Comment on historic aviation by the chief executive of the UK’s Light Aircraft Association
While many eyes will rightly focus on the D-Day commemorations, for those with an interest in civilian flying the centenary of scheduled air passenger services from the UK will also come to the fore this summer. It marks 100 years since the inauguration of London’s first airport at Hounslow Heath — on 25 August 1919, the airfield there became the departure point for the inaugural international air services between London and Paris.
While there may be some snorts at the accuracy of British Airways badging the events as marking the centenary of ‘the world’s favourite airline’, its efforts in repainting four of its fleet in BOAC, BEA and early BA ‘heritage’ liveries have made a welcome sight.
Meanwhile, another bit of history made its appearance at the Turweston headquarters of the Light Aircraft Association.
Last year several boxes arrived, addressed to the Vintage Aircraft Club. Inside were a series of 1:72-scale models of Hounslow’s buildings and equipment, as well as aircraft including the modified Handley Page O/400 and Airco DH16 types that made the initial commercial flights to Le Bourget. Among the buildings are model Bessonneau hangars, maintenance sheds and perhaps Hounslow’s most distinctive feature, the long customs hall which was emblazoned with the words Customs, Douane and Continental Departure Station.
Among the models are Bessonneau hangars, maintenance sheds and perhaps Hounslow’s most distinctive feature, the long customs hall
The diorama was created in 1969 by the late John Newby, sales manager for BKS Air Transport, as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations. This year, it will be on show at the Shuttleworth Collection — in conjunction with its Aircraft Transport and Travel-liveried DH51, which Aeroplane will feature next month — together with the Brooklands Museum and IWM Duxford throughout the centennial summer.
Anne Hughes, chair of the Vintage Aircraft Club, took advantage of the LAA’s archive of Flight and The Aeroplane to research some further history around the diorama. This revealed that the wartime airfield had been handed over to civilian use in April 1919, Maj S. T. L. Greer being appointed as civil air traffic officer, the first-ever such post in the UK and likely the world.
On 1 May that year, Greer supervised the arrival of the first civil aircraft, a Bristol Coupe Tourer flown from Filton by Lt Cyril Uwins with Herbert Thomas, managing director of the Bristol Aeroplane Company, on his way to attend a meeting of the Society of British Aircraft Constructors. Heading out on the same day was a Sopwith Gnu, carrying to Lympne a consignment of the Evening News hot off the press for distribution in towns along the south coast.
Through the summer, Hounslow became a popular location for those who sought to watch the flying or partake in a flight themselves, either in a succession of joyriding Avro 504Ks or Sopwith Dove two-seaters. The latter led to a memorable encounter for Greer. “I was sitting in my office after lunch one day”, he recounted. “Doing some deep thinking with my jacket off, feet on the desk, my hat over my face and my eyes well closed.
Suddenly the door burst open and Mr Sopwith came in, making a remark something like, ‘Get up you fool, here’s the Prince of Wales!’ I leapt to my feet, hastily grabbing my tunic and trying to get into it.”
The future King Edward, who had arrived to fly with Sopwith in a Dove, tactfully ignored Greer’s dishevelled state and asked what his job was at Hounslow. Greer responded that he was a civil aviation traffic officer appointed by the Air Ministry. “Ah”, said the Prince. “You are a sort of an aerial station master.”
Hounslow’s role as ‘London’s Air Terminus’ was short. Greer had proposed that the former RFC station at Waddon near Croydon offered better road and rail connectivity, and it became the approved airport serving London. The last commercial flights lifted from Hounslow Heath in March 1920, but now the scale model is bringing some of its spirit back to life.