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Bristol Aeroplane Company

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Title: Bristol Aeroplane Company  
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Subject: Bristol Jupiter, Bristol Cherub, Bristol Lucifer, Aerospace industry in the United Kingdom, Bristol Scout
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Bristol Aeroplane Company

Bristol Aeroplane Company
Industry Aerospace
Fate Split and merged
Successors British Aircraft Corporation, Bristol Siddeley
Founded 1910 (as British and Colonial Aircraft Company)
Defunct 1959
Headquarters Filton, England, UK
Key people Frank Barnwell, Roy Fedden
Subsidiaries Bristol Aero-Engines
Bristol Helicopters (1945-)
Bristol Cars (1945-1960)
Bristol Aerospace (1957-)

The Bristol Aeroplane Company, originally the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, was both one of the first and one of the most important British aviation companies, designing and manufacturing both airframes and aero engines. Notable aircraft produced by the company include the 'Boxkite', the Bristol Fighter, the Bulldog, the Blenheim, the Beaufighter, and the Britannia, and much of the preliminary work which led to the Concorde was carried out by the company. In 1956 its major operations were split into Bristol Aircraft and Bristol Aero Engines. In 1959 Bristol Aircraft merged with several major British aircraft companies to form the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC), and Bristol Aero Engines merged with Armstrong Siddeley to form Bristol Siddeley.

BAC went on to become a founding component of the nationalised British Aerospace, now BAE Systems. Bristol Siddeley was purchased by Rolls-Royce in 1966, who continued to develop and market Bristol-designed engines. The BAC works were in Filton, about 4 miles (6.4 km) north of Bristol city centre. BAE Systems, Airbus, Rolls Royce, MBDA and GKN still have a presence at the Filton site where the Bristol Aeroplane Company was located.


Bristol Boxkite Replica at RAAF Museum
Bristol Boxkite Centenary Flight at RAAF Museum Point Cook, 2014


The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, Ltd was founded in February 1910 by Brooklands, then the centre of activity for British aviation, where Bristol rented a hangar, and at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain, where in June 1910 a school was established on 2,248 acres (9.10 km2) of land leased from the War Office. These flying schools came to be regarded as some of the best in the world by 1914, when 308 of the 664 Royal Aero Club certificates issued to date had been gained at the Company's schools.[2]

The Bristol Boxkite

The Company's initial manufacturing venture was to be a licensed and improved version of an aircraft manufactured in France by the Societe Zodiac, a biplane designed by [4] The first batch equipped the two training schools as well as demonstration aircraft, and the aircraft, nicknamed the Bristol Boxkite went on to become a commercial success, 76 being built in all. Many served in the Company's flying schools and examples were sold to the War Office as well as a number of foreign governments.


Although satisfactory by the standards of the day, the Boxkite was not capable of much further development and work was started on two new designs, a small tractor configuration biplane, and a monoplane. Both of these were exhibited at the 1911 Aero Show at Olympia but neither was flown successfully. At this time both Challenger and Low left the company to join the newly established aircraft division of the armament firm Vickers. Their place was taken by Pierre Prier, the former chief instructor at the Bleriot flying school at Hendon: he was later joined by Gordon England. In January 1912 the Romanian engineer Henri Coandă was appointed as chief designer. Also at this time a highly secret separate design office, the "X-Department", was set up to work on Dennistoun Burney's ideas for naval aircraft. Frank Barnwell was taken on as the design engineer for this project, and took over as Bristol's chief designer when Coandă left the company in October 1914. Barnwell was to become one of the world's foremost aeronautical engineers, and was to work for the company until his death in 1938. The Company expanded rapidly, opening a second factory at the Brislington tramway works, and employed 200 people by the outbreak of the First World War.

