In 1949, John Britten and Desmond Norman, out of the de Havilland aeronautical engineering apprentices training school, formed a partnership to build new aircraft. Their first plane, the BN-IF Finibee, made its first flight on 26th May 1951. It wasn't as successful as hoped, but it still survives and is in the Southampton Hall of Aviation. They then abandoned the idea of building planes, concentrating on converting training aircraft into crop spraying. They designed crop spraying equipment, creating the Micronair Rotary Atomiser. Following Saunders-Roe interest in hovercraft, they also formed a company called Cushioncraft, building hovercraft. This, in 1972, was taken over by British Hovercraft Corporation.
Britten and Norman, based in Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, were still interested in building aircraft. When they noticed that there were no low-maintenance aircraft capable of using short, rugged aircraft on the market, Britten-Norman decided to make one of their own. So the BN-2 Islander was designed in 1963, and made its maiden flight in June 1965. A few days later it appeared at the Paris Air Show. The Islander is a twin-engined plane, with accommodation for 9 passengers, and soon became popular. By 1968 over 200 had been made for service in over 27 different countries. They are still being built today, with over 900 to the original design. In fact, the Islander has had the longest production run of any post-war British aircraft.
Different variations were tried. The first, the BN-3 Nymph, was a smaller, single-engined version. Only two prototypes were made, and did not make it into production. On the 11th September 1970, the BN-2A Mk III made its maiden flight. It was a three-engined, 17 passenger version, and was soon named the Trislander. 81 Trislanders were built, and now an American version is being made by the International Aviation Corporation, known as the Tri-Commutair. Trislanders are the main aircraft operating to the Channel Islands, and many American airlines use several also. The Trislander was also the first, and so far only, three piston-powered passenger air transport.
In 1971 the first Defender was built - a larger, military version of the Islander. Over 200 have been built so far. Other ideas were the BN-4, an even larger Islander capable of carrying 21 people, and the Mainlander, a three engined STOL prop-jet for up to 100 passengers, yet nothing came of either design. Sadly, though, John Britten died in July 1977. New models were designed in 1981, 1991 and 1994. By 1998 over 1,200 Islanders had been built, and they are still in production at Bembridge today
Desmond Norman also formed another company, NDN Aircraft, in Sandown, Isle of Wight, in 1976. The NDN-1 Firecracker first flew in May 1977, but did not win a production order. In 1983 a turbine version made its maiden flight, and three were built. They too failed to make any impact. In 1981 the tandem-seated NDN-6 Fieldmaster was built and flown as a crop-sprayer, but oil-pollution clearance and firefighting versions, known as the Firemaster, were designed. Over five were built. NDN Aircraft changed its name to Norman Aeroplane Company, and in 1984 the NAC-1 Freelance was built, based on the BN-3 Nymph. Only a prototype was built.
In 1976 Britten Aviation Technical Services was established at Sandown, and tried to develop a twin-engined pleasure aircraft called the Sheriff, but it failed. Wight Engineering at Shanklin built parts for the Edgley EA7 Optica surveillance Aircraft, which also wasn't a commercial success.
In 1983 ARV Aviation started by Sandown Airport by Richard Noble1. They designed the Super Two, a small, light plane with a two-stroke engine. Thirty were sold in total before 1991.
Other aircraft companies based at Sandown Airport include Solar Microlights, which builds small, single-person micro lights. Another, Airframes Assemblies, builds spare parts for historic aircraft, specialising in Spitfires.
In 1985, British Hovercraft Corporation, which had been Saunders-Roe, was renamed Westland Aerospace. The East Cowes workplace concentrated less on building hovercraft, and started to build composite engine nacelles for the de Havilland Dash-8 and wings for the Short S330. Within 10 years, over 60% of the world's turboprop nacelle production took place at East Cowes, for aircraft such as the Dornier 328, British Aerospace Jetstream 41, the Saab 2000, the C130J Hercules in 1993, and in 1995 the Dash 8-400series. They also supply components for turbofan nacelles, such as for the French SNECMA CFM 56-5C2, the McDonnell Douglas MD-11, as well as building parts for the Boeing Globemaster, Boeing 747 and 737.
As Westlands, they provide helicopter structures for the Westland EH101 Merlin as well as equipment for the Wessex, Sea King, Lynx and Puma, although most helicopter work is at Westland's Yeovil factory. They also make long-range fuel pods for the Boeing Chinook helicopter. In 1983, they were awarded the honour of constructing the Mast Torque Sensing System for the revolutionary Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
In 1994, Westland Aerospace was taken over by Guest, Keene And Nettlefold, to form GKN Westland Aerospace. Since then the East Cowes workers have been working on the huge fan cowl doors for the Airbus A330, the tailcone for the Canadair CRJ-700 and in 1998 Lockheed Martin ordered nacelles for the C27J transport.
The Isle of Wight, therefore, has had considerable success in its aircraft industry considering the size of its companies. It may not have produced many world-changing aeroplanes such as the Spitfire, Harrier or Concorde, but it has played a significant part in aircraft history, culminating in the SR.A1, the Princess and the launch of the Prospero satellite.