In a quiet corner of what was Filton Airfield lies something that many Bristolians were skeptical would ever happen. After many years of talking about, it Bristol finally has a home for its aviation heritage in the name of Aerospace Bristol.
Located in Hangar 16 previously home to 501 Squadron Royal Air Force, Bristol University Air Squadron and more recently the pair of Rolls-Royce Spitfires as well as Robs Lamplough’s Spitfire and Mustang, Aerospace Bristol charts the history of Bristol’s aviation heritage from the Boxkite biplane, which first flew on 20th July 1910, right through to the present day.
Aerospace Bristol can trace its history back to the Bristol Aero Collection at Cotswold Airport, Kemble. Here it was very much a Collection being housed until such a time that a museum could be set up in Bristol. As well as Kemble, the Bristol Aero Collection also ran for a number of years operating from a series of portable buildings on the Airbus site, with volunteers providing guided tours of Concorde on five days a week.
As you enter the first gallery you’re greeted not by an aircraft or even a model of one but by a tram. The Bristol Aircraft Company can find its routes in the Bristol Omnibus Company, a great manufacturer of trams and later busses. Surrounding the gallery is a wealth of information on the early years of aviation in the South West and how the White family set up the Bristol Aeroplane Company, a model of their first aircraft, the Boxkite, can be seen here. As you walk further into the museum the first two airframes come into view in the form of the Bristol Fighter and Bristol Scout. Both of these replicas depict aircraft heavily used during the First World War.
Suspended high above a Bristol lorry the Bristol Babe depicts the inter-war years where the Bristol Aeroplane Company started looking into civilian pleasure flying. Easily missed are a large number of glass cabinets along the wall as you pass the Babe. These cabinets contain many scale models of aircraft designed by Bristol but for whatever reason didn’t see the light of day. Be sure to take a look at the weird and wonderful designs.
As you walk through into the third bay of the hangar and into the World War Two gallery, keep a look out for an exhibit that’s on loan from the Royal Air Force Museum, the wing of a Bristol Bulldog suspended from the roof. Also on loan from the RAF Museum is the forward fuselage of a Bristol Beaufigther with cutaways covered in perspex allowing visitors to easily see the interior of the World War Two aircraft. Beaufighter production totaled 5,564, with 4,804 being built by the Bristol Aeroplane Company (including some built at the ‘shadow factory’ at Weston-super-Mare), 500 by Fairey Aviation at Stockport and 260 by Roots at Speke near Liverpool (in Australia around 364 Mark 21 versions were also built by the Government Aircraft Factory). Production ended in September 1945 with 19 different variants produced for use by 11 nations. The Beaufighter is probably most well known for its night-fighter role during the Battle of Britain.
An aircraft whose hangar is quite possibly more famous than the aircraft itself is the Bristol Brabazon, which was designed to be the A380 of the 1950s. The giant hangar, known as the Brabazon Hangar, has three bays and was built in the late 1940s and has now been added by Bristol City Council to its Local List of valued buildings. Controversially, in order for the massive prop-liner to operate out of Filton Aerodrome the runway had to be extended which entailed the destruction of the small hamlet of Charlton. The Brabazon was designed to carry up to 300 passengers however the prototypes produced only carried a maximum of 30. Due to a lack of committed orders the project was cancelled in July 1953. Only a few parts of the aircraft remain including a tyre and wheel assembly and the rather large Bristol Centaurus engine and thankfully these are on display at Aerospace Bristol. Being able to get up close this huge engine really does give you a sense of how large this aircraft was, intact it was of a comparable size to the Airbus A300s which frequented the Brabazon hangar many years later.
Whilst the Bristol Aero Collection have their own Sycamore helicopter the example currently on display comes from the Royal Air Force Museum, having previously been on display at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. The Sycamore was widely used by many nation’s air arms including the UK, Germany, Belgium and Australia in a variety of roles, including casualty evacuation, search and rescue, troop transport and, in the case of XL824, pilot training.
Bristol’s helicopter division was ahead of its time when it came to building the 173. The first twin rotor helicopter some eight years before the famous Chinook made by the US giant Boeing. In fact some of the design team from Bristol later went on to join Boeing during the design phase of the Chinook. The 173 never entered service with any air arm or airline but was purely a development aircraft, this aircraft did however give birth to the Bristol Belvedere. Only five 173s were ever built, with the first flight being achieved on the 3rd January 1953. XF785 is, like many of Aerospace Bristol’s aircraft, on loan from the RAF Museum and prior to joining the Bristol Aero Collection at Kemble was in storage at RAF Cosford.
The nose and forward fuselage of G-ALRX the second Britannia prototype resides against the back wall of the hangar. Romeo X-Ray crashed on a test flight on the 4th February 1954 into the mudflats of the Severn estuary at Severn Beach. Th No.3 engine suffered a loss of oil pressure and a subsequent engine fire so as a precaution the crew decided to shut down No.4 engine as well. Concerns arose that the fire may spread to the main spar so the crew, under the command of Captain Pegg, elected to ditch on the mudflats instead of attempting an approach into Filton. The Britannia was designed as a medium range airliner in the 1950s to fly across the world to many destinations in the British Empire. Production was short-lived due to the introduction of jet airliners. Only 85 Britannias were produced by the time production ended in 1960.