First World War

The Bristol Fighter

At the outbreak of war in August 1914 Britain's military forces possessed just over a hundred aircraft and the RFC consisted of only seven squadrons equipped with a miscellany of aircraft types, none of them armed.[5] Official War Office policy was to purchase only aircraft designed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment, and Bristol had already built a number of their B.E.2 two-seater reconnaissance aircraft. However, pressure from the pilots of the RFC and RNAS led to orders being placed for the Bristol Scout, and a second factory was set up in premises belonging to the Bristol Tramway Company at Brislington in Bristol. Barnwell returned from France in 1915, his skills as pilot being of considerably less value than his ability as a designer. At this time Leslie Frise, newly graduated from Bristol University's engineering department, was recruited by Barnwell. The first project he worked on after his return, the Bristol T.T.A., was designed in response to a War Office requirement for a two-seat fighter intended for home defence against Zeppelin raids. This was not successful, but in 1916 work was started the Bristol F.2A, which was developed into the highly successful F.2B Bristol Fighter, one of the outstanding aircraft of the 1914-18 war and a mainstay of the R.A.F during the 1920s: it remained in service until 1931.[6] Another aircraft designed at this time was the Bristol Monoplane Scout. Although popular with pilots, the success of this aircraft was limited by the War Office prejudice against monoplanes and only 130 were built. It was considered that its relatively high landing speed of 50 mph made it unsuitable for use under the field conditions of the Western Front, and the type's active service was limited to the Near East.

Inter-war years

The Bristol Bulldog

By the end of the war, the Company employed over 3000 at its production works at Filton and Brislington. Its products had always been referred to by the name 'Bristol' and this was formalized in 1920, when British and Colonial was liquidated and its assets transferred to the Bristol Aeroplane Company, Ltd. At this time the Company, acting under a certain amount of pressure from the Air Ministry, bought the aero-engine division of the bankrupt Cosmos Engineering Company, based in the Bristol suburb of Fishponds, to form the nucleus of a new aero-engine operations. There was already a good working relationship between Bristol Aircraft and Cosmos, the Cosmos Jupiter having been first flown in a prototype Bristol Badger in May 1919. For £15,000 Bristol got the Cosmos design team, headed by Roy Fedden, along with a small number of completed engines and tooling. Although it was to be several years before Bristol showed any profit from the aero engine division, the Jupiter engine eventually proved enormously successful: indeed, during the inter-war period the aero-engine division was more successful than the parent company and Bristol came to dominate the market for air-cooled radial engines. Apart from providing engine for almost all Bristol's aircraft designs, the Jupiter and its successors powered an enormous number of aircraft built by other manufacturers.

Bristol's most successful aircraft during this period was the Bristol Bulldog fighter, which formed the mainstay of Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter force between 1930 and 1937, when the Bulldog was retired from front line service.[5] Since the Bulldog had started life as private venture rather than an Air Ministry-sponsored prototype it could be sold to other countries, and Bulldogs were exported to, among others, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, and Australia.

During this time Bristol was noted for its preference for steel airframes, using members built up from high-tensile steel strip rolled into flanged sections rather than the light alloys more generally used in aircraft construction. On 15 June 1935 the Bristol Aeroplane Company became a public limited company. By this time the Company had a payroll of 4200, mostly in the engine factory, and was well positioned to take advantage of the huge re-armament ordered by the British Government in May of that year. Bristol's most important contribution to the expansion of the RAF at this time was the Blenheim light bomber.

In August 1938 Frank Barnwell was killed flying a light aircraft of his own design,[7] and was succeeded as Chief Designer by Leslie Frise. By the time war broke out in 1939 the Bristol works at Filton were the largest single aircraft manufacturing unit in the world, with a floor area of nearly 25 hectares (2,691,000 square feet).

Second World War

Bristol Beaufighter

During the Second World War Bristol's most important aircraft was the Beaufighter heavy two-seat multirole aircraft, a long-range fighter, night fighter, ground attack aircraft, and torpedo bomber. It was used extensively by the RAF and Commonwealth air forces and by the USAAF. The Beaufighter was derived from the Beaufort torpedo bomber, itself a derivative of the Blenheim.

In 1940 a shadow factory was set up at Weston-super-Mare for the production of Beaufighters. Also an underground factory was built by Alfred McAlpine at Hawthorn in 1940 to accommodate the company's experimental department which was working on a new engine for bombers and Beaufighters.[8]

The company's war-time headquarters were in the Royal West of England Academy.


When the war ended Bristol set up a separate helicopter division in the Weston-super-Mare factory, under helicopter pioneer Raoul Hafner. It was taken over by Westland in 1960.

Other post-war projects included Bristol Cars, which used pre-war BMW designs as the basis for the Bristol 400. The engine developed from this project found its way into many successful motor cars manufactured by other companies, such as Cooper, Frazer Nash, and AC, and in 1954 and 1955 powered the Bristol 450 sports prototype to class victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.

