Sir Alan Cobham 1929 - UK Airfield Guide

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A Guide to the history of British flying sites within the United Kingdom
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Sir Alan Cobham 1929



During the first World War there were at least a thousand military flying sites within the UK. Many not much more than a field, a windsock and a few tents, but this more or less also applied to some regional airports even in the early 1930s!

Having become a major figure in aviation circles, and with the public, due to his heroic explorations across half the world, seeking out suitable destinations for Imperial Airways - for which he was knighted - he then took a long hard look at what we had in the U.K. He was far from impressed. In total it appeared, we then had a total of around forty civil flying sites, ranging from government owned Civil Air Ports, (4), Licensed Civil Aerodromes, (9), Unlicensed Private Aerodromes (16), and New Private Aerodromes (6).  Plus three Emergency Landing Grounds.

The lists below were copied from an article published in The Bystander in 1929. The reporter certainly did a pretty good job, but a few details were left out. Nevertheless the article does give a good impression of why Cobham saw the requirement for a great deal more regional air ports/aerodromes within the U.K. 

These were CASTLE BROMWICH near Birmingham in what we now term the West Midlands. The second being LYMPNE in Kent, mainly it seems for private and charter flights to the Continent needing Customs facilities. RENFREW near Glasgow, and last but certainly not least, CROYDON in Surrey, south of central London which was the equivalent of HEATHROW today. Hard to believe? Just four.


Cobham surveying his map
Cobham surveying his map

This picture, kindly provided by Mike Holder, shows Sir Alan Cobham admiring his map of the projected venues for his Municipal Aerodrome Campaign, presumably taken just before he embarked on his Tour in May 1929. If looked at in detail, (a few examples have been marked by Mike), it is clear that a few locations were not, in the event, visited. For example Clacton and Hunstanton. However, he did visit Lowestoft, right at the end of his Campaign, and that town is not marked. 



Route map 1
Route map 1
Route map 2
Route map 2
Route map 3
Route map 3
Route map 4
Route map 4

Route map 5
Route map 5
Route map 6
Route map 6
Route map 7
Route map 7


Note:  Mike has very kindly broken this tour down into numbered sections so that we can more easily follow the progress. To date it appears that Cobham eventually flew into around 97 venues. 

Clearly, in his mind, something had to be done, and Sir Alan set about a scheme he called the 'Municipal Aerodrome Campaign'. Starting in May and ending in October the original plan was to visit 107 venues. Mostly in England but with two in Wales and eight in Scotland. Mostly he had to select suitable fresh landing sites but he did attend Air Pageants, (Air Shows we'd say today), to spread the word. Hardly surprising I suppose, he did not achieve his aim of visiting every planned venue. A couple of accidents, failure to find a suitable field, and permission being denied, (for example: to use the sands at Weston-super-Mare), were contributing factors. Even so, it appears he did visit well over ninety of the planned venues, (96 it now appears), which in itself was a most remarkable achievement.  

In 1929 it appears, there were only nine. And, four of them were for seaplane use! For landplanes these being BELFAST in Northern Ireland, BROOKLANDS in Surrey, COVENTRY (WHITLEY ABBEY) the aerodrome for Armstrong-Whitworth, YEOVIL in Somerset, the home of Westland, and COWES WEST on the Isle of Wight. 

The four seaplane sites were SOUTHAMPTON (WOOLSTON) in Hampshire, DOVER in Kent, and in the Channel Islands, St PETER PORT in Guernsey and St HELIERS in Jersey. 

On the whole the Municipal Aerodrome Campaign was planned around Cobham arriving at around 11a.m. in the ten-seater DH61 'Giant Moth' G-AAEV, and taking the worthies and notables for a quick tour around the local area in one or two flights; normally a gala lunch followed after which he could spread the gospel, and then make at least four flights for schoolchildren, sponsored by Lord Wakefield. He would then conduct joy-rides for the public, usually until dusk, to raise cash to continue the Campaign.

It appears that in 1929 there were five of these. These being BROCKWORTH near Gloucester and operated by the Gloster Aircraft Company, and BROUGH near Hull which had both an aerodrome and slipways for seaplanes operated by the Blackburn Aeroplane Co. Fairey Aviation operated a seaplane base at HAMBLE near Southampton, and the Austin Motor Company, it now appears, had their airfield at NORTHFIELD, to the south west of Birmingham. Possibly least known about today was the aerodrome operated by Geo. Parnall & Co at YATE, Gloucestershire - roughly NE of Bristol?   

It seems difficult to determine just how effective the campaign conducted by Sir Alan Cobham was after1929. Without any doubt some new aerodromes appeared, but it would seem, far fewer than he had hoped for?

