Northolt - UK Airfield Guide

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Northolt





Northolt on the 29 Oct 1954,  The John Stroud Collection
Northolt on the 29 Oct 1954,  The John Stroud Collection
Northolt in 2005   ©  Crown copyright
Northolt in 2005   ©  Crown copyright
Aerial view
Aerial view

Note: The first picture was taken the day before London Airport (Heathrow) central area opened. The third picture (2015) was obtained from Google Earth ©







 

*NORTHOLT:  Military aerodrome (WW1), then in 1919 licensed as a combined military/civil aerodrome. Became a purely military aerodrome in WW2 and then became a major civil airport in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Reverted back to military aerodrome status in the mid 1950s until in (1998?) it became yet again a combined military/civil aerodrome. This time civil executive jet traffic being the main users.


A Maurice Farman S 7 Longhorn.© Crown Copyright
A Maurice Farman S 7 Longhorn.© Crown Copyright

In 2017 I requested, and was kindly given, permission to copy pictures from the book 'A History of Royal Air Force - Northolt - 90th Anniversary Edition, 1915 - 2005'. If you can find a copy I will highly recommend it, as it is very probably the finest history of RAF NORTHOLT available.

In this book it is said, "Construction on the new aerodrome (to be known as the RFC Military School, Ruislip) began in January 1915 with three straight pitches running north to south. On 3rd March 1915 No 4 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron (RAS) moved in from Farnborough." It appears they were flying the Maurice Farman S7 Longhorn and the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c.

It is interesting to note that the B.E. designation used by the Royal Aircraft Factory, or so it appears, denoted a 'Blériot Experimental' type. I don't think Blériot ever designed a biplane, but that was what the B.E.2c was, and, I'm pretty certain it bore no resemblance to anything Blériot designed. Perhaps somebody can kindly explain?


  

Military users: WW1: RFC/RAF Training Squadron Station and Training Depot Station


Northolt in 1917  © Crown Copyright
Northolt in 1917  © Crown Copyright

ROYAL FLYING CORPS

2 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron   (A mixture, including the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2)
18th January 1917 to 4th July 1917

4 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron  (Initially Maurice Farman S7 Longhorn & Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c, later Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.8)
3rd March 1915 to 4th July 1918
Note: It is worth mentioning that when in France in 1917, No. 4 Squadron had the first black pilot to serve in the RFC, one William Robertson Clarke.

11 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron   (Vickers FB5 'Gunbus', later Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2)
11th October 1915 to 31st January 1917

18 Sqdn  (Vickers FB5 'Gunbus' plus Airco DH.2 & Bristol Scouts)
11th May 1915 to 16th August 1915

19 Reserve Squadron  (A variety of types)
1st February 1916 to 15th April 1916  

Northolt in 1918  © Crown copyright
Northolt in 1918  © Crown copyright


35 Reserve Squadron   (Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8) 
16th February 1917 to 16th December 1917 

40 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron  (It appears that no records exist of the aircraft flown here?)
1st July 1916 to 21st August 1916 

43 Sqdn  (Sopwith 1½ Strutters, later Sopwith Camels)
9th December 1916 to 17th January 1917

 

74 Sqdn  (Avro 504K, later Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5a)
1st July 1917 to 10th July 1919
Note: It appears that 74 Squadron were first formed at LONDON COLNEY as a training Squadron with Avro 504Ks. However, the dates seem to coincide with them being transfered here, before becoming operational with the S.E.5a.  

86 Sqdn  (It appears that 86 Squadron did not become operational in WW1. But presumably they must have been flying something here during their eight month stay?)
16th December 1917 to 4th July 1918


No.19 Repair Station

Notes: Some accounts state that 39 and 78  Squadrons were based here, but it appears they do not show up on the official Station records.

Clearly, although ostensibly based here, many of these Squadrons spent a lot of their time serving on the Western Front in France. 



A MIKE CHARLTON GALLERY:  PICTURES FROM POSTCARDS

Northolt circa 1920s perhaps?
Northolt circa 1920s perhaps?
Another view, also circa 1920s?
Another view, also circa 1920s?
Aircraft on display, possibly mid 1960s, perhaps earlier?
Aircraft on display, possibly mid 1960s, perhaps earlier?
The barracks, circa WW1 perhaps?
The barracks, circa WW1 perhaps?













 

Note: These four pictures from postcards were kindly sent by Mike Charlton who has an amazing collection: See,  www.aviationpostcard.co.uk

Regarding the third picture I will readily admit to being confused as to exactly what this assembly of aircraft is intended to represent. I suspect it might have been of the 'Queen's Flight', or was it just a picture of aircraft available on the day?
Any advice will be most welcome.

 

ROYAL AIR FORCE

1919-1939:      RAF Bomber & Fighter Commands      1 Group     

30 Training Depot Station     (4th July to 18th March 1920)

4 Sqdn   (Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8)
13th February 1919 to 20th September 1919  (Then disbanded here)

 IACF

12 Sqdn  (Airco DH.9As)
1st April 1923 to 24th March 1924

Northolt in November 1931 © Crown Copyright
Northolt in November 1931 © Crown Copyright

Note: The caption for this picture is: "Aerial view of RAF Northolt, 6 November 1931. The line-up of Nos 24 and 41 Squadrons aircraft includes Siskins, Avro 504Ns, Gypsy Moths, and Fairey IIIFs." 
It came as quite a surprise to me to learn that the RAF were operating Gypsy Moths.

23 Sqdn  (It appears uncertain what types 23 Squadron flew at NORTHOLT - they might have flown the Gloster Gamecock, Bristol Bulldog, Hawker Hart and Hawker Demon)
21st December 1936 to 16th May 1938

24 (Communications) Sqdn   (Various types including at least one DH.60M Gypsy Moth - see above)
15th January 1927 to 10th July 1933 

25 Sqdn   (Gloster Gladiators)
26th September 1938 to 12th October 1938       Then 22nd August 1939 to 15th September 1939
 

41 Sqdn   (Sopwith Snipes, Armstrong-Whitworth Siskin IIIs*)
1st April 1923 to 4th October 1935

65 Sqdn  (Gloster Gladiators, then possibly Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires whilst here?)
2nd October 1939 to 28th March 1940

111 Sqdn   (Bristol Bulldog, Gloster Gauntlet & Hawker Hurricane Mk.1)
12th July 1934 to 27th October 1939 

213 Sqdn   (Gloster Gauntlet)
8th March 1937 to 1st July 1937
 

600 Sqdn  (City of London)  Royal Auxiliary Air Force    (Avro 504 and Airco DH.9A)
14th October 1925 to 18th January 1927         25th August 1939 to 2nd October 1939 
Note: At the outbreak of WW2 it appears that 600 Squadron were equipped with Bristol Blenheims.

It is interesting, I think, that Bristol intended the Blenheim design to be used as both a fighter and a bomber. In both roles it was an abject failure, and I suppose with hindsight of course, we might well wonder how the type became declared tested and fit for purpose?

601 Sqdn (County of London), Royal Auxiliary Air Force  (Avro 504K & Avro 504N, plus Airco DH.9A)
14th October 1925 to 18th January 1927


The King’s Flight**.

 

Northolt in 1939   © Crown copyright
Northolt in 1939   © Crown copyright
The first Hurricanes at NORTHOLT  © Crown copyright
The first Hurricanes at NORTHOLT  © Crown copyright
Mock scramble in August 1939     © Crown copyright
Mock scramble in August 1939     © Crown copyright













 

Note: The caption for the first picture is: "An impressive array of RAF aircraft assembled for a Parliamentary visit, including Spitfires, Gladiators, Hampdens, Whitleys, Wellingtons and Battles."

It is not often appreciated that the Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley and the Vickers Wellington bomber were, in this period, at least equal to, and in many ways superior to the Luftwaffe bombers.

The caption for the second picture is: "The official handover of Hurricanes to No 111 Squadron, RAF Northolt May 1938".

The caption for the third picture is: "A mock scramble by pilots of 'Treble One' Squadron, RAF Northolt, during the Air Exercises of August 1939". 

 

 

WW2: RAF Fighter Command          11 Group
Note: As stated elsewhere the main aim of so many senior people in the Air Ministry and the RAF were absolutely determined that the RAF would be substantially weakened to assist the Germans by continuously moving squadrons around the country. It is a nonsense to suppose that many of those in senior positions were in favour of the UK winning the war. The proof of this is contained in the following records.  

Perhaps needless to say, during the 'Battle of Britain', which mostly took place over the south-east and southern England, it often became a matter of necessity to move squadrons around as airfields were bombed, but that doesn't alter the bigger picture. Why, for example, were squadrons sent for a rest flown to the north-east of England when they would have been just as safe and away from the action almost anywhere 50 to 100 miles either west or north of London? 

