Airfields to World War I

Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust Logo

Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust Logo

The Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust (ABCT) is a registered charity that was founded in 2006 as a non-profit organisation. They work to preserve and protect airfields in Great Britain, as well as educating people about their history and providing support to help enthusiastic young people to secure airfield or aviation-related employment. Another aspect of their work is gathering and making available information on different airfields history and this can be seen on their website: Finally, and particularly relevant to this essay, is that they place inscribed memorial stones on or near disused airfields.

In and around Dover there were five airfields set up prior to or during World War I, Capel, Guston, Marine Parade – Dover, Swingate and Whitfield. Each one is honoured with an ABCT memorial or plaque. These airfields played an important role in the history of British aviation as did some forty other airfields  that were set up during that period. Glimpses of their stories, along with Dover’s airfields stories, are told below.

Fambridge airfield memorial. Kenneth Bannerman Chairman of ABCT and Linda Coxon a Trustee

It is now generally recognised that Fambridge in Essex was Britain’s first ever purpose built airfield. Founded in February 1909 by aviator Noel Pemberton-Billing (1881-1948) Fambridge  airfield was built on reclaimed marshland. This meant that drainage was a problem, in consequence the site closed in November 1909. In honour of the former airfield’s status, ABCT erected a memorial stone there in February 2009, one hundred years after the airfield opened!

Five months after the Fambridge airfield opened, on the morning of Sunday 25 July 1909, Louis Blériot (1872-1936) crossed from Sangatte, France to England. He was flying his Blériot No XI 25-horsepower monoplane and the flight was the first heavier than air to make the Channel crossing. He landed on Northfall Meadow, between Swingate and Dover Castle, Dover and the journey had taken him 36minutes 30 seconds. Besides making history, Blériot instigated the meteoric rise of interest in aviation.

Orville and Wilbur Wright followed by Horace Short possibly at the Eastchurch factory. Eveline Larder

On 17 December 1903 near Kitty Hawk, South Carolina, United States, bicycle manufacturers Wilbur Wright (1867-1912) and his brother Orville (1871-1948) made the first ever controlled and sustained powered flights landing on ground at the same level as the take-off point. By 1905 the brothers had built a flying machine with controls that made it completely manoeuvrable and that was another first. However, the US Army showed no interest in this new machine. Hence, in 1906, when an American patent was granted to the Wright brothers they entered agreements with European firms.

Early contacts with the Wright brothers in America by aeronaught Charles Rolls (1877-1910) helped balloon manufacturers, Horace Short (1872-1917) and his brother Oswald (1883-1969) to gain the right to build the Wright brothers aeroplanes. They lived at Mussell (Muswell) Manor, at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey, north Kent and the Wright Brother’s contract enabled them to consider opening an aeroplane manufacturing factory.

Memorial at Leysdown Airfield and Kenneth Bannerman Chairman of the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust

Pioneer aviator Francis Kennedy McClean (1876-1955)  owned land at Leysdown near to Eastchurch, Kent. He joined forces with the Short brothers and in February 1909 they opened an aircraft production factory at Eastchurch with an airfield at nearby Shellbeach, Leysdown. The following year they laid another airfield at Eastchurch and the Leysdown Airfield became the base for the Aero Club of which McClean was a founder member.  Not long after the army moved into the Leysdown site for military training purposes though they allowed the Aero Club to continue to use the airfield. In the spring of 1909 the Wright brothers came to England as guests of the Aero Club and Charles Rolls acted as their official host. During that time they visited the Eastchurch Short factory.

The idea of the Aero Club had been born in September 1901 when Charles Rolls and his friend and fellow balloon pilot or aeronaught as they were called, wine merchant Frank Hedges Butler (1855-1928) along with Butler’s daughter Vera, were taking a trip, probably in a balloon. Vera, so the story goes, suggested the formation of an Aero Club within the Automobile Club of which both Butler and Rolls were members. They discussed it, and on the insistence of Vera, agreed that the new club was to be open ‘equally to ladies and gentleman, subject to election’. In 1903 the Aero Club of Great Britain was launched for aeronaughts but with the increasing popularity of aeroplanes the Club broadened its remit to aviators. In 1910 the Aero Club was granted the Royal prefix becoming the Royal Aero Club (RAeC).

Balloon Corps Transport. South Africa 1899. National Army Museum

One of the experiments appertained to hydrogen, the gas used for ballooning as it it is lighter than air so has a good lifting capacity. It is also cheap to produce but is highly flammable. In the United States they were using helium that had similar lifting power as hydrogen but was considerably safer as it is an inert gas that cannot burn. However, helium is a natural resource that was found in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas and the Americans tightly controlled their monopoly making it very expensive to buy. The Army School of Ballooning found that both hydrogen and helium were preferable to hot air balloons as they required less effort and could stay aloft for much longer periods. Hence, as a result hydrogen filled balloons were preferred and adopted by the British Army. In 1890 the RE Balloon section became a permanent unit of the Royal Engineers establishment and the School moved to Stanhope Lines, Aldershot, Hampshire with a designated airfield. This was on Laffan’s Plain a large area of land used for Army training and named after Robert Michael Laffan (1821-1882) and called the Aldershot Airfield.

