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Farnborough's Aviation History

An Introduction to Farnborough’s unique contribution to Aviation Science

A Brief History of Aviation Science & Development at Farnborough

No other single location in the world has contributed so much to the development of aeronautical science over such a long period of time as Farnborough. From the first airborne cameras and flying clothing, to high altitude ‘space suits’, night vision aids, head-up cockpit displays and the first carbon fibre experiments – the list of Farnborough’s aerospace contributions is endless.

Farnborough was originally a small town in England, south west of London with some fine mid-19th Century buildings and, importantly, close to open heath and to Aldershot – the home of the British Army –  making it an ideal spot from which it grew into the foremost location for British aviation research and development. The connection with aviation spanned most of the 20th Century.

There have been flying activities at Farnborough since the Royal Engineers Balloon School moved from Aldershot in 1905 to the Swan Plateau, bringing a single balloon shed, some workshops and a hydrogen generation station. Balloons were used mainly for reconnaissance at the time. Because they could only be used when there was little or no wind, man-carrying kites were developed for use in windy conditions.

Samuel Cody led the Kite based activities and this soon developed into heavier than air machines.

On 16th October 1908, in British Army Aeroplane No. 1, Samuel Cody made the first official flight of a heavier than air machine in Great Britian with a flight of 1,390ft.

When Bleriot spanned the English Channel in 1909, the War Office, quickly realising that Great Britain was no longer a secure island, began to take an increasing interest in aviation and its military potential, this led to the creation of the Royal Aircraft Factory in December 1909 and began a long history of the development of aeronautics at Farnborough.

The Royal Aircraft Establishment was formed in 1918 after the Royal Aircraft Factory (RAF) and newly formed Royal Air Force (RAF) ended up with the same initials.  To avoid confusion the ‘Factory’ was renamed ‘Establishment’ creating the organisation that lasted until 1991, including a name change in 1988 to the Royal Aerospace Establishment, to reflect the broader scope of work that was being undertaken at the time.

On 1st April 1991 the Defence Research Agency (DRA) headquartered at Farnborough, was formed through the merger of the Admiralty Research Establishment (ARE), the Royal Aircraft/Aerospace Establishment, the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment (RARDE) and the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment (RSRE). The final nail in the coffin for the organisation as a purely MOD funded research organisation was 2nd July 2001 when QinetiQ was formed.  QinetiQ was the commercial arm of the previous research establishments with the sensitive government work being conducted by the newly formed Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).  DSTL would ultimately end up being run out of Porton Down, the former Chemical Defence Establishment.

From the first powered flight in the UK by Samuel Cody, to the development of Miss Shilling’s Orifice by Beatrice (“Tilly”) Shilling  (a very simple technical device made to counter engine cut-out which was incorporated fitted in Spitfires and Hurricanes and significantly helped the Allies attain air superiority in WW2), the work undertaken by Sir Frank Whittle’s team at Pyestock on the development of the jet engine and wind tunnel testing of Concorde, Farnborough has led the world in many aspects of aviation.

Briefings on key aspects of this illustrious history can be found at the link below:

Airfield and Business Park

The civil enclave at the Farnborough Aviation Site was operated by Farnborough Business Aviation until 2003, when the MOD stopped operations at Farnborough and it was taken over by TAG Aviation.

In 2003 a new business aviation airport was established, with all experimental aircraft moved to Boscombe Down.  The airport was subsequently acquired by Macquarie in 2019 who now operate Farnborough Airport.

A focal point of the Farnborough Business Park adjacent to the Farnborough Airport is the reconstructed portable airship hanger originally constructed at the then Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough in 1911 at a cost of £850.

The shed was dismantled in 1915 after being damaged in a gale. The components were subsequently used in the construction of two separate buildings on the factory site, the uprights were used in the Fabric Shop (Q65) and top section was used in the RAE Forge and Foundry (R51).

Following closure and decommissioning of the former RAE Factory Site in 1998, and representations from FAST members, the former components of the shed were salvaged during the demolition of R51 and Q65 and the Hanger Frame was re-erected on its current site in the central square of the Farnborough Business Park.

This is now the oldest surviving airship shed in the United Kingdom. 


As well as the more popular aviation books, our library holds a number of directly related RAE and Royal Aircraft Factory historical artefacts. We have some of the technical notebooks of the early pioneers at Farnborough – Busk, de Havilland, Folland. We also have a wide range of autobiographies and biographies of test and service pilots – many of whom flew experimental aircraft at Farnborough and Bedford.

We also have aeronautical books back to 1898 and bound volumes of Flight, Aeroplane and Janes; as well as The Proceedings of the Royal Aeronautical Society. We also keep numerous brochures and programmes associated directly with the RAE (Open Days etc.) or with the Farnborough Airshow.

English Electric Lighning F1A

Get your adrenaline flowing by flying this fully restored 1960s Lightning Flight Simulator through the ‘Sound Barrier’. Fly under Tower Bridge in London before climbing to 80,000 feet and beyond. Our Lightning Simulator sits in a dedicated room, so just make sure you hold on tight to the controls when the lights go down.

English Electric Lighning F1A Flight Simulator
English Electric Lightning F1A Flight Simulator
English Electric Lightning F1A Flight Simulator

Children’s Spitfire

Open to all ages, this simulator provides an ideal opportunity for our younger visitors to try their hands at the controls of a WW2 Spitfire. If your child is able to reach the controls then he or she can ‘bag a kill’. Who knows? They may even grow up to become an RAF pilot.

Childrens Spitfire Flight Simulator
Childrens Spitfire Flight Simulator


Here is an opportunity to fly our full-sized Concorde Simulator. With practice, you may even manage to get her down safely at London’s Heathrow Airport. But be warned, it’s not easy!

Concorde Flight Simulator

Simulator Graphics

At the far end of the gallery in Hall 2 is a 2000:1 scale model board of the Wiltshire countryside.  Find out how simulators generated outside world visuals prior to the invention of computer graphics now so commonplace in use in PlayStation, XBox or similar games consoles.

Below are video still snapshots of the outside world view from a flight simulator, generated from a camera ‘flying’ over the model board.  This was a typical method used to provide visuals for research simulators in the 1980s, before the power of computers was such that real-time computer-generated scenes could be employed.

Flight Simulators Video Stills
Flight Simulators Aerial Board