As an early cradle of UK aviation, aircraft production began at Filton in 1910 with Sir George White’s British & Colonial (later, Bristol) Aeroplane Company. Over one hundred years of succession, mergers and takeovers has seen the creation of the British Aircraft Corporation, Bristol Siddeley and British Aerospace, through to the well-known industry names of today such as BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Airbus. From the earliest advances in flight to some of the world’s most successful aero engines, and the birth of supersonic flight to the latest innovations in composite materials, the region’s companies are still at the forefront of the world’s aerospace industry.
Aeroplane production began on the Filton site in 1910, less than two years after the first recorded flight of a powered aeroplane in British skies. The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company was the brainchild of Sir George White, entrepeneur and pioneer in electric trams. Two sheds were acquired at the top of Filton Hill, which became the first aeroplane factory in Britain to be run on a commercial footing.
Within the first few months, the Boxkite biplane became a major success for the company. It steadily expanded over the next few years, and a large airfield was built to the north in the early years of the First World War. Its most famous product at this time was the Bristol Fighter biplane, arguably the 'Spitfire' of its day. British and Colonial was renamed the Bristol Aeroplane Company in 1920, and the factory continued to design and build a diverse range of aircraft during the interwar period, most notably the Bulldog fighter in 1927.
The multi-role Bristol Blenheim of 1936 was a tremendous leap forward in aircraft technology, and became the backbone of the Royal Air Force early in the Second World War.
The factory at Filton was the largest in Europe, and several shadow factories were set up around the country to support it. The Blenheim spawned several derivatives - the Beaufort bomber, the Beaufighter, the Buckingham, the Buckmaster and the Brigand.
Early aircraft were predominantly designed with military activities in mind. After the First World War though, the company dabled in civil conversions of existing models, including the Tourer, a Bristol Fighter that could carry one or two passengers, and the massive Pullman, a conversion of the Braemar triplane bomber that could carry 14 passengers in relative luxury. It wasn't until the end of the Second World War that the focus switched to civil transport aircraft.
The first new British aircraft after the war was a Bristol product - the Freighter. This rugged aircraft saw the company move towards commercial aircraft. The huge Brabazon airliner of 1949 was another quantum leap in technology, and provided invaluable knowlege that later went into the Britannia airliner. The stretched Britannia ultimately became a worldwide success, especially in the emerging holiday charter market of the 1960's.
British Aircraft Corporation
In 1959, the company became a constituent of the British Aircraft Corporation pool of companies, which became a company in its own right in 1963. By this time, plans for a supersonic airliner were well underway. Development began at Filton and Toulouse on the jointly designed and built BAC/Aerospatiale Concorde.
This was aided by two research types from Bristol, the Type 188 and Type 221 high-speed aircraft. Concorde made its first flight in 1969, and ten years later the last Concorde flew out. In nearly 70 years, over 22,000 aircraft were designed and built by Bristol in the UK or licenced for production abroad.
The Bristol Aeroplane Company moved into helicopters towards the end of the Second World War, when Austrian-born Raoul Hafner joined the company. His pioneering research into helicopters led to the Bristol Sycamore, the first British-designed helicopter. The prototype Sycamore first flew in 1947, and was used by many military forces around the world for search and rescue, VIP transport and communications. 180 were built at Filton and Weston-super-Mare.
The Bristol 173 was the world's first tandem-rotor twin-engine helicopter. Both rotors could be powered from the one engine if the other failed in flight. The production version was the known as the Belvedere, a troop carrier for the Royal Air Force, and was still in production when helicopter production was taken over by Westlands in 1960.
In 1920, the same year that British & Colonial became the Bristol Aeroplane Company, the factory took over the aero-engine department of Cosmos Engineering of Fishponds. This company had built Rolls-Royce engines during the first world war, and then developed their own radial piston engines - the Mercury, Jupiter and Lucifer. When Cosmos went into administration, BAC moved the design team to Filton. Led by Roy Fedden, the team went on to produce some of the most reliable radial aero-engines in the world.
The aero-engine department provided the main source of income and employment for the Bristol Aeroplane Company during the lean inter-war years. In the Second World War many British aircraft were powered by Bristol radial engines - the Mercury, the Pegasus, the Hercules and the Centaurus.
The company moved into turboprops and turbojets after the war, perhaps the most famous being the Olympus, which powered the Avro Vulcan and Concorde.
In 1958, the engine division merged with Armstrong-Siddeley to form Bristol-Siddeley, and subsequently merged with Rolls-Royce in 1966, retaining the Rolls-Royce name. The factory at Patchway is still operational today, focussing on military engines, like the EJ200 for the Eurofigher Typhoon, and marine engines.
