The Balloon Factory and Private Enterprise

As mentioned previously, my first substantive chapter was about the RAE up until the end of the First World War. The sources I used were mainly secondary;  Apart from an RAE chronology published in the late 1940s as RAE Report Aero. 2150, I drew heavily on Hugh Driver’s The Birth of Military Aviation: Britain, 1903-1914 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1997) and on Paul Hare’s The Royal Aircraft Factory (London: Putnam, 1990). In lots of ways these books are on opposite sides of a historical debate about Farnborough’s effect on aircraft procurement and on the private aircraft manufacturers.

The argument against Farnborough, which Driver makes, is that the the RFC’s procurement decisions were biased in favour of the state design facility. Because they were both organs of the War Office, this closeness led to the exclusion of private enterprise, retarding the development of a native aircraft industry. Coupled with this is often the charge that Farnborough’s staff were interested in academic aeronautics rather than practical applications.  For Driver, the main villain of the piece is Lord Haldane, who as Secretary of State for War shaped the UK’s policy on Aerial Navigation. Driver argues that Haldane’s enthusiasm for German science, philosophy, and administrative methods led him to create institutions such as the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and to reorganise the institutions of military aeronautics. Driver claims that Haldane influenced the committee that decided to cancel all work on heavier-than-air research at Farnborough, concentrating instead on airships. The fact that the Germans were into Zeppelins in a big way didn’t hurt.

When the Royal Aircraft Factory (as it was now named) did turn to practical aircraft design, argues Driver, they had to hire one of the pioneer empirical experimenters to help them. Geoffrey de Havilland was the man hired, and the Factory’s successful BE2 was mainly his design. This aircraft was used as a benchmark for the Military Aircraft trials of 1912, and although it was not formally entered, its performance was so much superior to the aircraft that was deemed to have won that it was accepted as the RFC’s standard type. The Factory itself did not manufacture many BE2s; instead contracts were given to a number of firms to build them, including such pioneer firms as Handley Page. However, Driver argues that this deprived the pioneer firms of design experience. He contrasts RFC procurement with that of the RNAS; the Navy ordered private designs from companies such as Sopwith.

It seems to me that Driver is rather unfairly critical of the Factory, and underestimates the advantages to the military of a standard aircraft type. Whilst the BE2 was aproaching obsolesence in 1915, the Farnborough staff were aware of this and were designing new aircraft to meet new requirements. The fact that it was produced in such large number was mainly because it was perhaps the only aircraft with suitable production blueprints.1 Farnborough was an important vehicle for the professionalisation of the aircraft industry; through the letting of sub-contracts it gave the early industry valuable production experience, and it helped transmit the methods of engineering science to industry. One of the ways this was done was through its role in checking the structural calculations on aircraft selected for military service.

Many of the RFC’s early-war procurement problems can be traced not to government interference in aircraft design, but simply to the challenges of expanding production to meet the needs of mass warfare. As David Edgerton points out,2 in 1914 the UK had the world’s largest air force relative to the size of its army. (As aircraft were used mainly for reconnaissance and observation, this is the relevant comparator.) As the market for aircraft was mainly a military one, it is hard to see how a larger industry could have been sustained. Much of the performance advantage of the RNAS’s aircraft was due to the fact that the naval service had a better supply of high-powered rotary engines.3 At war’s outbreak there was no high-powered British aero-engine for the same reason that there was not a mass aviation industry: the market could not support the capital investment required.

In the ‘Fokker Scourge’ of 1915-16, the RFC’s BE2s proved themselves to be vulnerable to enemy aircraft equipped with synchronised machine-guns. Because of the observer’s location in front of the pilot, it proved difficult to fit the BE2 with defensive armament; in any case, by this time the BE2’s performance was pedestrian at best. As a result of the RFC losses, a number of parliamentary enquiries were held. Their recommendation was that the Royal Aircraft Factory be turned into a research and development facility, and it had its design authority removed in late 1916. Perhaps ironically, by this point Factory staff had designed one of the war’s finest scouts, the SE5, and until war’s end Farnborough continued to produce small batches of aircraft to assist commercial producers.

1 This was the War Office’s rationale;  sub-contractors complained about inaccurate drawings and changes made after the start of production. The BE2 was certainly the design with which companies had the most experience of mass production.

2 In his England and the Aeroplane.

3 At one point the RFC and RNAS both had procurement officers in Paris attempting to buy whatever Gnome-Rhone engines could be found; This competition seems to have been resolved by the RFC agreeing to (temporarily) manage with its RAF engines.

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