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72. Origination


We’re coming up to the centenary of the design of the Scout and I thought it might be interesting to look at how and why the Scout came into existence. Who dreamt it up? What was it for? How did it compare with the rest of the aviation market at the time?

As we’ll see, there are no simple answers to any of these questions, but to start with it would seem to make sense to try and summarise the state of play in aviation in late 1913.

You have to bear in mind that although the Wright brothers had flown ten years before, they’d kept it a complete secret, fearing that as soon as people saw their invention and realised how simple it was, they’d simply go and make their own, instead of coming to them. They’d spent the intervening years developing and improving their machine in a quiet meadow near their home in Dayton, Ohio, and trying to sell their machine to various governments, sight unseen. There were a great many who swore blind they’d solved the problem of powered aviation at that time, and it’s not surprising the Wrights got nowhere.

But in 1908 the French were starting to get pretty close to controlled powered flight, with the efforts of Santos-Dumont, Paulhan, Blériot and others, and so finally Wilbur Wright realised he was going to have to give a demonstration. He shipped one of their aircraft over to an Air Meet at Hunaudières racecourse, near Le Mans, and blew the world away with the extent of his knowledge, performance and control.

So although a lot of work had been going on prior to this, it’s fair to say that practical powered aviation had only been known to the public for five years by the time we’re interested in.

And it caused an explosion of public interest, the like of which has probably never been known before. Here was a technology, which although clearly frail, looked as if it could be replicated by pretty much anybody in his shed with some bamboo, a couple of old bedsheets, and one of these new internal combustion engines. Prizes were offered – for the first non-stop flight from Manchester to London, for the first crossing of the English Channel, and many others, all of which inspired a frenzy of imagination and experimentation by all sorts of people.

I have magazines of my Granddad’s from 1909-1910 filled with enthusiasm and creativity. The control system used on the Gossamer Albatross and Condor man-powered aircraft was patented in 1910. There’s another patent for a wing fold system that worked when weight came on the undercarriage, enabling one to taxi straight through the gate of the airfield without dismounting!

It wasn’t only newspaper magnates who were pumping money into the system with their offer of prizes. For governments it was the space race of its day, and all the major governments wanted a piece of the action, even if there was no immediate use for the aircraft once created. Tom D Crouch, in his book Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age, says that by 1911, no less than $11,000,000 (around $3bn or £2bn in today’s money) had been invested, and by early 1913, according to the 1913 Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, there were about 1500 military aircraft in the world around with maybe 1000 civilian.

So who were the big players here?

Unquestionably the French were way ahead of everyone else in numbers, with over 400 military aircraft and maybe 1000 civilian ones. Germany had about the same number of military aircraft but less than 100 civil aircraft, after which Russia had around 250 military and no known civilian, and Great Britain came well behind with around 140 military aircraft. The number of civilian aircraft isn’t recorded. The USA doesn’t record the number of civilian aircraft either, but their military had about 4…

In manufacturing, Great Britain was right up with the big boys, however. Counting manufacturers is a pretty crude measure, since some were importers only, and some were defunct, but as a rough guide, Britain, France and Germany were in the first league, with the USA and Italy a long way behind, and a few others with small manufacturing capacity.

Perhaps the most amazing part of the book is in Fred Jane’s preface. He says:-

‘An increasing number of people obtain their pilot certificates and lists of these are still given, although the title of “aviator” is in the bulk of cases somewhat of a courtesy one, since so few keep on flying once they have secured their brevets.

It is as a war machine that the aeroplane has come into its own. The Italian aeroplanes over and over again proved their utility in Tripoli. Although in the Balkan War aircraft were less in evidence than many expected, this may be attributed to the peculiar circumstances of the campaign and also to the scarcity of available machines.

Every country is now engaged in forming its aerial fleets. How far the naval and military branches will coalesce, or how far they will differentiate remains to be seen. The probabilities, at present, all point in the latter direction, and that just as an army is made up of cavalry, infantry, artillery, etc., and a navy of battleships, cruisers, torpedo craft and submarines, so the sky fleets seem destined to consist of groups of different types of machines, each type designed for some special purpose.’

And yet we are constantly told that by August 1914, the world really didn’t know how to use aircraft in war and it took a year or more for this to be firmly established. But the wide range of aircraft designs available probably tells us that manufacturers were still pretty much wrestling with the basics of getting a heavier-than-air machine to operate reliably than to try and develop mission-specific military machines.

