The first powered flight by the Wright brothers in America in 1903 opened the door to aviation, and in little over 100 years we almost take flight for granted. When Sir George White introduced Bristol people to flying machines in 1910, it would have been an astounding event and for most of those who saw it, their first experience of aeroplanes.
Sir George was a consummate businessman who appreciated the value of promotion and having announced his intention to start making aircraft earlier in the year, this was his opportunity to show the new design off. On Friday evening, 11 November 1910, in heavy rain, one of the Bristol Biplanes (better known as the Boxkite) was wheeled out of its temporary shed on Durdham Downs. It made three short test flights in a straight line, the last with a passenger (we don’t know who) before the French pilot M. Jullerot took it for a flight around the whole ground for a few minutes. It was then put away for the night.
Early on Saturday morning, Jullerot took Mr Stanley White for a ten minute flight before the wind put paid to further excursions that morning. In the afternoon another Frenchman Maurice Tetard took the controls and, in front of a large crowd, took off at 3pm to fly a couple of circuits of the Downs and over the Avon Gorge. Here the wind made the aircraft difficult to control, and the weather conditions worsened, so further flights were abandoned. There was no flying on Sunday or Monday, although a number of distinguished visitors saw the machines in their sheds.
And that was it, Bristol’s first experience of flying - a total of six flights lasting no more than 30 minutes in total over four days (a bit like the average Balloon Fiesta, really!). Nevertheless, the event attracted thousands of onlookers.
Demonstrations like this all over Britain resulted in the Boxkite coming to the attention of the War Office, and, after trials, four were ordered – among the first aircraft to join Britain’s armed forces. Others were exported to Russia, South Africa, Australia, German, Spain and other countries. Altogether 76 were built. It laid the foundation for a hugely successful aviation industry in the city.
In 1964 three replica Boxkites were built for the film Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. One of these was afterwards presented to Bristol City Museum and it has been displayed in the front hall almost ever since. No original Boxkites survived.