British Army Cody aeroplane Mark IB at Laffan’s Plain, Aldershot, being pulled into position by a team of soldiers. RE

From 1897 the School was called the Balloon Factory and a special RE Balloon section were trained to use balloons operationally. They took part in the Second Boar War (1899-1902) and experiments with cameras were undertaken for air photography and in the summer of 1906 RE balloonists took the earliest known aerial photographs of  Stonehenge. In 1902 the Balloon Factory began experiments with ‘dirigible balloons’, better known as airships. Balloons are a lighter than air craft that can lift but are very much dependent on wind direction. By way of contrast, an airship is a lighter than air craft that not only lifts but is also powered by an engine(s). This enables it to move in any direction, even against the wind. By 1909 much time was being spent on the research of the different types of envelopes for  airships and also the different types of gondolas in which crew, passengers and goods could be carried. Aeronauts such as Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe (1877-1958) generally called Alliott Roe or A.V. Roe, who later in 1910 founded the Avro Company in Manchester, worked at the Balloon Factory undertaking experiments with airships. While Samuel Franklin Cody (1867-1913) and John William Dunne (1875-1949), both aeronauts made significant contributions, particularly on engine design. Requiring more space to inflate the new ‘dirigible balloon’ or airship, which was then under construction, it was decided to move to a larger area. Between 1904-1906 the military Balloon Factory was relocated about 5 miles away on Farnborough Common.

Mayfly the RN HMA No 1 airship with a broken back. Sept 1911 Wikipaedia

At the time Germany was spending a great deal on balloon based aeronautical research. The British Government having recognised the military potential of balloons were also interested in aeroplanes.  The Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928), approved the formation of an ‘Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ and an ‘Aerial Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence’. Both committees were composed of politicians, army officers and Royal Navy officers, one of the latter was Captain Murray Fraser Sueter (1872-1960). Albeit, after aeronaught John Dunne reported that a German airship had been reported as being able to travel at 40 miles an hour, discussions took place on the production of a rigid airship. Based upon the German Zeppelin. £2,500 was spent on research and a prototype airship HMA No1 and called Mayfly was constructed under the supervision of Captain Sueter. However, on 24 September 1911, while attempting its first flight during strong winds, the airship broke in half and the project was abandoned. Nonetheless, the exercise provided valuable training for both designers and air crews.

British Army Aeroplane No 1 flown by Sam Cody October 1908 IWM RAE-O

The French government considered air travel to be feasible but preferred aeroplanes. This enabled Blériot and Anglo-French aviator, Henri Farman (1874-1958) to undertake research and development. Farman built a biplane more stable than the Wright aeroplane. The Americans, less than a year after rejecting the notion of a powered flying machine such as the Wright brother’s aeroplane changed their mind. They decided to back the development of a powered flying machine designed by American Samuel Cody. At the time Cody was actually in England working as a civilian Kite Instructor with the Army Balloon Factory at Farnborough. On 16 October 1908 on Farnborough Common, Cody made his first flight – the first official flight of a piloted heavier-than-air machine in Great Britain! Albeit, as work was being carried out on developing the Mayfly airship, Army funding on aeroplanes ceased but Cody was able to keep the aeroplane. On 14 May 1909, at Laffans Plain, Aldershot some 5miles from Farnborough Common, he succeeded in flying about 1,400 feet before crashing. Nonetheless, he established the first official British distance and endurance record.

Short’s first aircraft factory, at Eastchurch, Isle of Sheppey 1910. Eveline Robinson

That summer the Short Brothers produced and sold six Wright Flyers and they received headline coverage when aviation pioneer John Theodore Cuthbert Moore-Brabazon, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara (1884-1964)  became the first resident Englishman to make an officially recognized aeroplane flight on 2 May 1909. On 30 October that year Moore-Brabazon flew a Short No 2, a circular mile in a Daily Mail newspaper competition and won £1,000 prize money. Also in October 1909 Britain staged its first air show, which was held at Doncaster Racecourse. Around twelve aviators took part including the French aviators Léon Delagrange (1872-1910) and Roger Sommer (1877-1965) as well as Samuel Cody.

Also that year, more airfields were opening. Frederick Handley Page (1885-1962), one of the pioneers of the British aircraft industry opened his purpose built factory in June 1909. This was on the north bank of the River Thames, just east of Creekmouth and he laid down an airfield close by. A contemporary account of the Creekmouth Airfield, published in Flight Magazine August 1909, stated that it was about 2½ miles long and about a mile wide and was situated between Barking and Dagenham Stations on the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway. A flat part of the airfield was being levelled for starting purposes and an artificial hill had been erected for gliding experiments. From about July 1911 the company used Fairlop Aerodrome at Ilford as well as Creekmouth Airfield. In September 1912 Handley Page moved his works to Cricklewood and the Creekmouth Airfield was closed down but Fairlop Aerodrome remained in use during both World Wars. Handley Page Limited, became famous for producing heavy bombers and airliners.

Why, after the outbreak of War in October 1914 Fairlop Aerodrome was rejected by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in favour of the creation of a new airfield at nearby Hainault Farm, is unclear. However, a RNAS report did state that the site was chosen as a Day Landing Ground because it featured well-drained land that was surrounded by open countryside in all directions and was close to railway stations, useful for personnel travelling there. In February 1915, Hainault Aerodrome was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, which had already taken over Fairlop Aerodrome, when they were looking for suitable sites east of London to protect the City from German bombing raids. Hainault Aerodrome closed in 1919 but shortly before World War II the City of London Corporation bought the site intending it to be London Airport. However, at the outbreak of War it was requisitioned together with Fairlop Aerodrome as an air and military base. Both Fairlop and Hainault closed in 1946.

Eastchurch (Landplane) Airfield, Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust

In November 1909 the Short brothers opened their newly built Eastchurch airfield on the marshes. Whether the Admiralty had been preparing for what became World War I is debatable, but in 1898, work started on converting Dover Harbour into the Admiralty Harbour, that was to last for over 100years. The new harbour was built as the base for the Royal Navy at the southern end of the North Sea and on Friday 15 October 1909, it was opened by the Admiral of the Fleet, George, Prince of Wales, (later George V 1910-1935).