In 1953 S.H. Arnolt, a US car dealer who sold British sports cars, commissioned the Bristol Car Division was to build a sports car for the US market, called the Arnolt-Bristol. It is estimated that about 177 were built before production ceased in 1958.[9][10]

In 1960 the late Sir George White saved the car division from being lost in the BAC merger. Bristol Cars Limited was formed, and remained within the Filton complex. Sir George retired in 1973 and Tony Crook purchased his share, becoming sole proprietor and Managing Director.[11]

Pre-fabricated buildings, marine craft, and plastic and composite materials were also early post-war activities, but these were eventually sold off.

Bristol was involved in the post-war renaissance of British civilian aircraft as inspired by the Brabazon Committee report. In 1949, the Brabazon airliner prototype, at the time one of the largest aircraft in the world, first flew. This project was a step in the wrong direction and was cancelled in 1953. At the same time the turboprop-powered Britannia airliner proved a huge success, and it and the Freighter were produced in quantity during the 1950s. Bristol was also involved in helicopter development, with the Belvedere and Sycamore going into quantity production.

Another post-war activity was missile development, culminating in the production of the Bloodhound anti-aircraft missile. Bristol Aero Engines produced a range of rocket motors and ramjets for missile propulsion. The guided weapons division eventually became part of Matra BAe Dynamics Alenia (MBDA).

In the late 1950s the Company undertook supersonic transport (SST) project studies, the Type 223, which were later to contribute to Concorde. A research aircraft, the Type 188, was constructed in the 1950s to test the feasibility of stainless steel as a material in a Mach 2.0 airframe. By the time the aircraft flew in 1962, the Company was already part of BAC.

In parallel with these supersonic studies several subsonic designs were schemed in this period, including the Type 200 (a competitor of the Hawker Siddeley Trident) and its derivatives, the Type 201 and Type 205.[12] None of these designs were built.

Merger into BAC

In 1959 Bristol was forced by Government policy to merge its aircraft interests with English Electric, Hunting Aircraft, and Vickers-Armstrongs to form the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC). Bristol had a 40% share of BAC, equal to that of English Electric.

In 1977, BAC was nationalised along with Scottish Aviation and Hawker Siddeley to form British Aerospace (BAe). BAe later became part of the now-privatised BAE Systems.

In 1966 the Bristol Aeroplane Company and Bristol Siddeley engines was merged with Rolls-Royce.

Bristol Engine Company

The Bristol Engine Company was originally a separate entity, Cosmos Engineering, formed from the pre-First World War automobile company Brazil-Straker. In 1917 Cosmos was asked to investigate air-cooled radial engines, and under Roy Fedden produced what became the Cosmos Mercury, a 14-cylinder two-row (helical) radial, which they launched in 1918. This engine saw little use, but the simpler nine-cylinder version known as the Bristol Jupiter was clearly a winning design.

With the post-war rapid contraction of military orders Cosmos Engineering went bankrupt, and the Air Ministry let it be known that it would be a good idea if the Bristol Aeroplane Company purchased it. The Jupiter competed with the Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar through the 1920s, but Bristol put more effort into their design and by 1929 the Jupiter was clearly superior. In the 1930s, and led by Roy Fedden, the company developed the new Bristol Perseus line of radials based on the sleeve valve principle, which developed into some of the most powerful piston engines in the world, and continued to be sold into the 1960s.

In 1956 the division was renamed Bristol Aero Engines, and then merged with Armstrong Siddeley in 1958 to form Bristol Siddeley as a counterpart of the airframe-producing company mergers that formed BAC. Bristol retained a 50% share of the new company with Hawker Siddeley group the other 50%.[13] In 1966 Bristol Siddeley was purchased by Rolls-Royce, leaving the latter as the only major aero-engine company in Britain. From 1967, Bristol Siddeley's operations became the "Bristol Engine Division" and the "Small Engine Division" of Rolls-Royce, identified separately from Rolls-Royce's existing "Aero Engine Division".[14] A number of Bristol Siddeley engines continued to be developed under Rolls-Royce including the Olympus turbojet - including the joint development Bristol started with Snecma for Concorde - and the Pegasus. The classical names favoured by Bristol indicated their heritage in a Rolls-Royce lineup named after British rivers.

