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Short Brothers…the forgotten trailblazers


Innovative designers through the years

Added by Keith Bradshaw on 26 June 2020

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Ask any man in the street to name a famous UK aircraft manufacturer and you will hear Vickers, de Havilland, Avro or Handley Page mentioned. You would be very unlikely to hear the name Shorts. However, this company was making balloons in 1897, became Short Brothers in 1908 and continued in the aviation business achieving many firsts until bought by Bombardier in 1989.

The Short No.1 Biplane, the first aeroplane designed by the brothers in 1909, crashed on its first take-off. Photo: Public domain

In 1897 two brothers Eustace and Oswald Short, both living in Sussex, took a ride in a coal gas filled balloon. This ride set the scene for their entry into the aviation business. They soon started making balloons for themselves and others and moved into premises under a railway arch in Battersea, London next to the gas works. The balloon business was going well but upon hearing reports in 1908 of a visit to an exhibition in Paris where a Wright Flyer aeroplane was being demonstrated they decided the future lay in heavier-than-air machines. After persuading their brother Horace to join them in this new venture they formed Short Brothers in 1908. In the following year Horace had designed and built their first aeroplane the Short No.1, also obtaining from the Wright Brothers in the United States the rights to build Wright Flyers here in the UK. Their own first design however was not a success. Unable to get airborne due to the low power from the engine it was put in store awaiting a bigger powerplant. When it arrived and was fitted, the Short No.1 stalled and crashed on take off. It was not repaired and the design was abandoned, work now concentrating on the licence- built Wright Flyers. With an order for six Flyers a move was made to a large site on the Isle of Sheppey next to the Royal Aero Club, setting up Shellbeach airfield. This enabled the Short brothers to open the world’s first production line for aeroplanes thus becoming the world’s first aircraft manufacturer.

A Short Type S.27. It was aeroplane of this type, flown by Commander C.R. Samson in 1912, that became the first aeroplane to be launched from a moving ship, another Short’s first. Phot: Public Domain

In 1910 they built the Short-Dunne 5 the world’s first tailless plane to fly and the following year they achieved another first with the Short Type S.39 the world’s first twin-engine plane. That same year they started work on what was to become a long series of float planes, the Short Type S.26, for the Royal Naval Air Service. Following on from this design was the Short Type S.27 which in 1912 became the first aircraft ever to be launched off a moving ship. To test these planes it was necessary to dismantle them and truck them to the sea so it made sense for the company to relocate somewhere nearer the water and by 1915 a new facility had been built at Rochester, Kent alongside the river Medway. With the First World War underway, Shorts were producing a large number of aircraft for the RNAS mainly the Short Type S.184. Over 900 would be supplied to the Navy’s air arm. It was a Type S.184 that during the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 launched the world’s first ever airborne torpedo attack on a ship.

A Short Type S.320 launching a torpedo. It was the smaller Type S.184 that became the first plane in the world to attack a ship with a torpedo in 1915. Photo: Public Domain

Towards the end of the First World War Shorts was one of the companies chosen to build the F3 and F5 flying boats for the Seaplane Experimental Station. Flying in 1917 and 1918 respectively, Shorts had produced 50 aircraft by the end of the war. Shorts, as we will see, went on to to become masters of flying boat construction.


A pair of F.5 Felixstowe flying boats built by Shorts for the Seaplane Experimental Station. These were the first of many flying boats that would emerge from Short’s factories. Photo: Public domain

With their earlier experience with balloons it was no surprise that in 1916 the military contracted Short to build airships. Short found a site at Cardington near Bedford and built a huge hangar for the construction of these large flying machines. Today the two Cardington Airship sheds still stand. One of these was the original Shorts building which had been enlarged. To house their workers in rural Bedfordshire Shorts also built a housing estate which to this day still carries the name Shortstown. By 1919 the airship concern was nationalised by the UK government and Shorts had no further involvement in airship work at Cardington. The company was renamed Short Brothers (Rochester and Bedford) Ltd. Horace Short died in 1917 and his brother Oswald became the chief designer for the company.

The airship shed at Cardington. The original Short Brothers shed was later enlarged and another shed built alongside both of which survive today. The people in front of the shed give some sense of scale to the building. Photo: MAC

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Short concentrated on building flying boats including in 1924 the Singapore range. It was in one such aeroplane that Sir Alan Cobham and his wife flew on a survey of Africa in 1927. The following year Shorts built one of their most iconic flying boats the Calcutta. Based upon the earlier Singapore design the Calcutta was purchased by Imperial Airways as a 15-seater passenger airliner and first entered service in 1928. In 1932 Eustace passed away leaving only Oswald remaining from the three brothers. He would live on until 1969.

Short Calcutta. Seven of these large flying boats were built and rival company Breguet of France purchased one and redesigned it into their own Breguet 521.                                                           Photo: Public domain.

