On velvet paws


Paris 1908: the artistic establishment, already shocked by Matisse’s fauvism, is being challenged by Picasso’s cubist vision of a reconstructed world, and changed by the speed and technology captured in Severini’s futurism. And in a garret among the city’s rooftops, an earnest 23-year old is caught up with yet another of the new century’s revolutionary visions: aviation.



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Whatever the Yorkshire-born Robert Blackburn, hard at work over his drawings, might have made of his continental contemporaries’ paintings, it’s quite possible to imagine him empathising with their willingness to confront conventional thinking. When Blackburn, only a year or two out of university, had joined his father’s drawing office at Green’s, the Leeds-based stream-roller manufacturer, he’d found that the determinedly nineteenth-century practices of the factory allowed little room for the progressive ideas encouraged by his engineering training. When, having been tasked to design a gear wheel, his careful calculation of materials, loads and stresses was over-ruled by an antediluvian belief in making things stronger by making them heavier, Blackburn decided to pack his slide rule and head for the continent in search, presumably, of a more forward-thinking employer.

What he did find in France were some of aviation’s early pioneers – the likes of Wright, Bleriot and Farman – who were engaged in a challenge that must have seemed more full of engineering possibilities than road rollers and lawn mowers, and which led Blackburn to that rented room in Paris in 1908, where he set to designing a monoplane of his own.


This sparking of Robert Blackburn’s practical imagination in the charged atmosphere of early aviation may have set in motion the events that would lead to Blackburn Aircraft, but the company itself was still some way in the future. First, its founder had to return to England, win the reluctant support of his father and set up a workshop in Leeds where, with the help of Harry Goodyear (who became a Blackburn fixture), he built the First Monoplane. Like early Bleriot machines, this looked like an up-ended bed frame, and it never did quite fly. His Second Monoplane, however – an altogether prettier affair akin to the Levavasseur Antoinette and powered by a five-cylinder Isaacson radial engine – did fly from the beach at Filey on the Yorkshire coast. It didn’t sell, mind, but in Britain, in 1911, simply having a machine that flew made Blackburn a designer of note, putting him on the same footing as his Lancastrian contemporary, A V Roe.



Moving into a larger workshop in Leeds, Blackburn set to work on the two-seater Mercury, the first off the line and an aeroplane that became the trainer at the newly established Blackburn Flying School at Filey. In two later examples, the English ash of the triangular lattice-work fuselage was replaced with tubular steel, making the Mercury the first British type with a metal fuselage.

In 1912, Blackburn’s flying school moved to Hendon but closed the following year, denying The Blackburn Aeroplane Company, as the growing workshop was now styled, a valuable shop-window in the south. Even so, Blackburn garnered plenty of publicity in Yorkshire and Lancashire by undertaking demonstration flights with his new types. In July 1913, for example, his Single-Seat Monoplane made three daily newspaper runs to carry copies of the Yorkshire Post from Leeds to York. On 22 July 1914, meanwhile, his Type 1 inaugurated Britain’s first scheduled air service, which ran between Leeds and Bradford.


Throughout this, and scores of other exhibition flights and joy rides, none of Blackburn’s aircraft suffered a structural failure of the sort that afflicted other monoplanes of the time (well, none if you discount the Mercury that ripped all the fabric off its wings trying to pull out of a thrill-seeking dive from the 300ft cliffs near Filey…). Despite engineering arguments to the contrary, these accidents set the British governmental mind against monoplanes to the extent that, for a period, they were banned from service with the RFC. This is one of the reasons why, shortly before the outbreak of W.W.I, we see Blackburn – with an eye to military contracts – turning to biplane designs such as the Type L, a floatplane built for the Daily Mail’s Circuit of Britain seaplane race. Although the race was abandoned in favour of a war with Germany, the effort and cost of the Type L wasn’t wasted: it was commandeered by the Admiralty and, in serving as a reconnaissance aircraft, was Blackburn’s first involvement in naval aviation.


The war years were a time of expansion for Blackburn Aircraft, which took on Government contracts, initially to build the Royal Aircraft Factory’s B.E.2cs that were flown by the RFC and RNAS. On the back of these orders, Robert Blackburn formed a limited company – The Blackburn Aeroplane & Motor Co. Ltd. – and moved the Leeds factory into an old roller-skating rink which became the Olympia Works. Here, he shrewdly developed a machine shop that, in time, would manufacture thousands of parts for the Aircraft General Stores (AGS), Britain’s standardised spares system.

Taking on the construction of Sopwith’s Baby seaplane at this time coincided with Robert Blackburn’s decision to further develop the company’s naval aircraft activities. This venture began quite colourfully in 1915 with the twin-fuselage TB, Blackburn’s answer to an Admiralty specification for a Zeppelin interceptor. As well being joined by an unhelpfully flexible centre-section, each of the prototype’s fuselages was fitted with a Gnome engine what would, when primed, create a pool of fuel on top of the floats, which promptly ignited when the pilot started the engines, involving the observer in a fire extinguisher two-step.

