Aerospace industry in the United Kingdom

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The aerospace industry of the United Kingdom is the second-largest national aerospace industry in the world (after the United States) and the largest in Europe, [1] [2] [3] [ needs update ] with a global market share of 17% in 2019. In 2013, the industry employed 84,000 people. [4] [ needs update ]


Domestic companies with a large presence in the British aerospace industry include BAE Systems (the world's fourth-largest defence contractor), [5] [6] Britten-Norman, Cobham, GKN, Hybrid Air Vehicles, Meggitt PLC, QinetiQ, Rolls Royce (the world's second-largest maker of aero engines), [7] Senior plc and Ultra Electronics. Foreign companies with a major presence include Airbus (through its Airbus UK subsidiary), Boeing (through its Boeing UK subsidiary), GE Aviation (through its GE Aviation Systems subsidiary), Leonardo, Lockheed Martin (through its Lockheed Martin UK subsidiary), MBDA, Safran (through its Safran Landing Systems subsidiary), Spirit AeroSystems and Thales Group (through its Thales Air Defence subsidiary).

Current and future crewed aircraft in which the British aerospace industry has a major role include the AgustaWestland AW101, AW159, Airbus A220, A320 family, A330, A340, A380, A400M, BAE Hawk, Boeing 767, 777, 787, [8] Bombardier CRJ700, Learjet 85, Britten-Norman Defender, Britten-Norman Islander, Eurofighter Typhoon, Hawker 800, Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules, Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II and BAE Systems Tempest. Current and future unmanned aerial vehicles in which the British aerospace industry has a major role include Airbus Zephyr, BAE Taranis, HAV 304 Airlander 10 and Watchkeeper WK450. Major engine families designed and manufactured in the United Kingdom include the Eurojet EJ200, TP400-D6, Rolls-Royce LiftSystem and Rolls-Royce Trent.

The British aerospace industry has made many important contributions to the history of aircraft and was solely, or jointly, responsible for the development and production of the first aircraft with an enclosed cabin (the Avro Type F), the first jet aircraft to enter service for the Allies in World War II (the Gloster Meteor), [9] the first commercial jet airliner to enter service (the de Havilland Comet), [10] the first aircraft capable of supercruise (the English Electric Lightning), [11] the first supersonic commercial jet airliner to enter service (the Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde), [12] the first fixed-wing V/STOL combat aircraft to enter service (the Hawker Siddeley Harrier), [13] the first twin-engined widebody commercial jet airliner (the Airbus A300), [14] the first digital fly-by-wire commercial aircraft (the Airbus A320), [15] and the largest commercial aircraft to enter service to date (the Airbus A380). [16]

2010 saw the establishment of the Aerospace Growth Partnership (AGP), a strategic partnership between the UK Government, industry and other key stakeholders, established to secure the future of the UK aerospace industry in the face of an ever changing, and increasingly competitive global landscape. [17]

A parade flight comprising an Aerospatiale-BAC Concorde and BAE Hawks of the Red Arrows aerobatics display team for the Queen's Golden Jubilee. ConcordeBG.jpg
A parade flight comprising an Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde and BAE Hawks of the Red Arrows aerobatics display team for the Queen's Golden Jubilee.
A Supermarine Spitfire, of which 20,351 were produced between 1938 and 1948. Ray Flying Legends 2005-1.jpg
A Supermarine Spitfire, of which 20,351 were produced between 1938 and 1948.

General statistics

UK aerospace industry in 2013 [18]
Turnover (£ Bn.)No. of enterprisesEconomic contribution (£ Bn.)% of economic output

As of 2021, about a quarter of large communications satellites manufacture takes place in Britain. [19]


The early interest in aeroplanes

The desire by private individuals, often amateur gentlemen, to fly as a hobby provided the initial stimulus to the UK aviation industry. By October 1913 there were over 80 private airworthy aeroplanes, more than the airworthy planes in the recently formed Royal Flying Corps. Before the First World War there were no regular air services and commercial aviation only really started in 1919 after the development of suitably sized aircraft during the First World War. [20]

Whilst it was the military market that really was the source of aviation development, in the years leading up to 1914 it was, in the UK, rather sporadic. In 1909 development on behalf of the Government was stopped as being too costly. In April 1911 Britain had only 6 military aeroplanes, 2 of which were obsolete. The French War Department owned 208. However, by the start of WW1 the Naval Wing of the R.F.C. had 93 and the Military Wing had 179. [21]