 Seven Calcuttas were built and they led on to larger more powerful designs culminating in the four- engine Empire flying boat of which the first example named Canopus first flew in 1936. These large flying boats entered service with Imperial Airways to fly the Empire airmail routes. 42 examples were built, all ordered by Imperial or their successor BOAC. Some were later operated by Qantas of Australia and TEAL of New Zealand. When the Empire was first designed it was the largest and most complex aeroplane ever built in the UK and Shorts had to come up with several new ways of making components such as the spars, a new design of wing flaps and also a complete change to the hull shape. This was based on a scaled-up version of that of the Short Scion a small nine seat plane that had flown the year earlier in 1935. In 1937 Imperial Airways operated an Empire boat from Foynes in Eire to Newfoundland Canada on the first westbound Atlantic crossing.  It was also a Short Empire that in 1938 carried a Short S.20 on its back to form the Mayo composite enabling the smaller float plane to be the first heavier than air aircraft to fly a commercial service non-stop across the Atlantic. The Empire boat would later be developed into the famous Sunderland to fulfil a government contract Shorts had won in 1937 for a military flying boat.

An Empire flying boat with a S.20 float plane on its back formed the Shorts Mayo Composite. This combination allowed the smaller float plane to be the first heavier than air aircraft to complete a commercial (it was carrying mail and newspapers) flight across the Atlantic non-stop.
Photo : Flickr


The mighty Sunderland takes off for another long patrol mission.  Photo: Public Domain

With business booming, in 1936 Shorts entered into a partnership with shipbuilders Harland and Wolff to form a new company to open an aircraft factory in Belfast. The new company was known as Short and Harland and their first contracts were to build under licence a number of Handley Page Hereford bombers and 50 Bristol Bombay aircraft. These would not be the last aircraft designs of another manufacture that Short and Harland would build. At the outbreak of the Second World War both the Rochester and the Belfast factories would be working flat out producing the Short Sunderland and the RAF’s first four-engine heavy bomber, the Short Stirling. 2,371 of these large bombers would be produced along with 749 Sunderlands at the two main factories plus several satellite units around the country. In 1943 the company was nationalised by the UK government.

A Short Stirling heavy bomber in India. The first of the RAF’s four-engine heavy bomber the Stirling would see service right through the war. Sadly none survive today. Photo: SDASM

By 1948 Short Brothers had closed all the satellite factories and now did the same with the plant at Rochester moving lock stock and barrel to Belfast. It had renamed the Short and Harland Company the previous year to Short Brothers and Harland Ltd and the previous company along with Short Brothers (Rochester and Bedford) Ltd closed down. Oswald Short became life president of the new company. During the 1950s Short’s design office was involved with a number of research aircraft such as the Short SC.1 VTOL aircraft, the Short SB.4 Sherpa wing trials aircraft and the radical SB.5 that could be configured to alter the sweep back of its wing and have the tailplane fitted atop the fin or in the more normal fuselage mounted position. This was a trials aircraft for the design of the new supersonic Lightning jet fighter to be built by English Electric. In 1954 the Bristol Aeroplane company took a15.25 per cent share in Short Brothers and Harland Ltd and as a consequence 15 Bristol Britannia’s for the RAF were built by Shorts at Belfast.

The Short SB.5 research aircraft with a wing that could be fitted at various angles of sweep and a tailplane that would fit either on top of the fin or as in this photo on the rear fuselage. The aeroplane is seen here operated by the EPTPS (Empire Test Pilots’ School) at Finningley, Yorkshire in 1969. The aeroplane is now part of the RAF museum at Cosford.                                            Photo: RuthAs

As well as Britannia’s for Bristol, Shorts also undertook, along with a number of other     manufacturers, the construction of the new jet bomber the English Electric Canberra. Such was the demand for this aeroplane from air forces around the world, English Electric had to get other companies to help with the building of the planes to fulfil the large order book. Among the 150 examples Shorts built would be all the PR9 photographic reconnaissance aircraft. The PR9 was the last type of Canberra in service with the RAF finally retiring in 2006, 57 years after the Canberra’s first flight.

Built by Shorts in Belfast an English Electric Canberra PR9. The second crew member would enter by the open nose which would then be locked shut prior to departure. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

The 1950s were a busy time for the company as along with the licence built and test aircraft they also found time to build the Short Seamew anti-submarine aircraft for the Royal Navy and the Short Sperrin jet bomber for the RAF. Neither were very successful. The small number of Sea Mews built were soon replaced by the much more capable Fairy Gannet and the Sperrin never went into production as it was overtaken by the V-bombers. However the two prototypes flew for a few years as test aircraft with the RAE (Royal Aircraft Establishment) at Farnborough.

A rather strange design, the Short Seamew seen landing on HMS Bulwark in 1955.                      Photo: Public domain


One of the two Short Sperrin bombers. Both were used for a short while as test aircraft and then scrapped. Photo: Tom Wigley

In 1960 Shorts started construction on a new small, short-haul airliner to be called the Short SC.7 Skyvan. It made its first flight from Belfast in 1963 and was an immediate hit. Looking akin to a flying shed its boxy fuselage and tail ramp also made easy work of loading freight. Production ran until 1986 by which time 149 of these quirky little planes had been produced. The ability to operate off rough runways saw them find service with airlines and the military all around the world. Two Skyvans operated by the Argentine Air Force took part in the Falklands war but both were destroyed by British forces. In a slightly less hostile environment British Airways used 19-seat Skyvans for a while on their Scottish Highlands and Islands services including landing on the beach at Barra. Only a few of these boxy planes remain in service now with military and civilian operators for parachuting or freight work in remote airfields such as Alaska and Canada. The RAF still to this day contract a pair of Skyvans from civilian operators for their basic parachute training courses.