In 1912, the British military had set up a competition to try and find the best machine for the newly-formed Royal Flying Corps. They specified a two-seater capable of being flown from either seat, with a payload of 350lb. It had to be capable of being transported in a container and flown from a rough field. There was no mention of armament of any sort.

Of 32 entries, 9 did not start, 10 did not finish (including one fatal crash) leaving 13 having completed the trial. The overall winner was S F Cody’s biplane with two Bristol designs coming third equal in the British-built category.

In Great Britain, the big players were:

Royal Aircraft Factory. Started in 1878 to manufacture observation balloons, the RAF was a military department. It had experimented with man-carrying kites under ‘Col’ S F Cody, who had then started to develop powered flying machines. It had recently acquired two very important people; Mervyn O’Gorman as Superintendent in 1909, and Geoffrey de Havilland as chief designer the following year. Intended to be a centre for experimentation, most manufacture of their designs was subcontracted out to other manufacturers. By 1913, their primary design was the BE2, a large basic all-purpose two-seat biplane which was being manufactured, among others, by Vickers and Bristol. Although the 1912 trial was won by the Cody biplane, it was clear that the BE2 (which wasn’t allowed to compete as it was from a government department) outclassed it in every way.

A. V. Roe Ltd (Avro). Based in Manchester and Shoreham, the company was started, as were so many, by a lone enthusiast, Arthur Verdon Roe. The latest two had featured a fully-enclosed fuselage; one a monoplane, the other a biplane. The Type 500 biplane did not compete in the 1912 trials as it had already been bought by the RFC, but, like the BE2, clearly outperformed all the other competitors. In its final form, the Avro 504, it was produced as s basic trainer until the end of WWI.

Blackburn. Based in Leeds, it concentrated on monoplanes with unwelded steel tube fuselages and features an unusual control system with all three aerodynamic controls on a single stick. Said to be capable of producing 24 aircraft per year.

British and Colonial (Bristol). Based in Bristol, it was the largest manufacturer, employing over 300 men in extensive works at Filton and was unusual in having been started by Sir George White who was an entrepreneur, not an aviator. He gave huge amounts to charity, and started the B&CA in the firm belief that it would be necessary for the defence of the country. He is claimed to have invested £500,000 of his own money before seeing a penny back. Chief designer was Henri Coanda. The open-framed Boxkite (a copy of the French Farman design) had been a stalwart of the training scene since 1910 and continued to be manufactured until 1914, but the latest designs were two-seat tractor monoplanes and biplanes. The monoplane had been purchased by the RFC after the 1912 trials, but crashed shortly afterwards, and was one of the accidents that caused the RFC to ban the use of monoplanes until after WWI. They also manufactured BE2s for the RFC.

Graham-White. Based in Hendon, where they owned the airfield, this was another company founded by an aviation enthusiast. The factory was said to be capable of making 150 aircraft per year. Many of their designs were biplane pushers, the Type VI was designed the carry a machine gun in the nose.

Howard-Flanders. Based at Brooklands in Surrey, the factory could turn out 25 to 35 aircraft a year.

Handley-Page. Based at Cricklewood Lane, London, was started by aviation pioneer Claude Gram-Whie and was the first British complany to manufacture aircraft in 1090. By 1913 its main product was a two-seat monoplane with bird-like swept-back curved wings. They also made BE2s for the RFC.

Martinsyde. Based in Weybridge, Surrey, they were capable of making about 20 aircraft per year.

Short Brothers. Eastchurch, Isle of Grain, Kent. One of the oldest and most prolific of manufacturers, the three brothers had secured the rights to make the Wright designs under licence and gone on to produce many of their own, starting with designs similar to the Wright, but moving on by 1913 to tractor biplanes of various configurations.

Sopwith. Based in Kingston upon Thames, the company was started by gentleman pioneer aviator T.O.M. Sopwith, and in 1913 had 30,000sq ft of factory capable of producing up to 50 aircraft per year. Designs included a three-seat biplane with the passengers inside the fuselage, and apparently an armoured warplane. By the end of 1913 they had produced the side-by-side Tabloid biplane which with floats, won the 1914 Schneider Cup piloted by Howard Pixton.

Vickers. Based in London, they were a department of the enormous arms manufacturer. They adapted to steel construction rather than wood at an early stage, and already had a contract with the Admiralty for their EFB1 Destroyer pusher biplane, with a Vickers machine gun flexibly mounted for the observer to use. It had been exhibited in February 1913, but crashed on its first flight.

We’ll see how the Bristol Scout fitted into the scene in later articles.


From → History

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