On loan from Gary Spoors of GJD AeroTech Ltd is BAe Sea Harrier FA2 ZD610. This aircraft had a very eventful arrival into Aerospace Bristol under-slung an RAF Chinook on the 8th March 2017. With its Rolls-Royce Pegasus 11-61 Mk.106 engine removed and sat alongside the airframe visitors can get up close and see how much of the aircraft the Bristol designed VSTOL engine takes up.
As well as the aircraft, trams, Cars, trucks, missiles, satellites and even a sailing dingy represent how the Bristol Aeroplane Company originated and then deviated from the aerospace industry.
From a photography point of view, the majority of the large artifacts are well positioned considering the limited space of the Grade 2 listed hangar. We’d recommend an ultra wide lens in the range of 10-18mm and a weekday afternoon is advisable if you wish to get completely clean shots. In fact during one visit we were the only customers in the whole of The Concorde Hangar. However, even at busy weekends we haven’t found it too challenging to take a good photo. It should be noted that unlike many UK museums photography with a tripod is allowed.
One thing that Aerospace Bristol has done exceptionally well is the media it uses to deliver its factual information by. There are a number of large audio visual presentations around the museum, the most impressive being projected onto the fuselage of Concorde, as well as hands-on displays for younger visitors
Across the old hangar apron from Hangar 16 is a purpose built building holding the star attraction of Aerospace Bristol, Concorde 216 G-BOAF, the last ever Concorde to be built at the Filton site and also the last Concorde to fly landing back at its birth place on Wednesday 26 November 2003 in front of thousands of people including His Royal Highness Prince Andrew, The Duke Of York. The hangar contains an extensive exhibition on the iconic aircraft with a number of artifacts relating to its test phase at RAF Fairford as well as an early procedural trainer which very interestingly gives you the opportunity see the differences in cockpit layouts between this and G-BOAF’s. This building also houses a purpose-built conference facility as well as a room for schools use. For larger events it is possible to hire the whole venue.
Access to the interior of Concorde is included in the admission which is good to see as a number of museums who also have Concorde on display either do not permit access or charge for the privilege. Access is controlled via the forward door. From here you can see the limited space that the crew had to work in both up front in the cockpit and in the forward galley. Moving rearward through the forward cabin you’re able to see the ink blue leather seats which are in a very comfortable 2-2 configuration. The rear cabin has been sealed off for two main reasons, firstly to preserve the condition of the cabin and secondly without fuel the airframe can become very tail heavy.
2019 saw the 50th anniversary of the first flight of Concorde. To mark this event early in 2019 Aerospace Bristol set about the engineering challenge of resurrecting the nose/visor lowering system. No mean feat for a hydraulic system on an aircraft which has long since been decommissioned. Additional electrical systems were installed to transform the power systems to 28 volts and a bespoke hydraulic pump and motor were added to supply the nose/visor with the 3000psi of hydraulic pressure needed.
One thing that we think could be improved on is publicity and signage to the restoration of the Bristol Bolingbrook in another of the original flight sheds. We came across this by chance having seen the door open during one of our visits, it wasn’t until afterwards that we saw it listed on their website. If you have an interest in engineering or aircraft restoration this is certainly a must.
Another restoration project that we here at South West Aviation Photographers are very much looking forward to seeing is ex-Royal New Zealand Air Force Bristol Freighter NZ5911 which was brought to the Filton site during 2018 and is currently in storage across the airfield in the Brabazon hangar.
The museum itself is easily accessible from both the M4 and M5 with free onsite car parking on the old Apron 3 and the museum is close to local bus services. The on-site restaurant has a wide selection of hot and cold food to suit all tastes and even has a map to show where the locally sourced produce has come from. (We can thoroughly recommend the cheeseburger and you can even get a chocolate ‘Concorde silhouette added to your coffee). Prices are comparable to most eateries at similar museums, however if this doesn’t take your fancy there is a Costa Coffee and Subway just down the road, as well as numerous restaurants and fast food outlets at nearby Cribbs Causeway. Ticket prices are comparable to other aviation museums of the same standard (think Duxford and Brooklands) and are valid for 12 months.
During its first two years of being open to the public Aerospace Bristol has won a number of prestigious awards, including the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, a number of local and national tourism awards and the Michelmores property award. If this alone isn’t testament to what a superb museum it is we don’t know what is.
|PR-MBI||Airbus A319||On Display||Wing only|
|G-BOAF||BAC Concorde||On Display|
|BAPC.463||Bristol 156 Beaufighter IIF||On Display||Forward Fuselage only|
On Loan from the RAF Museum
|NZ5911||Bristol 170 Freighter Mk.31M||In Storage||Stored in Brabazon Hangar pending restoration|
|XL824||Bristol 171 Sycamore HR.14||On Display||On Loan from the RAF Museum|
|XJ917||Bristol 171 Sycamore HR.14||In Storage|
|XF785||Bristol 173 Srs.1||On Display||On Loan from the RAF Museum|
|G-ALRX||Bristol 175 Britannia 101||On Display||Forward Fuselage Only|
|BAPC.87||Bristol 46A Babe III (Replica)||On Display|
|9048||Bristol Bolingbroke IV||Restoration|
|BAPC.496||Bristol Fighter F.2B (Replica)||On Display|
|Bristol Scout D (Replica)||On Display|
|BAPC.392||British Aerospace 146-RJX100||On Display|
|ZD610||British Aerospace Sea Harrier F/A.2||On Display||On Loan from GJD AeroTech|
South West Aviation Photographers would like to thank all at Aerospace Bristol for making this article possible.