Aircraft Industry

The Aircraft Industry in Warwickshire was primarily centred on Coventry, although the towns of Leamington Spa, Rugby and Warwick made significant contributions, especially during the First and Second World Wars. For convenience, the various elements of the Industry have been split into the following sections:  Airframes and Guided Missiles, Engines, Ancillary Equipment and Components.

Airframes and  Guided Missiles:

Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft (AWA), a member of the Hawker Siddeley Group, was the main airframe manufacturer in Coventry, with factories situated at Whitley and Baginton and Bitteswell. Over a period of nearly sixty years the company produced many types of aircraft, the more notable being the Siskin, Atlas, Argosy, Atalanta, Ensign, Whitley, Lancaster, Lincoln, Flying Wing, Gloster Meteor & Meteor Night Fighters, Prone Pilot Meteor, Gloster Javelin, Hawker Hunter & Sea Hawk, and Civil and Military versions of the Argosy transport aircraft. It also produced components for the Avro Vulcan, Shackleton and De Havilland Trident airliner. The company designed and built the Sea Slug and Sea Dart surface to air guided missiles for the Royal Navy and undertook work for the UK Atomic Energy Authority. It conducted advanced research into space vehicles. The Baginton factory closed in 1965 and Whitley a few years later. The Whitley site has found an alternative use and Baginton has been redeveloped as a postal hub. As a member of Hawker Siddeley Group, the rump of the company re-constituted itself at Bitteswell airfield in Leicestershire, modifying and repairing Vulcan, Shackleton and Folland Gnat (Red Arrows) aircraft. Bitteswell eventually closed in the mid- 1980s and the airfield was redeveloped into the Magna Park warehousing complex. In former AWA days the company emblem was the “Sphynx “, with the slogan “Pioneers (or Pacemakers) of Progress”.

In WWI a variety of different service aircraft were manufactured by the Standard Motor Company. The Standard’s contribution in WWII was even more significant as they produced over 1000 De Havilland Mosquitos (mostly mark FB VI), as well as many Airspeed Oxford training aeroplanes. Bristol Beaufighter fuselages were also assembled by the company.

The Jaguar Company (or perhaps Swallow Sidecars) produced Meteor fuselage centre-sections, perhaps just post war.

Engines:

Armstrong Siddeley Motors (AS) (subsequently Bristol Siddeley and then Rolls-Royce) situated at Parkside and Ansty, manufactured a range of piston aero engines, gas turbines, (turboprops & turbojets) rocket motors, torpedoes and complete marine gas turbine propulsion units. Both the Parkside and Ansty factories subsequently closed and the Parkside site has been redeveloped. It should not be forgotten that Armstrong Siddeley also made very high quality cars, with the radiator cap adorned with the Sphynx emblem – the company slogan being “As Silent As The Sphynx”.

The Aero Engine division of the Alvis Motor Company produced the “Leonides” range of air- cooled radial piston aero engines and components for Rolls-Royce and other companies. The Alvis manufacturing site has been redeveloped. At the time of writing the Alvis engine test-beds, situated near to Baginton airfield, still remain although largely derelict and under threat. Rather like Armstrong Siddeley, the Alvis Company also made high “aircraft” quality cars.

During WW I both the Humber and Daimler Companies manufactured the Bentley BR1/BR2 rotary aero engine (in fact W. O. Bentley actually designed the BR1 &2 engines whilst seconded to Humber) and White & Poppe made a number of in-line types.

