Farnborough through the years At the heart of aerospace

The site of Farnborough, which staged the Farnborough International Airshow for the first time in 1948, has been at the heart of aerospace research and development for over a century.

No place like it

Richard Gardner, the chair of the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST)

On 16 October 1908, Samuel Cody, a 41-year-old American showman with more than a passing resemblance to Buffalo Bill, made the first successful powered flight in Great Britain. He achieved the feat in Farnborough, in the south of England, at His Majesty’s Army Balloon Factory. And that flying machine, known as British Army Aeroplane No. 1, marked the start of a very long story.

“There is no other place in the world that has contributed so much to aviation innovation as Farnborough,” said Richard Gardner, the chair of the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST), an organisation founded in 1993 to safeguard the site’s aeronautical heritage. Now a thriving business airport, Farnborough belonged for decades to the British Ministry of Defence and was initially used for research purposes. It was there that the first aerial cameras and black boxes came into being, along with carbon fibre, VTOL, pressurised cabins, night-vision devices and a whole host of engine and aircraft designs.

Aerospace hot spot

The Bristol Brabazon was the world’s biggest airliner when it appeared at the show in 1949, but it was too big and too early for the civil market.

“The place has been devoted to aerospace R&D for more than 100 years” enthused Gardner, an experienced PR consultant who has worked for the British Royal Air Force and Airbus, among other organisations. The son of a scientist who worked at the airfield, Gardner was born in Farnborough in 1948, the very same place and the very same year that the “world’s greatest airshow”, as its organisers describe it, was first held.

There is a very good reason why the Farnborough International Airshow came into existence at that time. “The British aerospace industry had become vast by the end of the Second World War. British aircraft manufacturers decided they needed a big shop window with plenty of exposure, and the best place for that was Farnborough, because it had a very long runway, extensive facilities and was within easy access from London,” explained Gardner.

From British to international

Women workers assembling aircraft wings at Farnborough during the First World War, a time when hundreds of aircraft were built on the site.

All the aircraft exhibited at that inaugural show in 1948 were designed and built in the UK. In 1966 the organisers opened the event up to aircraft manufactured in other countries, albeit with the requirement that they had British engines. Six years later, the airshow opened its doors to all European manufacturers. And in 1974, the event finally took on a truly global character. At the last FIA, held in 2014, more than 100,000 visitors had the chance to peruse 179 aircraft from all over the world.

A long list of debuts

Aerial view of Farnborough Airshow taken in 1966.

With a life-long involvement in aviation history and the airfield, Gardner recalls many of the Farnborough International Airshow’s major successes over the years. In its opening year, the FIA saw the maiden public outing of the De Havilland DH 106 Comet, the world’s first production commercial jetliner and a landmark in aviation history. The stars of the following year’s event were the Bristol Brabazon, the largest passenger aircraft in the world, and the Vickers Viscount, the very first turboprop airliner.

In 1953, and with the Cold War well under way, Farnborough presented the three aircraft that made up the RAF’s V bomber nuclear force: the Vickers Valiant, the Handley Page Victor and the Avro Vulcan. Then, in 1956, the Fairey Delta 2 put in an appearance. A supersonic aircraft, it was the first to exceed 1,000 mph (1,609 km/h).

In its early years, the Farnborough International Airshow also saw its fair share of failures, among them the Fairey Rotodyne, which went on show in 1958. A gyrodyne (a helicopter-airplane hybrid), it was designed both for the civil and military markets, and featured a four-bladed rotor and two turboprop engines for forward flight enabling take-offs and hovering. It was not a success, however. “A little on the noisy side perhaps,” said Gardner.

The Cody Flyer No. 3 outside its construction hangar on Farnborough Common in 1909.

The Hawker P.1127, a prototype V/STOL jet fighter-bomber, graced Farnborough in 1962, and two years later came the Short Belfast, a heavy-lift freighter capable of carrying helicopters and more than 200 troops. Then, in 1970, the iconic supersonic passenger jet Concorde chose the airshow for its first public appearance in the UK.

For decades now the Farnborough International Airshow has been an important event for the entire aerospace industry, as Gardner explained: “Airbus has always brought its new planes to Farnborough. The A300 made its maiden appearance here in 1974. And then came the rest: the A310, A320, A330 and A340, etc. They’ve all been to Farnborough, usually displaying in public for the first time in the country.”

The A380, the largest airliner in the world, was the star of the 2006 event, while Airbus Defence and Space has facilities at Farnborough.“One of the show’s major attractions is that the runway is very close to the crowd,” added Gardner. “There’s no other airshow where you can be so close to the aircraft as they take off and land, with safety as a priority at all times.”


Manuel Ansede