Captain Frank Sowter Barnwell, OBE AFC FRAeS BSc, lived from 1880 to 2 August 1938. He was an aviation pioneer who, with his brother Harold, was responsible for the first powered flight in Scotland, and who later became a noted aircraft engineer with the Bristol Aeroplane Company. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Frank Barnwell was born in Kent, the son of Richard Barnwell, the director of Fairfield Shipbuilding, a shipyard on the Clyde. He lived in Kippen as a child and was educated at Fettes College in Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow before going to work at Fairfields from 1898 to 1904. He then travelled abroad for two years with his older brother Harold. During their travels they met the Wright Brothers in the USA, who in 1903 had undertaken the world's first heavier-than-air aeroplane flight.
Back in Scotland, Frank and Harold established the Grampian Motors & Engineering Company at Causewayhead between Stirling and Bridge of Allan. This allowed them the funds and facilities to pursue their real passion, aviation. By 1909 they had developed a biplane, which Harold flew at Causewayhead in what was Scotland's first powered flight on 28 July 1909. He covered 80 yards at a height of up to 13 feet. In all the Barnwells built three aircraft, taking it in turns to fly them. In January 1911 they flew a monoplane they had designed for over a mile, in the process winning a £50 prize offered by the Scottish Aeronautical Society.
In 1912 Harold Barnwell became the Chief Test Pilot at the aircraft manufacturer A.V. Roe at Brooklands in Surrey. He was killed while testing a new model of aircraft in 1917. Meanwhile Frank Barnwell had accepted a post with the Bristol Aeroplane Company in March 1911. With the outbreak of war he joined the Royal Flying Corps, rising to the rank of Captain while serving on 12 Squadron. Here he saw first hand the dominance of the German Fokker aircraft over the types then in use by the RFC. In 1915 he was asked to return to the Bristol Aeroplane Company as their Chief Engineer, a post he would hold for over two decades. Notable aircraft for which he was responsible included the Bristol F.2 Fighter in World War I and the Bristol Blenheim in the 1930s, which went on to serve through much of World War II.
Frank Barnwell was awarded an OBE for his war service on 7 June 1918, and on 1 September 1918 he was awarded the Air Force Cross. He was killed on 2 August 1938 when a light aircraft of his own design, the Barnwell B.S.W., stalled on take off from Bristol and crashed on a nearby road. Aviation would exact a high price on the Barnwell family. As well as the deaths of Frank and Harold during test flights, the three sons of Frank Barnwell and his wife Marjorie were all killed while serving in the RAF in the first two years of World War II. Pilot Officer John Barnwell, 29 Squadron, died aged 20 on 19 June 1940; Flight Lieutenant Richard Barnwell, 102 Squadron, died aged 24 on 29 October 1940; and Pilot Officer David Barnwell, DFC, 607 Squadron, died aged 19 on 14 October 1941.