Willans and Robinson situated at Rugby were during WWI the sole producers in this country of an unusual type of aero engine, the Franco/Swiss designed Canton- Unne Salmson.  Willans and Robinson manufactured the Salmson under authority from the British licensees, the Dudbridge Iron Works of Stroud, Gloucestershire. Willans and Robinson, also in WWI, manufactured various components for the French Le Rhone rotary aero engine under contract to WH Allen Ltd of Bedford, the British licensee

During WWII, Willans and Robinson at Rugby manufactured a small very high speed steam turbine, specifically designed for bench testing Whittle-Type Centrifugal Compressors for gas turbines. This machine was installed at the newly built Power Jets factory at Whetstone, Leicestershire, subsequently to become known as The National Gas Turbine Research Establishment. The former works of Willans and Robinson at Rugby still exist and under the present ownership of GEC Ltd continue to supply machinery and equipment for the Power Generation Industry

The Standard Motor Company, under the aegis of the WWII Shadow Factory System, produced the Bristol Hercules and possibly the Mercury radial aero engines in quantity at the huge government built Banner Lane factory. At the end of the war this factory was leased to Harry Ferguson for the production of his T E 20 Tractor – the famous “Little Grey Fergie”. Ultimately Banner Lane became the largest tractor factory in Western Europe and the home of Massey-Ferguson. With the closure of the M-F plant the site has been completely redeveloped.

Rootes Group Holdings (Humber, Hillman, Sunbeam, etc.) also under the Shadow Factory System produced aero engines and components at various sites in Coventry. Again it was the Bristol Hercules sleeve valve engine that was selected – a very reliable power unit used in many British aircraft. It is thought these engines were built and tested at their Ryton factory. The Ryton car assembly plant closed some years ago and the site has been totally redeveloped.

In concluding this section on aero engines, the name of a Warwickshire born man of world renown comes to the fore, that of Sir Frank Whittle OM. Whittle’s name is synonymous with the turbojet engine and jet propelled flight. On 12th April 1937 at the Rugby works of the BT-H (British Thomson-Houston Company), Frank Whittle became the first man in history to operate a gas turbine turbojet engine, a somewhat terrifying experience for all those present, not least of all for Whittle himself!  After very many trials and tribulations, Whittle witnessed the practical fulfilment of his inventive genius when the turbojet powered Gloster-Whittle E28/39, W 4041G, with P E G “Jerry” Sayer at the controls, first flew on the evening of 15th May 1941, at RAF Cranwell. It should be stated that many of the major components for Whittle’s pioneering engine, the WU (Whittle Unit), were manufactured at Rugby by the BT-H.

The following are a few remaining sites in Warwickshire associated with Sir Frank Whittle:

  • Birthplace: 72 Newcombe Road, Earlsdon, Coventry. (Blue Plaque)
  • One of Whittle’s several homes in Leamington Spa: 9 Victoria Street (Blue Plaque)
  • Moses Whittle’s (Frank’s Father) Engineering Workshop (Formerly Leamington Valve and Piston Ring Co.),  Clinton Street, Leamington Spa. (Now converted to accommodation – ‘Frank Whittle Mews’).
  • Milverton Junior School, Leamington Spa. (Still an active school)
  • The Leamington College for Boys, Binswood Avenue. (No longer a school)
  • The former works of the BT-H (British Thomson-Houston Company) at Rugby. The steam turbine assembly hall where Frank Whittle first ran the world’s first turbojet engine in April 1937 still exists, although the future of the building at the time of writing is uncertain.
  • Shennington Airfield (Edge Hill); The Gloster Whittle E28/39, W 4041G (First Prototype) made at least 14 flights from Shennington, from February 1942 onwards. Shennington is still an operational airfield for gliders.

 Ancillary Equipment and Components:

The Aviation Division of the Dunlop Company at Foleshill supplied aircraft wheels, “Maxaret” anti-lock braking systems and aviation tyres.

At the heart of every piston aero engine is a magneto – or perhaps more correctly usually two magnetos. Just prior to the Second World War the BT-H, on its own initiative, set up a magneto manufacturing facility in Read Street, Coventry. One of the most important magnetos of the war period was the Type C5SE12S, fitted port and starboard to the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The BT-H produced this magneto at Read Street. The raid on Coventry on the night of 14/15 November 1940 severely damaged the die-casting shop of the Read Street works, and it was some weeks before production recommenced. Fortunately Rotax, another supplier of this particular type of magneto, was able maintain Merlin production. BT-H produced other magnetos including those for the Rolls-Royce Griffon and the mighty 24cylinder Napier Sabre engine.

