How did the first aviation pioneers try to sell their aircraft? TIM ROBINSON takes a quick stroll through the RAeS Archives.

Just some of the marketing material from this year's Farnborough Air Show - China's COMAC brochures for ARJ21 and C919. 

Visit Farnborough or any big trade air show and your senses will be assaulted by the amount and scale of aircraft manufacturers’ marketing material. Brochures, posters, press packs, videos, presentations, magazines, stands, banners, websites, and now social media campaigns and virtual/augmented reality are all part of the arsenal of marketing and publicity material deployed en masse by aircraft manufacturers these days. At the high end, with multi-million deals at stake – no expense is spared in making sure potential buyers know all about the advantages of your aeroplane.

Marketing in 1913

Front cover of the 1913 Bristol Aeroplanes brochure. 

But how did it work in the very early days of aviation? Pre-advertising agencies and professional marketing gurus it might be assumed that the very first aircraft manufacturers were fairly crude in their attempts to sell and promote their aircraft. However, recently brought into the office was a February 1913 32-page brochure from the Bristol Aeroplane Company promoting its range of military aircraft - which revealed a surprisingly sophisticated approach – and even has lessons for companies today hoping to make it big on the international market.

Export focused

Specifications are outlined mainly in metric. Note, interestingly, someone has written imperial measurements in pencil. 

First, the front cover proudly proclaimed its aircraft were ‘Supplied To The Governments of Great Britain, Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Roumania (sic), Turkey, Bulgaria and Australia” – an impressive selection of major powers in 1913. Notably there are Germany and Turkey, two countries that, in just over a year’s time, Great Britain would be at war with. Modern media tends to have a short memory of ‘arms sales’ to repressive regimes or hostile powers – but this shows that even one year before the Great War, business was business. (It may of course be argued that in 1913 no-one had predicted the rapid military mobilisation and events set in motion by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. However, the UK and Germany had, until 1912, been engaged in a highly competitive naval arms race.)

Inside the Bristol factory at Filton in 1910. (RAeS/NAL)

Secondly, the specifications of the four aircraft (50hp, 70hp 80hp and ‘school type’ monoplanes) in the brochure, most interestingly, are mainly in metric, not imperial – aiding comprehension for continental customers. This may seem insignificant, but it seems as though this brochure, although in English, was aimed squarely at enticing further export sales – and using metres instead of feet, etc allowed a quick comparison between Bristol’s offerings and rival aeroplanes. It is not known whether there was a UK-only 1913 brochure printed too, for distribution just in Britain, but it does show that Bristol saw a big foreign market, at a time when the UK’s own military flying experiments were only just beginning.

A key selling factor?

Bristol monoplane over Stonehenge. The Army aeroplane trials in 1912 attracted wide attention. (RAeS/NAL) 

There is also another key insight in this vintage Bristol brochure. Browse the vast marketing material today for aircraft and a number of key selling points might stand out – fuel efficiency (civil), operating costs (civil/military), number of passengers (civil), range of sensors/weapons (military). In 1913, however, Bristol decided to pick out perhaps what was the biggest question from their military customers – what weather can this flimsy wood and fabric aircraft fly in?

Two pages in the brochure are devoted to results (included recorded wind speeds) of the British Army trials in 1912.

Thus, two pages are devoted to reports of their aircraft in the British Army trials of 1912 on Salisbury Plain.  Independent supporting evidence is provided by two wind-graph recording charts from Flight magazine, which showed the Bristol Monoplane No15 (with two people on board) was able to stay aloft for 15 minutes on 23 August 1912 – with wind speeds almost reaching 50mph at one point (weather that even today would ground many cautious pilots). Flight notes approvingly: “As a wind test, this may well be regarded as a record.”

Bristol monoplanes on Salisbury Plain. (RAeS/NAL) 

While the military utility of being able to hover (or even be pushed backwards) against 50mph headwinds might be questionable, it is clear from the inclusion in this brochure, that Bristol were extremely proud of this airworthiness capability and reasoned that highlighting the result of these tests (no doubt keenly reported on in the trade journals) would be a good selling point. Today, military aircraft manufacturers will include quotes and unclassified results from Red Flag exercises, joint deployments, or other trials or tests as supporting material that their design is the best. It is thus oddly familiar to see a similar approach in 1913.


Contemporary 1912 magazine/newspaper advertisement for Bristol monoplanes. (  

In short, while it might be imagined that the early pioneers of flight were too busy solving the big questions of lift, drag, power and suchlike to worry about marketing their products, the Bristol brochure shows that an equal amount of effort and thought went into marketing and promoting aircraft – even in those early days. The first pioneers of flight may not have had Twitter, Facebook and virtual reality, but they did understand what their customers were looking for, and that even in 1913, aviation was a global marketplace they had to be ready for.

9 August 2016