100 years of the RAF and Lancashire

Lightning and a Spitfire, at BAe Systems, Warton, in 1970
Lightning and a Spitfire, at BAe Systems, Warton, in 1970
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This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force, here Mike Hill looks at the long relationship between Lancashire’s plane makers and the nation’s armed forces

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 Lancashire.

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.

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.

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.

Jaguar taking off from the M55 motorway, in April 1975

Jaguar taking off from the M55 motorway, in April 1975

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.

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.

Canberra production line, at Samlesbury, September 1970

Canberra production line, at Samlesbury, September 1970

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.

Front sections of the Halifax bomber in 1943

Front sections of the Halifax bomber in 1943

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.

Felixstowe F3 flying boats under construction by Dick, Kerr and Company at its works on Strand Road, Preston in July 1918

Felixstowe F3 flying boats under construction by Dick, Kerr and Company at its works on Strand Road, Preston in July 1918

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.