It appears that in 1929 these aerodromes were being operated by Aeroplane Clubs, although clearly some sites, such as STAG LANE, had other major influences, such as the de Haviland company being based there, and Bristol at FILTON. But, for what is worth, these 'club' sites in 1929 are as follows:

Bristol and Wessex Aero Club:  FILTON north of Bristol city centre.

Cambridge Aero Club:  CONINGTON. As far as I am aware this aerodrome later became a major RAF aerodrome in WW2, and is still going strong. But, the question must be asked, are the two sites the same?

Cinque Ports Flying Club:  LYMPNE which was east of Ashford in Kent. Note:  Is this club still going? It seems it survived into the 1980s at least?

Hampshire Aero Club:  HAMBLE, more or less south of Southampton city centre.

Lancashire Aero Club:  WOODFORD roughly SE of Manchester city centre. This is the oldest Aero Club in the U.K. which was formed at Blackpool in 1909. WOODFORD became, for many years, a major assembly plant for Avro, and in 1946 the Club was told to relocate - presumably light aircraft not being seen as compatible with Vulcans! They went to BARTON where they stayed until 2007. These days, (in 2021 at least), the Club operates out of KENYON HALL FARM.  

Liverpool and District Aero Club:  HOOTON PARK which was on the Wirral peninsular on the other side of the Mersey river from Liverpool.

London Aeroplane Club:  STAG LANE, NW of central London.

Midland Aero Club:  CASTLE BROMWICH which became famous in WW2 for being the largest manufacturing base for Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires.

Newcastle-on-Tyne Aero Club:  CRAMLINGTON was situated north of Newcastle city centre.

Norfolk and Norwich Aero Club: MOUSEHOLD roughly east of Norwich city centre.

Nottingham Aero Club:  HUCKNALL which was roughly north of Nottingham city centre and later a Rolls-Royce aero-engine testing facility.

Scottish Flying Club:  MOORPARK, also later known as RENFREW, the major airport for Glasgow until ABBOTSINCH was redeveloped. 

Southern Aero Club:  SHOREHAM which is west of Brighton. This Club appears to have survived for a long time, possibly into the 1980s? SHOREHAM is of course one the very few aerodromes still operational that can trace its history back to pre-WW1 years.

Suffolk Aeroplane Club:  HADLEIGH. This was once listed as a potential AIR PORT for England after WW1 - but was it exactly on this site?  

Yorkshire Aeroplane Club:  SHERBURN-in-ELMET. This aerodrome is still alive and kicking today - very much so. Has the Yorkshire Aeroplane Club survived, albiet via a change of name or two over the years? 

The list discovered by Mike Holder in the Bystander in 1929 listed six new private aerodromes in 1929, these being:

CAMBRIDGE:  Operated by Marshall's Automobile Engineers. What a great success that company became.

HANWORTH AIR PARK:  Operated by National Flying Services. In SW London this became a major aerodrome prior to WW2.

HESTON:  Operated by Airwork and soon to become an airport to rival CROYDON in many respects.

LITTLE HALDON:  Aka HALDON, operated by Agra Engineering this became a regional airport - but of course regional airline services only operated during the 'season' by and large. I do not know the extent of the 'season' as it varied, but roughly speaking spring to autumn.

WOODLEY:  Just east of Reading, this aerodrome was established by Philips and Powis, who started producing very good aeroplanes designed by a certain G F Miles, and his wife. His brother was very good in the manufacturing of aeroplanes.

WYTHENSHAWE:  A short lived aerodrome/airport just SW of Manchester, operated by Northern Airways.


Three were listed:  LITTLESTONE, MARDEN and PENSHURST. All in KENT and listed in this 'Guide', these existed primarily for two reasons for use by the airlines going to CROYDON in those times. These being due to an engine failure, not uncommon, but more probably due to weather conditions, not least due to the London smog drifting across with westerly winds.

We also need to remember that in those days that all houses, let alone commercial premises, were fuelled by coal and wood - producing a great deal of smoke. It was, to some extent at least, against this problem, that Sir Alan Cobham decided that in the U.K. and England especially, we needed many more aerodromes and regional airports. His Municipal Aerodrome Campaign almost coincided with the 'Great Depression' which, is generally reckoned to have lasted from August 1929 to March 1933 in the U.K.

How interesting therefore, that the emergence of the main period of the 'Flying Circus' era took place during this period.    

NOTE: It was also mentioned that all RAF aerodromes were available for use for 'civil machines' in an emergency. It is also well known, that within society circles in those days, where most RAF pilots came from, that visits by friends to RAF aerodromes in civil aircraft were commonplace. Mostly at weekends it seems, when the RAF only operated mostly on weekdays. 



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