Swingate Aerodrome named by Charles Rolls when he made his memorable flight. Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust. Mike Weston 2023

In the spring of 1910, Charles Rolls saw Swingate Down plateau on the east side of Dover and overlooking Admiralty Harbour, as having potential for an airfield. He persuaded the War Office to rent the Down to him when it was not required for military purposes. Rolls renamed the plateau Swingate Aerodrome and had an ‘aeroplane garage’, or hangar as they were soon after called, erected by William Harbour Ltd of St Mary Cray, Kent. That company was later commissioned to build hangars on many of the newly created airfields that were to open after Rolls’ successful flight. That took place at 18.30hrs on Thursday 2 June when Rolls took off in his Wright Flyer from the Aerodrome, passed over Sangatte, France at 19.15hrs. After re-crossing the Channel back to England, Rolls circled around Dover Castle and finally landed at Swingate Aerodrome at 20.00hrs having made the first two way Channel crossing in an aeroplane.

Edwin Rowland Moon Eastleigh Airfield. Chris-pictures, Bishopstoke history society

That same year, aviation pioneer Edwin Rowland Moon (1886-1920) flew his Moonbeam 2 monoplane from the meadows of North Stoneham Farm, Eastleigh, Hampshire. He had made his first successful flight in an aeroplane he built himself in the corner of the family boat builder’s workshop. At the outbreak of World War I Moon joined the Royal Naval Air Service and became a pilot and eventually a test pilot at RAF Felixstowe.  Following the War he stayed on at Felixstowe but on 29 April 1920 he was  instructing a crew in a Felixstowe F5 N4044 flying boat when suddenly there was a loud crack, the aeroplane went into a spin, crashed and Moon was killed. In the meantime just before the outbreak of War there was a public flying display given by Gustav Hamel to an audience of ten thousand! A few weeks later Eastleigh Airfield was requisitioned by the Royal Flying Corps and renamed ‘Eastleigh Airfield Aircraft Acceptance Park’ then in 1917 the renamed Atlantic Park, site was given over to the United States Navy to develop an assembly area.

Southampton Municipal Airport c1946. Southampton International Airport

In 1932, Atlantic Park was purchased by Southampton Corporation and renamed Southampton Municipal Airport with regular air services to the Channel Islands. During World War II the Airport was again requisition but marking the return of the wartime aerodrome to a municipal airport in 1945, the regular air services to the Channel Islands resumed. In the 1960s J N Somer bought the Airport and during his tenure made a number of improvements including the construction of a 5,653 feet concrete runway. In 1988 a consortium headed by Peter de Savary (1944-2022) bought the airport site for redevelopment then in 1990 it was sold to the British Airport Authority, that had been privatised in 1987. Major reconstructions took place and in 1990 what had started off as the tiny Eastleigh Airfield was renamed Southampton International Airport by Prince Andrew, Duke of York. Edwin Rowland Moon was credited as being the first person to fly from there!

Votes For Women Airship 1909 Muriel Matters

From about 1862 what eventually became Hendon Aerodrome, Middlesex, seven miles north west of Charing Cross at Colindale close to Brent Reservoir, was a balloon airfield. The first powered flight to take off from there was an 88-foot long non-rigid airship built by C G Spencer & Sons’ airship factory at 56a Highbury Grove, Islington. On Tuesday 6 February 1909 the airship, piloted by Henry Spencer (1877-1937) took off carrying just one passenger, the Australian suffragette Muriel Lilah Matters (1877-1969). In fact Matters had hired the airship and emblazoned on one side of the balloon was the slogan ‘Votes For Women’ and on the other ‘Women’s Freedom League.’ The airship rose to  a height of 3,500 feet and Matters scattered 56 pounds of handbills promoting the Women’s Freedom League. The flight made headlines around the world when it was stated that Matter’s had made the first ever powered flight from the airfield.

Albeit, in 1906, the Daily Mail newspaper had challenged aviators to fly from London to Manchester or vice versa, the prize being £10,000. The journey had to be completed within twenty-four hours, with no more than two landings allowed. On 27 April 1910 French aviator Louis Paulhan (1883-1963) set off from Hendon Airfield and flew 117 miles to Lichfield. Before dawn on 28 April he took off and after 3 hours 55 minutes in the air reached Burnage on the outskirts of Manchester. Paulhan had not only won the prize, he is recognised as the first person to make an aeroplane flight from Hendon Airfield! About this time aviator, Claude Grahame-White (1879-1959) purchased more than 200 acres of land converting Hendon airfield into a recognised aerodrome. He employed the London Aerodrome Co to build sheds and in 1910 opened the Bleriot Aviation School. The following year, as part of the George V (1910-1936) coronation celebrations (9-16 September 1911), the first ever ‘official’ UK airmail was flown from Hendon to Windsor and vice versa. 

