Geoff Thomas  

Mention 'Farnborough' or 'the old black sheds' to an aeroplane buff, and the resulting misty eyes and far-away expression give the game away.

Over the past half-century, this little piece of Hampshire - only a few miles south-west of London - has regularly played host to a stunning display of innovation, excitement and sheer flying brilliance; words which have become synonymous with the Farnborough airshow.

The airfield's claim to aviation fame is unequalled, for like nowhere else it's entitled to the epithet "cradle of British aviation".

It was here in 1905, in a corner of Laffans Plain which straddles the Hampshire/Surrey border, that the British Government's balloon factory was sited. Three years later an entrepreneurial American-born adventurer by the name of Samuel 'Cowboy' Cody became the first person to make an official aeroplane flight in Great Britain.


And so Farnborough became first the Army Aircraft Factory - and then the Royal Aircraft Factory - before being renamed the Royal Aircraft Establishment at the end of the First World War in 1918.

The two World Wars provided an enormous impetus in the development of military aircraft and it was in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of the Second World War, that Britain's aviation companies - in the shape of the SBAC - decided to move its major showcase from Radlett in Hertfordshire, and selected Farnborough as the venue.

And so, in 1948, was born the world's most famous airshow which to this day evokes memories of triumphs and tragedies - heroic feats of derring do and titanic traffic jams!

Those early days of Farnborough coincided with the dawn of the jet age and prototype aircraft were in abundance. The public soon realised that the otherwise secretive world of test flying was immensely visible at the then-annual event - and they poured into the airfield in their tens of thousands to stand and wonder at the new-fangled machinery.

The sound-barrier was regularly broken as test pilots such as Neville Duke, John Derry, Peter Twiss, Bill Bedford, Mike Lithgow, Hugh Merewether, Roland 'Bea' Beamont, Jock Bryce and Bill Waterton vied with each other to put on the most dramatic and daredevil display.

Aircraft which later became household names, such as the Supermarine Swift, the Gloster Javelin, the Hawker Hunter, the English Electric Lightning and Canberra, the Folland Gnat, the de Havilland Comet, the Bristol Britannia, the Vickers Viscount and the triumvirate of V-bombers - the Avro Vulcan, Handley Page Victor and Vickers Valiant - first came to public attention at Farnborough.

Intense rivalry between pilots and manufacturers led to risks being taken and this, combined with the speed of development and the fact that the industry was operating at the very cutting edge of technology, resulted in a tragedy which will forever be remembered in conjunction with Farnborough.

During the Saturday public display at the end of the 1952 show, test pilot John Derry was flying the de Havilland DH110 (later to become the Sea Vixen) in front of a crowd estimated at 140,000.

Break up

After a dive from altitude to generate the expected sonic boom, he pulled out and was turning behind the control tower when the aircraft started to break up.

One of the engines and debris fell into the crowd, causing multiple deaths and injuries. Both Derry and his flight test observer Tony Richards were also killed.

Within minutes, Hawker's test pilot Neville Duke took off and displayed the Hunter prototype despite knowing precisely what had happened minutes before. This cool individual (who had fought bravely and successfully as a war-time RAF pilot) performed as though nothing untoward had occurred which he later said he believed was precisely what John Derry would have wanted him to do.

Aircraft which were only ever meant for research and development - like the Fairy Delta 2, the Short SB5, the Avro 707B and the BAC 221 - thrilled the crowds,

who flocked to the show in ever-increasing numbers to reinforce their understanding of Britain's position of pre-eminence in so many sectors of the marketplace.  

Sadly, the misbegotten and misguided British government Defence White Paper of 1957 (which assumed that manned military aircraft were a thing of the past)

meant that other nations took over this leading position during the 1960s and 1970s.  

The industry still managed to provide a series of memorable shows however, during these relatively lean years. And this despite the fact that commercial airliners with a trans-Atlantic capability came primarily from the USA, while military aircraft, for a plethora of relatively small companies in a fragmented industry, were becoming increasingly difficult to design and manufacture.  

The first appearance of Concorde in 1970 was a highlight which none who witnessed it will ever forget.

As Captains Brian Trubshaw and John Cochrane flew the spectacular supersonic airliner around the Hampshire skies, the crowd seemed to realise that it was seeing something particularly special.


Indeed, the future of the airliner was still in doubt commercially and it is generally believed that the elegant aircraft's appearance at Farnborough convinced the powers-that-be in Britain that cancellation would not be a popular option. Who would have believed then that Concorde would still be wooing and wowing the crowds nearly 30 years later?  

There have been so many highlights over the years that it is difficult to list more than a small minority. In terms of public awareness, however, there are two events which stand out in the minds of most pundits.

Firstly, the initial appearance of the de Havilland Comet in the early 1950s and secondly, the awe-inspiring demonstrations during the past three decades by various marks of the Harrier 'jump-jet', which were preceded by its ancestor, the remarkable Hawker P.1127. BBC TV commentator Raymond Baxter, who covered every Farnborough show for more than four decades, recalls an incident when he was broadcasting live and in mid-sentence, describing the Harrier's performance.

Baxter had invited fellow-commentator John Blake to join him in his studio for the 1972 show and he suddenly noticed that his guest was pushing a piece of card towards him, on which he had penned:

A remarkable beast is the Harrier; It takes off very close to the barrier. It can lift enough stores, To start several wars,

From a wood, or a beach, or a carrier! Baxter recalls: "I instantly read it out aloud, of course, and had the satisfaction of watching John's jaw drop."  

Farnborough is now a multi-national event, held every two years and alternates with the Paris airshow at Le Bourget. Although still organised by the SBAC, it now features the best that the world's aviation industry has to offer - but with the emphasis still on the home country of course.

Whether your aviation 'anorak' juices are stimulated by pictures of Avro Lancasters in the late 1940s and early 1950s; the Rolls-Royce 'Flying Bedstead' of 1953; the Fairey Rotodyne of 1961; the Panavia Tornado of 1974; or the spectacular appearances of the Russian MiGs and Sukhois in the 1980s and 1990s, you will certainly have a wealth of memories from which to choose.

For make no mistake, if it's important in aviation, then it has featured at Farnborough.

Source: Flight Daily News