Frank S. Barnwell was one of the finest UK aeronautical engineers of the early 20th century.
Born in Kent in 1880, he attended Fettes High School in Edinburgh. In 1898, he started a six-year apprenticeship with the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in Govan, where his father was Managing Director. During his apprenticeship he also studied at the University of Glasgow, graduating with a BSc in Naval Architecture in 1905.
In 1907 Frank, along with his brother Harold, established the Grampian Motors and Engineering Company and began designing aeroplanes. By 1910 they had designed three experimental aircraft. The second aircraft made the first ever powered flight in Scotland, piloted by Harold, managing to fly 75 metres at an altitude of four metres before it crashed. The third aircraft, a monoplane, won a prize from the Scottish Aeronautical Society for making the first powered flight in Scotland to cover more than a mile.
Frank was hired to design flying boats for a secret department of the British and Colonial Aerospace Company in 1911. Here he helped design the Bristol Scout. The firm later changed its name to the Bristol Aeroplane Company.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, Frank Barnwell enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). After completing his flying training with the Central Flying School, he joined 12 Squadron and rose to the rank of Captain. However, he was released in August 1915 to become chief designer at Bristol. His brother Harold died in 1917 while test flying the prototype Vickers Vampire.
It was here that Barnwell designed his iconic Bristol F.2B fighter, one of the most successful aircraft of World War I. It first flew on October 25, 1916. Over 5,000 F.2B's were built, spanning a service history of nearly 25 years and lasting into the 1930's.
Frank remained the chief designer at Bristol until 1938, when he was killed in a crash while testing one of his own designs. His legacy lived on in the success of other aircraft he and the company designed, including the Blenheim and the Beaufighter, both of which were successful fighters in World War II.
Photo credit: Bristol Aeroplane Company (G2123), Frank Barnwell, ca 1938.
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