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 (below), 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.
If you’d like to know more about the history of Filton and the aircraft which were built and flew from there, have a look at these:
Book: Gilbert, James. The World’s Worst Aircraft. Philadelphia, PA: Coronet Books, 1978. ISBN 0-340-21824-X.
Book: Jackson, A.J. British Civil Aircraft since 1919, Volume 1. Putnam & Company Limited. 1973. ISBN 0-370-10006-9.
Book: Winchester, Jim. 2005. “Bristol Brabazon (1949)” The World’s Worst Aircraft: From Pioneering Failures to Multimillion Dollar Disasters. London: Amber Books Ltd., 2005. ISBN 1-904687-34-2.
Book: Gunston, Bill
Fedden – The Life and Times of Sir Roy Fedden. Published by the Rolls Royce Heritage Trust. ISBN number unknown (Roy Fedden was the designer of all Bristol Rotary aircraft Engines)
Book: Costello, John and Terry Hughes, 1976, Concorde: The International Race for a Supersonic Passenger Transport. Angus & Robertson: London
Book: Knight, Geoffrey, 1976, Concorde: The Inside Story. George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited: London
Book: Owen, Kenneth, 1982. Concorde: New Shape in the Sky. Jane’s Publishing Company: London
Book: Trubshaw, Brian, 2000. Concorde: The Inside Story. Sutton Publishing: Stroud
Book: Wilson, Andrew, 1973. The Concorde Fiasco. Penguin: Harmondsworth
Book: Kelly, Andrew and Melanie Kelly, 2010. Take Flight: Celebrating Aviation in the West of England Since 1910. Bristol Cultural Development Partnership: Bristol
Book: Smith, Ron, 2003. British Built Aircraft Volume 2 (South West & Central Southern England) Tempus Publishing: Stroud
Book: Tozer, Jane and Jackie Sims, 2003. Filton Voices. Tempus: Stroud (includes a section on the aviation industry)
The site of the Bristol aerospace centre, which sets out to tell the story of the aviation industry in the region.
A site devoted to the Bristol Aeroplane Company and its predecessor, the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company.
Contains an archive of photographs and stories from a century of aviation in the Filton area, compiled by South Gloucestershire Council
Tells the history of aero engine manufacture in Bristol.
A website with detailed information on Vulcan XA903, which was used by Bristol-Siddeley, later Rolls-Royce, from 1963 to 1979 as an engine testbed.
Offers what it says: lots of interesting facts about aircraft designed and built at Filton
Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.
Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…