Hendon Aeroplane factory in the 1914 book Aeroplane p202. Wikipaedia

During World War I, Grahame-White’s company concentrated on aircraft production and to facilitate the transportation of the 3,500 workers and materials, Midland Railway built a spur from the embanked main line with a platform close to the main line and a loop around the airfield to the plant. In November 1916 the War Office commandeered the Bleriot Aviation School and subsequently 490 pilots were trained there. After World War I, Hendon became famous for pioneering experiments, including the first parachute descent from a powered aircraft, the first night flights and the first aerial defence of a city. However, in 1922 the Air Ministry took over the aerodrome and factory. This led to an ugly three-year legal fight after which Grahame-White left and had nothing more to do with aircraft production. RAF Hendon was briefly involved in the Battle of Britain (1940) during World War II but thereafter the aerodrome was mainly used for transport activities notably flying dignitaries to and from London. Following the War the demand for housing put pressure on the RAF to relinquish the aerodrome and the Metropolitan Communication Squadron was the last flying unit to leave  left Hendon and that was in November 1957. The RAF remained operating as a Supply Control Centre and the Joint Services Air Trooping Centre. However on 1 April 1987 the RAF base closed and it is now the site of the Grahame Park Housing Estate and Hendon Police College. The Royal Air Force Museum, London, is situated on south east side of the former aerodrome site. In 1968 a Blackburn Beverley, an exhibit at the new RAF Museum, landed at what was left of the airfield – the last aircraft to use the field.

Bristol & Colonial Aeroplane Co Ltd factory 1910. BEA

Flights, such as that undertaken by Rolls, inspired a number of officers in both the Army and the Royal Navy, to learn to fly. Staff from the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company trained many of these officers to become qualified pilots. The Company was a subsidiary of the Bristol Tramways Company and was founded by George White (1854-1916) together with his brother Samuel (c1862-1928). The Company’s factory was at Filton near Bristol where the two brothers built a factory, which opened in March 1910, to build aircraft to improve existing aeroplane designs. Close to the factory was a small ‘flying ground’ at the top of Filton Hill. As the Company flourished, it was referred to as the Bristol Aeroplane Company (BAC). During World War I, like Eastleigh, the airfield was taken over by the Royal Flying Corps and named ‘Filton Airfield Aircraft Acceptance Park’. This involved the final assembly and flight testing of aircraft sent from other aircraft production sites.

The last flight of any Concorde, 26.11.2003. G-BOAF overflying Filton Airfield at 2,000ft. Adrian Pingstone

During the interwar period the military airfield facilities were expanded to that of a full flying base built by the Army. The runway was lengthened and Filton became part of an operational fighter base. Following World War II, in 1947, RAF Filton closed as a military airfield and factory but both physically remained and they reverted to their original owners BAC. In 1960, the British Aircraft Corporation took over the aircraft interests of  BAC  and the development and production of Concorde took place at Filton. To accommodate Concorde the main Filton runway, which had already been extended several times as Filton Aerodrome expanded, was further extended. However, on 26 November 2003, Concorde 216 (G-BOAF) made her last flight, this was from Heathrow aerodrome and she was flown westward over Bristol, where crowds waved as she passed over, and then to Filton Aerodrome, where she landed. Not long after, much of the Filton Aerodrome was sold off for the Patchway housing development and Trading Estate. British Aircraft Corporation remained on what was left eventually becoming a forerunner of British Aerospace. Then, on 31 December 2012, the site finally closed. However, Airbus UK purchased 26 acres of the former Rolls-Royce Rodney Works that had operated close to the original Filton Airfield. There they built a facility for wing development and manufacture and now they are the main company on this former airfield.

About 1898, the War Office bought farmland on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, for military training purposes. By the following year a large tented camp for Army units training was established called Larkhill Range. In 1909, Horatio Barber (1875–1964), rented a small piece of land on Larkhill, adjacent to the military camp and built a hangar to house his new aeroplane. More enthusiasts soon joined him including George Bertram Cockburn (1872-1931) and Captain John Duncan Berties Fulton (1876-1915). At the time Fulton was stationed at Bulford military camp on Salisbury Plain and had bought a Grahame-White Blériot-type monoplane out of the proceeds of patents for the improvement of field guns he had invented. During 1910 Cockburn and Fulton became such good friends that in November Fulton gained his RAeC Aviators Certificate flying Cockburn’s Farman I-bis. They also manage to persuade the War Office of the need for a military airfield for aeroplanes. The Army extended their Durrington Down military site to include an airfield and in July 1910 Larkhill Aerodrome, the first military airfield in Britain designated for aircraft as opposed to balloons, opened.

Several more hangars were built at Larkhill next to the hangar that Barber had built. Barber’s hangar still exists along with a three-bay hangar and the Army gave the contract for building hangars to BAC. On 1 April 1911, No. 2 Company of the Air Battalion – Royal Engineers was established at Larkhill, the first flying unit of the armed forces to use aeroplanes as opposed to balloons and Fulton was appointed to command. This evolved into No. 3 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps in May 1912, the first Royal Flying Corps squadron to use aeroplanes. On Friday 30 September, aviator Robert Loraine (1876-1935), who first named the aircraft control stick a ‘joystick’, was asked to test an upgraded Farman biplane.

Guglielmo Marconi publicity photograph in front of his early radio apparatus. Smithsonian Institute Library

The aeroplane had been adapted with a basic Marconi wireless transmitter weighing 14lbs. Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) had been demonstrating revolutionary new techniques of communication by radio wave-based wireless telegraph system in England since January 1897. The machine was attached to the passenger seat and monopole antenna wires stretched along the breadth and length of the biplane. The Morse key for tapping out messages was fixed next to Loraine’s left hand and he was asked to send a predetermined message while flying over Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, approximately 2 miles away. This he did with his left hand while controlling the aeroplane with his right. In a hangar at Larkhill, surrounding the Marconi receiver were Marconi engineers, a number of dignitaries headed by the Home Secretary (1910-1911), Winston Churchill (1874-1965) as well as army and navy officers. Loraine did as he was bid and the dignitaries were delighted when the message ‘enemy in sight’ was received on the apparatus in the hangar. However, the dignitaries generally expressed reservations about the use of aeroplanes for defence purposes.

