Century celebrations for the RAF

When the celebrations to commemorate 100 years of defending the United Kingdom by the Royal Air Force have drawn to a close, there will still be a reason to stop and remember aviation in Sussex.

RAF century celebrations
RAF century celebrations

In December 2018, it will be a century since the foundation of the English Electric Company Limited, which today has its heritage in BAE Systems, which still employs around 10,000 in the county.

English Electric was made up of five companies, including Preston-based tramcar manufacturer Dick, Kerr & Co, founded in 1880. It and the other companies had played a major role in the First World War and joined together to help them survive after the end of the war.

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Dick, Kerr was one of several companies instructed to build flying boats for the Royal Navy and built them at its Strand Road works in Preston, before taking them by road to South Shields for final assembly and testing.

RAF century celebrations

On February 20, 1918, a Dick, Kerr built Felixstowe F3 flying boat made its first flight, at a time when the German U-boat campaign was at its height during the First World War and the demand for flying boats far exceeded the capacity of traditional aircraft manufacturers.

Around 60 Felixstowes made the journey to the North East before a new assembly site was opened in Lytham around the time of the end of the First World War. This site is now part of the Lytham Quays housing development.

But, it was the Second World War which would begin the enduring partnership with the RAF.

Under the instruction of the Air Ministry, English Electric set up a shadow factory at Samlesbury, between Preston and Blackburn, which became a hub for the manufacture of Hampden and Halifax bombers, built under licence from Handley Page.

RAF century celebrations

By the end of the war, the company’s sites in Preston and Samlesbury had built more than 3,000 of the bombers, which saw service with the RAF in the conflict.

Towards the end of the war, English Electric became involved with the manufacture of the De Havilland Vampire jet fighter, which was just coming into service with the RAF.

Wanting to remain in the aircraft industry after the war, and realising its future lay with jet aircraft, English Electric acquired the nearby aerodrome in Warton. Under the leadership of chairman Sir George Nelson, English Electric established its first design office at the former US base and announced its ambition to become a leader in aircraft design and manufacturer.

Its first product, the Canberra was introduced in to service with the RAF in May 1951 as its first jet-powered bomber breaking many flight records during its career, and the final Canberra operated by the RAF for photographic reconnaissance did not retire until June 2006.

By this time more than 900 aircraft had been operated by the UK, all products of the production line at Samlesbury.

The Warton design office also created another aviation icon which formed the heart of the RAF’s front-line fleet between the 1960s and 1980s, the Lightning.

This supersonic fighter aircraft was the only all-British fighter capable of flying at twice the speed of sound, more than 1,500 miles per hour.

Its first three prototypes were hand-built at Samlesbury in August 1954, and more than five years of development later the Lightning entered service with the RAF in 1959.

It would become the UK’s interceptor aircraft against Soviet aggression during the Cold War, operating from its bases in along the East Coast of Scotland and England.

As aircraft became ever more complex, the number of new programmes decreased and the Government encouraged further mergers within the aircraft industry. Therefore, English Electric, Vickers-Armstrong, Bristol Aeroplane Company and Hunting Aircraft merged in 1960 to form the British Aircraft Company (BAC).

BAC formed a joint venture with the French aviation firm Breguet to build the Jaguar strike aircraft, which entered service with the RAF in 1974.

In April 1975, a Jaguar made several landings and take-offs from what is today the M55 motorway, then under construction between Preston and Blackpool, to demonstrate its ability to land on improvised runways.

In 1969, BAC also formed Panavia Aircraft, a joint venture between Britain, Italy and Germany, which developed and built the Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA), subsequently named Tornado.

The first British prototype of Tornado made its first flight from the BAC airfield in Warton in October 1974, and the site would become the home of the UK’s role in the design and production of the aircraft. The Tornado has formed the backbone of the RAF’s strike fleet since its introduction into service in the early 1980s.

The Tornado, nicknamed ‘Tonka’, made its first entry in to combat as part of the British contribution to the first Gulf War in 1991 and has gone on to see service in Kosovo and again in the second Gulf War, which began in 2003.

