat of
war becoming imminent, Bristol officials proposed to build a fighter
version of the Beaufort. This became the highly successful Beaufighter,
which had a long range. Nearly 6,000 were built.
war, Bristol again found new business by entering a new field—airliners.
The company built an enormous eight-engine prototype, the Bristol Brabazon,
then drew on this experience by producing the more practical four-engine
Britannia. The Britannia used turboprop engines, which combined a jet
engine with a propeller. It was faster than its propeller-driven
competitors and had longer range. During the 1950s, airlines often tried
to fly non-stop westward across the Atlantic from London or Paris to New
York but found that their planes had to stop en route to refuel in
Newfoundland. This happened when there were strong headwinds that blew
from the west. But the Britannia became the first airliner to offer such
non-stop service reliably. It remained popular until it was eclipsed by
jet airliners, which were even faster.
an air freighter, the Type 170, and of helicopters gave further work to
the post-war firm. However, aircraft projects became more costly after
1950, and Britain no longer could support a large number of independent
aircraft companies. The solution lay in mergers, which consolidated the
industry into fewer but stronger firms. In 1959, the Bristol engine
division merged with Armstrong Siddeley, its old competitor, to form
Bristol Siddeley. In 1960, the Bristol aircraft group became part of a new
company, British Aircraft. A supersonic fighter, the Bristol 221, became
the last aircraft to use that old familiar name, as "Bristol" faded into