Farnborough Airfield

Farnborough Airfield lies to the west of the main Farnborough Road (A325) with the road forming its eastern boundary. The site occupies about 1,100 acres, contains around 1,300 buildings, and houses nearly 2,750 employees.

Flying has been associated with the site since the Balloon Equipment Store relocated from Greenwich to Farnborough in 1905 to become HM Balloon Factory. HM Balloon Factory was sited on Farnborough Common - land seized from the public by the military at the end of the previous century.

From the site the American air-navigator and balloonist Samuel Franklin Cody (1861-1913) conducted experiments with man lifting kites. In 1908 using his own constructed aircraft Cody made the first recorded flight, in England, in a powered aircraft. In 1910 using his second constructed aircraft he won the Michelin Cup for the first completed flight of over four and a half hours. In 1911 he built and flew the only British plane to complete the round-England race. He was killed in an air crash August 1913. His family still live in the area.

The site is known the world over for its association with the Royal Aircraft Establishment and the Farnborough International Airshow.

Many firsts are associated with Farnborough, starting with Sam Cody and the first recorded powered flight.

Frank Whittle developed the world's first jet engine. The UK become the first country to design and operate the world's first commercial jet airliner.

Much of the research for Concorde, the world's first and only supersonic airliner, took place at Farnborough.

ThrustSSC was designed and developed at Farnborough. In September 1997 ThrustSSC broke the world land speed record with a speed of 714 mph. A few days later it became the first powered land vehicle to break the sound barrier with a speed of 763 mph Mach 1.02 - the supersonic bang reverberated around the world. ThrustSSC is powered by two jet engines.

The airfield has generated a great deal of controversy in recent years by hosting a series of Arms Fairs and Copex (market place for instruments of torture) to which some of the world's most repressive regimes (Turkey, Indonesia ...) have been honoured guests of the UK government. There has been strong, vocal local and national opposition to these events. Local people object to their town being tarnished in this way and the name of Farnborough being synonymous worldwide with oppression, nationally the opposition is based upon the end use by repressive regimes. Opposition against these events is organised by the Campaign Against Arms Trade.

The far end of the site bordering the Basingstoke Canal is a nationally important site for dragonflies. The majority of the site is unspoilt grassland, dating from the time when it was Farnborough Common, before it was seized from the local population by the military.

The local library in Farnborough houses an aerospace collection.

Royal Aircraft Establishment

The RAE started out in life as HM Balloon Factory. From 1911-18 it was called the Royal Aircraft Factory but was forced to change its name to Royal Aircraft Establishment to avoid confusion with the newly established Royal Air Force.

Farnborough is known the world over as the centre of excellence for aerospace research. The RAE played a major role in both World Wars. So confident was Hitler that he could occupy England with relative ease that he spared the RAE from bombing in the hope of benefiting from its research.

Recently the RAE (now known as the Royal Aerospace Establishment) has been absorbed into the DRA (Defence Research Agency), itself renamed as DERA (Defence Evaluation and Research Agency) and the world famous initials are no more.

Farnborough International Airshow

The Farnborough Airshow has its origins in the annual RAF Airshow at Hendon (1920-1937) and the SBAC (established 1916). SBAC had a small exhibition park at Hendon in 1932 as the show-piece for the British Aircraft Industry. 27 June 1932 - 35 aircraft and 16 companies. With a break for World War II the show recommenced at Radlett in 1946 and was held there until 1948. In 1948 the show moved to its present location of Farnborough. Initially an annual event, in 1962 it changed to its present biennial format. The second change was that it became an international event with exhibitors from all over the world, the exception being those countries from behind the Iron Curtain.

Farnborough International Airshow is the premier world aviation event. It alternates each year with the Paris Airshow. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War exhibitors and visitors from behind the Iron Curtain have been welcome guests. With the end of the Cold War, the Russian contingent has been one of the star attractions.

The scale of the show can be seen from the figures for the most recent events. 1994 - 220 aircraft, 650 exhibitors from 45 countries. 1996 - 1,164 companies from 31 different countries filling several large exhibition halls, 130 aircraft on display, a flying display that started in the morning and went on until late afternoon, 130,000 trade visitors from more than 40 countries, 150,000 visitors on the two public days, contracts announced of $12 billion. The exhibition space ranks as one of the world's largest temporary exhibition areas.