1900 to 1909


As a new technology, there was a great deal of interest from a variety of sources but often it was individuals just enthused by aviation. Between 1909 and 1914 there were about 200 active constructors, although many of them only made one or two planes. But even the production of the larger firms was not very substantial, British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, one of the largest produced just over 200 planes between 1910 and 1914. [22]

Most of the aviation pioneers, such as Geoffrey de Havilland, Thomas Sopwith, Richard Fairey, Robert Blackburn, Frederick Handley Page, A.V. Roe and the Short Brothers had a training in engineering and their companies were usually privately financed. There were several large engineering companies who also got involved, such as Vickers in 1911, Armstrong Whitworth in 1912 British and Colonial Aeroplane Company in 1910 and Aircraft Manufacturing Company in 1912. [22]

Along with these companies there was the early development of seaplanes, particularly near Southampton, by companies such as S. E. Saunders (originally boat builders) and Pemberton-Billing (later Supermarine). Finally, there were several French subsidiary companies who built aero-engines. [23]


Unsurprisingly the run up to and onset of the First World War led to a massive increase in the number of companies engaged in aircraft production. Between 1912 and 1916 aircraft production was moved on to a mass production basis. But it was only by 1917 that production problems and procedures were sorted out such that there was a steady flow of aircraft, engines and spares. [24]

By October 1918 there were 1,529 companies involved in the manufacture of aircraft. As well as aviation companies making aeroplanes there were other engineering companies also involved in making aircraft and engines (usually under licence). Companies such as shipbuilders Harland and Wolff in Belfast, engineering manufacturer, G & J Weir in Glasgow. The motor industry obviously had a capability to manufacture aeroplanes and, in particular, engines. Austin Motor Company, Daimler Company, D. Napier & Son, Sunbeam Motor Car Company and ABC Motors were all part of the wartime aviation industry. In addition there were also a large number of sub-contractors, making such things as propellers, electrical equipment, instrumentation and canvas. [25]

However, once the War was over, the vast majority returned to their pre-war activities. The aircraft being produced in 1918 were essentially enhanced versions of the 1914 aircraft. The development of the aviation industry between 1914 and 1918 was more one of production and logistics than scientific or technical.

1918 -1924

On 2 January 1918 the Air Ministry was founded and on 1 April 1918 the Royal Air Force was established, independent of the Army and Royal Navy. Both organisations were to fashion the nature of the aviation industry in the UK.

The first task for the government at the end of the war was to dispose of their stocks of aircraft and to deal with those on order. The Ministry of Munitions set up a Disposal Board and sold the entire surplus stock to a private company, Aircraft Disposals Company, with Frederick Handley Page as one of the key personnel. [26]

As soon as the war was finished and the government demand for aircraft ceased some of the remaining aircraft companies tried to diversify into other activities but with limited success or simply closed down. For instance, Airco looked at car manufacture and was bought by the Daimler Company parent company Birmingham Small Arms whilst Martinsyde and Sopwith briefly tried motor cycles. By 1920 the British aerospace industry consisted of 28 aeroplane constructors and a dozen aero engine designers. However, much of their work was of a trivial nature and engine orders were so low that Rolls Royce nearly left the aviation sector. [27]

The aviation industry was left with the core of pre-war producers and a few companies whose interest in aviation had been aroused. This latter category included companies such as the Norwich engineering firm Boulton & Paul, Westland Aircraft, the wartime offshoot of engine manufacturers Petters Ltd and Gloucestershire, later, Gloster Aircraft Company formed from Cheltenham-based luxury liner outfitters H. H. Martyn. [28]

Nonetheless there was still determination to stay particularly from the enthusiastic pioneers such de Havilland and Sopwith. As soon as Airco and Sopwith Aviation Company were declared bankrupt,(due to the Treasury demanding payment for excess profits) within months Tommy Sopwith and Geoffrey de Havilland both established new companies, H.G. Hawker Engineering later Hawker Aircraft and De Havilland Aircraft Company. [29]

Civil aviation

The Government established a Civil Aerial Transport Committee (that included H.G. Wells and Tommy Sopwith) that reported in December 1918. Their key recommendation was that steps should be taken to foster civil aviation in order, in part, to maintain a manufacturing base that could supply the country's military needs. [30] However, Government policy for civil aviation was, initially, according to the then Secretary of State for Air, Winston Churchill, on 11 March 1920 in the House of Commons to let it "fly by itself……any attempt to support it artificially by floods of State money will not ever produce a really sound commercial aviation service which the public will use, and will impose a burden of an almost indefinite amount upon the Exchequer".

