British Light Aircraft - UK Airfield Guide

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A Guide to the history of British flying sites within the United Kingdom
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British Light Aircraft




BRITISH LIGHT AIRCRAFT

Right from the start there are obviously two major aspects to this subject. The first being light aircraft designed and built in the UK, the second being light aircraft that have flown, and/are being flown in the UK.

In the very earliest days, all aircraft (except for balloons and airships of course), were 'light aircraft' - there were no others. The French led the way, despite the Wright brothers in the USA making a spurious claim to being the 'first'. That very famous picture in 1903 only shows them performing a short hop in ground effect. Flying yes, but not making a flight in any meaningful sense. But it seems, they did make much more progress later.

It was not until around six years later that the British started to catch up, but when they did, it was still a slow start compared to the French especially. It must be remembered that for the first two years at least, in WW1, virtually all military aircraft were 'light aircraft'. And indeed, for many years after WW1 virtually all G.A. civil aviation in the U.K. employed surplus WW1 military aircraft.



THE BREAKTHROUGH

This can be argued about of course, but without any doubt the arrival of the de Havilland DH.60 Moth changed the picture entirely. Here was an affordable and practical light aircraft that opened up the possibility of flying to the middle-classes, through flying clubs and group ownership. Flying was no longer the preserve of the wealthy.

Exploits such as Amy Johnson flying one to Australia, undoubtably added extra attraction for a great many people. But, we shouldn't get too dewy eyed;
by her own admission, she wasn't a very good pilot and badly crashed her Moth twice along the way, needing serious repairs.



OTHERS CAME ALONG

It really was a most extraordinary era, both with designs and very brave people determined to exploit these new aircraft to the full. de Havilland produced several designs such as the DH80 Puss Moth, DH85 Leopard Moth and DH87 Hornet Moth. But, for example, Philips & Powis at Reading (WOODLEY) were producing designs by F. G. Miles that were far more advanced. As were Percival at GRAVESEND.

It should be mentioned that a large number of other types were designed and flew. Many very good, but far too numerous to list here.
 
What I think is very interesting is that the very best of these 1930s British designs could easily out-perform, in every respect by and large, all the American 'spamcam' imports which came flooding into the U.K. from the 1960s. Most of which were metal, could be left outside, and could be started with a key like a car. Piper of course started importing their PA-22 'rag-wing' types, before the PA-28 Cherokee types came along, and the then fabulous PA-24 Comanche. 

Later their basic trainer, the PA-38 Tomahawk sold very well, as did their twin types, the  PA-23  Apache and Aztec types.

Cessna were, without any doubt the winners, with their 150, 152 and 172 models. Although sold in lesser numbers the 182, 206/207, and the twin 310, later the 320 and 340 models, also featured.

Beechcraft and Mooney models also sold in reasonable numbers too.


BUT TO RETURN

After WW2, only one British manufacturer made any impact - and this was Auster. de Havilland had no interest in light aircraft, nor did Percival, and Miles was pretty much washed up too. Auster 'cut their teeth' in WW2 producing an American Taylorcraft design for use by the RAF for basic communication and AOP duties. In all it appears Auster produced 3,741 aircraft. Mostly civil models, but some were designed specifically for military use.


A NEW BEGINNING?

Although vaunted as such as being the 'new' future, the BEAGLE company formed in 1960 didn't stand any chance. Basically a combination of Auster and Miles, two companies with entirely different approaches to designing aircraft, it was a typical disaster waiting to happen. Devised in part by some of the most incompetent managers the world has ever seen, who then controlled almost all of British industry and manufacturing, and backed to some extent by a totally inept British government. 

Beagle was shut down in 1969.

But by then of course, Great Britain was falling apart. The 'Empire' was pretty much gone, and the Trade Unions, with the support of most of their members it must be said, were dedicated to destroying all the jobs in industry and commerce. This was not a climate in which light aircraft design could succeed. 

For example the Beagle A109 Airedale was designed to compete with the Cessna 172. It was actually quite a good aircraft, but couldn't be left outdoors in all weathers. 43 were built, compared to the Cessna 172 which is still in production with some 44,000+. These figures reflecting just how low the British light aircraft 'industry' had then become. 

This said, the Beagle B121 Pup, more along Miles lines, did do somewhat better, and when developed into the Bulldog 176 were built. These were very fine aircraft, fully aerobatic, but hardly anything to compete in the world light aircraft market. The twin B206 was, by all accounts it seems, also a fine design and performed well. But only 79 were built. Beagle pretty much defined the end of British light aircraft manufacturing, in the traditional way of things.



BUT ANOTHER FUTURE WAS SLOWLY TAKING PLACE

To start - what is a light aircraft? Almost impossible to define, but one definition must surely be the type of aircraft that can legally be flown by somebody holding a PPL (Private Pilots License). It may well come as a surprise that a PPL can legally fly an aircraft VFR (Visual Flight Rules) in daylight, with up to 19 people on board with a MTOW (Maximum Take-Off Weight) of 5750kg. This has been the case for many years. 

This includes types up to the Antonov An-2. And yes, I have flown one - see the POPHAM entry. An early type Spitfire only weighed 2,799kg at MTOW, but, a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt weighed in at 4,513kg empty. So, given a reasonable amount of fuel, a PPL can legally fly one of these. 

But of course the vast majority of light aircraft weigh far less, and in the UK as the years progressed, they sub-divided into three broad categories. Classic older types, factory built examples, and home-built aircraft.

Along the way for some totally irrational reason, utterly ignorant fools sitting on their arses in offices decided to sub-divide light aircraft into further categories. Mainly of course, (call me cynical if you wish), because they knew full well that this approach made them more dangerous, compromising safety in design and build techniques. This is not an opinion, it is a proven fact.

There is no reason whatsoever for doing this. If a light aircraft, below the totally arbitary limit of 5750kg, (surprisingly high I would say), is of proven design and thoroughly flight tested, what's the problem? Certify it and let it fly.



SOMETHING TO BE VERY PROUD ABOUT

The Light Aviation Association, as it exists today really is a wonder, quite beyond the imagination of those who first started the movement. This was the ULAA (Ultralight Aircraft Association), formed at ELSTREE in 1946. Given some imagination a lovely film could be made, full of comedy, showing how this bunch of enthusiasts, taking on the considerable powers then controlling aviation, succeeded against all the odds. Could be, if handled properly, a best seller too.

This evolved into the PFA, (Popular Flying Association), when things really did start happening. The PFA totally supported the home-builder movement, and designs from around the world were encouraged. Their annual meetings at CRANFIELD for example have never been surpassed. And, all were welcomed, including those, like myself, flying in with 'Spamcans'.

Since the PFA became the LAA, (Light Aviation Association), now with its HQ at TURWESTON, its remit for handling ever more 'classic' aircraft which were once controlled by the CAA, has transformed the scene no end. Their annual 'Fly-in', these days at SYWELL, really are fabulous. The sheer range of light aircraft, registered in the UK, is quite breathtaking.

But of course, sadly, the majority of the designs built in the last three or four decades, (probably six decades), have been foreign designs.  


 

                                                

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