Blackbushe Airport 1942 -2017 75 years – a potted history…
This year Blackbushe Airport celebrates 75 years of aviation, and although the airfield was officially brought into service in November, 1942, we kindly considered July was probably a more comfortable time of year to celebrate such a Birthday! Thus, on July 1st and 2nd, 2017, the airfield’s past will be remembered and celebrated.
From 1942’s dark days of war to her golden airline days of the 1950’s, and onwards from 1960 to today Blackbushe has witnessed the most extraordinary aviation years…and survived to tell her story.
The airfield lies on Hartford Bridge Flats, part of the long stretch of heathland that runs from Bagshot to Hartley Wintney. As the name suggests, the flats provided a perfect location for an airfield leading the Air Ministry to construct RAF Hartford Bridge as the airfield was originally known.
A further asset to building an airfield on ‘the Flats’ was the convenience of the A30 London-Southampton trunk road around which it was built. The A30 carried a degree of infamy, for it had become well known for the ‘highway robberies’ that beset passing coaching traffic in the 18th Century. The dreaded highway man Dick Turpin being one who haunted the area in his time relieving coach passengers of their valuables..
Earliest reported aviation activity occurred on the ‘the Flats’ by way of observation balloon ascents sponsored by the Army in nearby Aldershot. It was not long after her opening in 1942 that RAF Hartford Bridge and the availability of her superb “all weather runways” lead to her ‘international’ status being established, her residents including the famous Free French Air Force’s “Lorraine Squadron”, together with Canadian, Polish and Dutch squadrons. Prior to the arrival of this military hardware, RAE Farnborough conducted various glider trials here due to lack of space availability at Farnborough, the empty new airfield on the Flats was perfect!
The Royal Air Force’s 88, 226, and 342 Squadrons flew Bostons and B-25 Mitchells from Hartford Bridge attacking German defences prior to and during D-Day. Meanwhile the French Lorraine Squadron flying Bostons had been conducting the harrowing, but necessary, job of bombing their occupied homeland. By the winter of 1944 the Mosquitoes of the RAF’s 138 Wing arrived. 103, 305 and 613 Squadrons ranging far and wide over France and Belgium on night intruder sorties while daylight operations sought targets of opportunity.
Late in 1944 the airfield changed its name to Blackbushe, the change being necessitated by confusion with another Hartford Bridge in Northumberland. Blackbushe based US Air Force 9th Troop Carrier Command Dakotas combined with Dakotas of the RAF flew many troop casualty flights into the airfield for care in Aldershot’s military hospital. On Christmas Eve alone, 21 such flights arrived here.
FIDO had been installed in 1943, Fog Investigation & Dispersal Operation, a system involving a pipes either side of the runway through which were pumped large quantities of petrol that when ignited would burn away the fog. It was of limited value, but did help keep the airfield open when necessary.
By the end of the war Blackbushe had gained the reputation of being the best equipped and most fog free site in the UK. Factors that lead to RAF Transport Command becoming based here. Peace witnessed a resumption in the need for civil/commercial air transport. The Ministry for Civil Aviation pieced this together with Blackbushe’s excellent operational record and in 1947 the airfield was converted to serve civil aviation’s needs.
Blackbushe Airport played a major role in the 1948 Berlin Airlift, and until 1960 was a major player in the London area’s needs for effective air transport. Often during these years Blackbushe received flights diverted from Heathrow due to fog, and it was during the ‘golden days’ of Blackbushe’s commercial flying that numerous independent airlines were spawned here.. in many ways becoming the birthplace of the UK’s independent air transport industry. Famous names of the era based at Blackbushe included Eagle, Dan-Air, Silver City, Orion, Pegasus, Falcon, Britavia, Westminster Airways and others… Another famous resident at Blackbushe was the United States Navy, this being their only UK land base.
The forerunners of today’s British Airways appreciated the benefits of Blackbushe, regularly conducting crew training here with all the aircraft types they flew. Military aircraft frequently routed through Blackbushe prior to delivery to foreign air forces, manufacturers conducted customer demonstrations, Vickers for example with the Viscount. It was a very varied airfield blending civil and military operations, the incredible array of visiting aircraft from around the world during Farnborough Air Show Week was legend!
Blackbushe had become the air enthusiasts paradise! The A30 affording close and unbeatable views of the action.
The government decided to close the Airport in May, 1960, newly developing Gatwick needed some support. This beautiful functional and valuable aviation asset was destroyed in the shortest possible time destined to never host another aeroplane. That was without anticipating the vision of wartime bomber legend, AVM “Pathfinder” Bennett. He purchased over 360 acres of freehold from the Calthorpe Estate, the east end of the site being Common under the auspices of Yateley Parish Council. Subsequently the east end of the airfield could not be purchased and was excavated instead…If not for the AVM we would not be celebrating 75 years, there would most likely be no airport to celebrate.
The AVM sold his land to Douglas Arnold, an ex Spitfire pilot, who built new hangars and established Warbirds of Great Britain.. Numerous aircraft of second world war fame were rebuilt and restored here, aircraft that now appear at many air shows. A large air show was run in 1977, “The Blackbushe Air Festival” including a great variety of types including the Boeing 747 from British Airways.
British Car Auctions subsequently purchased the airfield from Mr Arnold . The Terminal was totally refurbished under their tenure, the airfield generally tidied up.
Today the airfield is owned by a consortium whose intentions include further upgrading of the facilities available. Blackbushe continues to have a good weather record, her elevated plateau location offering long unobstructed runway approaches producing a minimum of environmental disturbance. For a business man’s airfield that has excellent surface connections and is easy to use, is located in a great catchment area and also close to London, Blackbushe remains one of the most outstanding airfields in the south of England.
She has survived and thrives after 75 years, certainly worthy of a joyful celebration!!