London Southend Airport 80 years on

PUBLISHED: 10:55 22 September 2014 | UPDATED: 10:55 22 September 2014

Southend Airport

Southend Airport


While many may know of its recent regeneration, Southend Airport has had a connection with aviation for 100 years. Simon Murdoch looks at fascinating history and how it has recently taken off

"At the outbreak of World War II, Southend Airport was taken over by the RAF and became a satellite base for RAF Hornchurch. The first aircraft to arrive were a squadron of Spitfires from No.54sq in 1939."

London Southend Airport, located 40 miles east of central London, has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, but the origins of the airport actually date back many decades. The site celebrates its 80th anniversary as an airport next year, but its actual history goes back 100 years to the start of World War I in 1914.

The War Office established a flying ground at Rochford for fighter aircraft in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. The Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Squadrons moved into the field, recording their first flight on a Bleriot monoplane over the area. From 1915 to 1917 RAF Be.12 and single seat Sopwith Pups prowled the skies over Southend.

The airport was used as an RAF base during World War IIThe airport was used as an RAF base during World War II

At the end of the war, in 1919, the government auctioned off the flying ground at Rochford and it was used by the Navarro Aviation Company. Who started pleasure flights with a pair of former RAF Avro 504 bi-planes.

Southend Council bought the site in 1933 with the intention of turning it into an airport and on September 18, 1935, the airport was opened by Sir Phillip Sassoon the Under Secretary of State for Air. He arrived in his DH.85 Leopard Moth escorted by four Hawker Harts from RAF Hendon to perform the ceremony. To mark the event, three Avro Cadets owned by Southend Flying Club made a series of formation fly-pasts.

Crilly Airways, which operated services between several cities in England at the time using DH.86 Dragon airliners, became the first airline and operated a Clacton-Southend-Margate route. Another of the first airlines at Southend was Thames Air Ferry, which flew a single de Havilland DH.83 Fox Moth biplane on a Southend to Rochester service.

At the outbreak of World War II, Southend Airport was taken over by the RAF and became a satellite base for RAF Hornchurch. The first aircraft to arrive were a squadron of Spitfires from No.54sq in 1939. Some 14 different fighter squadrons were based there for varying periods during the war with fighter aircraft and Blenheim. In October 1940, the airport became known as RAF Southend and by 1944 several squadrons equipped with Airspeed Oxfords, Lysanders and Beaufighters were stationed there. The first Commanding Officer was Wing Cdr Basil Embry DSO. At the end of the war all the RAF aircraft moved out and the airport remained vacant.

Post War Years

In 1946, Southend Corporation developed the airport for commercial air transport. On December 31, 1946, the current airport license was issued and on January 1, 1947, the airport officially opened for commercial air traffic. Squadron Leader Bernard Collins was appointed first airport manager. Customs facilities were provided in 1948 as well as the construction of the original terminal building, control tower and runways in 1955.

A municipal air centre and flying school were then formed in 1947, using a pair of Austers and a Tiger Moth. By the time that club closed down in 1964, it had help train more than 400 pilots.

The first airline to be established at Southend Airport was East Anglian Flying Services, which later changed its name to Channel Airways, being founded by Jack Jones with a single Puss Moth offering pleasure flights along the seafront, banner towing and aerial photography work.

History was made on May 16, 1949, when the first night flight was operated by a Crewsair DC.3 on a cargo flight from Hamburg. Portable flares were used to illuminate the runway. Also in 1949, Aviation Traders Engineering Ltd set up an aircraft maintenance base at Southend, which at that time was primarily for Haltons and Halifaxes used in the Berlin airlift operations.

Other airlines based at Southend Airport in the 1950s included Crewsair, Tropic Airways, Meredith Airways, Air Transport, Air Charter and Tradair. Air Charter inaugurated the famous cross-channel car ferry operations to Ostend and Le Touquet in France using Bristol B.170 Freighters. They merged with Airwork, Transair and Hunting Clan in 1958 to form a new airline, British United Airways.