*Battle of Britain RAF Sector Station    (10th July 1940 to 31st October 1940)

1 Sqdn    (Hawker Hurricanes) 
18th June 1940 to 23rd July 1940, then 1st August to 9th September, and then again from the 16th August 1940 to 11th October 1940
Note: Later to become 401 RCAF Squadron.

43 Sqdn   (Hawker Hurricanes)
23 July 1940 to 1st August 1940

229 Sqdn  (Hawker Hurricanes)
9th September 1940 to 15th December 1940 

257 Sqdn    (Hawker Hurricanes)
4th July 1940 to 15th August 1940

264 Sqdn   (Boulton Paul Defiants)
29th August to 29th October 1940

302 (Poznan) Sqdn   (Hawker Hurricanes)
11th October 1940 to 23rd November 1940

303 {Kosciusko] Sqdn   (Hawker Hurricanes)
22nd July 1940 to 11th October 1940

604 (RAuxAF) Sqdn   (Bristol Blenheims)

1st August 1940:  1 Sqdn had been posted to TANGMERE (SUSSEX) and 604 Sqdn to MIDDLE WALLOP (HAMPSHIRE). These were replaced by only 43 Squadron with their Hurricanes who had flown up from TANGMERE.

1st September 1940:  1 Sqdn were back, joined by  303 Sqdn newly formed here with Polish pilots*, all flying Hurricanes.
Note: Later No.1 Squadron became 401 (RCAF) Squadron). Some sources say that 401 (RCAF) Squadron took part in the 'Battle of Britain' but I think this is a mistake? 

615 Sqdn   (Hawker Hurricanes)
10th October 1940 to 16th December 1940



REMAINDER OF WW2 

1 Sqdn  (Hawker Hurricanes)
15th December 1940 to 5th January 1941 

16 Sqdn   (Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires)
16th April 1944 to 4th September 1944

25 Sqdn  (Bristol Blenheims)
Note: 25 Squadron was back here from the 4th October 1939 to the 6th January 1940

69 Sqdn  (Vickers Wellingtons)
5th May 1944 to 4th September 1944

92 Sqdn   (Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires)
9th May 1940 to 9th June 1940

111 Sqdn   (Hawker Hurricanes)
13th May 1940 to 21st May 1940 

124 Sqdn  (Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires)
26th July 1943 to 20th September 1943

140 Sqdn  (de Havilland Mosquitos & Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires)
7th April 1944 to 3rd September 1944

246 Sqdn  (Consolidated B-24 Liberators, Handley Page Halifaxs & Avro Yorks)
December 1944 to July 1945
Note: Although 246 Squadron were operating Liberators and Halifaxs in a transport role, I do not know if these types featured at NORTHOLT. What does seem clear is that they started conversion to the Avro York here in December 1944. I must admit to being somewhat surprised that the York was operational during WW2, albiet towards the end.

253 Sqdn  (Hawker Hurricanes)
14th February 1940  to 8th May 1940

271 Sqdn   (Douglas C-47 Dakotas)
29th February 1944 to 10th August 1945
Note: 271 Sqdn took part in the D-Day landings, and stayed here after the war in Europe ended on the 8th May 1945

302 (Poznan) Sqdn   (Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires)
21st September 1943 to 2nd December 1943. Then 19th December 1943 to 1st March 1944, and after a short break away, 7th March 1944 to 1st April 1944 


303 (Kosciusko) Sqdn   (Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires)
3rd January 1941 to 15th July 1941, then 7th October 1941 to 16th June 1942. Later a very brief visit, from 2nd February 1943 to 5th February 1943. Then here from 1st June 1943 to 12th November 1943 

306 (Torunski) Sqdn   (Hawker Hurricanes, then Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires)
3rd April 1941 to 7th October 1941, then 16th June 1942 to 12th March 1943

308 (Krakowski) Sqdn   (Initially Hawker Hurricanes, then Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires) 
24th June 1941 to 12th December 1941, then 29th October 1942 to 29th April 1943. Later 11th November 1943 to 2nd December 1943, and then 18th December 1943 to 8th March 1944. After a short break away, 15th March to 1st April 1944

315 (Deblinski) Sqdn   (Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires)
14th July 1941 to 1st April 1942, then 5th September 1942 to 2nd June 1943

316 (Warzawski) Sqdn   (Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires)
13th December 1941 to 23rd April 1942, then 12th March 1943 to 22nd September 1943

317 (Wilno) Sqdn   (Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires)
1st April 1942 to 30th June 1942, then 7th June 1943 to 5th September 1943. Shortly after,  21st September 1943 to 2nd December 1943  
 

515 Sqdn  (Boulton Paul Defiants)       
1st October 1942 to 29th October 1942
Note: This is interesting. 515 Squadron were briefly moved here with Defiants equipped with enemy radar-jamming devices such as Moonshine and Mandrel. They then moved a few miles south to RAF HESTON.

600 RAuxAF [City of London] Sqdn    (Bristol Blenheims)
14th May 1940 to 21st June 1940 

601 RAuxAF [County of London] Sqdn   (Hawker Hurricanes)
17th December 1940 to 1st May 1941

604 RAuxAF Sqdn   (Bristol Blenheims)
16th January 1940 to 15th May 1940, then 20th June to 3rd July

609  [West Riding]  Sqdn     (Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires)
20th May 1940 to 6th July 1940


1697 Flight   (Hawker Hurricanes)


NOTE: WORLD WAR 2 in Europe ended on the 8th May 1945

Post 1945: Royal Air Force 

Also RCAF & NORTHOLT Station Flight***

Metropolitan Communications Squadron    (Westland Whirlwind helicopters, later Hawker Siddeley Andovers) 
4th December 1957 to 3rd February 1969

Southern Communications Squadron
1st January 1969 to 3rd February 1969
Note: This short stay was clearly brought about (?) when their base at RAF BOVINGDON closed. I suspect they were probably operating Beagle Bassetts, DH Devons and Percival Pembrokes at the time?

32 Squadron  (Hawker Siddeley Andovers and Westland Wessex helicopters. Also during this period, HS.125 CC.1, CC2 & BAe 125 CC.3 variants, plus BAe 146 CC.1s. And it appears Aerospatialle Gazelles from 1976 to 1996. 
3rd February 1969 to 31 March 1995
Note: I'll confess to being easily confused, but it seems to me that the fixed wing element of the Queen's Flight, although very common visitors here, were actually based at RAF BENSON (OXFORDSHIRE) until 1995?

32 (The Royal) Squadron  (BAe 125, BAe 146 CC2, Aerospatiale Twin Squirrel & Augusta 109s from 2006) 
1st April 1995 to -
Note: I would now recommend looking up the status of this squadron, (remark - October 2017) as it would appear from their web-site that this Squadron now has very little involvement in 'Queen's Flight' activities.

 

1975 snapshot:     RAF (Beagle Bassetts, DH104 Devons, Hawker Siddeley HS.125s and Westland Whirlwind helicopters)

207 Sqdn  (Beagle Bassetts, DH104 Devons & Percival Pembrokes)
3rd February 1969 to 30th June 1984

 

1998 snapshot:        RAF Air Transport

32 (The Royal) Sqdn        8 x BAe 125 CC.3          2 x Twin Squirrel (Helicopters)

3 x BAe 146 CC.2             2 x Westland Wessex HCC.4


The apron at Northolt in the early 1950s
The apron at Northolt in the early 1950s

This picture from the John Stroud Collection may well have been taken from a BEA Bristol Dragonfly. Possibly operating from the Festival of Britain heliport next to County Hall on the South Bank in central London?
 

British airline users: Post 1945: Air Enterprises, BKS, British European Airways (BEA), BEA Helicopters, BOAC, Lancashire Aircraft Corporation, Scottish Aviation
 

Foreign airline users: ABA, Aer Lingus, CSA, DDL, DNL, Hellenic Airlines, LAI – Alitalia, Luxembourg Airlines, Swissair, Transocean


Air cargo: Sivewright Airways
 

Charter/air taxi: Post 1945: Air Pegasus, Eagle Airways, Star-ways
 

Pleasure flights: Pre 1940: Central Aircraft Co (1919 to 1921), Air Trips (1931)
 

Flying schools: Pre 1940: Central Aircraft Co (1919 to 1921)
 

Manufacturing: Pre 1940: Central Aircraft Co. (1919 to 1921)     Fairey Aviation Company (1917 to 1930s)

 

Location: N of A40, 2 nm ENE of Uxbridge

Period of operation: 1915 to present day
 


Site area: WW1: 165 acres 914 x 823

RFC/RAF Northolt in 1918  © Crown copyright
RFC/RAF Northolt in 1918  © Crown copyright
RAF Northolt in 1932  © Crown copyright
RAF Northolt in 1932  © Crown copyright
Northolt 2000
Northolt 2000
   

Note: The third map is reproduced with the kind permission of Pooleys Flight Equipment Ltd. Copyright Robert Pooley 2014:




 

Runways: WW2: 02/20   896x46   hard            08/26    1646x46 hard      
                         12/30   1463x46   hard  (Sommerfeld track)
 

There is ‘solid’ proof that runway 12/30 was converted into a hard runway at some point because it still exists! I assume this was done just after WW2 before NORTHOLT became a major international airport for London while HEATHROW was being built. In 2012 I found this in The History of British European Airways by Charles Woodley. “Early in 1945 work commenced on a new runway, 31/13, and the existing runway, 26/08, was resurfaced.”

