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77. The Parents


Before we look at the origin of the Bristol Scout, it is worth looking at the people closely involved in its inception.

The prototype Bristol Scout before modification with test pilot Harry Busteed

The prototype Bristol Scout before modification with test pilot Harry Busteed

First of all, there’s Harry Busteed. Harry was one of three Harrys who grew up in Melbourne, Australia who shared an interest in aviation and came to England in the spring of 1911 to find careers there. Harry Hawker and Harry Kauper were employed by the Sopwith company; Hawker as test pilot and Kauper as engineer and eventually works manager.

Busteed joined the B&CA specifically for Department X of which more later. These had come to an end in June 1913, but he continued on the payroll of B&CA until August 1914, when he joined the RFC and had a very distinguished career in military aviation, coming out of retirement to command barrage balloon batteries in WW2. He claimed in later life (via Harald Penrose in Windsock Datafile 44) that he came up with the idea for the Scout, though Jack Bruce in the same article shows that this seems rather unlikely. Nevertheless his input to the Scout through flight testing and demonstration was considerable, as we shall see in later episodes.

Henri Coanda

Henri Coanda

One other possible contributor is Henri Coandă who, unlike Harry Busteed, gets a page in Wikipedia. He was the son of talented parents, and a very creative individual in the field of aviation and others. He joined B&CA shortly after Frank Barnwell as Chief Designer, and designed several aircraft for them, including a monoplane which won a prize at the 1912 British Military Aircraft Competition. He returned to Rumania at the outbreak of war in August 1914, where his father was a Minister in the government. It was sometimes said that the fuselage of the first Scout was from an earlier design of his (since the serial number initially allocated to it was the same), but this can be disproved by reference to the Barnwell sketchbooks. However, the unusual aerofoil section is attributed to Coandă in an article in Flight magazine of 25 Feb 1914.

Frank Barnwell in 1914 on joining the RFC

Frank Barnwell in 1914 on joining the RFC

But by far the most important contributor is Frank Barnwell. Son of an engineer, he was born in Lewisham in Kent in 1880. Less than a year later, however, the family moved to Glasgow, where his father, Richard, became a director of the Fairfield Engineering and Shipbuilding Company, and in 1889, he became Managing Director. Frank became an apprentice in his father’s firm for six years, also taking his engineering degree. But he and his older brother Harold were fascinated by flying, and they had already built a biplane in 1900, three years before the Wright brothers. After graduating, Frank worked in an American shipyard for a year before returning home in 1907 and starting a motor business in Stirling. In 1909 (the year after Wilbur Wright came to France and the world became aware that powered heavier-than-air aviation was possible) they finally got airborne at Causewayhead, although it stalled and crashed from only 25ft. In 1910 their next project, a 40hp monoplane, flew a mile to win a prize awarded by the Scottish Aviation Society.

Frank returned to his father’s business after this – one imagines he needed to earn a little money! – but in 1911 both brothers headed south to seek employment in one of the big aviation companies. Frank was offered a place at Avros in Manchester, but was head-hunted by Sir George White at the British and Colonial Aeroplane Co. In Bristol, and that is where he remained for most of the rest of his life. Meanwhile older brother Harold went to Brooklands to get his licence and was taken on as an instructor by the Vickers School of Flying where he’d got his licence. By 1914 he’d become their chief test pilot. Harold’s career was brief – he was killed flying the prototype of the Vickers Vampire night fighter in 1917. Nevertheless, his example seems to have inspired Frank, who aspired to be a test pilot throughout his life, with dire consequences, as we shall see.

But back to Frank. When he joined B&CA, there was no chief designer. Frank’s job was to design a top secret aircraft, for which a top-secret ‘Department X’ was set up. He was only 31, and had never held any position at an aviation manufacturer before. It may be that Sir George White took him on in this position to assess his future potential.

Funded by the Admiralty, the idea was the brainchild of Lt Burney, who envisaged an ‘inflatable’ aircraft whose wing spars were made up of rubber tubes, and which, after inflation would be propelled through the water by water propellers, rising up on hydrofoils until the air propeller cleared the water. The power from the engine would then be transferred through a gearbox to the air propeller, and thence become airborne.

It was so secret that Frank and one draughtsman, Clifford Tinson, were housed in a private house at 4 Fairlawn Avenue, Bristol. Testing was undertaken at Milford Haven, well away from prying eyes, under the supervision of Harry Busteed.

Suffice it to say that the whole thing was too ambitious, and although three aircraft were built and taxiing trials carried out, nothing came of it.

We’ll be looking at the creation of the Scout design in detail on its 100th anniversary, but Frank proved one of the most capable and prolific aircraft designers. Even while he was working on the prototype Scout, he sketched out a design using a Statax engine with axial pistons working a swashplate, as well as a single-seat racing machine. There were innumerable changes to the Scout up to November 1915, and by then he’d worked on the the S2A ( a two-seat version for the Scout), and the TTA (a twin-engined two-seater). His most successful WWI design was the F2B Bristol Fighter, and the most radical to go into production was the M1C Monoplane.

He became Chief Engineer at B&CA when Coandă left for Rumania, but very shortly afterwards joined the RFC, where he obtained his pilot’s licence. He seems to have been allowed back to Filton on a weekly basis to keep up with his design work and rejoined B&CA full time in August 1915. After the war, he emigrated to Australia for a short while, but returned to what was by then Bristol Aeroplane Company where he served with distinction for the rest of his career. A popular, avuncular character, he was known throughout the works as ‘Daddy’ Barnwell.

Frank Barnwell as he would like to have been - a test pilot

Frank Barnwell as he would like to have been – a test pilot

He always harboured a desire to be a test pilot like his brother Harold, but his flying skills didn’t match his engineering skills, and by the 1920s he was forbidden from flying any company aircraft. Nothing daunted, in 1938 he designed his own sport plane (the BSW) and persuaded the local flying club to build it for him, but was killed when it stalled shortly after takeoff.


From → History

  1. Gosia permalink

    The photo of Henri Coanda shows Nikola Tesla.

  2. That’s interesting! I’m not sure if I can remember where I got the picture from now.

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  1. 31 Dec 1913. Wednesday. | Bristol Scout

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