It continues to be the workhorse of the RAF in active service in Libya and Syria and will continue in service until retirement in 2019.

Its replacement, the Eurofighter Typhoon, is the aircraft which forms the bedrock of both today’s BAE Systems’ combat aircraft design and manufacture and UK air defence today.

Parts for the jet, built by a four-nation partnership with Germany, Italy and Spain, are manufactured at Samlesbury with final assembly of all RAF aircraft taking place at Warton.

As well as seeing active service in conflicts including Libya, Syria and Iraq, Typhoon is the RAF’s Quick Reaction Alert aircraft, providing a 24/7 watch over the UK, and has led the UK’s contribution to air policing including over Baltic airspace.

Typhoon is at the heart of the future front line of the RAF as it enters its 100th year and will form a partnership with another aircraft with Lancashire links, the F-35 Lightning.

The rear section of the more than 3,000 next generation stealth jets which are expected to be built are a product of the Samlesbury site, where BAE Systems has invested more than £150m in creating some of the most advanced manufacturing facilities in the world.

BAE Systems has a workshare of up to 15 per cent on the F-35, which is led by US firm Lockheed Martin, which has sold 138 of the jets to the UK.

The aircraft partly-built by workers in Lancashire will operate with both the RAF and the Royal Navy, the latter from the UK’s new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers.

The first of these jets are due to arrive in the UK after a period of testing in the US this summer.

While the history of partnership with the RAF in Lancashire lies rooted in its English Electric heritage, today’s BAE Systems business can lay claim to an even greater pedigree.

The company is the product of decades of merger, acquisition and, in some cases nationalisation, which have brought together a company which can boast some of the most iconic aircraft ever to take to the skies anywhere in the world.

Supermarine Spitfire

Arguably the most iconic UK aircraft, a product of ground-breaking design which gave the Allied forces a critical edge during the Second World War.

Its manufacturer, Supermarine based in Southampton, Hampshire, was a subsidiary of Vickers Armstrong, the aircraft interests of which would be merged with English Electric in 1960 when the British Aircraft Company (BAC) was formed.

Hawker Hurricane

While the Spitfire may be best remembered for its war in the Battle of Britain, it was the Hawker Hurricane which inflicted 60 per cent of losses against the Luftwaffe during the conflict. Its manufacturer, Hawker Aircraft, was founded in Surrey – although it did have a factory in Blackpool -– and became Hawker Siddeley in 1935 which went on to form a major component of the nationalised British Aerospace (BAe) set up in 1977.

Avro Lancaster

The Lancaster bomber is best known for its role in the daring raid on the Ruhr Valley of Germany during the Second World War, which saw the RAF’s 617 Squadron use the ‘bouncing bomb’ to change the course of the conflict. It was the design of A.V. Roe and Company, also known as Avro, the Greater Manchester-based manufacturer, which was merged in to Hawker Siddeley in 1965 and later became part of British Aerospace.

Avro Vulcan

An icon of Cold War Britain, the Vulcan was a strategic bomber which carried Britain’s first nuclear weapon, the Blue Danube gravity bomb, and was a major part of the nation’s nuclear deterrent until its retirement by the RAF in 1984.

Its unique design was the product of Greater Manchester-based Avro, which had sites in Chadderton and Woodford, and became part of the nationalised British Aerospace in the 1970s.

Hawker Siddeley Harrier

Often referred to as the Harrier Jump Jet, it was developed by Hawker Siddeley, which was headquartered in Surrey, as a jet capable of vertical short take-off and landing.

Its development saw the creation of the Sea Harrier, designed and built by British Aerospace, which famously saw service in the Falklands War of the 1980s.

The ground-breaking engineering behind the Harrier was central to BAE Systems’ success in winning its place on the programme to build the F-35 Lightning, the latest short take-off vertical landing aircraft which will be operated by the RAF, and employs thousands of people at the company’s sites in Lancashire.

n Other famous names in aviation which today form part of BAE Systems including Blackburn Aircraft, founded in East Yorkshire, where the company today employs hundreds of people at its site in Brough.