Part Two: Westland Aircraft

The genesis of Westland Aircraft came about when Sir Ernest Petter offered to place the entire manufacturing resources of J.B. Petter & Sons Ltd. at the disposal of the government in 1915, as already mentioned in Part One of the Petter-Westland Story. Because of the country's unpreparedness for war, so far as the manufacture of weaponry and munitions were concerned, the offer made by the board of Petters was taken up by the Admiralty and Sir Ernest and his brother Percy were invited to attend a meeting in London. There it was stated that the Navy was in great need of seaplanes which could be used to do spotting beyond the visual range of vessels at sea. Despite the fact that the company had no previous experience at all in that field, the Admiralty over-rode any misgivings, saying that necessary drawings and all help possible would be forthcoming.

The first order was for twelve Short 184 float planes, and, in order to achieve their manufacture, workshops on the Westland site had to be developed, a chief draughtsman appointed, and a number of engineers allocated from the Reckleford Works. Petters' board also decided that the new works should be operated as a separate self supporting company, though still entirely owned by them.

Following liaison with Short Brothers at Rochester, production work started in August, and the first aircraft was delivered the following January. This had to be disassembled, crated, and conveyed by horse-drawn vehicle to Yeovil Junction railway station, and placed on a freight train to Short Brothers, where it was re-assembled and tested.

Sub contract work during the war years resulted in 1,100 aircraft having been supplied by the time armistice was signed, these consisting of Short Seaplane 166, Sopwith 9700 fighters, de Havilland DH4, DH9 and DH9a bombers, and Vickers Vimy FB27 bombers. In addition Westland also produced three separate prototypes of their own design - the Scout, a single-seat seaplane, Wagtail a single seat fighter, and Weasel, a two seat fighter reconnaissance plane. But owing to teething problems and lateness of their production, none were put into service, particularly galling was the fact that the Wagtail had been declared the winner in a test by the RAF, but with the war at an end and no funds available service orders were not forthcoming.

Some of the early difficulties encountered arose from lack of a nearby airfield from which to carry out test flights, early planes having to be crated and sent to Hampshire for the purpose! Adjoining farmland, which had once formed part of Hendford's medieval open-field system of agriculture, but now divided into smaller units with hedges and ditches, was owned by Yeovil and District Hospital Board. Sufficient was acquired, levelled, and made into an adequate take off and landing area, but this took time and it was not until their first three contracts had been fulfilled that the first test-flight from it was made in the Spring of 1917.

Like other war-time manufacturers of aircraft, Westland decided to enter the civil aviation market with the production of a pilot and three passenger aircraft which they named the Limousine. In August 1919 the Department of Civil Aviation announced a competition for three categories of aircraft of ‘small, large and seaplanes'. The ‘small' was for a pilot and two passengers, and ‘large' for 15 passengers and crew. Because the gap was considered too large between these extremes, the ‘small' version was enlarged to accommodate from two to six. Westland decided to upgrade their existing Limousine to include a pilot and five passengers, and Limousine III was entered in the ‘small' aircraft competition which took place in 1920. It won its class and Westland received the £7,500 prize.

The Westland Wapiti

Despite many setbacks and disappointments following this early success, the company eventually achieved an outstanding boost with the introduction of the Westand Wapiti, first flown in 1927, and of which 563 were eventually produced and sold.

Perhaps the most unusual, one might say bizarre, project undertaken, was the tail-less plane experiments with no fewer than five prototype examples known as the Pterodactyl. The name was, perhaps, too well chosen for, like its dinosaur predecessor it became extinct when further tests were abandoned after 1934.      

The Westland Pterodactyl

In that year, though, one other tentative and, in the event, prophetic step was taken with the development of a rotary wing aircraft - the five seater Westland C29 Autogiro. Produced in co-operation with the company of its Spanish designer, Juan de la Cierva, its production was not pursued following his death, and though construction of a CL20 autogiro followed, its disappointing performance resulted in the project being shelved when war became imminent.

Production of fixed wing aircraft continued and among those built under sub-contract was the Hawker Audax. The next really big success, though not recognised as such at the time, came with the P8, first flown in 1936, which had been designed to succeed the Audax. Potential sales were thought to realise only relatively small numbers, no-one then foresaw that eventually its production would top 1,400 under its better-known name - the Westland Lysander.

The Westland Lysander

         Among the first British aircraft based in France when the Second World War broke out, the Lysander subsequently saw service in Burma, Egypt, Greece, India, and Palestine. When its front-line role ended, it continued to play an important part with Special Duties units.

During the war, sub-contract work included the building of Spitfires and Seafires, while Westland own designs included the Whirlwind and Welkin fighters. Those struggles which had followed the ending of the First World War, were to be largely avoided with an agreement reached by the Westland board with the American Sikorsky company. 

This was the granting of a licence to build their S51 helicopter for sale outside the USA and Canada. But of great importance was the agreement that Westland would be allowed to develop and improve the design - a course which resulted in the Westland Dragonfly taking to the air in October 1948.

Westland Dragonfly (Sikorsky S51)

This was followed by the Whirlwind (Sikorsky's S55), over 400 being produced, and the introduction of turboshaft engines into this craft was to be a significant factor in helicopter power systems for the future.

The re-organisation of the country's aircraft industry following the Government's Defence White Paper of 1957 resulted in Westland acquiring Saunders Roe Ltd. of Cowes, Isle of Wight, and Eastleigh, Hants, in 1959, the Helicopter Division of Bristol Aircraft Ltd. from the Bristol Aeroplane Company, and the U.K. aviation interests of Fairey Aviation the following year. These acquisitions led to a number of helicopter designs, both in production or under development being added to the Westland range.

With these mergers, there came with Saunders Roe their hovercraft development programme together with current rocket propulsion testing, after a period of further development of the latter however these were eventually cancelled. Subsequent to the amalgamations subsidiary companies were formed, including British Hovercraft, Normalair Garrett and Westland Engineers.

Development of several successful Sikorsky-designed helicopters followed the Whirlwind, including the Westland Wessex. Then, in 1965, in order to meet British Army requirements, Westland was granted licence to build the Bell model 47 helicopter, better known as the Sioux, which was currently being manufactured for the European market by the Italian company Augusta, who were to supply Westland with many of its components.

Three years later another agreement, this time with the French firm Aerospatiale, resulted in the joint production of three different helicopters - the Puma, Gazelle, and Lynx - in the case of the last named, Westland having design leadership. Following these, the highly-successful Sea King was a Westland design based on the Sikorsky S61, and then it was with Augusta that E.H. Industries Ltd. was established to produce its successor, the EH 101.

Controversy over whether Westland should be financially linked with a United States company or to be similarly associated in Europe, led to the resignation of two government ministers in 1986, but the result was a strengthening of the company's ties with its long-term associates, the American Sikorsky company.

More recently, Westland has demonstrated its ability in the design field by achieving the world air speed record for helicopters with a new type of rotor-blade configuration, and currently, in addition to the EH101, the Sikorsky Black Hawk is under development.


Historical Monograph No 2
© 2004. South Somerset District Council and Leslie Brooke