Air transport companies were established in 1919–20, several of which were subsidiaries of aircraft manufacturers, such as Handley-Page, Airco and Blackburn Aircraft. A number of the companies failed or found themselves in difficulty, due to high operating cost, low demand that was also seasonal, high fares and heavily subsidised French competition and so it was decided in April 1922 to offer support and by October subsidies were given to individual airlines operating set routes. [31]

Matters were improved when aircraft specifically designed for commercial operation were introduced. The DH.34 and Handley Page W.8 lowered the operating costs for airlines, making them more economically viable. [32]

Eventually, however, the state did involve itself in civil aviation and on the advice of the Hambling Committee, creating Imperial Airways in 1924 from the four main air transport companies. However, the Air Ministry did not actively engage with the development of commercial aircraft, despite the recommendation of the 1918 Civil Aerial Transport Committee and was later criticised by the 1938 Cadman Report for this. [33]

Military aviation

The Air Ministry worked in the early years on the basis that there would be no war in Europe in the immediate future and that the main requirement for aircraft would be policing the colonies. Such activity would not require sophisticated aeroplanes to be developed.

Nonetheless, the Government needed to ensure that the aircraft industry did not shrink to a size dangerous for national defence and that there would be sufficient aircraft and aero engine companies to sustain the United Kingdom's military requirements for the variety of types of aircraft and engines.

Consequently, there came into being an arrangement with Society of British Aircraft Constructors that contracts could be shared around a limited number of companies, this became known as The Ring. [34]

The Air Ministry would draw up a specification which would be given to 'approved firms' who would then submit tenders for prototypes. The Air Ministry would select several prototypes and finally a choice for production would be made.

The work was spread out over about 18 aviation companies. The winning company for a tender would not necessarily be given the complete construction work, which on occasions would be spread out to other companies to ensure that they, the other companies, were able to stay in business. [35]


Civil aviation

There was a particular success in this period in the growth of privately owned light aircraft. In 1924 the Air Ministry initiated a policy of financial assistance to light aeroplane clubs. Despite Air Ministry support what really made the difference was the launch of the De Havilland Gipsy Moth in 1924. An immensely popular aircraft ideally suited to flying clubs and popularised by famous aviators such as Amy Johnson, Jean Batten, and Sir Francis Chichester [36]

However, for airliners in this period the UK lagged behind European countries. In 1931 Belgium operator Sabena was the only other European airline company using British aircraft. The aeroplanes of German manufacturer Junkers and Dutch company Fokker were dominant and after 1930 American passenger aircraft took a leading part. In 1938 Neville Chamberlain flew a British Airways Ltd Lockheed 10 Electra for his meeting with Adolf Hitler. [37]

The reasons for this were not difficult to find. Imperial Airways largely ignored European routes preferring to focus on imperial markets in Africa and India. Imperial Airways' Handley Page aircraft were comfortable and safe but slow. There was no competition on these routes, so there was little incentive to spend money on developing new, faster and more efficient aircraft.

Flying boats

However, the lack of suitable landing airfields in many Empire counties in the inter War period did lead to Imperial Airways commissioning Short Brothers in 1935 to build 28 flying boat aircraft for passengers and freight (particularly airmail). The Second World War effectively stopped the further development of the flying boat as after the War there were plenty of suitable land aircraft, notably the Douglas DC-3, and airfields for flying boats to be redundant. [37]

Research and Development

The aviation industry was to benefit significantly from aeronautical research carried out in the late 1920s and the 1930s. The academic centres were University of Cambridge, where they had established a chair in aeronautical engineering in 1919, and, indeed, most of the leading British aeronautical engineers were Cambridge graduates, [38] and Imperial College London. For instance, Sir Frank Whittle the inventor and developer of the jet engine and W.E.W. Petter the designer of the Westland Lysander and, after World War Two, the English Electric Canberra, and Folland Gnat, both studied mechanical sciences at Cambridge University. [39] [38] [40]

John Siddeley, 1st Baron Kenilworth, the aero engine producer, gave Cambridge University £10,000 for aeronautical research and the arm dealer Basil Zaharoff endowed a chair of aviation at Imperial College. [41]

Much work was also done at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, Hampshire, the research and development organisation under the auspices of the Air Ministry. Research work was, for instance, carried out in wind tunnels, and other projects such as research on electrical heating systems for guns, reliable navigation lamps, better engine magnetos and ignition systems. [42]

