Farnborough Air Show

Flying nearly axed at first Farnborough

 - July 7, 2008, 6:43 AM

Farnborough International, which organizes this world-famous airshow for parent company the Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC), may have felt cursed when a freak British heat wave in July 2006 triggered serious power failures as air conditioners struggled to keep temperatures under control. But 60 years ago in 1948, the first Farnborough airshow had even worse luck with the elements when bad weather grounded all but one aircraft.

That first “Farnborough” was actually the ninth SBAC Flying Display and Exhibition–with eight such events having been staged elsewhere before World War II–but it was the first open to public attendance. The format of air and ground displays on “trade” days augmented by additional acts on subsequent “public” days was established immediately, with two hangars providing 60,000 sq ft of space for almost 200 exhibitors.

Organizers adopted today’s basic show layout with spectators to the south of the runway and the exhibition on high ground behind in 1950. Often described as a natural amphitheater, the site is more than that, offering a panoramic airfield view rather than focusing on a central area.

The first show featured many classic British designs including the world’s fastest helicopter (Fairey Gyrodyne), the first civil jet transport (Vickers Nene-Viking), the first four-engine turbine-powered airliner (Vickers Viscount), the first turboprop military trainer (Boulton Paul Balliol) and the first single-seat jet flying-boat fighter (Saunders-Roe SR.A/1).

Also on display in 1948 were Airspeed’s Ambassador airliner, which conducted a unique display powered entirely by only one of its two Bristol Centaurus engines, and the experimental de Havilland 108, Britain’s first supersonic aircraft. Perhaps the largest participant was the Short Solent flying boat, the 1940s-equivalent of today’s Airbus A380–complete with passenger cocktail bar, dining saloon and promenade deck.

The pioneers’ parade continued in 1949 with the world’s first production jetliner (the de Havilland Comet), the fastest four-engine turboprop (Handley Page Hermes 5), and the mighty, 180-passenger Bristol Brabazon. Making the first of many appearances were the English-Electric Canberra bomber and the Avro Shackleton reconnaissance aircraft.

Although the project was to become a famous British failure, the Brabazon appeared again, alongside another huge design that did enter service: the Blackburn Beverley military transport. They were joined by the Comet, which would appear on the next 11 occasions.

In 1951, more than half the 49 participating aircraft were turbine-powered (including 19 show debutantes). SBAC said 180,000 people attended, with 28,000 on the preview day, and nearly 2,500 invited overseas guests.

With many British research or experimental prototype models appearing, SBAC designated a “secret” enclosure to keep curious eyes away. One such secret was the Vickers Valiant, the first of the V-bombers, while another was the delta-wing Avro 707 built for Avro Vulcan bomber development.

Many test pilots were gaining celebrity status, including Squad-ron Leader Neville Duke, who brought the Hawker P1067 Hunter prototype to the 1951 show just five weeks after its first flight, providing the fastest flypasts ever seen by the British public. Another was Jan Zurakowski, who famously cartwheeled the Gloster Meteor by simultaneously closing one throttle and opening the other at the top of a vertical climb to produce several rotations about the fighter’s normal axis. Casting literal and metaphorical shadows over early-1950s Farnborough was the 10-engine Saunders-Roe Princess flying boat, another design that would not enter service.

The 1952 show saw the de Havilland 110 break up over the airfield following high-speed maneuvers. The two pilots and almost 30 spectators were killed and many more were injured. However, one positive highlight of that year’s show was the debut of the Vulcan, with Roly Falk flying solo just three days after the aircraft’s maiden flight with only about two hours time in type. Other first appearances included the Gloster Javelin all-weather fighter and the Bristol Britannia turboprop airliner.

The public days for Farnborough soon became very popular. In 1952, these days drew 90 percent of the week’s 330,000 visitors. More than 4,000 overseas visitors had inspected the 220 exhibitors’ wares on earlier trade days.

Demonstrating potential military might was the name of the game by 1953 when all three British nuclear bombers appeared together, including the Handley Page Victor making its initial appearance. Sonic booms were still a novelty and several new high-powered aircraft provided ritual demonstrations, if not always to the delight of local non-aviation citizens. Beginning in 1954, pilots had to ensure that any “booms” were heard only within the Farnborough show’s confines. Another change was transfer of the exhibition from the site’s eastern end (where today’s static display begins) to the high ground that remains its home.

Exhibitor numbers exceeded 300 for the first time in 1955, which also saw Britain’s first truly supersonic airplane, the English-Electric P.1–forerunner to the Lightning interceptor. Huge military participation famously included a climbing roll by the Vulcan, a flypast by 12 Valiant bombers and the appearance of no fewer than 64 Hunters.

Starring in 1956 was the Fairey FD2 research aircraft, which that year had become the first to set a world airspeed record by flying at more than 1,000 mph. On the ground, SBAC introduced four terraces to provide permanent foundations for exhibitors’ hospitality chalets, a wise move since very heavy rain lashed that year’s show and kept many public-day spectators away.

By 1957, the exhibition occupied 125,000 sq ft. Debutantes included the Miles Student trainer/ communications aircraft, Aviation Traders Accountant airliner and the Westland Westminster helicopter. Just months after the UK Conservative government decided that after the Lightning interceptor the future would lie in guided missiles rather than manned aircraft, Britain’s military services flew almost 100 aircraft on the public flying displays.

Government policy notwithstanding, the 1958 show featured the Blackburn NA39 (forerunner of the Buccaneer naval bomber). Another newcomer was Fairey’s Rotodyne vertical takeoff-and-landing airliner. Again, large numbers of military aircraft took part. By 1959, the appearance of the Short SC1 vertical-takeoff test aircraft and the Saunders-Roe SRN1 hovercraft gave the crowd a glimpse into research programs under way.

See AIN tomorrow for an account of Farnborough Show developments during the period 1960 to 1980.