The BAE Systems manufacturing and assembly facility at Warton (on the banks of the River Ribble) has its aviation routes in May 1939 when, as war clouds gathered in Europe, Air Ministry officials started the compulsory purchase of grass field land west of Preston in order to establish a satellite airfield for the nearby RAF Squires Gate airfield in Blackpool. Work by the Wimpey Construction Company on land drainage and the construction of 3 main runways started soon after.
A key 'turning point' for Warton however, came in late 1941 when the airfield was offered by Lord Beaverbrook, the head of the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP), to the United States 8th Army Air Force for use as a Base Air Depot (BAD).
Base Air Depots were required outside of the United States by the USAAF to enable them to undertake major maintenance, overhaul, repairs and rebuilds of aircraft. These BAD units also undertook the preparation of new aircraft for combat units.
In early January 1942, Frank Thomas was instructed by MAP to take charge of the design and construction of BAD2, as Warton was to become known, which was required before the end of 1942. There were 2 more depots in the UK, BAD1 being at Burtonwood near Warrington and BAD3 at Langford Lodge in Northern Ireland.
BAD2 Warton overview
One of the first tasks at Warton was to complete the existing runways and construct over 50 dispersal areas on concrete hard standings and although these are mainly derelict nowadays, some are still visible both inside and outside the current site boundaries.
After work started, the USAAF required all three runways to be further extended to allow for the arrival of large 4 engine bombers such as the B.17 Flying Fortress and B.24 Liberator.
Whilst work on the runway extensions was underway, construction of the main technical site including hangars, workshops, offices, etc. had also begun and these were soon completed by June 1943.
As well as the work on the airfield site, work also commenced on the various facilities needed to support all the American servicemen who would eventually be stationed at Warton and the construction of several campsites began. These were soon joined by a hospital and various recreational facilities in and around the villages of Warton and Freckleton.
At its peak, the construction of Warton Aerodrome involved 6 main contractors with nearly 200 sub-contractors, as well as representatives of the various Government ministries involved. Employed by these parties were approximately 7,000 men and between 300 and 450 professional staff.
After many months of hard work to get the site operational, Warton was officially handed over in July 1943 to the USAAF by Group Captain P. D. Robertson and Wing Commander Barret DFC who represented Nº. 17 Group RAF, the original intended 'users' of Warton airfield.
P51 Mustang in 5 Hangar at BAD2 Warton
P51 Mustang in 5 Hangar at BAD2 Warton
During its time as Base Air Depot Nº 2, Warton airfield handled over 45,000 aircraft movements and 10,086 aircraft were either assembled, modified or serviced including 4,372 P.51 Mustangs and 2,894 B-24 Liberators.
Warton processed 1,000’s of servicemen and aircraft on route to conflicts in North Africa, the Mediterranean and mainland Europe.
In 1944, tragedy struck the USAAF activities at Warton when on 23rd August, a Consolidated Liberator lost control during a storm over Freckleton, to the east of the aerodrome. It is reported that the aircraft was very low and a wing tip caught a tree before crashing into the Holy Trinity C of E school and surrounding buildings. 61 lives were lost in the accident which is remembered by a memorial which can be found in Freckleton today.
After the end of the war, the Americans began to run down their activities at Warton and returned home, eventually ceasing activities at the air base in August 1945.
However, the Americans did not leave altogether having established the Warton Army Technical School in order to provide re-education facilities for American servicemen prior to their return to civilian life. Eventually the main site was then handed back to the Air Ministry and the RAF then operated the base as a maintenance unit (90 MU).
In late 1944, the Air Ministry had asked the English Electric Company to submit proposals for a new jet bomber and following the award of a contract to build a prototype (known as the B3/45) the company realised that extra space and facilities would be needed in order to support such a major project.
Space at their factories at Preston and Samlesbury was limited due to the increase in the production number of DH Vampire jets and they identified Warton as being highly suitable for designing and testing their new design so in late 1946 the English Electric Company entered into an agreement with the Air Ministry to lease part of a hangar and some office accommodation at the aerodrome.