1939 to 1945

de Havilland Vampire Vampire t11 wz507 g-vtii cotswoldairshow 2010 arp.jpg
de Havilland Vampire

1945 to 1949

1950 to 1959

English Electric Lightning Lightning.inflight.arp.750pix.jpg
English Electric Lightning

1960 to 1969

Aerospatiale-BAC Concorde Concorde.planview.arp.jpg
Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde

1970 to 1979

Airbus A300
Airbus A300

1980 to 1989

BAE Sea Harrier FA2 SeaHarrier (cropped).jpg
BAE Sea Harrier FA2

1990 to 1999

Eurofighter Typhoon Eurofighter Typhoon 02.jpg
Eurofighter Typhoon

2000 to 2009

2010 to 2019

2020 to present

Current major projects

Crewed civil aircraft

Crewed military aircraft

Civil and military UAVs and UCAVs

BAE Systems HERTI Farnborough 2006 1 001.jpg


AgustaWestland AW101 EH101 Merlin HMS Monmouth 2007.jpg
AgustaWestland AW101


Rolls-Royce Trent 900 A380-trent900.JPG
Rolls-Royce Trent 900
A Boeing 787 powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines. Boeing 787 first flight.jpg
A Boeing 787 powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines.


MBDA Storm Shadow Storm Shadow p1220865.jpg
MBDA Storm Shadow




Current major participants


AgustaWestland is an international helicopter manufacturer owned by Leonardo of Italy. In the United Kingdom, the company has one factory in Yeovil, employing more than 4,000 people. [80] Its main products with a large British content are the AW101, the Super and Future Lynx and the AW139 and AW149.

Airbus UK

An Airbus A380, the wings and engines of which are produced in the UK. Qantas a380 vh-oqa takeoff heathrow arp.jpg
An Airbus A380, the wings and engines of which are produced in the UK.

Airbus (a subsidiary of Airbus) directly employs around 13,000 people at its UK division Airbus UK, with estimates that it supports another 140,000 jobs in the wider UK economy. [81] [82] The traditional UK workshare in Airbus aircraft is around 20%. [83] Airbus has major sites at Filton in the city of Bristol and at Broughton in north Wales. [81] Filton is the main research and development and support centre for all Airbus wings, fuel systems and landing gear integration. [84] Broughton, which employs over 5,000 people, is the main wing manufacturing centre for all Airbus aircraft and also builds the fuselage and wings of the Hawker 800. [82] [84] Since 2006 Airbus has also had a small development centre in the Midlands.[ citation needed ]

Other Airbus subsidiaries with major operations in the UK include Astrium, Cassidian and Surrey Satellite Technology.

Airbus Defence & Space

Airbus Defence and Space (a subsidiary of Airbus) is the largest space company in Europe and employs around 2,700 people in the UK. [85] It has sites at Stevenage (1,200 employees), Portsmouth (1,400 employees) and Poynton (120 employees). [86] [87] [88]

BAE Systems

BAE Systems campus in Farnborough, United Kingdom FarnboroughAerospaceCentre panorama.jpg
BAE Systems campus in Farnborough, United Kingdom

The UK-headquartered BAE Systems is the world's fourth-largest defence contractor and it employs around 36,400 people in the UK. [89] [90] The largest aerospace related locations of BAE Systems are Warton, Samlesbury and Brough. The final assembly line for the British Eurofighter Typhoons, a collaborative European programme, is located at Warton. All flight test activity for crewed aircraft is undertaken from Warton, which is also the development centre within BAE Systems, for UAVs, UCAVs and the Saudi Tornado upgrade programme. Samlesbury is the production hub of the Military Air Solutions division of BAE Systems. Here, components for the Eurofighter Typhoon, the F35 Lightning II, the Hawk, UAVs, UCAVs and Airbus aircraft get built. At Brough, the BAE Hawk gets produced and final assembled, flight tests are done at Warton. Overall, Military Air Solution has 14,000 employees spread across eight sites in the United Kingdom. [91]

Britten-Norman Group

The Britten-Norman Group is the last remaining independent aircraft manufacturer in the United Kingdom, with about 100 employees. It is best known for its design of rugged transport aircraft, such as the Islander, [92] Trislander and Defender 4000. To reduce costs, the company (resident on the Isle of Wight) did not perform manufacture of the airframes, but instead outsourced this to Romania. However, it has now moved production of all aircraft back to Daedalus Airfield and also performs in the European hub for the Cirrus SR20 and SR22 final assembly and delivery. [93]

Bombardier UK

Bombardier Global 5000 Bombardier Global 5000.jpg
Bombardier Global 5000

The Canadian company, Bombardier, employs about 5,000 people in its aerospace division in the UK. It can trace its roots back to Shorts Brothers in Northern Ireland. The company has significant workshares in most Bombardier aircraft with its specialities being fuselages and nacelles.


