The Aircraft Manufacturing Company Limited (Airco) was a British aircraft manufacturer operating from 1912 to 1920. Airco produced thousands of aircraft for the British military during the First World War, most of which were designed by their chief designer, Geoffrey de Havilland. Advertised in 1918 as the largest aircraft company in the world, Airco established the first airline in the United Kingdom, Aircraft Transport and Travel Limited, as a subsidiary. A glut of war surplus aircraft and a lack of government interest in aviation caused the company to become unprofitable, and in 1920 it was sold to Birmingham Small Arms Company, who had its operations liquidated later that year.

The Aircraft Manufacturing Company Limited
public company 
Successorde Havilland
FounderGeorge Thomas 
HeadquartersThe Hyde, Hendon,
London, England
Key people
Geoffrey de Havilland
SubsidiariesAircraft Transport and Travel

Geoffrey de Havilland

Airco was established in 1912 by George Holt Thomas at The Hyde in Hendon, north London, England. Two years later, learning that Geoffrey de Havilland, who was then at the Royal Aircraft Factory in Farnborough, might be available, Holt Thomas invited de Havilland to join Airco as chief designer. De Havilland's Airco designs were to provide around 30% of all trainers, fighters and bombers used by Britain and the United States during the First World War.[1]

De Havilland's designs for Airco were marked with his initials "DH".[2] Their pusher configuration fighter DH.2 of 1916 helped to end the "Fokker scourge" of 1915. Later notable aircraft designed and built by Airco during the war included the DH.6 trainer, of which more than 2,280 examples were built, and the DH.4 and DH.9 light bombers. These types, and the DH.9A, a developed version that served for many years with the postwar Royal Air Force, formed the basis of early de Havilland designed airliners, including the company's DH.16 and DH.18 types which were operated by Aircraft Transport and Travel Limited, the first airline established in the United Kingdom, also owned by George Holt Thomas.

Wartime production

Flight Magazine reported in 1920 that during the period from August 1914 to November 1918 the D. H. Airco machines built in Great Britain and the United States of America comprised approximately 30 per cent of the total output of aeroplanes of these two allies.[3] William Taylor Birchenough worked as test pilot for the company from August 1914.

By December 1918, Holt Thomas claimed in an advertisement that Airco was the largest aircraft company in the world and was building aeroplanes, engines and propellors in large numbers, as well as airships and flying boats.[2] The engines being built included licensed production of Gnome and Le Rhone rotary engines.[2] The company's works at Hendon employed between 7,000 and 8,000 people and had the latest metal-working machinery, a materials testing laboratory, and a wind tunnel.[4] Airco was completing on average a new aircraft every 45 minutes.[5]

First daily international flights

Aircraft Transport and Travel, a subsidiary of Airco,[2] started the world's first regular daily international service on 25 August 1919, between Hounslow Heath Aerodrome and Le Bourget. DH.16s were used for this service.

Sale to BSA and liquidation

Following the cessation of hostilities, the large number of war-surplus machines, sharp fluctuations in business confidence, and the government's failure, unlike those of USA and France, to provide any form of support, Airco became unprofitable.[4] Thomas endeavoured to sell Airco to a car manufacturer. Airco and BSA, parent company of Daimler, announced on 1 March 1920 that Airco had amalgamated with Birmingham Small Arms Company.[6]

Within days BSA discovered Airco was in a far more serious financial state than Thomas had revealed. Thomas was immediately removed from his new seat on the BSA board and all BSA's new acquisitions were placed in liquidation. BSA failed to pay a dividend for the following four years.[7]

With help from Thomas, de Havilland bought the group's assets he needed to form the de Havilland Aircraft Company in 1920.

Aircraft Transport and Travel had been allowed to continue to operate until December 1920. BSA then bought Aircraft Transport and Travel's aircraft from the liquidator and, in early 1921, established Daimler Airway and Daimler Air Hire under Daimler Hire Limited's Frank Searle.

List of Airco Aircraft

  • Airco DH.1:(1915) – Two-seat biplane fighter with single pusher propeller
    • Airco DH.1A - Around 70 built with Beardmore engines.
  • Airco DH.2 (1915) – Single-seat biplane fighter with single pusher propeller
  • Airco DH.3 (1916) – Two-engine biplane bomber. Two prototypes only built; formed basis for later DH.10 design
    • Airco DH.3A - Second prototype with a Beardmore engine.
  • Airco DH.4 (1916) – Two-seat biplane day bomber with single tractor propeller
    • Airco DH.4A Civil version. Built in the United Kingdom. Two passengers in glazed cabin behind pilot.
    • Airco DH.4R Single seat racer - 450 hp (3406 kW) Napier Lion engine.
  • Airco DH.5 (1916) – Single-seat biplane fighter with single tractor propeller
  • Airco DH.6 (1916) – Two-seat biplane training aircraft with single tractor propeller
  • Airco DH.9 (1917) – Two-seat biplane day bomber with single tractor propeller.
    • Airco DH.9A (1918)- development of DH.9 with Liberty engine
    • Airco DH.9C (1921) - conversion of DH.9 as passenger aircraft
  • Airco DH.10 Amiens (1918) – Two-engine biplane bomber. First prototype used pusher propeller; second prototype and production aircraft used tractor propellers. Manufactured by Daimler.
    • DH.11 Oxford (1919) Variant of DH.10 with radial engines. One prototype built; not produced
  • Airco DH.15 Gazelle (1919) - One DH.9A aircraft converted into an engine test-bed.
  • Airco DH.16 (1919) - redesign of DH.9A with cabin for four passengers. Used as airliner
  • Airco DH.18 (1920) – Single-engine biplane airliner. Cabin for eight passengers


  1. The King's Interest In Flying. Factory And Aerodrome Visited. The Times, Friday, 1 Jun 1917; pg. 9; Issue 41493
  2. Airco display advertisement, page 3, The Times, 3 Dec 1918
  3. page 1147, Flight Magazine, 4 November 1920
  4. Mr. G. Holt Thomas. The Times, Friday, 4 Jan 1929; pg. 14; Issue 45092
  5. Mr. G. Holt Thomas. Colonel G. W. Dawes. The Times, Saturday, 5 Jan 1929; pg. 14; Issue 45093
  6. Air Transport Combine. Aircraft And B.S.A. Firms Unite The Times, Monday, 1 Mar 1920; pg. 14; Issue 42347
  7. Dudley Docker: The Life and Times of a Trade Warrior R. P. T. Davenport-Hines 1984 Cambridge University Press
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