As you can see, the “new” runway was nothing of the kind, it was just that the Sommerfeld track runway was being replaced with a ‘hard’ runway. The 02/20 runway still exists, but used as a taxiway probably since WW2.

1990/2000: 07/25   1684x46    hard

Mr Woodley does explain that the large apron on the southern side of the airport was laid to provide parking once NORTHOLT became a major European airport. Today this area has been decreased by about 30% and the remainder is very often quite full with executive jets.

 

NOTES: Here again the first ‘official’ record of flying was in the Pilot Certificate records where the first mention is for Pilot Certificate No.1318 being awarded on 10/6/15 to Lieut. Helperus Andrias Van Ryneveld, (a great sounding name and hopefully belonging to a Dutchman on ‘our’ side in the conflict), flying a Maurice Farman biplane

It’s interesting to note that at the end of WW1 839 RAF & civilian personnel were operating this station and had charge of 72 aircraft. A ratio of roughly 12:1. By WW2 equally ‘busy’ RAF stations were often operating at up to (very roughly) a 50:1 ratio and even higher. A good illustration of how aviation progress often works.

The Kennedy No.3 Giant. © Crown Copyright
The Kennedy No.3 Giant. © Crown Copyright

One of my favourite stories about this aerodrome concerns local rumours which sprung up after they started assembling the Kennedy No.3 Giant here during WW1, (between 1916 & 1917), which was built in nearby Hayes. It seems many believed this massive aircraft was destined to ‘raid’ Germany in order to kidnap the Kaiser. Better still many locals apparently attributed the shortage of eggs at this period being due to their being required to lubricate the runway in order to enable this giant aircraft to take off! I doubt I have ever heard a more ludicrous and utterly preposterous aviation story.

But of course we must remember that in those days NORTHOLT was situated in a mostly rural setting, beyond the London conurbation, and therefore populated by barely literate and mostly uneducated inhabitants. 


A CLAIM TO FAME
*74 Squadron achieved a quite remarkable reputation after being posted to France in March 1918 claiming to have shot down 100 enemy aircraft in just seventy days with a loss of only one of their own aircraft. After seven months, and with the war ending, the Squadron had claimed 224 “kills” – 140 confirmed, 68 probable and 15 balloons. Balloons had been used by both sides during WW1 for both reconnaissance and especially artillery range duties.

I suppose this might be as good a place as any to relate that, (according to Hilary St.George Saunders), at the end of WW1 the RAF had ninety-five squadrons and seven flights in Belgium, France and the Rhineland in Germany. Plus thirty-four squadrons and eight flights in other theatres of that war. The Home establishment being fifty-five operational squadrons and one hundred and ninety-nine training squadrons.
 

POST WW1
Within eighteen months this was reduced to eighteen squadrons overseas, (eight in India and seven in the Middle East, and only two Home squadrons. I suspect one of these Home squadrons may have been based here and/or at HENDON? By comparison in 2012 the RAF had 36 operational flying Squadrons with 827 aircraft. This total does not include the Grob Tutors operated by Babcock International or the motor-gliding and gliding squadrons. It might seem surprising that in a country allegedly verging on bankruptcy, the RAF was still the second largest Air Force in NATO after the USAF.


A TRAGIC ACCIDENT
In September 1920 Miss Imelda Trafford, (acting as co-pilot), was one of six people killed when the engine failed shortly after take-off in a Central C-F2A Centaur. Miss Trafford deserves to be remembered today because she was the first British women to be awarded an Air Ministry ‘A’ License for private pilots. She was not however the first women to get an official Pilot Certificate. That honour goes to Mrs Hilda B Hewlett in 1911.

May 1924: No.41 squadron received the first Armstrong Whitworth Siskin III fighters.

In about 1925 or shortly after the RAF formed a parachute display team here.

On the 27th July 1929 eleven aircraft of 41 Squadron flew to Calais to escort Louis Blériot in his re-enactment of his first Channel crossing.

 

**The first King’s Flight was established here in July 1936, with one DH.89A Dragon Rapide, G-ADDD it seems. Flt Lt E H ‘Mouse’ Fielden was the Captain of ‘The King’s Flight’. A minor point to be sure, but when did the ‘Royal Flight’ become military operated and yet with civilian registered aircraft? And if you think about it…why? 24 Sqdn had the responsibility and in the last six months of 1936 it appears 60 ‘Royal’ flights were made. I wonder how that compares today?

It came as quite a surprise to discover in January 2004 that Fairey Aviation had a base here in the early 1930s (before their GREAT WEST AERODROME near the village of Heathrow was established), and their Ferret, Firefly I, Fox, 111F, Flycatcher II, Long Range Monoplane and Fleetwing types all made their maiden flights here.


THE FIRST HURRICANE SQUADRON
In 1937 (?) 111 Sqdn moved from RAF HORNCHURCH to here, (possibly via NORTH WEALD?), and it they were the first Squadron elected to fly the new super-dooper Hawker Hurricanes which made a far bigger contribution to the winning of the Battle-of-Britain than the Spitfire! This is a fact very much overlooked today and indeed the Hurricane, (nowhere near as modified as the Spitfire), stayed in place in various roles until the end of WW2. Probably also not much appreciated is that the Hurricane design was basically a monoplane version of the very successful the Hawker Hart family of biplanes. Indeed, the first Hurricanes had fabric covered wings.

The history of 515 Squadron seems worth investigating. Formed at NORTHOLT early in WW2 it seems quite possible they were the first RAF squadron to commence ECM (Electronic Countermeasures) duties? Indeed, the Defiants they operated at NORTHOLT might have had such equipment installed? The early versions of ECM equipment were both primitive and unreliable but even in those days some of the RAFs bosses realised this was one of the ways forward, and they were absolutely correct of course.


WORLD WAR TWO

It is very important to mention the contribution of the Polish fighter pilots based here in WW2, and indeed the hugely valuable contribution Polish airmen made to the RAF in both Fighter and Bomber Commands. In fact I think it is quite disgraceful that today we British do not in any way really acknowledge the huge contribution made within the RAF of so many thousands of both foreign and Dominion/Empire pilots. The Brits alone didn’t really stand a chance. In fact, of the 2917 aircrew who took part in the Battle of Britain 583 were foreign.

Taking the Polish pilots as an example the way they were initially treated for months on end was quite appalling. In fact they were mostly ignored. Nobody seemed to realise these pilots had a huge amount of combat experience, albeit compressed into just a few weeks at best. Once let loose in our modern aircraft, (like the Hurricane), they were so effective the RAF thought they were liars, making hugely extravagant claims. At NORTHOLT it seems a senior RAF officer shadowed them into combat to prove this point and was astonished by what he saw. In combat they disregarded all the RAF procedures and fought like demons.

As pointed out elsewhere in this Guide these Polish pilots weren’t interested in just shooting down German aircraft, they wanted to make damn sure they killed the pilot, or in the case of bombers all the airmen on board. It appears the RAF had no conception of the hatred these Polish pilots felt for what the Third Reich had inflicted on their country. I think it fair to say that the Belgian, Czech, Dutch, French and Norwegian pilots and aircrew felt the same way?

 

***Jarrod Cotter, in his book Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, regarding the history of Hurricane Mk.IIc LF363, he says it appears that from August 1947 to February 1948 (?) it was serving with the Fighter Command Communication Squadron. One might well wonder how they treated it because, “In February 1948 LF363 was with the Station Flight at Thorney Island and in a bit of a sorry state, being classified as U/S (unserviceable) and awaiting spares.” It may of course have been in excellent overall condition, but simply grounded whilst awaiting spares, a state of affairs which has applied to rather a lot of aircraft I have wished to fly over the years.

He also makes another very interesting point. Serving with 303 (Polish) Squadron the highest scoring ace in the Battle of Britain was Sergeant Josef Frantisek who had seventeen ‘kills’ to his name. Except that Frantisek was actually Czechoslovakian. He was killed on the 8th October 1940, crashing whilst landing here. He was one of eighty-seven CzechoslovaOLT flying Spitfire Mk.9s. He went on to become the top WW2USAAF ace (28 kills) and I have provided some more details for his main UK base, KINGSCLIFFE, NORTHAMPTONSHIRE.



