The Flying Circus Era - UK Airfield Guide

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A Guide to the history of British flying sites within the United Kingdom
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The Flying Circus Era


The first point to be made is that anybody interested in this subject really should consult two books. The first being Those Fabulous Flying Years by Colin Cruddas which is the 'bible' on this subject. The second is Cornwall Aviation Company by Ted Chapman. Both these books have been of immense help for this 'Guide, which would be substantially poorer without their research and content.

Typically these are difficult if not impossible to define exactly. Even before WW1 the Daily Mail had sponsored flying tours with 'star' pilots such as Henri Salmet and Gustave Hamel, and crowds of thousands would turn out to see just one aeroplane flying. And, passengers were sometimes carried aloft. After WW1 several enterprises set out to give joy-rides, mostly in the holiday season (spring to autumn) at seaside resorts.

Without too much doubt the seeds for the Flying Circus type of operation were sown by the Berkshire Aviation Company who conducted Tours from 1919 to 1922. Their first Tour in 1919 visited at least thirty venues, nearly all in England but one at least in Edinburgh. This lasted from April until December and typically, unlike the bigger later Tours, they tended to stay at venues for several days.

The 1920 Tour also appears to have focused on venues in England, the furthest north being Carlisle. That Tour started in January and went on until December which seems quite remarkable given the typical winter weather we have. But, typically a joy-ride lasted for about five minutes or so with a short low-level circuit around the venue.  It appears the 1921 Tour, which also started in January didn't venture above Accrington in Lancashire or Huddersfield in Yorkshire. And indeed, it appears the 1922 Tour didn't venture north of Cheshire.


The Cornwall Aviation Company was, without too much doubt, the first to try creating something resembling the later large scale Flying Circus. In effect an air show with novelty flying acts, aerobatics etc, plus joy rides. They had also learnt, from the touring theatrical companies and circuses, the value of advance publicity.

Surely this must be the 1929 Sir Alan Cobhams Municipal Aerodrome Campaign. Nothing on this scale had ever been seen before, and the organisation needed still beggers belief. Most venues were only visited for one day, two at the most. Starting in May and ending in October one hundred and seven towns and cities were visited. Mostly in England but with two in Wales and eight in Scotland.

This Tour had one core objective. To persuade towns and cities to construct aerodromes fit for aero clubs and, in many cases to serve as regional airports. It would now appear it served that objective in many cases, although of course it is hard to distinguish cause and effect.

A couple of people have queried why this 'Guide' features flying sites used by the 'Flying Circus' operators for just one day. The answer is quite simple. By that time flying sites of this importance had to be certified and regulated. When a venue was notified a couple of men from the Ministry would appear in a car, drive in various directions across the field to ascertain its suitability, and quite often, put performance limitations in certain directions regarding the aircraft being operated. Later, when they realised that the better operators were quite capable of working these aspects out for themselves, they become largely self-regulating.

Once the success of the 1929 Tour by Sir Alan Cobham became known several other enterprises emerged. The first it appears was Aviation Tours Ltd in 1931. They ventured as far north in Scotland as Inverness between April and September. Another venture was North British Aviation Co. Ltd who operated between April to September reaching, for one venue, Glasgow.
The C D Barnard Air Tours enterprise was the only other venture in 1931 to try and compete with the Sir Alan Cobham 1929 Tour, but it appears they might have visited around sixty three venues between April and October. Just as an aside for what follows, in 1932, the Modern Airways/The Crimson Fleet made an appearance on the scene between May and October but few details of the venues appear to be known.


It now appears that Sir Alan Cobham detested the term 'Flying Circus' being applied to his endeavours. So how ironic that the term has stuck.

I do not know if other Tours persued this, but, if enough custom was available, the Cobham Tours would keep flying into the night. Just how much passengers could see at night can only be imagined - but in most venues in those days - probably not a lot. It is claimed they used their fuel tanker to illuminate the landing area because it had the most powerful  headlights.