Helicopter Division

The Bristol Aeroplane Company's Helicopter Division had its roots in 1944, when the helicopter designer Raoul Hafner, released from the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment (AFEE), came to Bristol along with some members of his team.[15] Under Hafner's direction, the Helicopter Division produced two successful designs that were sold in quantity. The first, designated the Type 171, had a shaky start after the wooden rotor blades of the second prototye failed on its first flight in 1949.[15] Nevertheless, the Type 171, called Sycamore in military service, was sold to air forces around the world and 178 were built in total.[16]

After the Type 171, the Bristol Helicopter Division started work on a tandem rotor civil helicopter. The result was the 13-seat Type 173, which made its first flight in Filton in 1952. Five examples were built for evaluation purposes.[17] Although no airlines ordered the Type 173, it led to military designs, of which the Type 192 went into service with the RAF as the Belvedere. First flying in 1958, 26 were built in total.[18]

Pursuing the idea of a civil tandem rotor helicopter, Hafner and his team developed a much larger design, the Type 194. The Type 194 was in an advanced state of design when the Bristol Helicopter Division was merged, as a result of government influence, with the helicopter interests of other British aircraft manufacturers (Westland, Fairey and Saunders-Roe) to form Westland Helicopters in 1960. This meant the Type 194 was in competition with Westland's and Fairey's large helicopter designs such as the Westland Westminster and the Fairey Rotodyne. The Type 194 project was cancelled.[19]

The Helicopter Division started out at the main Bristol Aeroplane Company site in Filton, but from 1955 it was moved to the Oldmixon factory in Weston-Super-Mare, which had been used to build Blenheims during the War.[20] The Bristol Helicopter Division's factory in Weston-Super-Mare is now the site of the The Helicopter Museum.


Bristol did not systematically assign project type numbers until 1923, starting with the Type 90 Berkeley. In that year they also retrospectively assigned type numbers in chronological order to all projects, built or not, from August 1914 onwards. Thus the Scouts A and B did not get a type number, but the Scout C did and was the Type 1. The final Bristol project, numbered Type 225 was an unbuilt 1962 STOL transport. Of these 225 Types, 117 were built.[21] This list does not include the unbuilt "paper aeroplanes"; it does include the pre-August 1914 aircraft.


UK Ministry of Defence Bristol Britannia makes a visit to the maker's factory at Filton in 1983. As a civil airliner it had flown for BOAC, British Eagle, and Air Spain.
The Bristol Type 192 Belvedere twin-rotor helicopter, designed as a general-purpose land-based helicopter for the Royal Air Force. Twenty-six were built.

Pre-World War I

World War I


World War II


1964 Royal Air Force Bristol Britannia Spica



Bristol Engine designs include:

Sleeve-valve series:

Turbine-based types:

Ramjet types:

Missiles and rockets

Bristol missile designs include:

See also



  1. ^ Barnes 1988, p.13.
  2. ^ Barnes 1988, p.24.
  3. ^ Barnes 1988, p.14.
  4. ^ Barnes 1988, p.48.
  5. ^ a b Mason 1992
  6. ^ Barnes 1964
  7. ^ Barnwell obituary 'Flight', 2 August 1928[Frank Barnwell obituary]
  8. ^ Gray, p.35
  9. ^ "American Sports Car Has European Origins." Popular Mechanics, April 1954, p. 86, bottom page.
  10. ^ "Arnolt-Bristol Sports Car." UK Bristol Owners Club, section 9
  11. ^ Bristol Owners Club : History of the Bristol Marque
  12. ^ Barnes, C (1988). Bristol Aircraft Since 1910. 
  13. ^ "Rolls/Bristol Merger Discussed" Flight International 9 June 1966 p496
  14. ^ "Farewell to BSE", Flight International, 28 December 1967: 1054 
  15. ^ a b "Helicopter Production at the Bristol Aeroplane Company". Aviation Archive. Retrieved 2011-08-05. 
  16. ^ "Bristol Type 171 Sycamore Production List". Filton Flyer. Retrieved 2011-08-05. 
  17. ^ "Bristol Type 173 Production List". Filton Flyer. Retrieved 2011-08-05. 
  18. ^ "Bristol Type 192 Production List". Filton Flyer. Retrieved 2011-08-05. 
  19. ^ "Type 194". Aviation Archive. Retrieved 2011-08-05. 
  20. ^ "Exhibits". Bristol Aero Collection. Retrieved 2011-08-05. 
  21. ^ Barnes 1964, p. 384
  22. ^ "Bristol Theseus" Flight 8 September 1949 p313


External links

  • "Projects from the past" - list of uncompleted Bristol aircraft projects in Flight 1950
  • British Aircraft Directory entry for Bristol
  • The Bristol Aeroplane Company, the founder's family's website
  • Bristol aircraft and engines
  • Bristol aircraft engines
  • "Bristol Cavalcade" a 1950 Flight article on Bristol aircraft to 1950
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