1697 FLIGHT
In his excellent book Hurricane, Leo McKinstry tells us about this rather unusual operation which was formed for the D-Day landings and subsequent offensive: "During the great invasion Hurricanes were also used on the Air Despatch Letter Service run by 1697 Flight, carrying urgent messages and documents betwen Normandy and London. One of the pilots on this service was Arthur Lowndes; 'We had Hurricanes specially adapted to carry mail. They had a special space behind the pilot and it was also possible to use one of the wing tanks. We used to fly Hurricanes to the airstrips in Normandy and dispatch riders would come from the front bringing dispatches for London.It took about an hour to fly the distance back to Northolt where another dispatch rider or driver would take it straight to London, so an action which might have taken place at 7 a.m. would be reported in London by about 10 a.m.' "  

 

AFTER WW2

After WW2 NORTHOLT became the ‘London Airport’ for many airlines serving mainly 

European routes. Perhaps one of the more interesting domestic operators being Lancashire Aircraft Corporation who operated services from YEADON (LEEDS-BRADFORD), in YORKSHIRE from May 1949 to February 1953 using Dragon Rapides and Airspeed Consuls. Another incipient airline, (then on charter work visiting NORTHOLT), was Starways who used Avro Ansons to ferry celebrity ‘turns’ to Blackpool and presumably Liverpool and Manchester and vice versa? This operation later became Starways (Liverpool) flying DC-4s, mostly on inclusive tours and charter work I think. I’m not at all sure, but feel pretty certain Starways never operated scheduled services?

Perhaps of equal surprise I have also discovered that from the late 1950s to 1963 the RCAF had Douglas Dakotas and Beech Expediters based here as part of their NATO commitment.


Northolt 'at full swing'
Northolt 'at full swing'
Northolt in the early 1950s   © Crown copyright
Northolt in the early 1950s   © Crown copyright









 



THE 'BEA' ERA
The early history of BEA (British European Airways) will always be associated primarily with NORTHOLT so it seems appropriate to quote from The History of British European Airways by Charles Woodley. “BEA’s initial fleet consisted of twenty-four Dakotas and eight Vickers Viking IAs inherited from the BEA Division of BOAC. The new airline suffered from a severe shortage of Dakota spares in the early days*, resulting at one point in 25 per cent of the fleet being grounded. Dakotas had to be leased from BOAC for quite some time, and others were chartered from independent operators such as Skyways.

 

*Perhaps they should have telephoned Freddy Laker at Aviation Traders in SOUTHEND.

I think the next episode is very interesting indeed. “On 1 February 1947 BEA was ready to begin operating domestic schedules in its own right. It took over the services, aircraft and staff of the airlines of the Associated Airways Joint Committee, with the temporary exception of Allied Airways (Gandar Dower) Ltd, and Channel Island Airways. The companies taken over on that date were Railway Air Services, Scottish Airways, Isle of Man Air Services, Great Western and Southern Air Lines, Highland Airways, North Eastern Airways, West Coast Air Services and Western Isles Airways, although the last four companies were not actually operating at the time.”


A PARLOUS STATE
This certainly illustrates the parlous state the British domestic airline industry was in, post WW2. Despite at least one very advanced plan being put forward by Railway Air Services for example, in 1944, the British government seemed to have had no coherent concept as to how domestic airline operations would function after WW2 ended. Perhaps quite understandably in those days of rationing and general austerity, they considered anybody wanting to fly around the UK deserved a very low priority.

“A fleet of assorted aircraft was inherited, comprising two Dakotas, eight Junkers Ju 52/3ms, thirteen Avro 19s, thirty-nine de Havilland Dragon Rapides, one de Havilland Dragon and one de Havilland Gypsy Moth.” And to think that some damned fool reckoned we’d won the war! Nothing was further from the truth of course, the UK was to all intents and purposes bankrupt, (the USA provided under the Marshall plan pretty much the same amount of aid as Germany received to rebuild), and of course the ability to run an ‘Empire’ had been torn apart. Much to the delight of most in power in the USA I’d suppose.

Charles Woodley states, “On 1 March 1946 Northolt aerodrome entered a new era, as a civil airport on loan from the RAF to the Ministry of Civil Aviation, with the BEA Division of BOAC beginning a weekly service to Madrid and Gibraltar. This was followed within two weeks by a three-times weekly service to Stavangar and Oslo on 11 March, a four-times weekly service to Copenhagen on the following day, and a weekly schedule to Marseilles, Rome and Athens on 14 March.” I need to do a bit of ‘catch-up’ here. Who exactly was operating the short haul services from London to Brussels, Paris and the nearest cities in Germany between March 1946 to 1948? Did no British airline serve these routes?

“For all these services sixteen-seater Dakotas were used, with about half of the seats reserved for government priority or official passengers. Conditions at Northolt were initially quite primitive, with some of the airline staff having to work from tents or covered lorries on the airfield perimeter. However, BEA soon erected temporary buildings on the south side, adjacent to Western Avenue, to house operational staff, and took over old barrack blocks on the north side for administrative and training purposes.” Most of the “temporary” buildings on the south side served into the 1990s, until NORTHOLT was re-invented as a London Exec-Jet terminal.

“BEA’s first domestic service in its own right was the 1325 hrs scheduled flight from Northolt to Prestwick and Renfrew Airport in Glasgow. This was operated by Dakota G-AGYZ under the command of Captain J. Ramsden.” Mr Woodley doesn’t make the exact date clear, but it seems inferred it was the 1st February 1947? On the 19th May 1947 BEA introduced a six-weekly service from NORTHOLT to Edinburgh (TURNHOUSE), Aberdeen (DYCE) and Shetland (presumably SUMBURGH?)

It is probably just me, at my age, being a tad soppy and sentimental, but I do find this era of BEA Dakotas and Vikings flying across Europe has an allure of adventure - in the sense that it was still an era fraught with danger. As some people have pointed out, most of these aircrew were ex-RAF, largely from Bomber Command, so their concept of danger – now flying across Europe without fear of being shot down, was at odds with the concept of ‘safety first’ applying to airline operations. Plus of course, unlike the 1930s, many of these new routes entailed flying over the major mountain ranges in Europe, in aircraft without pressurised cabins.

I certainly cannot claim to have researched the subject, but my impression is, compared to other major European airlines operating in the era of BEA (1946 to 1974), this airline had one of the worst ‘serious’ accident records? The situation is muddled simply because the UK had two ‘national airlines’, BEA and BOAC, whereas most other countries in Europe had just one? Of course it wasn't until 1951 that SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System) was serving Denmark, Norway and Sweden with aircraft registered in all three countries and in effect SAS. comprised, for each country, their national airline.

The ‘serious accident’ (involving fatalities) record for BEA includes the following:

Date        Type      Reg       Location &  remarks
07.08.46 Dakota G-AHCS Nr Oslo 3 crew fatal, all pax survived
06.01.48 Viking G-AHPK Nr Northolt Captn fatal, other crew + 6 pax injured
05.04.48 Viking G-AIVP Nr Gatow, Berlin Mid-air collision with Yak 3, all fatal
19.02.49 Dakota G-AHCW Exhall, Staffs Mid-air with RAF Anson, all fatal
17.10.50 Dakota G-AGIW Mill Hill, London Engine failure, all fatal



MORE BEA SERVICES
To quote from Charles Woodley again, “New Dakota services to Prague and to Rome were inaugurated on 7 and 9 August 1946. On 20 August BEA operated a proving flight to Stavanger and Oslo with Vickers Viking G-AGRU ‘Vagrant’, as a prelude to the introduction of that type on scheduled services.” This was a three-times weekly service, followed shortly after with a four-times weekly service to Copenhagen, flown by G-AHOP ‘Valerie’ on the 1st September 1946. A twelve-times weekly service to Amsterdam commenced and on the 6th October BEA Vikings flew the Gothenburg-Stockholm route. By the 1st November BEA Vikings were flying to Lisbon, Madrid, Gibraltar and Prague. BEA opened Dakota routes to Berlin via Hamburg on the 1st September 1946 and a Frankfurt-Vienna service on the 2nd September. Also on the 2nd September a NORTHOLT-PRESTWICK service started using Dakotas of Scottish Airlines.

I find this period incredibly interesting. How did they do it, make all the arrangements, in so short a period? It seems utterly astonishing today? The answer must surely be that if you have recently been involved in the logistics required to support a major military operation invading Europe, setting up a couple of shacks or even tents, for Customs and Immigration purposes is a breeze. Plus of course, these aircraft didn’t require bullets and bombs and were much simpler to service and turn around.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though. In December 1946 the Viking fleet was grounded due to icing problems, (the Vikings flew higher than Dakotas), and it wasn’t until April 1947 before the Viking re-entered service, a proving flight to Geneva took place on the 18th April. In May 1947 BEA started a service, using Dakotas, from NORTHOLT to Edinburgh (TURNHOUSE), Aberdeen (DYCE) and Shetland. (Where? Possibly SCATSA – more likely SUMBURGH?)