Cobham plc employs more than 12,000 people in the UK and elsewhere. Its products include refuelling equipment and communication systems.

GE Aviation Systems

GE Aviation Systems, formerly known as Smiths Aerospace, is a division of General Electric, with about 10,000 employees, half of which work in the UK.


GKN Aerospace is a division of the British company GKN, which employs approximately 5,000 people, mainly in the UK and the USA. In the UK, its most important facility is on the Isle of Wight, where it has a carbon composite centre of excellence. There it designed, and used to produce, the composite wing spar for the A400M now produced at GKN's New purpose built Western Approach, Bristol site. The company is also known for producing the cell[ clarification needed ] of the Super Lynx and Future Lynx helicopters. It is the former owner of Westland Helicopters.

Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group

Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group is a family-owned engineering services and technology business which employs over 4000 people with offices in the UK, Europe, UAE and Canada.


MBDA is the largest European missile house, owned by BAE Systems (37.5%), Airbus (37.5%) and Leonardo (25%). It operates in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Poland and has offices in the USA. In the UK, the main sites are Bristol (software and systems) Bolton (production), Stevenage (R&D and integration) and London (management). MBDA's missile programmes include ASRAAM, Meteor, Storm Shadow, Rapier, Sea Wolf, CAMM and Brimstone among others. [94]


QinetiQ was formed from parts of the former Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA). It has close to 12,000 employees and is one of the major players in the British aerospace industry. QinetiQ's main aerospace business relates to satellites, UAVs and reconnaissance systems.


An Airbus A400M, which is powered by the Europrop TP400. A400M-1969.jpg
An Airbus A400M, which is powered by the Europrop TP400.

The UK-headquartered Rolls-Royce Group is the world's second-largest maker of aircraft engines (behind General Electric). [95] [96] It has over 50,000 employees, of whom about 23,000 are based in the United Kingdom. [60] In 2014, Rolls-Royce purchased the 50% Daimler had in the R-R engine business, paying 2'430 million € for it. The company's main UK factories are at Derby and Bristol. In Derby, the three shaft Trent engines get developed and produced. The current line up includes the Trent 700 for the Airbus A330, the Trent 900 for the Airbus A380, the Trent 1000 for the Boeing 787 and the Trent XWB for the Airbus A350 XWB, among others. In Bristol, the company has concentrated its military aerospace business with the British final assembly line for the EJ200 engine for the Eurofighter Typhoon, the only final assembly line for the British-French Adour engine and other programmes, such as significant parts of the workshare, in the TP400 turboprop engine for the A400M and the F136 engine for the F-35 Lightning II. Recently, Bristol has also been confirmed as the centre for the development and testing of the civil RB282 engine, which will, however, be produced in Virginia. [60]

Rolls-Royce's main locations are at Derby, Bristol, Hucknall, Barnoldswick/Burnley, Inchinnan.


Safran's operations include its Messier-Dowty and Turbomeca subsidiaries.

Leonardo MW

Leonardo MW is a Leonardo company.

The company has a workforce of approximately 17,000 and total revenues in excess of €3.5 billion. Alongside core operations in Italy and the UK, the company trades in the United States, Germany, Turkey, Romania, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and India.

Surrey Satellite Technology

An artist's impression of two of the five satellites constructed by Surrey Satellite Technology for RapidEye AG. RapidEye Satellites Artist Impression.jpg
An artist's impression of two of the five satellites constructed by Surrey Satellite Technology for RapidEye AG.

Surrey Satellite Technology is a small satellite development and production company. It currently has c.600 employees and is the world leader in small satellites. [97] In its 22-year history, it has developed satellites for 27 missions. The two Galileo satellite navigation proofing satellites, GIOVE-A and GIOVE-A2, are two of their better-known satellites. Originally a spin-out company from the University of Surrey, Surrey Satellite Technology is now 99% owned by the Airbus Defence and Space division of Airbus. [98]

Thales Group

Thales Group including its UK-based Thales Air Defence, Thales Avionics and Thales Optronics subsidiaries has capabilities including avionics, UAVs, simulation.

See also

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