Manoeuvring Alliot Roe’s Triplane out of the Hangar at Brooklands 1909 BEA Systems

Brooklands motor racing circuit opened in 1907 near Weybridge, Surrey, and just south-west of London in south-eastern England. The track was 2.767-mile long, 100 feet wide, with banking nearly 30 feet high. It was the world’s first purpose-built ‘banked’ motor racing circuit. Hugh Fortescue Locke King (1848-1926) who had inherited the estate, founded and financed the venture, for at the time, Britain lagged behind European countries in the development of motorcars. Locke King decided to try and redress the balance by building a testing track to give impetus to the industry. The track was opened on 17 June 1907 and on that day 43 cars were driven around the circuit, one of them by Charles Rolls. The motor racing circuit quickly proved popular with many of the competitors also interested aeronautics, notably Alliott Roe who in 1910, founded the Avro Company in Manchester. In 1908 Alliott Roe made the first flight of an English aircraft by an English pilot at Brooklands. At one of the motor racing meetings Roe met aviators Louis Paulhan, who won the London-Manchester air race that year and Henry Farnham. The three men persuaded Locke King to lay an airfield alongside the motor racing track. Before Brooklands Aviation Ground, opened in early 1910, Roe built workshops close to the airfield to attract his London social friends and financial backers to the site.

Brooklands famous race track existed alongside the Vickers Aviation works until 1939 BAE Systems

Brooklands quickly became a British major flying centre and not long after aviator and entrepreneur Hilda Hewlett (1864-1943) together with Gustav Jules Eugene Blondeau (1871-1975) opened Britain’s first flying school nearby. BAC followed, establishing a flying school in late spring 1910. The company’s first instructor and test pilot was Archibald ‘Archie’ Reith Low (1878-1969). Roe also opened a flying school at Brooklands and in July that year BAC opened a second flying school near Larkhill Aerodrome. In 1912 Vickers engineering company opened a flying school having expanded into aircraft manufacture the year before.

WWI Royal Flying Corps wireless training session.

One of the Vickers instructors was Richard Harold Barnwell (1879-1917) who became a test pilot for the company. The Vickers flying school taught 77 pupils to fly before it closed in August 1914, one of which was Hugh Dowding (1882-1970), the Air Officer Commanding RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain 1940. From then on, aviation companies and associated industries also set up close to Brooklands, including Sopwith Aviation Company owned by Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith (1888-1989). During World War I Brooklands motor racing circuit closed, as did the civilian flying schools and Vickers Aviation Ltd opened a factory there in 1915. Other associated factories followed and by 1918 Brooklands had become Britain’s largest aircraft manufacturing centre. During the War various Royal Flying Corps Squadrons were based at Brooklands and air-ground wireless trials pioneered by a Marconi team, that had started in 1912, continued with the World’s first voice to ground wireless message successfully transmitted over Brooklands in 1915.

In late 1917, three large ‘Belfast-truss‘ General Service Sheds for a new Aircraft Acceptance Park were erected to enable assembly and testing new aeroplanes until it closed in early 1920. In 1927 Vickers Limited,  the largest aviation manufacturing company at Brooklands, merged with Sir W G Armstrong Whitworth & Company to form Vickers Armstrong. As the British economy picked up in 1931 Brooklands Aviation Ltd was formed and the aerodrome became a major flying training centre. Motor racing at Brooklands ceased at the outbreak of World War II and the site was given over to war-time production of military aircraft in particular the Vickers Wellington, Vickers Warwick and Hawker Hurricane. To help screen the Hawker and Vickers aircraft factories at Brooklands trees were also planted into the concrete of the former racing circuit.

Brooklands – the end of an era as Ron Hedges removes the name plaque after 80 years of aircraft manufacturing Christmas Day 1989. BAE Systems

On 4 September 1940 the Vickers Brooklands factory was bombed, nearly 90 aircraft workers were killed and at least 419 injured. Following the war the former racing circuit was sold to Vickers Armstrong when the design and production of new aircraft increased such that in the 1960s aircraft production at Brooklands achieved its peak. In 1960 Brooklands became the headquarters of the newly formed British Aircraft Corporation. Two years later, to house the new prototype VC10, a large new 60,378 square-foot hangar, nicknamed ‘the Abbey’, was erected and in 1964 the larger ‘the Cathedral’, 98,989-square-foot hangar was erected. Brooklands was also the country’s major assembly factory for Concorde but lack of orders for VC10s and Concordes plus changes in Government policies led to a decline in aircraft orders. In 1977 Brooklands became part of the newly formed British Aerospace (BAe) and at about that time airfield activity ceased. All aircraft manufacturing at Brooklands was wound up and Brooklands aircraft manufacturing closed on Christmas Day 1989. Shortly after Brooklands Museum opened and BAe’s successor, BAE Systems has a logistics centre at Brooklands.

The Aero Club had, from 1905, issued Aeronauts’ Certificates for balloonists. On 15 February 1910 when the Aero Club was elevated to RAeC,  it became the regulative body for issuing of Aviators’ Certificates to qualified aircraft pilots. The certificates were recognised by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale founded in 1905 and the world governing body for air sports. The first aeroplane pilot to qualify for a RAeC certificate was Moore-Brabazon. He had previously been assigned certificate number 40 of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and was issued with RAeC Certificate Number 1 on 8 March 1910. On the same day certificate No.2 was issued to Charles Rolls, who had flown a Short-Wright Biplane for his test flight.