Nothing daunted, in 1916 the company established a base in the village of Brough that gave convenient access to the river Humber – so convenient, in fact, that it was promptly commandeered by the Government for seaplane assembly and testing purposes. Nonetheless, Blackburn was able to use it for trials of its General Purpose seaplane (G.P.), a long-range anti-submarine bomber, and the later Blackburd, a spectacularly ugly deck-operated torpedo bomber. Though neither gained acceptance, they served to further the factory’s relations with the Navy, and the G.P. did spawn a land version, the  R.T.1 Kangaroo. Delivered after the RNAS had been merged with the RFC to create the RAF, it was used briefly and, it seems, reluctantly as a bomber at the close of the war.


The end of hostilities meant, of course, a reduction in Government contracts, but Blackburn proposed to make up the loss by expanding into the commercial and private aviation markets. In 1919, then, he established the North Sea Aerial & General Transport Co. Ltd., which began operating domestic freight and passenger routes using the Kangaroo, whose civilianisation did nothing to improve its extraordinary appearance. Though these services became victims of the post-war slump and petered out in 1920, the North Sea company was able to survive on pleasure flights, ticking over until 1924 when it provided the management framework for an RAF Reserve training school at Brough.

The economic climate also stymied growth in the private aviation sector, for which the Blackburn company had designed the Sidecar, a two-seater that weighed 850 lbs all-up, appeared to have been inspired by a flying-mouse, and which anticipated the spirit of the microlight movement by half a century.

  The Olympia Works, however, was sustained through the hard times by the company’s willingness to diversify. Manufacturing spares became its bread and butter, while motor vehicle coach building, and even the construction of a fan-driven sledge for the 1921 Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic expedition, helped the firm to retain its skilled workers against a change in the factory’s fortunes.

The lifeline came in 1919 in the shape of an Air Ministry specification for a new deck-landing torpedo-bomber to replace the Sopwith Cuckoo (which the Blackburn company had also built under contract). Blackburn’s answer to the brief – designed by Major F A Bumpus using, if you can believe it, a B.E.2c packing crate as a drawing office – was the Dart, which was adopted by the Fleet Air Arm in 1920. This became the first of a long line of Blackburn-designed deck-landing biplanes, while the export version, the Swift, won valuable sales overseas. Bumpus’ design, incidentally, also made Blackburn the first British firm to devise a way to fold staggered biplane wings, so there.

From here, Blackburn’s progress followed an arc that would establish it as a specialist in naval aircraft and flying boats (including the beautiful Pellet, G-EBHF, a would-be contender for the 1923 Schneider Trophy), and led the company away from the old Olympia Works to the growing site at Brough. Our interest, however, now follows the Bluebird, a scaled-down Dart, almost, and the aircraft in which many of the B2’s lines were laid down.


In the Bluebird I, said Flight, reporting from the 1924 Two-seater Light Plane Competition at Lympne, Blackburn developed not a machine for winning competitions, but instead incorporated the features that would make it a practical, workaday trainer and tourer. “One result of this,” Flight maintained, “is that the Bluebird is a 

side-by-side tractor biplane, it being assumed that this type is more convenient for school work, while as a private run-about the side-by-side arrangement would tend to be more sociable and conversation somewhat easier than in the tandem type.” And although the straight upper mainplane sat directly over the occupants, access to the cockpit was made easier by the open arrangement of the cabane struts.

With its practicality-before-performance assessment, however, Flight rather sold the Bluebird short: Blackburn had also invested its experience with carrier aircraft to produce a machine with a maximum speed of 74mph yet which remained controllable below 45mph. The performance of the 1924 prototype was only really limited by the competition’s stipulation that aircraft use engines of 1100cc, in the Bluebird’s case the three-cylinder Blackburne (sic) Thrush. When it was re-engined with the five-cylinder Genet radial and entered the Daily Mail Light Plane competition in 1926, the Bluebird had a maximum speed of 85mph and a landing speed of 32mph. Unfortunately, a damaged undercarriage fitting, which the stewards wouldn’t allow to be replaced, meant that the Bluebird had to be withdrawn. Even so, it’s pilot, Sqn. Ldr. Longton, spent the next two days clocking up 800 miles as he flew round and around a 12.5-mile circuit, buzzing the stewards’ tent on every lap! He then went on to beat the other 20 machines in the Grosvenor Trophy race, in which he recorded an average speed of 85mph.

The Bluebird II and III went on to be fitted with Frank Halford’s in-line A.D.C Cirrus and D.H. Gipsy engines, a progression that not only provided more power and more streamlined noses, but which was accompanied by a steady run of air race successes. 

In 1928, the pursuit of even greater aerodynamic and manufacturing efficiencies resulted in the Bluebird Mk.IV, whose fabric was stitched over a fuselage of steel tubing, and wings made not of wood of tubular steel spars and duralumin ribs, all of which made for lines that were unspoiled by external control cables, and exceptionally clean in comparison to, say, its de Havilland contemporaries such as the D.H.60G Gipsy Moth, by which it was perhaps overshadowed.

