History Behind The Card: “Bristol” Military Biplane.
Card #51 of 75, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1911, Vice Regal Mixture issue
- Sir George White, 1st Baronet, March 28, 1854 in Kingsdown, Bristol, Great Britain – November 22, 1916 in Stoke Bishop, England, Great Britain.
- George Henry Challenger, June 3, 1881 in Neath, Wales, Great Britain – December 22(?), 1947 in Taunton, England, Great Britain.
This card shows the Bristol Biplane (official name), though the Wills’s card calls it the Bristol Military Biplane, and the world seems to refer to it as the Bristol Boxkite.
It was designed and manufactured by the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, which was known much later as the Bristol Aeroplane Company.
This pusher aeroplane (the motor and propeller are located behind the pilot) certainly looks like a boxkite, owing its good looks to the company copying the Farman III biplane, but then adjusting it enough to avoid copyright theft, much to the chagrin of Henri Farman.
However, even that in itself is an interesting story.
First, the particulars of the two main individuals I have listed above:
- Sir George White, 1st Baronet was an English businessman and stockbroker based in Bristol. He, along with his brother Samuel, were the key individuals involved in the formation of the Bristol Aeroplane Company. He was also a pioneer in the construction of electric tramways in England.
Bristol tramways were operated from 1875, when the Bristol Tramways Company was formed by Sir George White, until 1941 when a Luftwaffe bomb destroyed the main power supply cables. Those early trams were horse-drawn, but White helped introduce electric trams in 1895, with Bristol becoming the first city to do so in Great Britain. At its peak there were 17 routes and 237 tramcars in use.
In 1887 the Bristol Tramways Company merged with the Bristol Cab Company to form the Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company. The new company developed a fleet of omnibuses to serve the rest of the city and country areas. In 1912 it bought the Clifton Rocks Railway. In 1929 the White family sold its controlling interest in the company to the Great Western Railway, but by 1932 control had passed to the Thomas Tilling Group. William Verdon Smith (nephew of Sir George White) remained as chairman but was replaced in 1935 by J.F. Heaton of Thomas Tilling, so he could concentrate on the Bristol Aeroplane Company.
In 1937 control of Bristol’s tramways passed to a joint committee of the Bristol Tramways company and Bristol Corporation, though it began to abandon the tramways in 1938 even before the German airforce took out the city of Bristol during WWII.
The Bristol Tramways company continued as a bus operator, but the name was not changed to Bristol Omnibus Company until 1957. It was one of the oldest bus companies in the U.K., and the dominant bus operator in Bristol, but it ceased operation in 1987.
- George Henry Challenger (no photo found!) was a British aviator and aero-engineer, originally with the Bristol Aeroplane Company and later with Vickers. He designed a number of aircraft and held a number of aviation-related patents.
I do know that on February 14, 1911, George Henry Challenger received Royal Aero Club of United Kingdom certificate #58.
- elected an “Associate Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society” in 1913;
- chief designer and engineer in the aviation department of Vickers;
- formerly chief engineer at the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company;
- and previously employed as an engineer by the Bristol Tramways and Carriage Co.;
- Challenger was the author and co-author of numerous patents, including those for a ring mounting and the Vickers-Challenger interrupter gear, both for machine-guns.
I could not find an exact date of death for Challenger… even the reliable Flight magazine wasn’t reliable enough – published January 15, 1948 :
I did find a December 23, 1947 notice in the Western Daily Press of Bristol, England noting a funeral for Challenger… but since it cost money to do the research – IE actually go in and get a close look at the article, I couldn’t find the exact date of death. I’m not rich. I couldn’t find a “Free” newspaper database for British newspapers… understandable, but ultimately quite sad.
Back to the card.
The Bristol Boxkite was the first plane to be built in mass quantity, with four purchased by the British War Office in 1911, and others sold to Russia and Australia.
Originally, White wanted to build licensed copies of the Zodiac biplane designed by Gabriel Voisin, after one was bought by White to show at the 1910 London Aero Meet. The idea was to garner interest…
The thing is… White, nor any of his pilots, had actually flown the machine to see how well it handled.
They should have.
After taking the Zodiac to Brooklands airfield for tests, no one could get the plane of the ground—perhaps due to an under-powered engine to plane weight ratio, and the shallow camber of the wing section—a fact commented on by the pioneering aviation magazine, Flight.
Flight, by the way, has its inventory available as a PDF to download, which is brilliant – so you can see original copies of 1909 write-ups of aeroplane, companies – whatever…
To compensate for the wing problem, White and company added a different set… but still… a weak motor is a weak motor.
On May 28, 1910, pilot Maurice Edmond was able to achieve a short flight, but on June 10, 1910, an accident that damaged its undercarriage had the frustrated crew give up on the Zodiac… even with five other such copies being built by the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company at its headquarters at Filton.
Plane-less, which is a bad thing for an aeroplane manufacturing company, White was advised to take a look at the Farman III plane, designed by Henri Farman.
You could hardly go wrong with anything Farman created… but White was unable to grab the rights to build the Farman III biplane because George Holt Thomas—founder of the Aircraft Manufacturing Company Limited (Airco) had a head start in doing the same thing with Farman.
Holt Thomas had gone through the Farman brothers to use French pilot Louis Paulhan to vie for a £10,000 prize offered by family friend Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail… a prize first offered in 1906 for a successful flight from London to Manchester… a prize that was not claimed until Paulhan did so in April of 1910.