On 21 June 1910, Lieutenant George Cyril Colmore (1885–1937) after completing training, which he had paid for out of his own pocket, became the first qualified pilot in the Royal Navy, certificate number 15. Hilda Hewlett was the first woman to receive a certificate, the number being 122. The RAeC, besides testing pilots on their ability to fly, they also trained most military pilots up until 1915. From then on most training took place at military airfields such as Swingate, Dover, but the trainee pilots still had to pass the RAeC test. Salisbury Plain was one of the main training grounds and scattered memorials across the Plain pay tribute to these first military flyers. Albeit, by the end of the First World War, more than 6,300 military pilots had received the RAeC Aviator’s certificates. Since its formation in 1972, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has regulated pilot licensing in the UK.

Charles Rolls Memorial Trust

For 11-12 July 1910 at Hengistbury Head Airfield, Southbourne near Bournemouth in Dorset, a Pageant was organised to celebrate the Centenary of Bournemouth. It was hoped that the airfield would prove popular to wealthy locals and also bring wealthy visitors to the town. Hence, one of the attractions was an aviation meeting with competitions one of which was for the aviator to land his aeroplane as close as possible to a touch down point. One of the aviators attending was Charles Rolls who was flying a Wright Flyer with a modified controlling wire that had been attached to the tail. Having competed in the event on the first day but not satisfied with his result Rolls had another go on the second day a Tuesday. However, when he was about 80 feet above the ground the controlling wire broke and Rolls was thrown out of the aeroplane. He died from his injures shortly afterwards. Charles Rolls was the first person in Britain to die in an aircraft accident and a memorial to him was erected and is maintained by the Royal Aeronautical Society in what is now the rear playing field at St Peters School Hengistbury Head. Following the accident aviators lost interest in using Hengistbury Head Airfield and it was finally abandoned in the 1920s.

Lanark Airfield. Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust.

The summer of 1910 saw a number of aviation meetings planned but following the death of Charles Rolls, they were then cancelled. However with trepidation, the owners of Lanark Racecourse Airfield decided to carry on with their aviation meetings set for Saturdays 6 and 13 August 1910. The racecourse was reputed to be the oldest in Britain having been founded by King William the Lion of Scotland (1165-1214) who gave the Lanark Silver Bell as a prize. The bell disappeared for centuries but was found in 1836 in Lanark Town Council’s vaults and is competed for annually. In 1908, a new flat right-handed oval racecourse 10 furlongs round with a run-in of around 3+12 furlongs was laid.  All the facilities both race horse owners and the paying public needed were provided but it did not attract them. The main reason was the lack of a railway line to bring people in from the populous Edinburgh and Glasgow. It was for this reason the owners decided to hold first aviation meeting in Scotland regardless of the death of Rolls near Bournemouth the month before.

Lanark Racecourse (Disused) Iain Thompson

With the right social connections the owners persuaded Caledonian Railway Company to constructed a railway line from the main Glasgow-Edinburgh line to Lanark.  The Railway Company built the station near to the entrance of the racecourse in order, so they said, to enable the aeroplanes to be transported to the meeting by rail! The owners of the horse racecourse offered £8060 as prize money and the aeroplane races were to be accurately timed over straight measured distances which allowed records to be set for the first time. Further, the horse racecourse stables would be used as hangars for the aeroplanes. To protect spectators, no aircraft was to fly closer than 300 yards from them. The first Saturday arrived and so did aviators from seven countries with their aeroplanes! They all arrived by train as did about 80,000 people mostly from Edinburgh and Glasgow. The meeting held the following Saturday and  attracted some 200,000 people!  The racecourse continued to be used as an airfield until the 1950s including in both World Wars. In 1911 Scottish aviation pioneer, William Hugh Ewen (1873-1947)  opened a flying school nearby. The racecourse closed in October 1977 but it is still an official emergency airfield. The railway station was officially opened on 27 September 1910 but in 1965 was subjected to the Beeching cuts. The Lanark Silver Bell horse race is now run at Hamilton Park Race Course, south of Glasgow.

Following the failed construction of the British prototype airship Mayfly in 1908-09 Captain Sueter, who had supervised its construction, continued to undertake pioneering work in naval aviation. In 1910 Oliver Swann / Schwann (1878-1948) was selected to assist Captain Sueter and using his own money purchased an Avro Type D landplane. Although not having qualified as a pilot Swann added floats to the aeroplane and successfully managed to fly it off water. Although Swann crashed the aircraft, this was the first aircraft take off by a British pilot from salt water.


Replica seaplane Waterbird takes off from Lake Windermere 14 June 2022. Bakedinaspen

On January 26, 1911 Glenn Hammond Curtiss (1878-1930) an American aviation pioneer and one of the founders of the U.S. aircraft industry flew the first seaplane from water. At the time, in Britain, an aeroplane capable of rising from and alighting upon water was described in Flight magazine as ‘scarcely even dreamt of’. However, Edward Wakefield, an engineer who had been experimenting with the idea of producing a floatplane that could. decided otherwise. Wakefield ordered a floatplane similar to the design of the 1910 Fabre Hydravion – an experimental floatplane designed by Henri Fabre (1882-1984), an aircraft that had taken off from water under its own power. He commissioned Alliott Roe’s Manchester Avro Company to build seaplane based on their Avro Curtiss aircraft with modifications based on the Fabre Hydravion. Wakefield set up the Lakes Flying Company and what was to become the seaplane named Waterbird, was built at Brownsfield Mills, Manchester with wheels for testing at Brooklands. It was delivered to Lake Windermere on 7 July 1911 where conversion took place to the seaplane including the floats that were to replace the wheels. These were built by Borwick & Sons, boat builders of Bowness. Aviator, Herbert Stanley Adams successfully took off in the Waterbird floatplane on 25 November 1911 from Windermere and landing on the lake. This was the first successful British built seaplane to take off and land on water.

