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Wonders of the Western Group World: 5 Flights of fancy
publication date: Jan 13, 2014
author/source: Dave Moss
Bristol's Filton Airfield has been a major centre of flying activity in the west of England for over 100 years, beginning in 1910, when Sir George White founded the British & Colonial Aeroplane Company - less than two years after the very first aircraft flew.
Yet his company's roots are actually in road transport, for Sir George received his knighthood in 1895 for work with electric trams - which, like the buses which followed, saw their first use in Bristol itself.
Though not based at Filton, The Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company maintained close links with the aircraft operation for many years, eventually becoming Bristol Commercial Vehicles Ltd, surviving until Leyland's wholesale rationalisation in 1983.
But times change, and Filton's vast runway and associated facilities have been incurring mounting losses - put recently at £3million a year by owner British Aerospace Systems. The industry itself has also changed: aircraft and their investment costs have grown, financing has become more complex, and the design, development and manufacturing industry involved has outgrown single sites, becoming international in its makeup.
Filton remains very much a focal point for aviation work - but its also a place steeped in aviation history. Few industrial sites anywhere can match its roll of honour, embracing world-class names stretching back ten decades to the dawn of aviation: Airbus, Rolls-Royce, British Aerospace, the British Aircraft Corporation, Bristol Aircraft, Bristol Siddeley Engines, the Bristol Aeroplane Company - from which, in 1945, came Bristol Cars - and more.
Many and various are the historic aircraft built or designed at Filton: here space allows a mention for just two. The eight-engined, technically advanced Bristol Brabazon, conceived during the war, was a lumbering, spacious, 100 seat, 12-hours- to-cross-the-Atlantic spectacularly mis-timed behemoth that no airline was inclined to buy, ultimately upstaged by the jet-engined but flawed Comet.
The only Brabazon, a prototype (left), flew just under 400 hours after the war, and was broken up in 1953. At the other extreme, Concorde, the only supersonic passenger aircraft, will surely be the best-remembered Filton product, taxpayer funded and a 1960's technological triumph: 3 hours 20 minutes across the Atlantic - but hugely expensive to fly, an environmental misfit in a more enlightened age.
Filton has seen many people deploy many skills to deliver many aviation firsts, but its story is about more than an airfield and aircraft: engines, prefabricated buildings, ships, missiles, even a Halley's Comet space probe have been built there. Automotive connections spread far and wide - Bristol cars are perhaps best known, but Armstrong Siddeley and Lotus have links here, and some Nobel microcar bodies are believed to have been made on the site.
Concorde 002 first flew from Filton on April 9th 1969: 10 years later - almost to the day (it was April 20th) the final British Concorde took to the sky, entering service in June 1980. This was a turning point: afterwards, Filton's emphasis gradually shifted from aircraft manufacture into overhaul, maintenance and refurbishment. Housing sprang up in the area, and runway use declined: plans to bring commercial airlines to the site fell at the hurdle of local protests, while the events of 9/11/2001 sharply reduced available maintenance work.
Land was sold for housing in 2002 - just as work started on sections of the flagship Airbus A380, destined to become the world's biggest passenger jet aircraft.. Then, on November 26th 2003, G-BOAF - that final production Concorde - made its last flight from Heathrow, returning home to Filton for the final landing of the aircraft type - before entering permanent preservation.
Today the site is the UK headquarters of the vast Airbus organisation, majoring in advanced aeronautical design work. The A380 has never been completely built at Filton, but a rare - and final - tribute arrival and departure was staged last December Just five days later on December 23rd, flying ceased, with owners BAe systems reportedly selling the site for housing development on the very same day. Thus ended the lengthy story of flying at Filton, though the aircraft that emerged from what many regard as the birthplace of Britain's aviation industry will surely be remembered long after thousands of houses take the place of its remarkable 8000ft runway.
Plenty of aviation-related activity continues in the area, and the efforts of thousands of people who have worked here and close by on aircraft design and manufacture over the years is being marked by a new heritage centre to celebrate their achievements.
Masterminded by the Bristol Aero Collection and Concorde Trusts, the Bristol Aerospace Centre will include an aviation museum, learning centre and archive. BAe Systems have donated the land, and pledged significant professional support and £2m towards the project - which is being assembled in various historically important site buildings. There is though a fittingly modern centrepiece housing Filton's most enduring icon - the very last Concorde to fly.