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Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft & Airships to 1919

 Given Armstrong Whitworth’s (AW) history in armaments and shipbuilding you might have expected them to embrace the nascent aviation industry with gusto, but no, theirs was a hesitant response to the latest and most deadly military arm. 

In fairness, almost no one thought that aircraft had a place in modern warfare. Surely it was the cavalry and boots on the ground that won out on land, whilst at sea what use was an aircraft that was no more than a flying string bag against the mighty Dreadnoughts?  

In 1910 AW had rebuilt a Farman biplane that had crashed at a nearby golf course, an opportunity not followed up. In 1912 they were approached by Avro to construct aircraft and then by the Italian government to build a quantity of Bristol aircraft at AW’s Italian subsidiary Pozuoli; they declined both approaches. In the same year, the company took its first tentative steps in aviation when it agreed to manufacture the Granville Bradshaw designed A.B.C. aero engines, this ended when the engines failed to come up to expectations. 


In 1913, with war looming on the horizon, AW received two orders from the British Government. The first order was for a batch of eight, later increased to thirty three, B.E.2a aircraft for the War Office. The second was to build several airships for the Admiralty. The aircraft were built in an existing factory at Newcastle whilst airships construction necessitated the establishment of a new facility at Selby in Yorkshire. After several false starts, AW had entered the aircraft industry.

In 1914 the Dutch aircraft designer Fredrick Koolhaven joined as their chief designer, all of his designs had the prefix FK. Most of the aircraft produced by AW were to the design of The Royal Aircraft Factory. Koolhaven adapted the B.E.2c to produce an improved version that became known as the AW FK3, no exact records of the number of FK3’s has survived but at least 500 aircraft are believed to have been built. 


An improved version of the FK3 known as the FK8 was introduced in 1916/17, once again no records survive of production numbers but as many as 1,600 were probably built. By the time that aircraft production ended at AW, they had built something like 1,275 aircraft.

The airship department of Armstrong Whitworth opened in 1915. Initially, it designed and produced control cabins for the S.S. range and Coastal-type non-rigid airships which were very effective protecting Allied shipping from submarine attack. Then they produced the R25 and R29 rigid airships which were not particularly successful. These were followed by the R33 airship which was a direct copy of a German Zeppelin which was brought down almost intact on British soil. The R33 took no part in the war as it was not completed until after The Armistice. This airship served successfully for ten years, however, this was AW’s last airship.

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