The Aircraft Division of Automotive Products (Lockheed) based at Leamington Spa manufactured aircraft undercarriages, hydraulic flying control systems, hydraulic pumps and components and Avery-Hardoll self-sealing couplings. The Aircraft Division was subsequently relocated to Speke, near Liverpool, and renamed Lockheed Precision Products. The original Automotive Products site at Leamington Spa is greatly diminished in size and now mainly consists of warehousing.

Avon Works, situated in Wharf Street Warwick, was the home to Constant Speed Airscrews (CSA).  CSA during the Second World War manufactured aircraft propeller Spinners, somewhat ironically under licence to the German VDM Company. Although conforming to the general German design, the CSA Spinner was entirely compatible with the De Havilland Variable Pitch and Rotol Constant Speed propeller, as used on most British wartime aircraft. A particular feature of the original VDM propeller and spinner was the facility to fire a weapon through the hub boss. As no British designed wartime aircraft had this requirement, a blanking insert was a feature of CSA Spinners. After the war CSA morphed into perhaps a rather better known company – English Rose Kitchens.

Kigas Limited was incorporated in 1924, originally as Key Brass, to manufacture starter motors for diesel engines. During the Second World War the company supplied primer pumps for the Rolls- Royce Merlin engine, so vital to Britain’s war effort. Post war the company continued to thrive and in the 1970s employed over 1200 people at their Warwick and Leamington sites. In the 1990s much of the company was sold, but the core aerospace and motor sport elements of the business were retained and this still operates today from their offices in Warwick.

Although the writer has no prima facie evidence, it is possible that the famous Coventry watchmaking firm of Rotherhams, situated in Spon End, made instruments for the aviation industry. This hypothesis is based on the certain knowledge that they did produce dashboard instruments for the automotive industry and therefore it is extremely likely the company used its expertise and expanded into the field of aviation.

Of such importance that it was specifically identified on 1940 German target maps of Coventry, was the Bretts Stamping company, located in Harnall Lane East. Bretts supplied carbon and alloy steel drop forgings, hot yellow metal pressings and light alloy forgings to the aircraft and motor industries. It clearly was a very crucial manufacturing supplier and its fate in the November 1940 raid is currently unknown to the author.

The GEC also undertook aviation work.

This list is by no means exhaustive.

Aircraft Industry: further information

TitleAuthor/Publisher
Armstrong Whitworth AircraftThe Archive Photograph Series, Compiled by Ray Wiliams, Chalford, 1998
The Evening and the MorningThe Armstrong Siddeley Motors Story, Published by the Company, 1956
The Gloster MeteorEdward Shacklady, Macdonald Aircraft Monograph, London, 1962
The Coventry Branch CollectionRolls-Royce Heritage Trust, Coventry Branch, 1993
The Rotary Aero EngineAndrew Nahum, Science Museum, HMSO, London, 1987
The Bentley BR2, World War I Rotary Aero EngineL K Blackmore, Camden 1986
Major Piston Aero Engines of World War IIVictor Bingham, Airlife Publishing, Shrewsbury, 1998
Aero EnginesG A Burls, Charles Griffin and Company, London, 1915
Whittle – The True StoryJohn Golley, Airlife Publishing, Shrewsbury, 1987
Warwickshire History MakersE B Newbold, EP Publishing, Wakefield, 1975
Jet PioneersTim Kershaw, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2004
BT-H Reminiscences-Sixty Years of ProgressProduced by the BT-H in 1946
The Rise and Fall of Coventry’s Airframe IndustryJ F Willock, published by WIAS
The Rise & Fall of Coventry’s Airframe Industry
Vulcans at BitteswellJ F Willock
Available at this link
AW 52 Flying WingJ F Willock
Available at this link
AWA Prone Pilot Meteor J F Willock
Available at this link
AW/HS 681 An Aeroplane Too FarJ F Willock
Available at this link
AW 38 Whitley BomberJ F Willock
Available at this link
AW 650/660 Series ArgosyJ F Willock
Available at this link
Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft – The Jet Fighter EraJ F Willock
Available at this link
Vulcan returns to RAF Gaydon - 2014 Cold War TourP Riley
Available at this link
Frank Whittle 80th Anniversary Visit to GE RugbyJ F Willock
Available at this link
Frank Whittle Documents & NotesPaul Waller
Available at this link
Frank Whittle Archive at Peterhouse CollegePeter House College
Available at this link
Museum in the MakingJ Berkeley OBE
Available at this link
Warwickshire County Records OfficeThe Warwickshire County Record Office holds an extensive archive on the Willans and Robinson Company and to a somewhat lesser extent on Automotive Products Limited (Lockheed)