In 1949 the Bristol Aeroplane Company, responding to the Ministry of Supply, set up a Guided Weapons department to study the design and development guided weapons.
Teamed with Ferranti, the result was Bloodhound 1, which went into service with the RAF in 1958, followed by the much improved Bloodhound 2 in 1963. Export orders were won from within Europe and also Australia.
The Rapier anti-aircraft defence system has been the UK's main air defence weapon for many years, and the ground equipment was developed and produced at Filton, including one of the first UK production lines of digital computers in the UK. A tracked version of Rapier was also developed at Filton.
Filton was the centre for development of naval weapons, such as Seawolf, Vertical Launch Seawolf, Sea Eagle, Sea Dart and Ikara. From 1964 the Guided Weapons division provided engineering support to Polaris, and later provided project management and engineering expertise to Chevaline, a British development of Polaris.
Many other major systems and products have been developed and supplied to customers; covering communications, aircraft terrain following radar, Skylark, remotely piloted vehicles, and Consub (a remotely controlled submersible). Guided Weapons designed Concorde's Air Intake Control System (on production aircraft), the prototype flight test instrumentation and a Master Warning System for the UK prototype and production Concorde.
Space projects started in the Guided Weapons department of the Bristol Aeroplane Company in the early 1960's with Skylark, the high altitude sounding rocket, and the Anglo-American UK1 and UK2 university science satellites. In 1968 work began at Bristol on the design and manufacture of the structure for the UK's Black Arrow technology satellite X3, which was launched as Prospero in 1971. It was and still is the only all UK satellite and launch vehicle combination.
Also in 1968 a prime contract was won by BAC Bristol from the Science Research Council for UK4. This was the first time that an industrial company had been awarded a spacecraft Prime Contract in the UK. In 1971 the Filton-built UK4 (also known as Ariel 4) spacecraft was successfully launched on the US West Coast.
Intelsat IV F-4 (one of the Hughes family of communication satellites) was built and erected in Bristol on behalf of the Comsat Corporation of the USA. It was the first to be launched into synchronous orbit over the Pacific Ocean - sending back live TV pictures of President Nixon's visit to China in February 1972. Intelsat contracts led to dedicated Space buildings at Filton and to the construction of six complete satellites plus subsystems for eight more between 1971 and 1978.
Prime contracts from ESRO resulted in the scientific satellites GEOS and GIOTTO. GIOTTO intercepted Halley's Comet during the night of 14th March 1986, and survived. Four years later it was steered to within 200km of Comet Grigg-Skjellerup. Other major contracts were for two sets of solar array panels for the Hubble space telescope.
The final major contract for Filton Space, before closure, was for Envisat, the Earth resources satellite.
The Filton site has had a long association with road transport, from the earlier family businesses in electric trams, taxis and buses, to the car and bus body building in the early 1920s.
At the end of the Second World War, the Bristol Aeroplane Company took over Fraser Nash, and set up a car department in the factory. The first production car, the Bristol 400, was based on pre-war BMW designs, but with much higher performance, thanks the the manufacturing techniques of the aviation industry. From this followed the streamline 401 and the convertible 402. The company become world famous for the quality of their luxury cars.
Bristol also developed a series of racing cars, the most famous being the Bristol 450, which took first, second and third in the both 1954 and 1955 Le Mans 24-hour races. Tragically 94 spectators were killed when a Mercedes-Benz crashed during the 1955 race, and the Bristol team donated their prize money to the disaster fund. Later that year the racing department was closed down.
Following the consolidation of the aircraft companies in 1959/60, the Bristol Car Division became an independent company in 1960. Shortly after, with the introduction of the 407, Chrysler V8 engines were used instead of Bristol engines.
In 1980 the company switched from numbered types to names, based on earlier Bristol aircraft. First was the Beaufighter, followed by the Britannia, Brigand, Blenheim and finally the two seat V10-powered Fighter sports car. The company went into administration in 2011, but was rescued by Frazer-Nash Group, and is currently developing a new car.
During lean times, the aircraft factory moved into other areas to provide employment and keep the business going. After the First World War, coach and car bodies were built at Filton. After World War Two, when the requirement for military aircraft diminished, but aluminium was abundant, the company made 'AIROH' pre-fabricated houses and schools, many of which were exported around the world in kit form.
Bristol Aeroplane Plastics Limited was responsible for manufacturing various substances to be used in many items. One such substance was Glassfibre Reinforced Plastic (GRP), otherwise known as Fibreglass, which was produced for several uses. The Plastics Division at Filton produced many different products, include body shells for the Lotus Elan sports car in the 1960's. This industry has continued in Bristol by GKN, one of the world's leading companies in carbon fibre technology today.