“On 1 April 1947 BEA took over Channel Island Airways, followed on 12th April by Allied Airways (Gander Dower) Ltd.” In effect BEA now had 'a full set of cards' regarding scheduled domestic services throughout the UK. Many sectors being loss making liabilities from the start of course. BEA also undertook individual charter flights, which came as quite a surprise to me. For example, and again from Charles Woodley; “The first commercial operation of the ‘Pionair’ conversion of the BEA Dakota was flown on 24 January 1951, a charter flight from Northolt to Dublin for Smith’s Instruments by G-ALYF.

It seems worth recording that between 1946 and 1953(?) BEA acquired at least 70 C-47/DC-3 Dakotas, (I’d thought they’d probably had a dozen or so), many modified to ‘Pionair’ and ‘Pionair Leopard’ class by Scottish Aviation), although not all saw fleet service. G-AHDA, HDB, HDC and LCB being acquired for spares for example? I have found accounts ranging from BEA first getting Dakotas in the early 1950s to last acquiring them in the 1960s!

It is of course a soppy indulgence to include this list of BEA Dakota registrations. This is partly because I have an uncle, (Tommy Gibbs), who used to fly many of these Dakotas for BEA. He later went on to Viscounts, then Comets, ending his career on Tridents. A career not without incidents either. He did of course have, (compulsory it seems for all Dak pilots in BEA and BOAC?), a wheels up landing - due to something failing in the U/C system. I think hydraulic system failures were the main cause? He was also Captain of the Viscount that ended up embedded in the control tower on Malta after losing both brakes and steering during the landing roll-out. He was also flying the Comet 4B out of a Swiss airport when, on the climb out he lost three ‘engines’ due to slush ingestion but managed to fly it 'around the circuit' to land safely. This incident resulting in BEA fitting mudguards to the Comet 4B fleet.

Here are the registrations: I know I have banged on about this elsewhere but even official records cannot be 100% relied upon. And, as always in aviation history the picture is invariably complex. For example: G-AKII, KIJ and KIK were registered BEA for Cyprus Airways. G-AMFV was re-purchased from Cambrian in 1963 for Gibraltar Airways.

 

G-AGHH     G-AGHJ     G-AGHL     G-AGHM     G-AGHP     G-AGHS

G-AGHU     G-AGIO     G-AGIP      G-AGIS        G-AGIT      G-AGIU

G-AGIW      G-AGIX     G-AGIZ      G-AGJV       G-AGJW     G-AGJZ

G-AGNF     G-AGNG    G-AGNK    G-AGYX      G-AGYZ      G-AGZB

G-AGZC     G-AGZD    G-AGZE     G-AHCS      G-AHCT      G-AHCU

G-AHCV     G-AHCW   G-AHCX     G-AHCY      G-AHCZ     G-AHDA

G-AHDB     G-AHDC    G-AIWD     G-AJDE       G-AJHY      G-AJHZ

G-AJIA        G-AJIB      G-AJIC       G-AJXL       G-AKII         G-AKIJ

G-AKIK        G-AKJH    G-AKNB     G-ALCB      G-ALCC      G-ALLI

G-ALPN       G-ALTT     G-ALXK     G-ALXL      G-ALXM      G-ALXN

G-ALYF       G-AMDB    G-AMDZ    G-AMFV     G-AMGD     G-AMJX

G-AMJY       G-AMKE    G-AMNV    G-AMNW    G-AMYB



A POTENTIALLY VERY RARE PICTURE?

The BEA Dakota G-AGHP
The BEA Dakota G-AGHP

In August 2017 I was very kindly sent this cracking picture by Mr Bob Wright which his wife Mrs Margaret Wright had inherited. They do say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this certainly proves the case. The more I looked into when this picture was taken, the more interesting it became. The first point I noticed was that it had the typical cargo carrying double-door arrangement associated with the military C-47 versions.

A bit more research revealed that this was indeed the case. G-AGHP was originally registered to BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) at WHITCHURCH near Bristol in August 1943 and served with them until November 1947. It was registered as a Douglas C-47 Dakota 3. The designation C-47 shows that it was built by Douglas as a military, basically cargo carrying type. The RAF called the C-47 the 'Dakota', the USAAF called it the 'Skytrain'.

 

It was then registered to Field Aircraft Services at CROYDON until September 1948, when BEAC (British European Airways Corporation), the European division of BOAC, acquired it. It crashed as was destroyed in September 1958.

Although a tiny detail, I was interested to see that on the registration documents for G-AGHP with BEA (as it soon became known) part of the address was Northolt Airport, but this was then crossed out and replaced by Keyline House, Ruislip. But why? BEA took over the Bourne School on the north side of RAF NORTHOLT as their HQ and renamed it 'Keyline House'.


BUT WHEN WAS THE PICTURE TAKEN?
There are three more clues that I can pick up on. Firstly, the front of a BEA Vickers Viking can be seen. The Viking served with BEA from September 1946 until late 1954. In the background is a Vickers Viscount, almost certainly a BEA Viscount of the 700 Series and the first BEA services commenced in April 1953. Further research reveals that BEA did indeed use their Dakotas for cargo flights from NORTHOLT but, these were probably few and far between as BEA had virtually no facilties for properly handling cargo at NORTHOLT.


So there you have it, this picture was probably taken in the period 1953 to 1954. Another aspect that intriques me is that tall lighting towers are clearly visible, and yet in all the pictures of the NORTHOLT civil apron after WW2 I have seen no evidence of these.
 


A WONDERFUL PLACE TO VISIT
For any reggie spotter in or around 1946 to 1958 NORTHOLT must have been a wonderful place to visit. Aer Lingus were flying in with DC-3s. BOAC were flying their DC-3s to Gibraltar, Lisbon and Madrid and as far east as Tehran. BEA Helicopters were there too at one time, (probably a bit later?), with experimental Sikorsky S-51s services. BEA were of course setting about their standard European airline services, (using DC-3s), before HEATHROW became available. Scottish Aviation set up a one year trial service from PRESTWICK, (AYRSHIRE) via BURTONWOOD (LANCASHIRE) to NORTHOLT using the DC.3.

ABA the Swedish airline I was told used the Boeing B.17 Fortress, (converted bombers – for passengers), Douglas DC-3s and later DC-4s. The three Fortesses they used were the best of a bunch which arrived in Sweden, (forced landings etc), during WW2. Now it seems these Fortresses where operated by the overseas arm of ABA called SILA, (Svensk IntercontinentalLufttrafik AB), on the Stockholm to New York route. So it seems rather unlikely one ever visited NORTHOLT? DDL from Denmark flew DC-3, DC-4 and DC-6s plus Vickers Vikings before being absorbed into SAS. DNL from Norway flew in using DC-3s too. SAS, (Scandinavian Airlines System), was formed from ABA, SILA, DDL and DNL on the 1st October 1950 although all had co-operated on European services since the 18th of April 1948.

Hellenic Airlines flew two converted Consolidated B.24 Liberators, (for passenger flights), from NORTHOLT to Athens operated by Scottish Aviation. These were SX-DAA (G-AGZI) and SX-DAB (G-AHZA). Scottish Aviation also provided Hellenic with two DC-3s, SX-BBB (G-AIOF) and SX-BBC (G-AJBC), but it isn’t known if they came as far north as NORTHOLT?

Swissair used DC-3s and DC-4s. The Canadian airline Transocean were operating DC-4s flying immigrants to Canada on behalf of TCA, (Trans Canada Airlines), later to become Air Canada. LAI/Alitalia were not only flying DC-4s, they also used the Savio-Marchetti SM. 95 thirty seater four engined airliner. Perhaps quite incredible though it might seem today, given that the ‘Cold War’ was kicking off big time, CSA, (the Czechoslovakian national airline), were flying into NORTHOLT using, (what else?), Douglas DC-3s. As were Luxembourg Airlines whose services were also operated by Scottish Aviation using three ‘Daks’ – LX-LAA (G-AJLZ), LX-LAB (G-AIOD) and LX-LAC (G-AIOE).

This was a time, generally speaking, when many of the 'flag carrier' national airlines had yet to be formed, or were in the stages of being formed. Such as:  Austria - Austrian Airlines, Belgium - Sabena, France - Air France, Germany - Lufthansa, Italy - Alitalia, Luxembourg - Luxair, Portugal - TAP, Spain - Iberia, Switzerland - Swissair. 


ANOTHER MIKE CHARLTON GALLERY - NORTHOLT CIVIL
These pictures from postcards were very kindly sent by Mike Charlton who has an amazing collection.  See:  www.aviationpostcard.co.uk

The Aer Lingus Douglas C-47 Dakota EI-ACK
The Aer Lingus Douglas C-47 Dakota EI-ACK
The BEA Vickers VC.1 Viking 1B G-AMGJ
The BEA Vickers VC.1 Viking 1B G-AMGJ
The BEA C-47 Dakota 3 G-AJIA
The BEA C-47 Dakota 3 G-AJIA
The Swiss Air Lines 'Dak' HB-IRM
The Swiss Air Lines 'Dak' HB-IRM











 

First picture: I suspect this is a picture of EI-ACK when it first entered service with Aer Lingus in June 1946? I have seen later pictures which clearly show a more substantial colour scheme applied. It appears that after serving with Aer Lingus it went to Isreal as 4X-AOC and then to Portugal as CS-DGA. It seems it is now on display at the TAP headquarters as CS-TDA.      