The early 1960s saw the birth of the Aviation Traders ATL.98 Carvair aircraft which was a C.54 fitted with a large bulbous nose, an idea that was thought of by Freddy Laker as a replacement for the Bristol Freighters. A total of 21 aircraft were converted at Southend and Stansted for the world’s airlines.

1960s and 1970s

Also in the early 1960s, Channel Airways was formed from East Anglian Flying Services and its fleet changed over the next decade and acquired its first jet aircraft, a BAC 1-11 in 1967.

In 1962 a new airline named British United Air Ferries was formed after the merger of Silver City and Channel Air Bridge and ran the popular cross-channel air ferry services from Southend to Rotterdam, Basle, Le Touquet and Ostend with Bristol Freighters, before they were replaced with a fleet of 13 Carvairs. The company then changed its name again to British Air Ferries.

During the late 1970s, BUAF/BAF phased out its fleet of Aviation Traders Carvairs and replaced them with a new fleet of turbo prop airliners, Heralds from EPA of Canada and the Royal Malaysian Air Force. Two Carvairs were kept on and converted into pure freighters which included stripping the paint work to bare metal.

International airlines operating services to Southend Airport have been a common sight since it opened. The 1960s was a peak for international flights at Southend with such airlines as Fred Olsen of Norway with Curtis C.46 and DC.6, Martinair of Holland with DC.3 and Convairs, Braathens of Norway with Fokker F.27 and DC.6, plus Schreiner Airways of Holland with Fokker F.27s.

In 1967 the airport was the third busiest in the UK with 692,686 passengers passing through the terminal, the peak of the Inclusive Tour and package holidays. However, with the introduction of larger jets by most airlines in the 1970s and the short runway at Southend, passengers services declined.

The early 1980s saw further expansion by BUAF with the purchase of the former British Airways Viscount fleet and in 1983 it operated the world’s largest fleet of British-built aircraft comprising 18 Vickers Viscounts and 15 Handley Page Heralds.

It then changed its name to British World Airlines and concentrated on charter flights, leasing contracts as well as aircraft maintenance before going into receivership in 2001.

1980s and beyond

Between the late 1980s and early 1990s the airport experienced an expansion of maintenance facilities when Air Livery set up a base there. Its main activity was to repaint aircraft and the most common types seen today include Airbus and Boeing 737s. One of the more unusual jobs was to repaint the famous ‘Sally B’ B.17 World War II bomber from Duxford.

ATC (Lasham) took over from Heavylift Engineering when that company went bust in 2001 and continued operating an aircraft maintenance base for the world’s airlines which currently include EasyJet, Rossiya Russian State Airlines, JET2, Air Astana Sky Chile and several African airlines.

When British World Airlines went into receivership at the end of 2001, their engineering hanger was taken over by Inflite Engineering of Stansted, another aircraft maintenance company who have contracts for work on BAe.146 and RJ.85 jet airliners and ATP and ATR turbo prop airliners.

In addition to regular maintenance work, restoration projects have also taken place at Southend. One of the most memorable carried out was that of Qantas Airways first jet airliner, a short bodied Boeing 707-100. The aircraft had spent a number of years stored in the open exposed to the elements at Southend after it had been used by the Royal Saudi Air Force and converted into a flying palace for Prince Bandar.

The Qantas Foundation heard about its plight and decided to launch a rescue operation that would see it flying back home and being displayed at the Qantas Founders Outback Museum at Queensland, Australia. A team of 25 volunteer and retired Qantas engineers set about the restoration project and in December 2006 it took to the skies for its return flight to Australia.

Passenger charter flights returned to Southend in the 1980s with such airlines at Air Malta, Monarch, Orion, Air Europe and Britannia operating jet services from the airport, mainly with Boeing 737s.

Hispania Airlines operated with Caravelle jet airliners to Palma de Mallorca, Alicante and Malaga as well as Maersk Air with flights to Billund in Denmark and Holland Airlines with daily flights to Rotterdam with turbo prop aircraft. At this time British Midland started operating flights to the Channel Islands with Viscounts.