So… able to use a crappy Voisin Zodiac, and unable to grab the rights to the Farman Brother’s Farman III, White and the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company were up the proverbial creek.
Enter George Challenger, the company’s chief engineer at Filton.
After seeing detailed drawings of the Farman III in Flight magazine, Challenger was pretty sure he could build a copy of the plane.
White told Challenger to go ahead.
A few weeks later, the first copy was constructed, using materials from the partially built Zodiac aeroplanes.
The Bristol Boxkite was first flown on July 30, 1910 by Maurice Edmond at the company’s flying school on Salisbury Plain.
Farman, not surprisingly, sued the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company for patent infringement.
However, White was able to show Farman that they had made significant alterations to Farman’s design to improve it… so Farman dropped the suit.
So yes… the Bristol Boxkite was certainly based on the Farman III biplane, but Challenger and his staff made significant achievements to have their plane be its own design.
This plane was simply called the No. 7. Best guess is that the initial Zodiac was No. 1, with the five partially-constructed Zodiac‘s taking the numbering up to No. 6.
The Boxkite was considered to be a two-bay pusher biplane (the span of a wing between two sets of interplane or cabane struts is called a bay).
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
“… biplane with an elevator carried on booms in front of the wings and an empennage consisting of a pair of fixed horizontal stabilisers, the upper bearing an elevator, and a pair of rudders carried on booms behind the wing. There were no fixed vertical surfaces. Lateral control was effected by ailerons on both upper and lower wings. These were single-acting, the control cables arranged to pull them down only, relying on the airflow to return them to the neutral position. The wings and fixed rear horizontal surfaces were covered by a single layer of fabric: the other surfaces were covered on both sides.”
The first Boxkite, No. 7, used fitted with a Grégoire 50 horsepower motor, but even before its first test flight, they swapped it out for a same output Gnome motor. Maybe it was lighter?
For later trials, they put the Grégoire back in.
Boxkite No. 8 used an E.N.V. 50 horsepower motor.
Still, for almost all other aeroplanes, the company supplied the aeroplanes with the 50 horsepower Gnome rotary engine.
Each motor was was set just above the lower wing upon sturdy wooden beams, which, also held up the pilot and passenger seats up front.
Under the plane, as you can see from the images above, a pair of long skids—each holding a pair of wheels to provide balance to the plane upon the ground.
Although early Boxkite examples built had equal upper and lower wingspans, later ones had a longer upper wing.
Boxkite aircraft with the longer upper wing are known as the Military version, which is what the Wills’s card depicts.
Bristol Boxkite Military version specifications:
- Crew: 2;
- Length: 11.73 meters (38 feet 6 inches);
- Wingspan: 14.17 meters (46 feet 6 inches);
- Height: 3.61 meters (11 feet 0 inches);
- Wing area: 48.03 square meters (517.0 square feet);
- Empty weight: 408 kilograms (900 pounds);
- Maximum takeoff weight: 522 kilograms (1150 pounds);
- Powerplant: 1 × Gnome Omega rotary piston engine, 50 horsepower (37 kW)
- Maximum speed: 64 kilometers per hour (40 miles per hour);
- Wing loading: 10.9 kilograms per square meters (2.22 pounds per square foot);
- Power/mass: 70.9 watts per kilogram (0.043 horsepower per pound).
By the time production of the Boxkite ceased in 1914, the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company had constructed 78 Bristol Boxkite aeroplanes in total, of which 60 were the so-called Military version, one (no. 44) was a Racer version, and one, No. 69, was a an unsuccessful Voisin variant.
Bristol Boxkite‘s No. 73-78 were built at Brislington by the Tramway Company, with all those before it manufactured at the Filton facility.
The No. 9, flown by pilot Robert Loraine in late September of 1910, was the first aeroplane to send a radio signal down to the ground, in Great Britain.
Loraine, by the way, has his diary noted by the Oxford English Dictionary, as the first written example of the word “joystick” to describe aircraft stick controls.
On March 14, 1911, the British War Office ordered four Bristol Boxkites for its planned Air Battalion Royal Engineers—becoming the first production contract for military aircraft for Britain’s armed forces.
A second order of four was made later that year, with them all pretty much being used as trainers for would-be pilots.
When WWI broke out, four more were ordered by the British War Office, the last of which was written off in February of 1915, as obsolete.
These aeroplanes were used as trainers at the Bristol flying schools at Brooklands and Larkhill, both of which were responsible for giving nearly 50 percent of British pilots their license before WWI.
Sadly, no original Bristol Boxkite aircraft are around today, but you could use those Flight magazine drawings to recreate a Farman III. Or maybe you could check out the three replica aircraft built for the movie Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines…
One is at the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, another at the Shuttleworth Collection at Bedfordshire, and the third is at the Museum of Australian Army Flying in Australia.
I’m sure other replicas exist.
Anyhow, the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company did continue to produce other aircraft through 1959, as well as helicopters, cars and had an aerospace division between 1957-1966).
In 1956 its major operations were split into Bristol Aircraft and Bristol Aero Engines. In 1959, Bristol Aircraft merged with several major British aircraft companies to form the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) and Bristol Aero Engines merged with Armstrong Siddeley to form Bristol Siddeley.
BAC went on to become a founding component of the nationalized British Aerospace, now BAE Systems. Bristol Siddeley was purchased by Rolls-Royce in 1966, who continued to develop and market Bristol-designed engines.
And it all began because they decided to copy aeroplane drawings found in a magazine.