Brooklands is not only the mother of all car and motorcycle racing circuits, it is also the birthplace of British aviation. Indeed, the history of aviation at the circuit began within the first year of its existence, although activities were admittedly fairly low key in the early days. One day, a certain Monsieur Bellamy from France arrived at the circuit accompanied by a falcon, a small dog – and a flying machine, which he claimed to have flown 457 metres (500 yards) over the town of Modena in Italy. Locke-King, always open to new adventures, was in a generous mood and gave the Frenchman £ 100 for expenses. He then had an area of the site rolled flat, and Brooklands’ first
take-off/landing strip was good to go. Monsieur Bellamy promptly boarded his flying machine, which he had initially assembled from two rowing-boats, with a view to testing out the propeller on the lake. The machine never made it into the air, though, and the amateur French aviator vanished as quickly as he had appeared.
However, this quirky episode had sown the seeds of aviation at Brooklands and, in 1907, Alliot Verdon Roe conducted initial testing with his aircraft, which later became known under the company name Avro. Aircraft development really took off at Brooklands with the outbreak of the First World War. Locke-King had already put the site at the disposal of the British armed forces when war was declared in 1914 – and it was duly requisitioned by the government. The country had its first aerodrome, a range of different aircraft was tested here, and Brooklands could confidently claim to be the key aircraft production facility during the First World War. In 1915 the first ever aviation company took up residence at the circuit, Vickers Ltd. getting down to work on an aircraft production building. Added to which, hangars popped up alongside the race track, the large white letters reading ‘Vickers Ltd. – Brooklands’ on the rear walls of the new buildings clearly visible in many photos taken during subsequent races at the circuit. In the car races held after the First World War, these walls revealed the vagaries of aerodynamics to the hitherto unsuspecting drivers, who now had to contend with the phenomenon of slip-streaming as they flashed by at high speed.
Military and civilian aviation
Until the Second World War, the runway was also open to civil aircraft. The opening of the first flying school in 1910 prompted others to follow suit. Aircraft tours were available and the Brooklands Flying Club was set up. At the same time, other aircraft manufacturers had appeared on the scene.
Aircraft manufacturers Vickers-Armstrong and Hawker had sole use of the site during the Second World War, with the production of military aircraft taking top priority. The runway was extended and production stepped up. Building work and bomb damage made deep inroads into the race track and it was never used for car racing again after war.
The war also saw Vickers-Armstrong develop the ‘bouncing bomb’, which was specially designed to blow up dams. These bombs rebounded off the water surface into the dam itself, where they sank and exploded deep down in the water. On 16 May 1943, Britain’s Royal Air Force targeted the Möhnetalsperre dam in Germany. The bomb opened up a breach 77 metres wide and 22 metres deep, allowing more than 110 million cubic metres of water to flood the valley. More than 1,000 people were killed, but industry – which had been the real target of the British air force – escaped relatively unscathed. The ‘bouncing bomb’ project was subsequently shelved due to the high number of civilian casualties.
In 1946, Vickers-Armstrong purchased the Brooklands site for £ 330,000, allowing it to retain its position as the leading aircraft production location in Great Britain. The Vickers Viking from 1945 was the first model to be built from a successful range of civil and military aircraft, and this was followed by the Valiant and VC10 jet aircraft in later years. Over a period of time, Vickers-Armstrong extended its production halls substantially and these were eventually taken over by British Aerospace. The halls, and thus the plant as a whole, were closed in 1987.
Brooklands played an impressive role in the development of the aviation industry. In addition to the activities at the site in the early days, a stream of well-known companies set up business there over the years, including BAC, Bleriot, British Aerospace, Hawker, Sopwith and Vickers-Armstrong. Some 18,000 aircraft, representing 250 different models, were built and took their maiden flights at Brooklands.