Whitehead Aircraft Ltd.

The Whitehead Aircraft Venture: May 19th, 1915 - 1919

Shortly after the turn of the century, John Alexander Whitehead emigrated to the U.S.A. and found the fortune he had sought in timber. Having lost it in ensuing years he returned undaunted in 1914 to seek it afresh. Reported as a carpenter by trade, there is little doubt that he was a good judge of timber and he found ready employment with the Aircraft Manufacturing Company, then producing Farmans under license for school work. It was evidently here that Whitehead aspired to build aircraft in a factory of his own. Local gossip has it that Captain R. H. Vaughn Thompson, who had acquired the old Richmond Drill Hall, first became aware of Whitehead's interest by observing him painting his name in the structure. Whatever the circumstances they became legally occupied by Whitehead Aircraft Ltd., a company registered with a capital of £5,000.

Following Whitehead's approach to the War Office, who were in need of new contractors because the Admiralty had monopolised many of the established aircraft firms, a test order for six B.E.2 b.s was given to judge his firm's worth. With a ceremony in November 1915, well stage-managed by Whitehead, the first aircraft, R.F.C. No. 2884, was christened by breaking a bottle of champagne over its nose and being formally name "The Helene" after his first daughter who now, as Mrs. Winslow, still has its brass nameplate.

That the aircraft passed inspection is evident from the service records of Reserve Squadrons and the order that followed; but how a drill hall workshop came to receive an order for a hundred Maurice Farman Shorthorns could only be through Whitehead's undoubted ability to sell himself. New premises were acquired and large assembly sheds were erected at Feltham, while the existing factory was extended (the site of the present Black Horse Garage, Richmond). Aircraft parts built at Richmond were transported by road for erection in the new Feltham works. To finance this, a new company, Whitehead Aviation, was floated with a capital of 1/4 million pounds sterling. The money was certainly needed. There were no half measures with Whitehead. His new premises in his mind's eye were the site of the great Whitehead factories. While the erecting sheds went up in wood and galvanised iron for quickness, a large brick, concrete-bedded powerhouse with a battery of boilers and well equipped control-room was built, together with a riverside wharf, timber-store and saw-mill. Ever mindful of his workers, a fine canteen was built and equipped down to crested cutlery; when meat was once in short supply, Whitehead immediately went out and bought up a local butcher's shop.

Pup Contracts

Short of producing an aircraft of his own design, no one was more delighted than Whitehead when he received orders to build Sopwith Pups -a type currently in service at the Front. They were represented in the firm's full-page advertisements in Flight and The Aeroplane, as "Whitehead's Fighting Scouts"- a matter that apparently still confuses a well-known American writer. Building a new type that was proving equal to the enemy's best on the Western front meant that Whitehead's wish to publicise the production of his first Sopwith Pup was smothered under security regulations.

The first, A6150, was delivered to Farnborough for type approval inspection and the second, A6151, was the first delivered for service. It was collected by Sgt. W. H. Dunn on 2nd February 1917 and flown to Kingston the same day. Next day, having been checked over by Sopwith's engineers, it was flown, staging via the Central Flying School at Netheravon, to Patchway, Bristol, where, on the airfield known later as Filton, No. 66 Squadron was exchanging its Avro 504 A s and miscellaneous B. E. types, for Pups in preparation for the Front.

Throughout the war it was Whitehead's intention to build to his firm's own design. The "Whitehead Comet", a single-seat scout was built in 1916 but no record has survived and it is not clear whether it was designed by T. Navarro, who left the firm to have a scout project sponsored by Thomas Lowe & Sons, or by the 23-year-old local designer Edwin Boyle. There is no evidence that the Comet ever flew. The Whitehead Seaplane, ordered by the Admiralty in 1916, was cancelled in May 1917 when the Smith Static engine was fully abandoned.

The first test pilot, Herbert Sykes, arrived in his own Martinsyde two-seat biplane which he kept on the airfield. When he was injured in a test-flight crash on 26th June, his place was taken by Capt. A. Payze from the R.F.C., who also joined with Boyle in sponsoring new designs. In May 1917 a triplane Scout design had been submitted to the Air Board who found that the performance calculated had been based on uncorrected data and was rejected.

The first official specifications for the industry having just been issued, the company was invited to design to meet Specification A.1a for an Expeditionary Force single-seat fighter. While most of the established firms submitted tractor bi-plabe layouts, both Whitehead and the Hull Aviation Company had pusher designs, of which the former was deemed the more promsing. When this project was rejected in favor of the Snipe, Whitehead applied for a licence to build a twin-engined two-seat fighter tp be powered by A.B.C. Dragonfly engines to meet Specification A.2a. However, this was also rejected as both Sopwith and Avro were well advanced with more viable designs.