Second picture: The Viking G-AMGJ was registered to BEA from the 19th December 1950 until the 2nd December 1955. It was then registered to the First Air Trading Company from the 9th December 1955 until the 16th of April 1957 - so what was it doing in this period? It appears it then went to Germany as D-AAUF.      

Third picture: This seems to me to be very interesting. The Dakota 3 G-AJIA was registered to BEA from the 18th February 1947 until the 17th March 1961 1961, when it was sold to Mali. But, the singular lack of almost any BEA colour scheme surely indicates that this picture was taken shortly after it entered service - circa 1947?.     

Fourth picture: What a delight, even if the picture is rather over-exposed. Attempts to find out more about the history of this aircraft have failed, so if anybody can kindly offer advice, this will be much appreciated.            


The SAS Douglas DC-4 SE-BBD
The SAS Douglas DC-4 SE-BBD
The BEA Vickers VC.1 Viking 1B G-AJBX
The BEA Vickers VC.1 Viking 1B G-AJBX
What a classic line up, a Viking and three 'Daks'
What a classic line up, a Viking and three 'Daks'
An Aer Lingus Bristol 170 Wayfarer Mk.31
An Aer Lingus Bristol 170 Wayfarer Mk.31
 










 


Fifth picture: Without any doubt this is an 'age thing' but this picture ticks so many boxes. The DC-4 being the first in the series of truly classic post WW2 airliners produced by Douglas - the DC-4, DC-6 and DC-7. This example, registered in Sweden serves to remind us that once SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System) were formed, their aircraft were registered in all three countries - Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Sixth picture: This postcard is dated 1952 and a bit of research has disclosed it led a very varied career. It was registered to BEA (British European Airways Corporation) from the 20th October 1947 until the 1st June 1954. From the 3rd June 1954 it went to Eagle Aircraft Services at BLACKBUSHE until the 12th December 1955. It then went to Germany as D-AFIX / D-BABA until 1959, returning to the UK register with Continental Air Services at JERSEY from the 26th October 1959 until the 2nd June 1960.

It was then registered to Maitland Drewery Aviation at BIGGIN HILL from the 3rd June 1960 until the 8th March 1961 before going to Air Safaris at GATWICK from the 14th March 1961 until the 12th April 1962. From the 20th July 1962 it was registered to Alexander Homatus until the 15th December 1962. He was a founder/director of Eros Airlines originally formed in Cyprus in December 1957 - Eros Airlines UK was formed in February 1958. He then transferred the ownership of G-AJBX to Eros Airlines (UK) from the 20th February 1963 until the 6th April 1964, when finally it went to Air Ferry at MANSTON from the 8th April 1964. It appears they only operated G-AJBX until the 21st October 1965 when it was declared PWFU (Permanently Withdrawn From Use).

Eighth picture: It might seem surprising today that Bristol decided to produce a passenger version of their Freighter design, but they did and they sold several. Here we have one example operated by Aer Lingus.




A MILITARY PRESENCE
As far as I'm aware, NORTHOLT has always had a military side. In the late 40s and early 50s it was being used by US military services, moving personel and equipment around. Presumably using Douglas C-47s, (DC-3), C-54s, (DC-4) and possibly Lockheed C-69s (L-49Constellation) types? Even today I sometimes spot USAF and US Navy aircraft at NORTHOLT as well as many other military aircraft from other countries.



WHERE DID THESE AIRLINES OPERATE INTO FOR LONDON?
I’d thought that surely Air France, KLM and Sabena must have used NORTHOLT in those early days but it seems they didn’t. Flying into HEATHROW instead perhaps, or more probably even then, still using CROYDON? From the History of British European Airways by Charles Woodley I learnt that departures from NORTHOLT had increased from a dozen or so in 1946 to sixty-six in the summer of 1948. He also remarks, “By 1950 Northolt was by far the busiest airport in Britain, and probably in Europe. In January 1950, it handled over 25 per cent of the total UK movements.”

Today this all seems a quite incredible situation and of course Air Traffic Control was still in its infancy, especially regarding regional control abilities. For example, just take a roughly thirty mile arc from SSW of NORTHOLT to NNE. To the south LONDON AIRPORT (now HEATHROW) was getting into its stride with BOAC and other long-haul operators. RAF HENDON and HANWORTH AIR PARK were marginally operational, as was BOVINGDON and LEAVESDEN. To the north HATFIELD and RADLETT had a lot of movements, test flying etc and LUTON was fairly busy. To the west LANGLEY, and GREENHAM COMMON had a fair number of regular movements. ALDERMASTON was used by both BEA and BOACfor training flights and BLACKBUSHE was also busy, let alone FARNBOROUGH.

It has to be remembered that the rate of climb of airliners in those days was far, far less than we expect today, and indeed, with most being unpressurised, a cruising altitude of 10,000ft at best could be expected. Amongst this lot was GA activity from ELSTREE, DENHAM, BOOKER (WYCOMBE AIR PARK), WHITE WALTHAM (where Fairey were based), WOODLEY (Miles test flying) and FAIROAKS. Perhaps I should include BROOKLANDS and WISLEY (Vickers test flying)? Which ever way you look at it, the skies around NORTHOLT in 1950 were pretty thick with aircraft. A scenario designed for mid-air collisions we would think today, but remarkably, very few occurred. One reason for this was the lack of strictly controlled airspace, another being that pilots were taught to keep a bloody good look out.



ANOTHER MYTH
From time to time some ignorant fool will pop up waffling on about the congested skies over the UK and Europe. The truth is that 99% of European airspace is entirely empty. The majority of problems arise because we have controlled airspace and, for that matter, so many pilots even in ‘free’ airspace fly direct routes between navigation beacons and airfields etc. Another good example, in the south-east of England, is the controlled airspace around Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton and Stansted which generally forces private pilots, (and some commercial pilots flying helicopters, fixed-wing air-taxi and private-hire, flying training exercises etc), into quite narrow ‘corridors’.

Plus of course you have ‘Sod’s Law’ which dictates, amongst a zillion other certainties, “If you have two aircraft in a column of air ten miles square on the ground rising to 50,000ft, and with the crews doing absolutely nothing, they will collide.” Indeed, I soon learnt this, on a solo cross-country exercise, when learning to fly, even when ostensibly being given a radar advisory service from a major RAF base. Having spotted the other aircraft on a constant-aspect collision-course at exactly my altitude I put the power on, climbed up a couple of hundred feet, and the other aircraft passed below and slightly forward of my track. Obviously I had no idea if we would have actually collided, but if we hadn’t it would have been very, very close. I saw no other aircraft until getting into the circuit to land back at base.

 

(Look up RAF, Navy, Army combined aircraft strength for 1950)


BEA SEASONAL ROUTES
Perhaps not widely known is that in 1950 BEA operated seasonal holiday routes to France, “..a Dakota service from Northolt to Le Touquet, which was inaugurated by G-ALLI on 26 May and operated until 30 September, and from 16 July a twice-weekly service to Bordeaux with a coach connection to Biarritz.” I have flown in Le Touquet several times, and in former years loved looking at the black and white pictures on display. I am certain I’d have clocked a BEA ‘Dak’ so learning about this adds to my appreciation of aviation history. Incidentally, when I called in during 2011, all the old photos had been removed.

BEA was in so many ways, to coin a very corny sobriquet – a ‘Dr. Jekyll & Mr.Hyde’ operation. Their legacy in recent years has often dwelt on their record regarding management issues, especially involving aircrew, safety etc. It all leaves a lot to be desired. Possibly due to too many ex-RAF types being involved? This is a shame because in many ways BEA was a very forward thinking and pioneering airline and I would like to draw attention to the date here. “On 29 July 1950 the airline pioneered services by a new form of propulsion. The prototype Vickers Viscount, srs V630 G-AHRF, was borrowed from the manufacturers and used to operate the world’s first scheduled passenger service by a gas turbine-powered airliner. On that date flight BE329X2 under the command of Captain R. Rymer, flew from Northolt to Le Bourget, Paris, with fourteen revenue passengers and twelve BEA guests in an elapsed time of fifty-seven minutes.” I’d assume this time must be chock-to-chock? Nothing else would make much sense in airline operation. If so, sixty years later it still takes the same time, sometimes more.