Another very important aspect of the Sir Alan Cobham Tours is that he commissioned Airspeed to design and construct an 'airliner' specifically for his Tours. Having verging on STOL capabilities and capable of operating from unprepared fields, the result was the three-engined ten-seater Airspeed AS.4 Ferry. A design that defines the exception to the rule that if it "looks right - it is right". A serious contender for the ugliest airliner ever?

But, it was exactly right for the job and the two examples operated by Cobham safely carried some 92,000 passengers! The first, G-ABSI, Youth of Britain II, first flew on the 10th April 1932 from SHERBURN-in-ELMET in Yorkshire. This was followed by G-ABSJ Youth of Britain III. A biplane design the lower wing was placed on top of the cabin affording maximum views to the passengers.

Two more were built for Midland and Scottish Air Ferries, (G-ACBT & G-ACFB), and I suppose it seems a tad strange that other operators didn't adopt the type in that era. As far as I am aware, no other 'Flying Circus' operator commissioned a design to meet their specific demands?

But of course Sir Alan Cobham really was a 'one-off'. A workaholic with an incredible amount of drive, ever inventive too, he stands head and shoulders above everybody involved in the 'Flying Circus' heyday era.


When Sir Alan Cobham decided to organise his National Aviation Day / Display Tours in 1932 and ending in 1935, nothing of this magnitude had ever been seen before. The sheer amount of planning really is quite extraordinary - hard to envisage being possible today. The 1932 Tour of the UK started in April and ended October with one hundred and seventy four venues around the UK except for Northern Ireland. Plus, when this Tour ended another started in South Africa started from the 23rd November to the 17th February.

In 1933 Sir Alan Cobham launched his 'blockbuster' -  with two separate Tours. His No.1 Tour visited one hundred and sixteen venues both throughout the UK including the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. His No.2 Tour visited one hundred and fifty one venues on the UK mainland. Both Tours starting in April and ending in October.
Without any doubt an
astounding achievement.

It appears he had no serious competition during 1933 except for the British Hospitals Air Pageant Tour of the UK between April and October. They visited one hundred and fifty venues. 

His 1934 Tour was of a much lesser extent, but still impressive with one hundred and fifty nine venues lasting from April until September. Other lesser competitors were the Sky Devils Air Circus Tour (Barker & McEwen King) and Flying Fair (Ronald Dixie Gerran/Aviation Developments Ltd).

In 1935 Sir Alan Cobham came bounding back with another Tour, later split into two parts. It started in April at FAREHAM and the first part ended at GRAVESEND on the 30th June with seventy-two venues. It then split into two Tours, the No.1 Tour visiting eighty-eight venues and the No.2 Tour eighty-four venues.

Also on the scene in 1935 was Jubilee Air Displays (Barker & McEwan King) with a Tour that probably lasted from April until September.

By 1936 it appears that Sir Alan Cobham had lost all interest in hosting 'Flying Circus' venues. Probably his latest passion was then in developing air-to-air refuelling capabilities, where once again he was a pioneer and visionary. A concept that eventually proved to be of enormous importance after WW2.

But, despite Cobham departing the scene two more significant Tours were held in 1936. CWA Scott's Flying Displays started on the 8th April at the ACE of SPADES aerodrome in Hook near Kingston-upon-Thames, and spent most of their time touring around Ireland ending back at WESTON-SUPER-MARE in August. With at least sixty-five venues.

By contrast the British Empire Air Display Tour of the UK (Barker & McEwan King) which started in Luton on the 8th of April visited one hundred and eleven venues in England, Wales and Scotland. Ending in Birmingham on the 6th September - but where?

It appears that the last major 'Flying Circus' Tour was by Coronation Air Displays, another Barker & McEwan King enterprise coupled with Aircraft Demonstrations Ltd in 1937. But here again, with around five or six venues in England, the rest of the venues were in the Irish Republic.



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