Hangar Talk

Comment on historic aviation by the chief executive of the UK’s Light Aircraft Association


How many airfields do you have near you, compared with even just a decade ago? It’s a sad fact that while very few new airfields have been opened in the UK since the Second World War, many have closed in the past few years, principally due to the attractiveness — and value — of the land they occupy for industrial and housing developments. However, a recent Royal Aeronautical Society conference on the future of UK airfields brought the welcome news that three sites, each of which looked as if their illustrious flying histories had come to an end, may be given reprieves.

The first of these, Panshanger in Hertfordshire, was summarily closed in 2014 by the landowner’s management company despite it being a thriving and highly successful grass airfield, with a vibrant flying club hosting events such as the much-loved Panshanger Revival vintage car and aircraft gathering. Ironically, the family trust which owns the land is that of the late air race pilot Nat Somers, who kept Panshanger going after its wartime use as a satellite airfield for Hatfield. I suspect poor Nat must be reaching take-off revolutions in his grave at the thought of it becoming a location for several hundred houses.

There’s a wider implication too, as pointed out by the local MP for Welwyn and Hatfield, Grant Shapps, at the RAeS conference. He may have courted recent controversy in the Conservative Party, but he remains a passionate and powerful advocate for the aviation industry in Parliament. He said he is saddened that having been responsible for some of the most remarkable aviation achievements, from the Mosquito to the world’s first jet airliner, and contributed towards aviation in a manner that few other places can boast, the only thing carrying the name Comet in the area today is a local bus service. There is not one operational airfield in the immediate vicinity.

No 74 Squadron Lightning F1 XM143 being towed past one of RAF Coltishall’s historic — and, today, listed — hangars in May 1961. The famous Norfolk fighter station might be due for an aviation renaissance in civilian hands.

Shapps did, though, offer good news in his work to develop greater interest in aviation within the House of Commons. He pointed out that the All-Party Parliamentary Aviation Group, launched earlier this year, now has 70 members from across all areas of politics. Many aviation organisations including the LAA have been invited to contribute advice, offering an exciting new opportunity for direct advocacy to decisionmakers.

He also highlighted the fact that two different business groups are currently presenting plans to Welwyn and Hatfield Council for the prospective reopening of Panshanger, using part of the old site, while allowing housing on the southern perimeter. Perhaps appropriately, one of the consortia is called Project Phoenix. They clearly have high hopes that the airfield can still rise from the proverbial ashes.

Another historic airfield prematurely closed by property developers is Plymouth City Airport, which began operations in 1925 and subsequently became RAF, then RNAS, Roborough. It was mothballed by its landowners in 2011. Now a team known as FlyPlymouth, led by Raoul Witherall, has developed a business case for the reopening and redevelopment of the airport.

“A recent Royal Aeronautical Society conference on the future of UK airfields brought the welcome news that three sites may be given reprieves”

Most notably, Witherall is not an aviation enthusiast, but a successful local businessman. His approach is to develop a clear, long-term business strategy for the airport’s future, based on developing the city’s currently restricted transportation links. He points out that, since the airport’s closure, three major international businesses have moved away from Plymouth, with the lack of connectivity being a major factor in their decisions.

Seemingly destined for oblivion too was the former RAF Coltishall in Norfolk — but, perhaps, not any more. A section of the aerodrome, which was once home to the Hawker Hurricanes of No 242 Squadron under the command of Douglas Bader and was more recently associated with English Electric Lightnings and SEPECAT Jaguars, has been taken over by Swift Aircraft, which plans to take advantage of the 3km-long runway to flight-test and develop a new all-British light aircraft. Here’s to another airfield’s renaissance, and perhaps even that of Britain’s general aviation aircraft industry.