River "buried"

Restricting the airfield space from expanding into the 300 acres of Hanworth Park was the Cardinal river dividing the land on its run to feed the Hampton Court lakes. Whitehead set in motion a vast engineering scheme to put the river underground, using the inverted syphon method for a low-level flow. Much of the manual work was done by German prisoners of War. As early as October 1917, Whitehead revealed his conception of this London Airport of the future, as it was well placed for the receipt and despatch of aerial mails.

The mansion in Hanworth Park, now an old people's home (Article dated November 1965; the mansion is no longer cared for and has badly deteriorated - editor), and then a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, he had earmarked as a country club. A work's magazine, modeled on Avro's Joystick, was issued to the employees under the title Whitecraft and a house in Gretna Road, Richmond, was taken over as the editorial offices.

During 1917 the Whitehead Flying School was established at Hanworth when the first machine, a Caudron G.III, was purchased for £150. The training charges were up to £125 for the complete course to qualify for the Royal Aero Club certificate. Two more aircraft were acquired, but further expansion was limited by the difficulties in obtaining suitable aircraft for private schools at this stage of the war.

Whitehead, reveling in publicity, encourage his firm's participation in outside activities. They entered London Munitions Football League and played such teams as Napier who made R.E.8s, Handley Page, the aircraft manufacturing company who produced the D.H. designs, Darracq who were constructing D.H.5s, Wilkinson Sword, Fiat and the Gramophone Company among others. Works outings and sports days were all part of the firm's activities to which J. A. Whitehead made sure that representatives of the national and aeronautical, as well as the local, press were invited. At the Whitehead Aircraft Sports Carnival, held at the Hanworth Aerodrome on 7th August 1917, some 6,000 spectators saw the Sopwith Company win the tug-of-war against Whitehead, their largest Pup sub contractor.

Whitehead entertained dignitaries and even royalty, presenting solid silver casts of a Sopwith Pup - labeled the "Whitehead Flying Scout" - to those he favoured. The press were advised that the true answer to the menace of the German air raids was to combat them with Whitehead Scouts! He was soon to need the newspapers as advocates for the £1 million grant he needed from the Treasury1.

Financial Problems

Perhaps Whitehead, when he incurred expense after expense, imagined that production would increase indefinitely, for he made no provision for the limiting factors. Ignoring the engine and Vickers gun, which were embodiment loan items, the standard payment to Pup contractors - Sopwith, Standard Motors and Whitehead - for the airframe fluctuated around £700 each, and under the war regulations profits were restricted to 10% maximum.

With Pup production reaching one a day in June 1917, it does not need an economist to show that the weekly wages bill, then reaching £11,000, could not be met from production, let alone provide payment for the new installations. More finance was needed and the firm was re-formed as Whitehead Aircraft (1917) Ltd. with Whitehead as governing director. Prospects were not good. In spite of repeat orders, the lack of engines was one of the main factors limiting production.

Plans were for the 110 h.p. Le Rhone to be used in the Pup, but at a proof loading test at Farnborough, to which a Whitehead representative was invited, timber deterioration had so lowered the factor of safety that it was decided not to fit this engine. The 100 h.p. Gnome Monosoupape was substituted but some difficulty existed in fitting these, apart from limited availability. Production slowed up and contracts were cut.

By February 1918 the last Pups were leaving the works. An order had earlier been placed for S.E.5s and some of the firms executives had visited Farnborough in this connection, but the plan was canceled in favour of building bombers - D.H.9s.

With Whitehead's encouragement, Sykes took on much additional work for the firm. An early British film, "A Munition Girl's Romance", was filmed at the works with the air sequences taken from Syke's own Martinsyde. Another activity led to tragedy. On Wednesday, 24th July 1918, Boyle took off with Capt. A. Payze at the controls of a London & Provincial biplane which had been specially rigged for the experiment. At a signal from Payze, when the machine was at approximately 400ft., Boyle got out of the passenger's seat - to the wing where a platform had been constructed. Unfortunately, a hook securing the parachute casing, which should not have dropped, broke and the whole contraption fell, taking Boyle to his death. According to the coroner's report, he died "while engaging in assisting to perfect a contrivance where pilots and observers might safely land from a machine in flight, should an accident occur in mid-air".