That said, the Bluebird IV chalked up a number of racing and long-distance achievements. In 1929, for example, the prototype IV (G-AABV) was flown, with only minor modification, from Croydon to Durban. In September 1930, meanwhile, the Hon. Mrs Victor Bruce departed from Heston with just 40 solo hours under her belt and flew eastwards, all the way around the world – albeit using ships to cross the oceans! The following year, a 115hp Hermes-engined IV (G-AAAC) won the King’s Cup with an average speed of 117.8mph, while a Miss Delphine Reynolds flew G-ABGF to the Gambia, where it was fitted with floats and undertook survey work along the Gambia river.


In 1928 de Havilland, replaced the wood in the D.H.60’s fuselage with steel tube to create the student-proof ‘Metal Moths’, the 60T and 60M. In developing the Bluebird, however, Blackburn adopted a new manufacturing approach, fitting the Bluebird’s wings (now with a slight stagger) to a new semi-monocoque aluminium-skinned fuselage to create the B2. It was an engineering evolution quite different from that of the Tiger Moth.

It’s all the more ironic then, that the new Blackburn first flew in December 1931, only weeks after the maiden flight of the Tiger Moth and its adoption as the RAF’s new primary trainer. Given the favour with which the RAF had looked upon the side-by-side set-up of the metal-built Bluebird IV, it’s interesting to speculate how things might have turned out if Blackburn’s B2 had been available in time to challenge the de Havilland machine for the role. Particularly so if you consider the B2’s rugged build and the ease of handling for which it came to be widely regarded; not an accusation often levelled at the Tiger.

When, in 1932, the two aircraft did compete directly for an order, it was for a contract to supply a trainer to Portugal. For the air trials, the Blackburn was shipped to a seaplane base near Lisbon where, according to reports, it was rigged within an hour and flown to nearby Cintra for testing. Though the Portuguese also admired the B2 for the quality of its build and behaviour, they were, unfortunately, among the few not to see the benefits of side-by-side seating. The Tiger, therefore – having seen off the U.S competition with a grandstanding display of inverted flying along Lisbon’s main street – won the order.

All was not lost, however: in 1933, the B2 was given Air Ministry approval for training at Hanworth, and also at Brough, where a fleet of 13 silver-doped aircraft joined the RAF Reserve School run, you’ll recall, by the North Sea Aerial & General Transport Co. Ltd.

Among the first five B2s delivered to Brough was G-ACBJ, which was flown in 1938 by a then 18-year old Rupert ‘Tiny’ Cooling on his first solo. “A B2 was never hard to fly,” recalled Cooling, writing for Aeroplane Monthly in 1982. “With a wing loading of seven pounds per square foot and the stability of a floating duck it could scarcely be otherwise!”

Most of the 41 production machines used either the Gipsy III, Cirrus Hermes IVA, D.H. Gipsy Major I, or Blackburn Cirrus Major 1 engine, which produced between 120hp and 135hp and gave the B2 a performance that Cooling described as, “prim, sedate, and without ostentation.” However, the last three B2s built (G-AEBM, N and O), were fitted with the 150hp Blackburn Cirrus Major 3. This, according to Cooling, who flew ‘BO, transformed a steady trainer that had to be pushed with some determination to achieve the necessary entry speed for a loop, into something ‘fast and flighty’ that would produce polished loops, and roll, he said, “with a joyous growl, like a playful dog.”

At the outbreak of W.W.II, the Hanworth-based B2s were moved north to join the Brough Reserve School, which became No.4 Elementary & Reserve Flying Training School. There, instruction on the Blackburns – now painted in trainer yellow and camouflage – continued until 1942, after which they were largely passed on to the ATC.

For his part, Cooling went on to fly Wellingtons with 9 Squadron, and to survive the war; ‘BO, on the other hand, was reduced to scrap at a metal recovery depot in 1947, while the other two Cirrus Major 3-engined aircraft had their wings clipped and were used for ground instruction. G-ACLD, however, was re-engined with the Cirrus Major III, and joined G-AEBJ in the dark blue livery of the Brough Flying Club. They flew there together until 1949 when ‘LD stalled in from a low, slow turn and was lost, leaving ‘EBJ as the last of her line.

Forty years later, when Cooing returned to visit Brough, ‘EBJ was still there, and still in her flying club colours. The Blackburn name, however, had long since gone from the site: absorbed into the Hawker Siddley Group in the ‘60s, the Blackburn legacy was further subsumed within the nationalised British Aerospace of the ‘70s. Another three decades on, and both BAe and ‘EBJ have changed their liveries, but the one – BAe Systems – still owns the other, which now flies as part of the Shuttleworth Collection. Though she’s now 76-years old, the aluminium lines of her now polished fuselage give the lie to her age and reflect, in a way that old Severini would have needed paint to capture, the engineering ambition and practical imagination that were part of Blackburn’s earliest origins.

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