The Earliest Overseas Aviation Companies: England, France, Germany, and Russia

The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company (later known as Bristol Aircraft) built the Farman biplane that became known as the Bristol Boxkite. It remained in production until 1914, and 130 were built.

The Sopwith experimental department built an entirely new design—a triplane—in early 1916.

The Sopwith Two-Seater appeared in December 1915. Because of the shortness of the inboard struts, it received the nickname “1-1”.

British pilots of the World War I era regarded this little biplane as the “pup” of the Sopwith 1-1.

Russian Igor Sikorsky built the multi-engine Le Grand, the largest plane anyone had constructed up to that time. It first flew on May 13, 1913.

Austrian designer Igo Etrich sold production rights for the Taube to the German aircraft firm Rumpler and eventually to 10 firms in Germany.

The American and European aviation industries began to develop within a few years of each other, but Europe took the first formal steps to establish dedicated aircraft companies in the early decades of the 20th century. During this time, there was a shift from aircraft designers, builders, and pilots all being the same people to having entrepreneurs who ran the business and built the planes and others who flew them.

In England, the Short brothers—Horace, Albert, and Hugh, three experienced balloon-makers, established the first British airplane manufacturing company in 1908. After two unsuccessful planes, Albert obtained a license from Wilbur Wright in February 1909 to manufacture six Wright airplanes in Britain. This order made the Short company the first to produce a series of planes, rather than one of a model.

The brothers went on to design and build their own aircraft. Horace designed their first successful airplane, the Short biplane No. 2. In 1913, they produced a seaplane with folding wings that allowed the plane to be parked on a ship. In 1915, the Seaplane 184 was the first aircraft to sink a ship with a torpedo, when it sank a Turkish merchant ship in the Dardanelles. This bomber saw service until better heavy bombers came along and the Short was reassigned to reconnaissance duties. They also built a small number of land-based bombers and what some claim to be the first twin-engine plane to fly—the Triple-Twin biplane.

A.V. Roe & Co. was another early British entry into the aviation business. Established in 1910, by Alliot Verdon Roe, the company (which soon took the name Avro) built some of the first planes with enclosed fuselages and celluloid windows for the pilot. The 1912 Avro F was the world’s first cabin aircraft to fly.

The company went on to build the 504 series, beginning in 1913. This World War I plane has been ranked as one of the greatest planes of the era, seeing duty as a fighter, trainer, bomber, and reconnaissance plane and continuing in use as a civilian training plane until the 1930s. It could fly at more than 80 miles per hour (129 kilometers per hour) and it set a British altitude record of 15,000 feet (4,572 meters).

The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company (soon known as Bristol Aeroplane Company) was formed in February 1910 by Sir George White. Bristol’s first successful aircraft became known as the Bristol Boxkite. The plane was a great commercial success and remained in production until 1914. In all, 130 were built.

Also in Britain, the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough evolved from His Majesty’s Balloon Factory. When it became apparent that fixed-wing powered craft would replace lighter-than-air craft, the balloon factory, under the direction of Mervyn O’Gorman, began constructing heavier-than-air craft. The factory had no funds but relied on donations of used aircraft. In 1910, it managed to acquire a wrecked Blériot monoplane with a tractor propeller from the Army. O’Gorman and his designers, F.M. Green and Geoffrey de Havilland, who would establish his own aircraft company in 1920, “repaired” and transformed the craft into the S.E.1 single-seat biplane with a pusher engine. Not surprisingly, the plane crashed soon after takeoff.

Its next plane worked better and lasted almost three years. It began as a Voisin pusher biplane that Farnborough acquired in 1911 and ended up as the B.E.1 tractor biplane. The B.E.2 appeared early in 1912. It was the first British aircraft to reach France at the outbreak of World War I. First used for reconnaissance, it was used in combat after a machine gun was added. The plane was difficult to maneuver swiftly, which made it a target for the “Fokker Scourge” of 1915-16 and “Bloody April” of 1917. More than 3,200 B.E.2 aircraft were built and many were used as trainers after the war. Farnborough also produced the B.S.1 in 1912, which was the first single-seat reconnaissance plane and predecessor to every future scout and fighter plane.