Meanwhile, Whitehead finance was debated in Parliament. While the million pounds sought was not forthcoming, large sums were conditionally advanced and the firm continued. After producing only 100 D.H.9s, production was switched to D.H.9As, but there were delays in the delivery of the Liberty engines from America.

Legal Intelligence

Copy reproduced from The Flight Global Archive

Mr. J. A. Whitehead

At the London Bankruptcy court on October 29, Mr. J. D. Turner, the Official Receiver for Surrey, presided over the statutory meeting of the creditors in the failure of Mr. John Alexander Whitehead, of Hanworth Park House, Feltham. The statement of affairs showed total liabilities of 85, 693 (UKP), of which 23,283 (UKP) rank for dividend against assets estimated to produce 14,720 (UKP).

Mr. Turner explained that in May, 1915, the debtor formed the Whitehead Aircraft Company, Ltd., with a nominal capital of 5,000 (UKP). In the following year this concern was taken over by the Whitehead Aviation Company, Ltd., formed with a capital of 25,000 (UKP), and that in turn was absorbed by the Whitehead Aircraft (1917) Ltd., of which the debtor became the governing director. On the termination of the War, a post-War programme was arranged by the company, which, however, it was unable to carry out owing to the company's not receiving from the Government that money which it considered it was entitled to, and there was now a claim by the company outstanding against the Government of 449,305 (UKP). The company ultimately went into voluntary liquidation, and the debtor found himself faced with contingent liabilities for a considerable amount on guarantees which he had given to shareholders and creditors of the company. To that cause and to the present financial position of the Whitehead Aircraft (1917) Company, Ltd., he attributed his present failure.

The meeting caused a resolution appointing a trustee to administer the estate.

Trans-Atlantic Proposal

When, at the close of the war, the Daily Mail Trans-Atlantic Flight £10,000 prize was announced, Whitehead was the first to respond with an entry, naming Capt. A. Payze as the pilot. Against the 295 h.p. Martinsyde entry to be flown by F. Raynham, the 375 h.p. Fairey by S. Pickles, the 350 h.p. Sopwith by H.G. Hawker and the 350 h.p. Short by Major J. C. P. Wood, the 1,600 h.p. Whitehead entry looked, as no doubt Whitehead intended, most superior, but even if this 120-ft. wing span giant, to be powered by four 400 h.p. Liberty engines, was technically feasible, the necessary finance was lacking.

To avoid disruption of labor and bankruptcy of firms the Ministry of Munitions operated a phased run-down scheme, but it was not equal to the lavish spending of Whitehead. Up to 1st September 1918, a profit had been made of £19,686, but it was soon swallowed up in promoting new schemes for peace-time aviation. Hanworth, as related, was visualised by Whitehead as the London Airport of the future and he even forecast commuting by aeroplane.

In retrospect one can have sympathy and even admiration for these schemes, but his contemporary creditors could not see it that way. A name was therefore required to grace the board and give confidence for the credit needed. How the Earl of Wemyss was prevailed upon to become chairman in February 1919 was no doubt due, once again, to Whitehead's gift for putting over so convincingly his grandiose schemes. When in the following June the new Pegamoid Company and Hobday Bros., two of the seventy creditors, petitioned to wind up the company, the chairman stated that he had not been informed of the un-seaworthy state of the vessel of which he had taken command! When Whitehead Aircraft went finally into liquidation, its ingenious creator was ready with further schemes. First for a motor factory using the same premises and then in agriculture, whereby investors were invited to buy trees in the Whitehead orchard estates and reap the great harvest promised. But here the story leaves the sphere of aviation. such was the flamboyant character of J. A. Whitehead, proprietor if the Whitehead Aircraft Company, that now (1965 - Editor) precisely fifty years since the firm produced their first aircraft, it has proved difficult to separate fact from fiction in the "Whitehead Legends".

This story of Whitehead Aircraft Ltd. was written by Bruce Robertson and first published in Air Pictorial Magazine, November 1965, and is reproduced here by permission of the Air League.


There is a collection of silent movies on the British Pathe website, showing footage of various times and events during the Whitehead Aircraft era. The collection that I have saved can be found here.

  1. From such documents as remains in the family, local records and Hansard,the governmental loan of a million pounds to the company became a national issue.

  2. Photographs in the slide show are from an original album, passed down to Whitehead's great granddaughter, and website owner, Lynda LeCompte (nee Whitehead).

  3. Opening of the Whitehead Aircraft Extensions. Article courtesy of Flight Global Magazine.