By March 1947, the first English Electric employees were based at Warton establishing themselves in 25 Hangar. The hangar was used to house a Gloster Meteor jet, together with its small support team in order to conduct a series of test flights to assess the performance and handling of a jet aircraft at high altitudes, as part of the B3/45 project.
A 9' x 7' wind tunnel was also constructed in 25 Hangar as part of the project although it was also used for other ideas the team were working on at the time.
The trials with the Meteor continued until May 1948 by which time the main occupiers of the site were the Canberra Development Team who relocated the Design and Technical Team from their offices at Barton Motors in Corporation Street, Preston.
The culmination of their efforts came on the 13th May 1949 when the English Electric Canberra Jet Bomber flew at Warton for the first time, piloted by Wing Commander Roland Beamont.
The Canberra Senior Design Team L-R - Crowe, Ellis, Harrison, Ellison, Petter, Beamont, Smith, Page, Howatt.
Following the success of the Canberra, the Design Team had begun work on the next aircraft project which was to become known as the P1A - the forerunner to the Lightning.
By 1950, the English Electric presence at Warton had increased to around 250 personnel with additional buildings being occupied by the Design Office and a Mould Loft. Within 2 years other buildings were occupied by Flight Operations, Assembly Hangars, Technical Publications, Print Room, Design Offices, a Control Tower (on the site of the current Air Terminal) and a Flight Shed.
Additionally, the present Executive Block was built on the site of a small orchard, facing outwards onto Highgate Lane with the original, pre-war semi-detached houses opposite serving as commercial offices.
Additionally, in 1952 plans to extend the runway were submitted to the Air Ministry (who were still owners of the aerodrome) to support flight operations for the P1A/Lightning project. The proposal was met with objections from the RAF who had plans to relocate an all-weather fighter OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) to Warton in the event of an outbreak of hostilities with Russia.
Final assembly and testing of the prototype P1A (WG 760) supersonic interceptor was gathering pace in 1953 and 1954 but because the runway at Warton was not satisfactory, the decision was taken to complete final assembly and testing at RAF Boscombe Down and it was from here that the P1A first flew on the 8th August,1954.
Apart from the Canberra and the Lightning, Warton was working on many other projects and to support these, further expansion of the R & D facilities took place in 1954 when an 18’ x 18’ wind tunnel was commissioned on the south side of the runway, powered by two Rolls Royce Nene jet engines.
Permission was eventually given to English Electric to develop the aerodrome and between 1956 and 1957 a large extension to the main runway was built, along with a new control tower. The airfield facilities were also further enhanced by the installation of modern VHF radio communications, an Instrument Landing System and a new electric landing light system. The Control Tower was extended yet again in 1958 to include a more comprehensive radar system.
By 1957, a new two storey Flight Operations block had been constructed with the first floor becoming the new home of the Flight Test Department.
Building on the success of the P1A, the company began work on an improved version known as the P1B and following a runway extension, they completed the first prototype (XA 847) which first flew from Warton in April 1957. During its flight test programme it became the first British aircraft to exceed twice the speed of sound (although not officially recognised at the time). The P1B was eventually renamed the Lightning and went on to serve with the RAF and the air forces of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Two high speed wind tunnels were also built between 1959 and 1960 and one tunnel had a 4’ working section, able to test aircraft at speeds up to Mach 4 and a companion 18’ section for guided weapons research at speeds up to Mach 6. These facilities were later supplemented with the construction of a wind tunnel for V/STOL research in 1962/63 and the transfer of the Vickers Armstrong 13' x 9' wind tunnel from Weybridge in 1992.
Warton Aerodrome c1957 with new Control Tower and runway extension
Other improvements at Warton came in 1962 with the installation of a full ‘International Standard’ landing light system upgrade and this was followed by the installation crash barriers at each end of the runway during 1963.
In 1956, the government had issued a requirement (G-OR.339) calling for a low-level strike and reconnaissance jet aircraft which was eventually to be known as the TSR-2 and for which Warton joined forces with Short Brothers and made submissions under the designation P.17A.
3 years later the P.17A project was given the ‘go-ahead’ although before any serious work commenced, the government instigated a nationalisation of the British aircraft industry.