Another British company, Sopwith Aviation Co., Ltd., got its start during this time. Incorporated in 1912 by Sir Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith, it started by rebuilding and modifying aircraft. Although the company was known mostly for traditional airplanes, the first plane it built was the Bat Boat, one of the world’s first amphibious airplanes and the first in Great Britain. Sopwith built several aircraft for World War I, including the Pup, an important pursuit aircraft, the 1-1/2 Strutter, and the Triplane. But its most famous plane and most important was the Sopwith F.1 Camel, which was regarded as the finest British fighter of the war although difficult to fly. It was known as the adversary of the German “Red Baron,” and scored more victories against German aircraft than any other Allied plane in the war. The company prospered during the war, but faltered during the poor post-war market and was dissolved in 1920.

In Imperial Russia, Igor Sikorsky was another early builder of aircraft. His early efforts included both rotary-wing craft, which were unsuccessful, and fixed-wing aircraft. His first plane, the S-1, built in 1910, didn’t have enough power to rise off the ground. His S-2 flew briefly with its more powerful engine. He continued to improve his aircraft, and in 1912, won a military flying competition with his S-6-A, which could carry two passengers and set a speed record for a plane of this type at more than 70 miles per hour (113 kilometers per hour). In 1913, he introduced his four-engine Le Grand with its enclosed cabin and observation platform. It was the largest plane anyone had ever constructed, weighing 4.5 tons (4,082 kilograms) and powered by four 100-horsepower (75-kilowatt) Argus engines. It made 53 successful flights, could carry seven passengers, and could stay aloft for nearly two hours. The Ilya Muromets planes, successors to Le Grand, were used as bombers in World War I by the Imperial Russian Army.

Germany numerically led the group with some 25 aircraft production companies established before World War I. Many of its manufacturers began by obtaining licenses to produce foreign designs. E. Rumpler was the first, who, in 1910, was licensed to produce the Austrian Taube (Dove). Other German companies, such as Albatros, began in 1910 with French designs and then added Taube-type monoplanes to their inventories. Aviatik, founded in 1910, began by manufacturing two French aircraft. Albatros and Gotha, another company that produced Taube-type planes, built many German military aircraft used in World War I.

The German government backed the establishment of the Deutsche Flugzeug Werke (D.F.W.). It produced the Maurice Farman biplane in 1910 and later produced a monoplane that won the 1913 Prince Henry trophy. It also built the Mars biplanes used in the Balkan conflicts. D.F.W. gradually developed its own aircraft, including the B.I tractor biplane, which set a new world altitude record in July 1914 when H. Oelerich flew it to a height of 26,740 feet (8,150 meters).

August Euler, the first aviator to obtain a German pilot’s license, founded the Euler works and began producing Voisin biplanes under license. Gustav Otto began manufacturing aircraft under license with Henry Farman and then developed his own Otto tractor biplane. The Dutchman, Anthony Fokker, founded one of the more successful early German companies in 1911

. His Fokker Spinnes were widely used in both civilian and military flying schools in Germany before World War I. During the war, he provided many of the German combat aircraft. After the war, he moved his company to the Netherlands so he could avoid the restrictions on manufacturing aircraft imposed on the Germans by the Treaty of Versailles. Germany also had a successful airship industry that began in 1907 with the establishment of the Zeppelin company.

—Judy Rumerman


Angelucci, Enzo and Matricardi, Paolo. World Aircraft – Origins-World War I. Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1975.

Gibbs-Smith, Charles H. Aviation – An Historical Survey From Its Origins to the End of World War II. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1970.

Flight Through the Ages. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., Inc., 1974.

Millbrooke, Anne. Aviation History. Jeppesen Sanderson Training Products. Englewood, Colo.: Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc., 1999, 2000.

Stoff, Joshua. Picture History of Early Aviation, 1903-1913. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1996.

Additional References:

Barnes, C.H. Shorts Aircraft Since 1900. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1989.

Brett, R. Dallas. History of British Aviation, 1908-1914. Surrey, England: Air Research/Kristall Productions, 1988.

Fokker, Anthony Herman Gerald. Flying Dutchman: The Life of Anthony Fokker. New York: Reprint Service Inc., 1931.

Lewis, Peter. British Aircraft 1909-1914. London: Putnam, 1962.

Sikorsky, Igor I. The Story of the Winged-S, an Autobiography. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1958.

Dierikx, M.L.J et al. Fokker: A Transatlantic Biography. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

On-Line References

“Anthony Fokker.” National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Fokker Aerostructers History Page.

Sikorsky Archives.