Windermere Airfield monument and Kenneth Bannerman Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust

Together Wakefield and Adams went on to develop seaplanes but local residents complained. Most notably Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley (1851-1920) internationally known as one of the three founders of the National Trust and Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), author and conservationist. However, the Home Office found no reason to control their activity. On 11 December 1911, Wakefield filed a Patent for float attachment to an aeroplane including rubber bungees for shock absorption when taking off and landing. The following year another Patent for a stepped float and in 1913 for wingtip floats, all of which were granted. Even though on water, Windermere Airfield was split between two locations, Cockshott Point and Hill of Oaks, further down the lake’s east side and became an RNAS base in WWI, closing in 1920.

In June 1911 an airfield opened on farmland at Whitfield, a village just outside of Dover. It was generally known as Dover Aerodrome! It was favoured by aeronauts who would fly to the airfield where they would leave their aeroplane, until they returned, before boarding a ferry to cross the Channel to France. Harriet Quimby, (1875-1912), an American journalist, gained her pilot’s licence in August 1911, the first woman to do so in the US. By Christmas, she had decided to be the first woman to fly across the English Channel and through contacts, managed to get a letter of introduction to Louis Blériot in Paris. On 1 March 1912, Harriet set sail from New York for London on the Hamburg-American liner Amerika, and on arrival put her plan to the editor of the Daily Mirror. She described Dover aerodrome, as the airfield at Whitfield just outside Dover as being, ‘a fine, smooth ground from which to make a good start. The famous Dover Castle stands on the cliffs, overlooking the Channel. It points the way clearly to Calais.’ Harriet then went to see Blériot and persuaded him to loan her a Blériot monoplane with a 50hp Gnome engine. She also persuaded the English aviator, Gustav Wilhelm Hamel (1889-1914), to help with her project.

Plaque commemorating Whitfield Airfield near Dover. It can be seen in the garden of Whitfield Holiday Inn. Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust. 2023 AS

On the early morning of Tuesday 16 April 1912 Harriet arrived at Whitfield airfield dressed in a flying suit of her trademark, purple wool-back satin, under which she  wore two pairs of silk combinations. Over the apparel, to keep her warm, Harriet wore a long woollen coat in the style of an ‘American raincoat’ all topped with sealskin stole. At the airfield, Hamel undertook a trial run and satisfied with the monoplane, Harriet climbed aboard and took off at 5.30am. 59 minutes later she landed on Equihen beach in the Pas de Calais, the first woman to fly across the Channel! The following year Whitfield airfield ceased to be used as such but before Whitfield airfield was ploughed over it featured in one of the earliest recorded films of any British airfield by British Pathéone. Entitled, the Circuit of Europe International Air Race at Hendon, Shoreham and Whitfield. This can be seen on ABCT’s Whitfield  page: 

A month after Harriet Quimby’s memorable flight, Germany sent the gunboat Panther to Agadir, Morocco, supposedly to protect German firms even though the port was closed to non-Moroccan businesses. The Admiralty reacted by, among other things, ordering the Camber in Dover Harbour to be altered into a submarine basin. The depth was deepened to 17-feet (5.19 metres); a pair of breakwaters and submarine shelters were constructed with a small dry dock alongside. As international tensions deepened and in order to create a safe anchorage for destroyers as well as submarines, the Camber was also deepened. In November 1913 the Camber was formally designated a torpedo centre with a repairing depot that came into use on 22 May 1914. Storage for oil fuel at the Eastern Dockyard was increased and Langdon prison, on the Eastern cliffs overlooking the harbour, was converted into Naval Barracks.

Aeroplane repair shop Joyce Green Airfield 1918. Carroll H Bunch

On 14 July 1912, at Long Reach near Dartford Joyce Green Airfield was  opened by Vickers Limited, for use as an airfield and testing ground. The site had been chosen by inventor Hiram Maxim (1840-1916) who, between 1883 and 1885, had founded an arms company to produce automatic guns that used gas, recoil and blowback methods of operation. The Maxim automatic gun was patented and, with financial backing from Edward Vickers (1804-1897), Maxim produced his machine gun at a factory in Crayford, Kent. At the outbreak of World War I  Joyce Green became an ‘air defence’ airfield to protect London from bombing raids by Zeppelins and one of the first occupants was No. 10 Reserve Squadron with a variety of aircraft. The unit also provided pupils from preliminary training schools with the final training in order to get their ‘wings’  before being posted to the Front. Each course of 20 pupils lasted two or three weeks and during that time, the pupils spent time at Lydd, Kent, where aerial gunnery was practised at the Hythe Range. Of note, during the War Maxim’s automatic gun was the standard weaponry of the British Army.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), on 25 October 1911, was appointed the First Lord of the Admiralty (1911-1915), and from the outset expressed his concern about Germany building up her military strength. In Germany from 1898, with the active support of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888-1918) the German Empire had passed four separate Flottengesetze – Fleet Laws or Naval Laws, one in 1900 then 1906 followed by 1908 and the last one in 1912. On land, Germany had created the Heer by combining ground and air assets into an integrated force. This was to protect herself in the event of an invasion from France in the west and Russia from the east. In 1905 the German Army Chief of Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen (1833-1913), had taken this one step further by drawing up a plan based on taking the offensive against the perceived attack. First against France, quickly beating her and before Russia had a chance to mobilise her armed forces Germany would attack that country. To fulfill the Schlieffen plan, Germany began to build up her military and aeronautical  strength or Heer.  While at sea, the German Secretary of State for the Navy or Kriegsmarine, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930) was committed to building up a force capable of competing against the Royal Navy. To gain information on what was happening in Germany, Churchill created the Naval War Staff whose role was advisory providing ‘with the accuracy of the facts on which that advice is based.’ Churchill also visited naval stations, dockyards and aircraft factories at the same time as successfully campaigning in the cabinet for the largest naval expenditure in British history.