History was made at Southend Airport in March 1999 when HM The Queen and HRH Duke of Edinburgh flew into the airport on their first ever visit to Southend and Basildon. They arrived in the Royal Flight S-76 helicopter from Buckingham Palace. This was the first and only time that a reigning monarch has landed at Southend Airport.

As well as scheduled passenger flights, the airport is also a thriving home to several flying clubs and air charter companies as well as being a busy air cargo centre for European destinations mainly served by the smaller twin engined cargo planes. It is also the home of the Southend Vulcan Restoration Trust for the historic former RAF Avro Vulcan bomber which hold regular open days to allow the public to inspect it close up.

By 1993 the airport had been running at a loss for a number of years. Having originally been sold to British Airports International in 1985, it was again sold to Regional Airports Ltd who also operated Biggin Hill airport in Kent. They re-branded the airport as London Southend Airport and completely refurbished the existing terminal building. But the airport continued making losses and was put on the market again.

The Stobart Group then bought the airport for £21million from Southend Council in December 2008, becoming part of the Stobart Air division which also runs Carlisle Lakeside Airport in Cumbria. With a £100 million loan from M & G Investments, work began on building Britain’s ‘newest’ airport in southern England for 30 years and London’s newest international airport.

This involved building a new state-of-the-art control tower which became operational in March 2011, a new on-site railway station on the Southend Victoria to Liverpool Street Station London railway line which opened in July 2011, building a brand new modern terminal building which was completed in February 2012, a new 129-bed Holiday Inn Hotel and runway extension.

The first airline to launch services using the new terminal building was Aer Arann which started a daily service to Galway and Waterford in March 2011. This marked the return of scheduled passenger services to the airport for 40 years. These flights have since been replaced with a three-times-a-day service to Dublin. The Stobart Group have become the major shareholder in that airline and in April 2014 launched a new airline Stobart Air using the latter’s aircraft to fly services from Southend to Dublin.

In June 2011, Stobart Group signed a 10-year agreement with Easyjet and commenced 70 flights a week with three Airbus A319 aircraft based at the airport from April 2012. In October 2012 Easyjet announced new services from Southend to Berlin, Krakow, Newquay and Edinburgh with Venice and Geneva being added in 2013.

In May 2013 Thomson Airways and First Choice started weekly package holiday flights from the airport to Palma le Mallorca using Boeing 717s operated by Volotea Airlines. Stobart Air/FlyBe started operating flights to six European destinations in April 2014 under another 10-year franchise agreement with flights to Rennes, Caen, Groningen, Munster and Antwerp. FlyBe returned to Southend after Easyjet announced that it was dropping the three-times-a-week service to Newquay in 2014 and will continue with this service until October 2014.

Southend Airport’s growth was further boosted this year when the new terminal building extension was officially opened by Patrick McLoughlin MP, Secretary of State for Transport, on April 7. This includes five additional aircraft stands bringing the total stands to ten, increasing the check in desks to 10 and doubling the departure gates to six with seating for 300 passengers.

Last year the airport broke all of its passenger records with 970,167 passengers flying through the airport between January and December 2013. This was a 57.1% increase in passenger numbers compared with same period in 2012 and the largest passenger growth out of 300 airports surveyed in Europe by Airline Network News & Analysis.

London Southend Airport was also voted as the most popular UK airport by Which Consumer group in 2012. Southend has now become a ‘Gateway to Europe’ again like it was in its hey day of the 1960s,offering flights to 22 different destinations during the summer 2014.

The future

Stobart Group CEO Andrew Tinkler,whose company invested £120 million into the airport,said afterwards: ‘London Southend Airport has the chance to accommodate 5.5 million passengers a year now. This allows us the opportunity to continue our vision of remaining the airport of choice for our customers and operators.’ It could be an exciting next

100 years.

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