In recent years the highlights of the show have been an aerial display by the Red Arrows and a fly-past by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (usually a Lancaster bomber, escorted by a Hurricane and a Spitfire - the sound of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines is unmistakable). Both flights are based in Lincolnshire.

The most recent Farnborough International Airshow, Farnborough-98, (the 50th Anniversary Airshow) took place 7-13 September 1998.

The most recent Farnborough International Airshow, Farnborough International 2000, took place 24-30 July 2000, a change from the usual September. The next airshow will be July 2002. The future of the airshow has been guaranteed until 2006.

CAAT ran an Alternative Airshow on the last day of the airshow, Sunday 30 July 2000, to highlight the arms deals and links with repressive regimes. CAAT were joined by several Kurds (who know all too well what it is to live under a repressive regime) promoting the Ilisu Dam campaign.

The Future

The MoD has relocated to the far west of the site, military flying has ceased. This has released a sizeable parcel of land. The MoD wishes to see it developed as a major business airport for Europe, the local population wish to see the land handed back as common land and public open space.

The business airport option is rigorously opposed by the local population who see it as destroying their quality of life.

The business airport option is opposed on a number of grounds

Part of the licensing by the CAA for any airport within the UK is a safety zone on the approaches. Within this zone there are restrictions on permitted development. The reasons for this are the greatly increased risk of an accident on take-off or landing. The eastern approach to Farnborough, within what would be the safety zone, is already covered in housing. The situation is made worse by the fact that the runway is lower than Farnborough - aircraft land literally skimming the rooftops.

A Public Inquiry examined the issues surrounding the airfield as part of an inquiry into the Local Plan. Edward Simpson, with previous experience of airfield inquiries, was appointed to head the inquiry. He pledged to give local people their say. He encountered strong opposition to any increase in flying.

Opposition to expansion of flying is being coordinated by Future of Farnborough Airfield Group (Patrick Kirby +44 1252 543786). In a letter to the local paper, Patrick Kirby very eloquently summed up the level of local opposition to the development of the airfield as a major airport, he also slammed the local councillors for their failure to act in the local interest. [Farnborough Mail, Tuesday 11 August 1998]

To retain the aerospace expertise and draw upon a world famous name it has been suggested that a university of international repute be established on the industrial part of the site (close to the town centre). A university for the twenty-first century that would not only draw upon the aerospace expertise but would be in symbiotic relationship with the many high-tech and information technology companies to be found in the surrounding area.

The Farnborough Air Sciences Trust is hoping to rescue some of the now redundant buildings and use them for an aerospace museum to reflect the many achievements of Farnborough and its long association with flying. Of late FAST have tarnished their reputation by degenerating into a lobby for TAG.

On signing the lease for Farnborough Airfield (Tuesday 17 February 1998), TAG Group (a foreign owned conglomerate operating out of a tax haven) announced their intention to turn the airfield into the major business airport for Europe. [Farnborough Courier, Wednesday 18 February 1998]

When finally published, the Inspector's Report pleased no one, least of all local residents. There is strong local opposition to these proposals. Opposition is being coordinated by FFAG and BVFoE.

Early October 1999, TAG submitted a Planning Application to turn Farnborough into the Business Airport for Europe. They want an initial 25,000 air movements (more than twice the current level of around 12,000), no restrictions on weight, with the automatic right to revise the figures upwards. The proposals have met with strong opposition from local residents who will see their quality of life destroyed. Opposition is being coordinated by FFAG and BVFoE.

Web resources

  • FARA
  • The Right Price for Air Travel
  • Airfields Environment Trust
  • Aviation Environment Federation
  • Green Skies

    Reference and Further Information

    John Blake & Mike Hooks, 40 Years at Farnborough - SBAC's International Showcase, Foulis Aviation, 1990

    Peter J Cooper, Forever Farnborough: Flying the Limits 1904-1906, Hikoki Publications, 1996

    John Edwards, Rushmoor Local Plan Review, Rushmoor Borough Council, June 1996

    Charles Sims, Farnborough - The Highlights of Twenty-six SBAC Shows, Adam & Charles Black, 1970

    Perry B Walker, Early Aviation at Farnborough: The First Aeroplanes, Macdonald, 1974

    Farnborough Library houses an aviation collection.

    Farnborough ~ Samuel Cody
    (c) Keith Parkins 1997-2001 -- November 2001 rev 21