Aircraft Industry: places to visit

NameInformation
The Midland Air Museum, Rowley Road, Coventry Airport,
Coventry, CV2 4LZ
Contains a number of AWA built aircraft and the Sir Frank Whittle Jet Heritage Centre. A useful guide book describes the items on display. Admission charges apply.
Jet Age Museum, Meteor Business Park, Cheltenham Road East, Gloucestershire, GL2 9QLA small but nevertheless delightful museum, essentially based around Gloster built aircraft. The museum survives largely on voluntary effort and donations. The display and access to the Vulcan front fuselage and crew compartment is novel. There is no charge for admission, although donations are welcomed.
RAF Museum Cosford, Shifnal, Shropshire, TF 11 8UP A large and very well presented museum, with many interesting aircraft, engines and associated items. As well as displaying British built aircraft there are examples from Germany, USA, Japan and the Soviet Union. The museum possesses the unique AWA built Prone Pilot Meteor aircraft (WK935). The aircraft in the Cold War Section are displayed with a singular degree of panache. The museum has a free admissions policy.
The Shuttleworth Trust Collection, Old Warden Aerodrome, Nr. Biggleswade, Bedfordshire SG18 9EPThis museum houses a fine collection of vintage aircraft, engines and aeronautical artefacts. It is the policy of the Trust to maintain all their aircraft to flying standard and fly some on special open days during the year, weather permitting. Although the museum houses no aircraft specifically associated with Warwickshire, many of the engines and components will have been made in Coventry, including some the rotary engines fitted to its WWI aircraft. There is a charge for admission to the museum, which may be increased on special events days.
The Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, LondonThe Science Museum aeronautical section contains a unique and historic collection of aircraft, engines and artefacts. Unfortunately, for a national collection, the exhibits are poorly displayed in very cramped and inadequate conditions with poor lighting. It is particularly difficult to look over the aero engines as they are stacked in racks rather like pieces of toast, with very little thought as to visitor participation. This simply does not do justice to such an important collection. The museum houses the Gloster-Whittle E28/39 W4041 G, probably the world’s oldest jet propelled aeroplane. There is no charge for admission.
Science Museum Reserve Collection, Wroughton Wiltshire, SN4 9LTIn a series of Hangars at Wroughton Airfield is held the Reserve Collection of the Science Museum. These include aircraft and other items of the national collection that due to space limitations cannot be seen elsewhere. Among the aircraft held are a Lockheed Constellation airliner (the sole example in the UK) and a rare Boeing 247; but mostly Wroughton is a repository for other material of an aeronautical nature. Wroughton is most definitely not a museum in the accepted sense, where exhibits are “displayed”. Nevertheless, there are many interesting objects to see. It is thought that a very fine scale model of the various wind-tunnels, that once formed part of the development complex at Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft (AWA) Whitley, is in the collection. Wroughton has limited public access and on special events days charges may apply.

JF Willock, 2020