Thurleigh - UK Airfield Guide

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A Guide to the history of British Flying Sites within the United Kingdom
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           THURLEIGH: Military aerodrome later large flight test base

(also known as BEDFORD and/or RAF BEDFORD.  Plus, see also a seperate entry for BEDFORD AERODROME which has been established at the eastern end of this site)


Military users: WW2: Initially various RAF units until September 1942

8th USAAF       40th Bombardment Wing           306th Bomb Group

367, 368, 369 & 423 Sqdns ( 70 x Boeing B.17 Flying Fortresses)

Post WW2: National Aeronautical Establishment, later Royal Aircraft Establishment, BEDFORD, finally Royal Aerospace Establishment, BEDFORD

'V' Bomber dispersal airfield

Sections: RAE Aerodynamics Flight Division (Aero Flight)

BLEU (Blind Landing Experimental Unit)

NAD (Naval Air Department)


Location: E of A6, 6nm N of Bedford

Period of operation: 1941 to 1994


Runways: WW2: 05/23   1829x46   hard           17/35   1280x46   hard
                         10/28   1280x46   hard

1950s: 09/27   3250x97   hard     (Third longest runway in the UK)
06/24   2210x65   (parallel ‘catapault’ to the north)        18/36 runway rebuilt


NOTES: It seems that the 306th Bomb Group gained the honour of being the longest serving USAAF combat base in the UK. Arriving in September 1942 they eventually left in December 1945.

In 1943 it appears that plans were made for a massive site housing the National Aeronautical Establishement at THURLEIGH. Roughly ‘L’ shaped it included TWINWOOD FARM to the south and a five mile runway from THURLEIGH to LITTLE STAUGHTON was planned. Total cost, £18 million!

During occupation by the National Aeronautical Establishement, later to become the Royal Aircraft Establishment, possibly the biggest transformation of any WW2 aerodrome took place here. When the NAE/ Royal Aircraft Establishment was first formed and became operational at BEDFORD/THURLEIGH they certainly had an odd-ball selection of aircraft to play with in their early years. Types like the: Bristol Brigand, De Havilland Venom, Fairey Gannet, Grumman Avenger, Hawker Seahawk, Short Seamew, Supermarine 508 and Attacker and Westland Wyvern for fixed wing types plus the Westland-Sikorsky Dragonfly helicopter.

So typical of many other sites THURLEIGH/BEDFORD was deemed officially closed until it’s opening ceremony in 1957. Despite this official ‘oversight’ from 1954 over 10,000 aircraft movements were logged before THURLEIGH was renamed BEDFORD.

In 1957 arguably the most novel type of aircraft to be tested here, with a future potential to be eventually realised, albeit in a very different form, was the Short SC.1 VTOL experimental prototype. Two were ordered, XG900 and XG905. However, some say they were actually tested at BOSCOMBE DOWN. Something to be resolved. 

The concept of a VTOL aircraft, as opposed to a helicopter, dates back many years before of course but it wasn’t until jet engines became available that idea could become a reality. To quote from Robert Jackson’s excellent book Britain’s Greatest Aircraft in the chapter concerning the Harrier and Sea Harrier: “The design submitted by Short Brothers, the PD.11 – small tailless delta aircraft with five Rolls-Royce RB.108 engines, four for lift and one for forward propulsion – was judged to be the most promising, and in August 1954 Shorts received a contract to build two prototypes under the designation Short SC.1.”

Hindsight is, as said elsewhere in this ‘Guide’ a most wonderful commodity, and I just wish I could bottle it and get supermarkets interested in selling it. I now wonder just how many people in 1954 saw the real future potential of the jet VTOL concept in those days? Following shortly after the end of WW2, when the UK was in a most dire situation economically, it seems nothing less than astonishing that so much was going on. But of course we now had a ‘Cold War’ to participate in and the British still clung on to obsolete ideas about still being a ‘World Power’ whilst all around the ‘Empire’ was collapsing. And yet, despite all this, we produced some of the most stunning aircraft ever seen in both the military and civil arenas.

Getting back to Robert Jackson: “The first SC.1, XG900, was initially not fitted with lift engines and made a convential maiden flight on 2 April 1957: it was the second prototype, XG905, which began tethered hovering trials in May 1958. On 6 April 1960, at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment (RAE) at Bedford, test pilot Tom Brooke-Smith achieved the first complete transition from level flight to vertical descent and vertical climb, following a conventional take-off. That summer, XG900 now having had its battery of lift engines fitted, both SC.1s developed short, rolling take-off techniques from unprepared surfaces, the objects of which were to avoid ground erosion and to allow flights at increased take-off weights.”

Test flying by the RAE took place here from 1957 until the 1990s, including ‘carrier’ deck landing tests and research for the Royal Navy including ‘ski-jump’ exercises for Harrier ‘jump- jet. Some sources reckon this was first tried at DUNSFOLD?

Possibly not much remembered today was that during the initial studies into the Concorde programme, two highly influential and individual aircraft were tested here in considerable detail, the HP.115 to explore the low speed characteristics, and the BAC 221, a modification of the World Record Breaking Speed Record Fairey Delta 2 for the 'Ogee' wing design for supersonic flight.                                                                                               

On the 5th March 1964 the second production Trident G-ARPB made the first ever fully automatic landing here using the Smith’s Autoland system. It is well worth looking deeper into the history of what went on here. The list of projects really is astonishing over the forty year history and many major aviation developments were first developed, tried and tested here.

In 1977 the Auster J/5F Aiglet Trainer G-AMZT and Auster J/1N Alpha G-ASEE were based here.


It is reported that the last ever flight departed in 1994.

Today a part time museum is on this site. And, another it appears dedicated to the 306th Bomberdment Group.

Redeveloped as a business park in 1996 it is worth remembering that THURLEIGH was once regarded as a possible site for 3rd London Airport in the 1970s and a huge amount of local opposition resulted. As it turned out it was LUTON and STANSTED which became developed.



Terry Clark

This comment was written on: 2018-01-12 04:39:30
Dr Jonathan Palmer, ex F1 racing driver, operates a racing driver training school on part of the airfield and connected with this, 1095m of the eastern end of runway 08/26 have been licensed to enable customers to fly in either in their own aircraft or in Dr Palmer's Kingair. Dr Palmer himself commutes daily from his helipad south of Gatwick in.

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