After dropping its parachutists, a Short Skyvan comes into land at Abingdon airfield. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

With the Skyvan selling well, Shorts decided to ‘go large’ and in 1964 tested the large heavy-lift SC.5 Belfast freighter. Powered by four Rolls Royce Tyne turboprops the new freighter used a number of wing and tail components from the Britannia. The aeroplane had been built to meet a RAF requirement for a new large transport aeroplane and they ordered ten from the Northern Ireland manufacturer. Sadly these would be the only aeroplanes made. Equipped with a Smith’s Autoland system similar to the Trident, the Belfast was at the time the largest aircraft to enter RAF service. The first of the ten flew in 1966. However they only remained in service for ten years and in 1976 defence cuts and re organisation led to their retirement and storage. The following year freight airline TAC Heavylift purchased five for use in the civil market. Three of them would return to flight the others acting as spares ships. Ironically during the Falklands war the RAF had to charter back their old aeroplanes to carry outsize loads that would not fit in the RAF Hercules. One by one the three flyers were grounded with the last one now sitting at Cairns airport in Australia where it has been grounded for many years. The last Belfast built for the RAF was returned by Heavylift to the RAF for the museum at Cosford.


Seen at Manchester in 1982, Heavylift Belfasts operated outsize freight charters around the world. Photo : Ken Fielding

By the mid- seventies the company was looking at designs for a larger version of the Skyvan and in 1974 the Short SD330 first flew. Looking very much like its predecessor the SD330 was a larger aeroplane with a new, more aerodynamic nose section and could carry up to 30 passengers. This made it ideal for the emerging market for feeder liners as many airlines had given up their ‘thin’ routes in favour of hub operations and there was a niche market for aircraft to deliver passengers to the big boys at their hubs. Shorts must have got their research correct as at close of production they had built 141 SD330s. This included 34 all freight versions called the C-23 Sherpa for the USAF who needed a ‘transit van’ type plane to operate freight runs between its European bases. When these bases later closed the C-23s returned to the US and many ended up in the civil freight market. As the Sherpa retained the rear cargo loading ramp of the Skyvan this made it ideal for freight operations

This SD330 of Canadian airline Skycraft was used to fly automotive workers around the various General Motors factories based along the US/Canada border. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

In 1977 the company changed its name again back to Short Brothers. The final incarnation of the original Skyvan was the SD360 a larger version of the SD330 with a single conventional fin capable of carrying 39 passengers. The new aeroplane first flew in 1981 and was the best seller of the three types with 165 built. It first flew with US airline Suburban Airways. There are still around 30-40 SD360s in service many having been converted into small parcel freighters for overnight deliveries

Roblex Aviation was a freight company from Puerto Rico who operated four SD360 freighters, seen here at their home base of San Juan before they ceased trading in 2013. Photo: Keith Bradshaw
Farnborough 1982 saw all three of the ‘Flying Sheds’ being put through their paces. SD360 leads the Skvvan whilst the SD330 brings up the rear. Photo: Wiltshireplanespotter

In 1986 the prototype Embraer EMB 312 Tucano trainer was delivered to Shorts in Belfast. The company had won the contract from the RAF to produce their new basic trainer based on the Brazilian aeroplane. Production started in 1988 and ran until 1995 when 160 examples had been built. The bulk of the Tucanos went to the RAF but the Kenyan and Kuwaiti Air Forces also ordered a few. In 1988 the company announced it was looking into building a regional jet capable of carrying 44 passengers to be called the FJX. This was not to be, as the following year the government announced the sale of the company to Bombardier Aerospace and this design would have been a direct competitor to that company’s CJ100 jet so the project was axed along with the Short Brothers name.

Seen at Yeovilton in July 2019 the Tucano only had a few more months in RAF service with the type being retired in October of that year after 31 years of service. Photo: keith Bradshaw

In its 81-year existence the Short Brothers company under its many names but nearly always referred to as just ‘Shorts’ had been at the forefront of so much in aviation. First aircraft production line, first aircraft manufacturer, first twin engines aeroplane, first to launch from a moving ship, first to launch a torpedo, first commercial non-stop flight across the Atlantic and more. Despite all this it never sat in the public mind such as companies like Avro, Hawker and de Havilland, but Shorts truly is the forgotten trailblazer.

The golden years for Shorts were the flying boat days. Here one of their Solents sits in the sunshine at the Oakland air museum California. Photo: Keith Bradshaw

Hope you enjoyed this article, there will be another in just two weeks time. For more aviation stories check out our facebook page: the British Airliner Collection.

‘till the next time. Keith



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