Short Brothers Aviation

Short Brothers, almost universally referred to simply as Shorts, is a British aerospace company now based in Belfast. Shorts was the first true aviation company in the world, and was a manufacturer of flying boats during World War II. After the war they turned primarily to the production of cargo aircraft. The company was bought by Bombardier in 1989.

Oswald, Horace and Eustace Short

What would eventually become Shorts was formed in 1897 when Eustace and Oswald Short took their first flight in a coal gas filled balloon. Their father had served his apprenticeship with Robert Stevenson. In 1902 the two brothers started offering balloons for sale, winning a contract for three for the British Indian Army in 1905. In 1908 they were joined by a third brother, Horace, and incorporated in order to sell licensed copies of the Wright Flyer aircraft that they built at Battersea in southwest London. In July 1909 they created Shellbeach Aerodrome on unobstructed marshland near Leysdown-on-Sea on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary, home of Lord Brabazon's Royal Aero Club, which had originally formed for ballooning. They sold six Flyers to this Club over the next two years.

In 1910 they moved along with the Aero Club to larger quarters at Eastchurch 4km or so away, and built the Short-Dunne 5, the first tailless aircraft to fly. In 1911 they built the world's first twin-engine aircraft, the S-39 or Triple Twin. Over the next few years Shorts built a variety of aircraft, but started to expand during World War I when they supplied the Short Admiralty Type 184 (or simply Short S.184). The S.184 became the first aircraft to sink a ship, when one flying from HMS Ben-my-Chree, hit a Turkish cargo ship in the Dardanelles during the Battle of Gallipoli. The S.184 was also sold to the Royal Flying Corps as the Short Bomber.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s the only viable way to operate long-range civilian flight was by flying boat, as the necessary runway infrastructure was not widespread and would be too expensive to construct for the relatively small number of flights. Shorts took to the flying boat market and produced a series of three designs known as the Singapore. A Singapore I was made famous in 1927 by Sir Alan Cobham, when he, his wife, and crew made a survey of Africa while flying some 23,000 miles.

Shorts then started design work on one of their most famous designs, the Short Calcutta, based on the Singapore layout but larger and more powerful. The Calcutta first flew in 1928 and began active service with Imperial Airways in August. Two more were added to the fleet by April 1929 and flew passenger-preferred coastal routes from Genoa to Alexandria by way of Athens, Corfu, Naples, and Rome. A number of Calcuttas were used on shorter routes, and were instrumental in permitting long-range airline services between outposts of the British Empire. They followed the production of four Calcuttas with the larger Kent, following with a series of still larger aircraft designs such as the Short Empire, the first of which was launched on 2 July 1936 and the type was used by BOAC to operate the first transatlantic westbound service from Foynes, Ireland to Newfoundland on 5 July 1937.

They soon outgrew their factory at Eastchurch, and in late 1933 they opened an additional much larger factory at Rochester, about 15km to the west. In 1934 they closed their Eastchurch premises and purchased the Pobjoy engine manufacturers, with whom they had worked on their latest designs. In 1936 the Air Ministry formed a new aircraft factory in Belfast, forming a merger owned 50% each by Harland and Wolff and Shorts to become Short & Harland Ltd. The first product of the new factory was 189 Handley-Page Hereford bombers.

Their work on seaplanes eventually culminated in the Short Sunderland, a massive flying boat with enough range to operate as a transatlantic airliner. However the Sunderland was considerably more famous as an anti-submarine patrol bomber during World War II, where its long range and long flying time allowed it to close the air gap between Iceland and Greenland, helping end the Battle of the Atlantic.

It was their work on the Sunderland that also won them the contract for their ill-fated Short Stirling, the RAF's first four-engine bomber. If based on their original submission, essentially a land-based Sunderland with various cleanups, there seems to be no reason to suspect that the Stirling would not have been an excellent heavy bomber. Instead the Air Ministry stipulated a number of bizarre requirements of the plane, allowing it to double as a troop transport for instance, that eventually doomed it as newer designs outperformed it.

During the Battle of Britain the Rochester factory was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe and several of the early-run Stirlings and other aircraft were destroyed. In addition the Supermarine factory only a mile away was also almost completely destroyed. From this point on the Belfast factory became increasingly important as it was thought to be well beyond the range of German bombers. However, Belfast and the aircraft factory was subjected to German aircraft bombing during Easter week 1942. In 1943 the Government took over management of the Belfast factory, and merged Short Brothers with Short and Harland to form Short Brothers and Harland Ltd. By 1947 all of their other wartime factories were shut, and operations concentrated in Belfast. In 1948 the company offices followed and Shorts became a Belfast company in its entirety.

In the 1960s Shorts found a niche for a new short-haul freighter aircraft, and responded with the Short Skyvan. The Skyvan is most remembered for its box-like, slab-sided appearance and equally rectangular twin tail units, but the plane was well loved for its performance and loading. Serving almost the same performance niche as the famous de Havilland Twin Otter, the Skyvan proved much more popular in the freighter market due to the large rear cargo door that allowed it to handle bulky loads with ease. Skyvans can still be found around the world today, notably in the Canadian arctic.

In the 1970s Shorts entered the feederliner market with their 330, a stretched modification of the Skyvan, called the C-23 Sherpa in USAF service, and another stretch resulted in the more streamlined Shorts 360, in which a more conventional central fin superseded the older H-profiled twin fins.

In 1977 the company changed its name back to Short Brothers, and in 1984 became a public limited company when the British government sold off its remaining shares. The company was purchased by Bombardier in 1989 and eventually lost its separate identity.

In 1988, loyalists working at the factory sold plans for a new missile system to the Apartheid government of South Africa in exchange for a large arms shipment which was then divided between the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force, and Ulster Resistance.

In 1993 Bombardier Shorts and Thomson-CSF formed a joint venture, Shorts Missile Systems, for the design and development of very short-range air defence missiles for the UK Ministry of Defence and armed forces worldwide using expertise dating back to the 1950s. In 2000 Thomson-CSF bought Bombardier's 50% share to become the sole owner. Shorts Missile Systems was renamed Thales Air Defence Limited in 2001.