“The Viscount completed thirty-six trips to Paris in the period to 14 August, building up experience of turboprop operations for BEA.” Worth thinking about? That means thirty-six flights in seventeen days, averaging just over two a day with a prototype aircraft with totally new powerplants and no in-service history. I think this is really quite astonishing. Very obviously Vickers and Rolls-Royce got it absolutely right from the start, so small wonder theViscount was a runaway sales success story. “From 15-23 August it was switched to the Northolt-Edinburgh route for the 1950 Edinburgh Festival. The Edinburgh flights were the first UK domestic passenger services to be operated by a turbine-engined airliner.” Has any other ‘modern’ airliner, in prototype form, completed twenty-five consecutive days of intensive line operations so soon after its first flight? Which was the 16th August 1948 for G-AHRF.

Consider this. The Viscount, in effect, entered airline operation with no apparent difficulty in just under two years of making its first flight. Not only did it have revolutionary engines, it was pressurised, had the most astonishing large oval windows, and, for those days a very radical move, was designed for operation by two pilots. In fact the first BEA Viscount flights pre-dated the two-crew ‘Pionair’ conversion of the Dakota which was a private venture by Scottish Aviation at PRESTWICK. BEA were so impressed by the ‘Pionair’ they purchased the first (G-ALYF) and placed orders for the rest of the fleet, plus any others that came into the fleet later.


THE PIONAIR
To quote from the History of British European Airways, Charles Woodley tells us, “The Pionair conversion featured a new two-person cockpit layout, with the radio officer’s position deleted. New British instrumentation replaced the original American instruments, which were considered difficult to read. A new single door with built-in airstairs* was fitted to the passenger cabin, and new seating enabled the passenger capacity to be increased to thirty-two**. Additional passenger windows were fitted, and the galley, washroom and toilet facilities were upgraded. The passenger cabin modifications were carried out by Scottish Aviation at Prestwick, but the flight deck rework was the responsibility of Field Aircraft Services atTollerton.” (TOLLERTON is in NOTTINGHAMSHIRE)

*A first for British airliners? **Quite incredible, the original BEA Dakotas carried just sixteen passengers, and four if not five crew.

I wonder, did the impetus for the Dakota rework come, in part at least, from the example the Viscount set? Reworks of existing types is now a major part of mainstream airliner manufacturing. If for example you compare a 100 Series Boeing 737 to a 800 Series, the results of a stepped evolutionary process is quite astonishing. Anybody not much interested in aviation developments could, quite understandably seeing one alongside the other, be forgiven for thinking they are completely different types. Which of course, is exactly what they are as the only remaining similarity is the use of the ‘737’ type number.

Charles Woodley tells us, “Thirty-eight BEA Dakotas were eventually converted to Pionair standard, and a further ten were modified as the Pionair Leopard class for freight work. I think I am correct in stating that the concept of air freight as a mainstream component of airline operation came about after WW2. Obviously the comparison with dedicated air mail services prior to WW2 must be made, but the practicalities are considerably different and deserve to be regarded as a completely seperate element.

He also makes the point that in 1950 only 21,000 passengers used the new facility at LONDON AIRPORT (HEATHROW), but these were 'long-haul' passengers, whereas NORTHOLT handled 542,000. By 1953 BEA had 1.3 million passengers using NORTHOLT. Seems astonishing if not incredible? The domestic routes from NORTHOLT in 1954 were: NORTHOLT-RENFREW using Vikings on weekdays with a Pionair flight on Sundays. On weekdays Pionairs were used on the NORTHOLT - Manchester (RINGWAY) – Glasgow (RENFREW) service, and the NORTHOLT – Birmingham (ELMDON) – Edinburgh (TURNHOUSE) – Aberdeen (DYCE) service. There was also a NORTHOLT – Edinburgh (TURNHOUSE) to Glasgow (RENFREW)service flown by Pionairs. The ‘Admiral’ class Vikings also flew six days a week from NORTHOLT to Belfast (NUTTS CORNER). On Thursdays and Sundays he tells us Pionairs operated over the same route but via the Isle of Man (RONALDSWAY). He then states something I think is very interesting. He says, “On weekdays Pionairs flew the Northolt - Manchester - Isle of Man service.”

Here is a point to consider. Why did the Isle of Man generate so much passenger traffic? Perhaps or even probably the ‘tax haven’ potential was by then well recognised? Doubly interesting I suppose because those well informed and astute people, in financial affairs, are now generally regarded as being of the criminal class, robbing us blind at every opportunity!


A SINGULAR EVENT
One singular event occurred in 1954. To quote Charles Woodley again: “A rail strike in 1954 led to BEA organising an airlift of newspapers to Wales and the West Country. During the period 18 to 29 May 1954 a nightly service was maintained between Northolt and Cardiff and Exeter. A total of 531 tons was carried on 170 flights. Some 97 of these flights used BEA aircraft, and the others were operated by aircraft of the independent airlines, Airwork, Eagle Aviation, Hunting-Clan, Silver City and Transair.”


THE CLOSING STAGES
I had noted the last BEA service from NORTHOLT was a flight to JERSEY on the 30th October 1954 using the DC-3 G-AHCZ. But, it isn’t that simple. To quote Charles Woodley yet again: “During the summer of 1954 BEA’s cargo services and international passenger services were gradually transferred to the new London Airport at Heathrow. By October only the domestic routes were still using Northolt.” He then confirms my note regarding G-AHCZ, but adds this: “All BEA operations were then transferred to London Airport. The airline had carried 3,777,000 passengers from and to Northolt, and at one period it was generating 83 per cent of the total movements at that airport. On the last day, two special local flights were operated from Northolt by Vikings G-AIVK and G-AIVI. The following day the Vikings were withdrawn from BEA scheduled sevices, although examples were still occasionally used that winter to operate extra legs or as back-up aircraft for more modern types. The last BEA aircraft to leaveNortholt was on a positioning flight on the 31 October 1954 to London Airport.”

This was something I had never before realised, the BEA Vickers Viking era was confined solely to NORTHOLT. But, the 'Pionair' Dakota which had preceeded it, was still in operation after the move to LONDON AIRPORT (HEATHROW). It says a lot about the strength of the design that first flew in 1935 that a handful were still flying commercially over seventy years later. Are any still in commercial operation today?


OOOOPS!
On the 25th October 1960 a Pan-Am Boeing 707 landed here mistaking it for HEATHROW. Following this two local gasometers had huge signs painted on them directing pilots, the one at Northolt saying NO!. The Southall gasometer had 'LH' painted on it and this 'sign' can still be seen even though runway 23 at HEATHROW is no longer used. The landing wasn’t much of a problem it seems but getting it out of NORTHOLT was. The 707 was stripped of everything possible but it was still a brave crew who attempted it.

 

EUROPEAN DESTINATIONS BY BEA
Looking at the destinations from UK airports, and taking into account all the various flight types; scheduled, charter, freight etc, I find this is a very interesting subject, because it does, if nothing else, reflect the trends of the British travelling public and air freight for industry and commerce. Surely, since WW2, arguably the biggest transport revolution the world has ever seen – the era which saw ever more affordable air transport. I cannot claim all the ‘First Service’ dates are correct, but these are the first dates I have found recorded.
 

Country                    City                        First service     Type used

Spain                         MADRID                   01.03.46           Dakota*

Norway                      OSLO                      11.03.46           Dakota

Norway                      STAVANGER            11.03.46           Dakota

Denmark                   COPENHAGEN          12.03.46           Dakota

France                       MARSEILLES            01.08.46           Dakota

Greece                      ATHENS                  01.08.46           Dakota

Italy                          ROME                     01.08.46           Dakota

Czechoslovakia          PRAGUE                  07.08.46          Dakota

Germany                   BERLIN                    01.09.46          Dakota

Germany                   HAMBURG               01.09.46           Dakota

Germany                   FRANKFURT            02.09.46           Dakota

Austria                      VIENNA                   02.09.46           Dakota

The Netherlands       AMSTERDAM        Sept 1946?        Vikings?

Sweden                    GOTHENBURG      06.10.46             Viking

Swden                      STOCKHOLM         06.10.46            Viking

Portugal                    LISBON                  01.11.46             Viking

Belgium                    BRUSSELS            ?

Switzerland              GENEVA                 18.04.47             Viking

France                      NICE                       Summer 1948   Viking

France                      PARIS                    16.04.50             Viking

France                      LE TOUQUET         26.05.50            Dakota G-ALLI

France                      BORDEAUX           16.07.50             Dakota

Spain                        BARCELONA          22.10.50            Viking

Italy                           MILAN                    12.02.51             Viking

Switzerland               BASLE                    02.05.52            Viking

Finland                      HELSINKI              11.07.52             Viking G-AMGH

Germany                   DÜSSELDORF      1953                   Viking

Spain                         PALMA                   14.05.53           Viking

France                       DINARD                 Summer 53       Dakota & Viking

France                       BIARRITZ              28.05.54            Viking

*This service went on to Gibraltar, which of course, in this context is not a foreign destination.