This resulted in the Vickers Armstrong, English Electric and Bristol Aircraft companies amalgamating to form the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC).
Under this new entity, Warton continued with the production of a prototype, working in close collaboration with its sister factories at Weybridge and Bristol whilst all test flying was carried out under the watchful eyes at Boscombe Down.
TSR-2 recorded its maiden flight from Boscombe Down in September 1964 although there were already dark clouds gathering on the political horizon.
Three aircraft were completed (1 flying, 1 ready for flight and 1 almost fully built) before the project was cancelled abruptly by the government on 6th April 1965, throwing the workforce at Warton into a serious period of uncertainty.
The workshops we still busy with the production of the BAC Lightnings and with the development of the BAC Strikemaster (a further development of the Jet Provost) which first flew in October 1967.
A short period after the cancellation of the TSR-2 project had seen an inter-governmental 'memorandum of understanding' signed between France and the UK to develop the SEPECAT Jaguar combat aircraft (which is described on a seperate web page). With the airframes being produced by Breguet and British Aircraft Corporation, this news secured 1,000’s of jobs at Warton.
The first French prototype flew in September 1968 with the first UK built example flying from Warton a year later in September 1969. In total some 543 aircraft were built worldwide with large numbers created at Warton.
With the success of this international collaboration now established, another was formed in 1969 when the Governments of Germany, Italy and the UK signed an agreement to develop the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) better known today as the Tornado.
With their involvement in such a large project, Warton was further developed to accommodate the planned final assembly of all UK versions and a new Assembly Hall was constructed and officially opened by HRH Princess Anne in June 1977.
The first flight of the UK prototype Tornado (P02) took place on the 30th October 1974 with Paul Millet and Pietro Trevisan at the controls. Final assembly of production aircraft began in 1978 and the first production Tornado (BT001 Trainer variant for RAF) was officially rolled-out on 5th June 1979.
Roll Out of the First Production Tornado IDS at Warton on 5th June 1979
Between the take-off dates of these 2 aircraft, British Aircraft Corporation was once again privatised under the new name of British Aerospace and yet again the signage at Warton changed overnight.
With the Tornado programme now in full swing, the Design Team turned its attention to the next project - a fighter aircraft with high agility. A full-scale mock-up known as the Agile Combat Aircraft (ACA) was built in 1982 and displayed at the Farnborough Air Show that same year.
The ACA project progressed further in 1983 when the Company and the Government agreed to build a technology demonstrator which was to become known as the Experimental Aircraft Programme (EAP).
EAP first flew from Warton on the 8th August 1986, piloted by Dave Eagles (The Warton Director of Flight Operations) and the programme provided all parties with vital technological information. The new fighter project soon become a multi-national project between Britain, Spain, Germany and Italy all agreeing to develop the new aircraft – a project we all now know better as Eurofighter Typhoon.
During the 1980s and 1990s the shape of Warton had continued to change, and the original Flight Sheds were joined by several new buildings on that part of the aerodrome. The site continued its work on a diverse range of products which demanded further development to reflect the workload and the demands on its flight test capabilities.
These included a Radar building (1978), more hangars (1981 & 1988) and a new state-of-the-art aircraft spraying facility (1988). Later developments include an ‘environmentally friendly’ Engine Test House where aircraft engines can be run at full power at any time of the day without the noise impact previously associated with engine testing.
The North Side of the airfield had new buildings and facilities including the Aircraft Rig Building, new engineering blocks (1979 & 1980) as well as the Commercial Centre (1990). Subsequently these were joined by Flight Simulation and most recently, the new Technical Centre (1998) on the site of the old 11 Hangar.
In 1999, British Aerospace merged with the avionics divisions of Marconi Electronic Systems to form BAE Systems and Warton remains the focus of its Military Air & Information (MAI) business.
As Warton continues its involvement with the Typhoon, Hawk and new F-35 Lightning II, a number of new future projects such as The Tempest will see the site remain at the forefront of aviation technology with a global reputation for innovation. Today, Warton remains at the very heart of BAE Systems Air Sector.