aeronautical industry

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aeronautical industry. Following the rapid development of powered flight at the beginning of the 20th cent., aircraft manufacture, in common with many other strategic industries, was given a great stimulus during the First World War. The military potential of fixed-wing aircraft for observation and combat was proved for the first time on any scale. Non-rigid airships were used on coastal patrol and anti-submarine work and later large rigid airships, the R33 and R34, were built, based on German designs. In July 1919 the R34 was the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic from Britain to America.

Regular civil aviation developed after the war, with the first daily service from London to Paris commencing in 1919. Several British companies joined to form Imperial Airways in 1924 and the network for both mail and passenger transport was gradually extended beyond Europe to outposts of the empire in Africa and Asia. In 1931 the company adopted the Handley Page aircraft, which could carry 40 passengers at 100 m.p.h. From 1934 the Empire Flying Boat, nicknamed the ‘Queen of the Skies’, carrying its passengers in considerable comfort, could cruise for 800 miles at 165 m.p.h. The British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) was established 1939.

The Second World War changed the face of aviation and again brought major advances in aircraft design and propulsion, particularly turbo-prop and jet engines, leading to the development of much larger and faster civilian aircraft. Post-war expansion to meet military and civil aviation requirements brought further significant innovations, but at considerable cost. One prestige project typified the ‘white-heat of technology’ era of the 1960s, when Britain, in co-operation with France, operated at the limits of known technology in the race to produce a supersonic passenger transport aircraft. Concorde was developed, in spite of escalating cost and the uncertainty of its financial viability, swallowing hundreds of millions of pounds, in an exercise described by one expert as ‘an unmitigated disaster without historical parallel’.

Despite an impressive performance in aero-engines and in other sectors of aerospace during the 1960s and 1970s, the commercial viability of some projects was questionable and deprived routine manufacturing of talented engineers and scientists. While remaining the third largest in the world after the USA and France, the British aerospace industry suffered badly during the periodic crises experienced by civil aviation and from reductions in defence orders. During the 1980s, collaborative development of civil and military aircraft, particularly with European partners, increased to save on costs of new production programmes. See also air travel.

Ian Donnachie