There was a point in researching this Guide when I felt I was getting to know the history of Northolt pretty well. That notion was scotched quite early on. Despite driving regularly past this aerodrome for some forty years I mistakenly believed I knew quite a bit about the kind of activities and movements etc. I’d even noticed at one point, (when NORTHOLT was a strictly military aerodrome), that a Cessna, (a 172?), was based here for quite a time, (in the 1970s if my memory is correct), although I never saw it flying. The rumour was it belonged to the Station Commander.

One story I liked regarding NORTHOLT in 1964 came from British Midland Airways by B G Cramp. “On 17th August, Argonaut G-ALHS was flown to Royal Air Force Northolt, where it was used in the filming of “The High Bright Sun”, starring Dirk Bogarde and Denholm Elliot. On Thursday 20th Capt. Cramp, with First Officer Neil Fagg and Engineer Officer “Jed” Bowker flew “HS”, by now painted in BOAC livery, around the circuit at Northolt whilst the cameras recorded take-offs and landings. The control tower at Northolt received many telephone calls saying that a BOAC airliner was approaching Northolt and that it should be warned to land at London Heathrow instead.”

I certainly liked the next episode. It reminds me of a notice placed in a managers office seen many years ago: “When you are up to your arse in alligators it might be difficult to remember your original intention was to drain the swamp.” Here is Captain Cramps account: “Now “HS” had been sprayed with a thin rubber solution over its “Derby Airways” livery, and the old-style BOAC livery was then put on top. In the evening, after the shooting was completed, the film crew began stripping the rubber off the aircraft. At least, that is what should have happened, but unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. In desperation the film company called in some off-duty R.A.F. and U.S.A.F. personnel to assist them in stripping the rubber off. At 1900 Cramp, realising that the aircraft was due for a minor check that night apart from being required for service the following day at 0630, told the film company crew to leave it as he would have to take the aircraft back to Derby. Reluctantly the film company agreed (they wanted to complete the job as agreed but understood the urgency), but said the Company were to bill them for the cost of removal (it came to £630 in the end), and Cramp departed Northolt for Derby. In spite of it being a beautiful still and cloudless evening, for the crew it sounded as though they were flying through a perpetual hail storm as the rubber, in strips, together with the loose masking tape, kept on flapping over the aircraft. Nevertheless the aircraft was cleaned in time (many engineers bringing their wives in to the hangar to help in stripping the rubber off) and was out on service the following day on schedule.”


A VIEWING ENCLOSURE
In June 2015 Tony Szulc contacted me and very kindly pointed out a few errors in this listing. Plus, he had this to say which I was certainly unaware of: "RAF Northolt also used to have a spotters enclosure (well a tin shack really!) but it was actually in a fenced in compound inside the airfield and was accessed from a small side gate on the road outside the base near where the lights are that stop the traffic when an aircraft lands. (My note: This was on West End Road, the A4180, at the eastern end of runway 07/25). You would walk down a narrow path which was fenced in and it opened out at the end to the enclosure with the shack in it. The gate would be opened up each morning by the RAF and locked in the evening. The location was very close to the end of the runways and good photos could be made of aircraft landing."

It occurs to me to ask if any other RAF bases had a viewing enclosure? Much credit to whoever provided this facility at NORTHOLT. Tony then adds; "Unfortunately like a lot of places that used to be accessible in the hobby of watching/photographing aircraft this location fell victim to the increased security and meant it was closed sometime in the mid/late 1980s when the IRA threat was quite high."  



AN ANNIVERSARY FLIGHT
It was on 29th July 1975 Alidair flew their Vickers 814 Viscount from here to Le Bourget with VIPs on board to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a similar first Viscount flight by BEA. It took off at exactly the same time as 25 years previously.



FLIGHT GUIDE NOTES
It is well worth reading the notes for NORTHOLT in flight guides circa 2000 which seem almost deliberately designed to confuse or at least distract visiting pilots from their primary responsibilities. For example the runway in use direction selection is related to that used at Heathrow and a warning is given that it may be necessary to operate with a tail wind component. I’m no expert of course but as a PPL this remark certainly bothers me. As I understand the general situation most executive jets have high approach speeds when landing which is pretty close to that required by many airliners. At HEATHROW a normal minimum runway length of 3658 metres is offered but at NORTHOLT less than half this runway length in total is available.

They also warn that arrester beds are provided to stop aircraft in the event of an overun at both ends of the runway. These were proved to be utterly useless when the Gates Lear Jet 25B EC-CKR ended up on the A40 during the morning rush hour on the 13th August 1996.

 

NORTHOLT is unusual because on the approach to runway 25 which is angled into the prevailing winds there is a bit of a hill just before the threshold with a major road running across it. Traffic lights have long been installed to stop road traffic when aircraft are landing. Nevertheless NORTHOLT has been developed in the later years of the 20th century as a major executive jet destination serving London and is now much used and it is certainly fairly close to central London. The opinions of executive jet pilots about using NORTHOLT as opposed to using for example BIGGIN HILL, LONDON CITY, LUTON or STANSTED instead seems to be unrecorded

With all this said it does raise the question about how a PAN AM crew could safely land a Boeing 707 here, (albeit by mistake thinking it was HEATHROW!).



Picture of TV screen, during a news broadcast
Picture of TV screen, during a news broadcast
Another view from the TV
Another view from the TV
And a third TV image
And a third TV image









 

 

 

THE LEAR JET CRASH 
I have no idea what the nationalities of the two crew members were, but a Spanish Learjet 25B (EC-CKR) pilot, it appears the Captain, cocked it up completely and ended up on the A40 Western Avenue resulting in the crew being killed plus one passenger. It really does bother me that so many fully qualified commercial pilots really have no idea about the basics of flying an aeroplane. They are obviously good at systems management, which is what the airlines want of course - but so often to the detriment of being even barely competent in basic flying skills. As this pilot clearly was.


It is reported that there was quite an argument going on between the two crew members in the final stages, and I seem to remember that it was the co-pilot who realised that this landing was going to be disasterous. On another tack, but to prove the point, I was watching our landing at Dubai in an Emirates Airbus A380 in early 2016, on the seat-back screen - they have three cameras available. The pilot, hopefully the first officer, commenced the flair far too high, but fortunately as it stalled the wings remained level, and it came down with a hell of a thump, causing many passengers to cry out in alarm.

Then again, why didn't the Captain intervene? Or was the Captain so inept that he couldn't properly land the airliner. Who knows? But either way the crew employed by Emirates should not have been allowed to be flying - an error of judgement of this magnitude clearly showed they were an utterly incompetent crew. And unfortunately it appears that, because of the stance most airlines are taking regarding the pilots they intend to employ, it will quite probably get worse in the future.  


A SINGULAR EVENT
In 2015 RAF NORTHOLT hosted a Centenary Open Day during which normal restrictions were temporarily suspended. For example the classic de Havilland DH85 Leopard Moth G-ACUS flew in.


 


 
 

Alan Beardmore

This comment was written on: 2015-08-11 11:22:49
 
Hi. As researcher for Vickers ViscountIam currently looking at BEa first trial flights from Northolt reported to have ended in August 1950. An Entry in Flight November indicates that the Aircraft was returned to BEA sand carried on flying out of Northolt as part of its testing procedures can you shed any light on this..

 
Reply from Dick Flute:
Hi Alan, Many thanks for your enquiry but I cannot help you here. Have you read Vickers Aircraft by C F Andrews published by Putnam in 1969? I have a copy but have not got round to reading it in detail. Hope this helps. Best regards, Dick
 

 
 

Peter Ward

This comment was written on: 2018-10-15 09:53:25
 
G-AGHP photo was taken at Heathrow from the public enclosure before the Queen's Building roof garden was opened. The apron was called, I believe, the North East face and G-AGHP is on about stand 19 or 21. If you look closely at the badge on the nose of the Viking, and compare it was that on 'HP, I think you will find that they are different. My suspicion is that the Viking belonged to Eagle Aviation/Airways. Certainly the lighting columns confirm that it is Heathrow - there never were such pylons at Northolt. I write as one who visited Northolt spectators' enclosure until it closed in 1954 and then went to the 'new' London Air Port.

 
Reply from Dick Flute:
Hi Peter, Many thanks - I shall certainly keep this posted. The lighting stands bothered me too. This said, I shall leave the picture where it is because re-locating it would be quite a faff. Best regards, Dick
 

 
 

Kieran Daly

This comment was written on: 2019-05-09 12:36:15
 
Hi, I like to follow Northolt history as I grew up in a house under the approach (where my mother still lives). As a comment - your notes on the Learjet accident are at variance with the facts in at least two respects. Nobody was killed - and in fact not only the crew and lady passenger, but also the occupants of the van that was struck, received only minor injuries. In respect of the arrester bed - it had no effect because it was not at that time installed. Indeed it was as a result of this accident, and comments by the AAIB in the report, that one was subsequently installed. As you say, there were fairly serious questions raised over the competence and training of the pilots - both ex-Spanish AF.
 

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