Bristol Aeroplane Company’s first aeroplane made at Filton Bristol Boxkite – Replica Bristol Museum

Frederick Bernard Fowler was born in Lewes, East Sussex in 1883, the son of a farmer. He started his training as an engineering draughtsman, possibly at Callender’s Cable & Construction Company, Erith Kent, that specialised in the manufacture of cables. He then joined Vickers, Sons and Maxim and showed a particular interest in the internal combustion engine of their 20-horse power Thorneycroft car. After five years Fowler joined the Climax Motor Company in Coventry but his interest in aviation was aroused by Blériot’s cross-channel flight in 1908. Moving to Eastbourne, Fowler, while working as a consultant engineer bought a single-seater Blériot Anzani from William Edward McArdle (1875-1935). He taught himself to fly, gaining RAeC certificate on 16 January 1912. Fowler then leased a 50 acre site to the west of St Anthony’s Hill, Eastbourne for a proposed airfield and flying school from Victor Christian William Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire (1868-1938). McArdle was opening East Boldre aerodrome and flying school at Beaulieu, near Lymington, Hampshire, (see below) and he advised Fowler on the pros and cons of opening and running a flying school. McArdle allowed Fowler to use the hangars and airfield at Beaulieu while Fowler’s airfield and hangars were being constructed. At the beginning of December 1911 Fowler opened the Eastbourne Aerodrome and Flying School.

Eastbourne Aviation Co. Graces Guide

Eastbourne aerodrome had a 580 yard long runway made of wooded boards covering the intervening drainage ditches. It also had spacious hangars, well-equipped workshops and on the foreshore hangars to accommodate seaplanes. With 2 mechanics and a fleet of 3 aeroplanes, one of which was a seaplane, Fowler’s flying school opened. Pupils were taught to fly both types of planes being charged an ‘inclusive fee for tuition in one type £65 for aeroplane and £90 for both types.’ However, Fowler soon found teaching in single-seater aeroplanes both time consuming and expensive so he bought a Bristol Boxkite two-seater directly from Bristol Aeroplane Company at Filton. This was the first aeroplane to be built at Filton, for which he paid £280. Both the Flying School and the Aerodrome were profitable with Fowler continuing to expand his fleet including buying two more Boxkites. In early 1913, with the financial backing provided by Charles W de Roemer (1887-1963), Fowler joined forces with Frank Hucks Waterplane Co to form the Eastbourne Aviation Co. Ltd (EACL). They opened an aircraft factory to produce B.E.2c and Avro 504 aeroplanes. At about the same time the Admiralty leased part of the Eastbourne airfield and at the outbreak of War the RNAS took over the factory, airfield, the flying school and subsequently neighbouring land. Fowler joined the RNAS and following the amalgamation of the RNAS and the RFC into the RAF in 1918, Eastbourne Aerodrome became the training station of day bombers. At the factory, besides the aircraft already in production they also made Bristol F.2B, Airco DH.6, Airco DH.9 and Sopwith Camel. After the War the ownership of both airfield and the factory returned to EACL. They closed the airfield and the factory diversified into building motorbus bodies as well as aircraft employing 60 people. However, orders subsequently declined and the factory closed in 1924.

Members of the Aero Club at Royal Engineers Balloon Factory, Farnborough Common, Hampshire 1909. Wikipaedia

Between 1904 and 1906, the Army Balloon Factory together with the Army School of Ballooning, both of which were under the command of Colonel James Templer, moved from Aldershot to Farnborough Common. The name Balloon Factory was a misnomer for the remit was research, experimentation and evaluation of different types of balloons, airships and war kites. Production of successful projects were passed to the private sector that gained concessions through bidding. Typical of such a project were war kites produced by Samuel Cody’s. They were winged box kites capable of carrying a man and were of particular use in meteorology and for reconnoitering. Templer was due to retire 1906 and a new Superintendent (1906-1909) John Edward Capper (1861-1955) was appointed. However, at the time of the Templer-Capper handover, Templer was involved in the development of Britain’s first military airship the Nulli Secundus (‘second to none’) by the Balloon Factory, so stayed on until this development was completed. As the new century dawned in Germany, Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917) made the first flight of his twin Daimler engine, aluminium framed rigid airship, the Zeppelin LZ1, over Lake Constance in southern Germany. The airship remained in the air for 20 minutes but was damaged on landing. Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932), at about the same time, was experimenting with petrol engine driven non-rigid airships. He designed, built and flew around the Eiffel Tower in his first powered airship and won the Deutsche Prize in 1901.

Nulli Secundus Dirigible No 1, semi-rigid airship. Britain’s first military aircraft that flew on 10 September 1907. IWM

Templer went to Paris, visited Santos-Dumont and compiled a report on his return in which he recommended that further research should be undertaken into airships. Consent was given and in 1904 work began on the first British airship, the 55,000 cubic feet Nulli Secundus. The following year, to coincide with the move to Farnborough, the airship’s shed was completed. On 10 September 1907, the Nulli Secundus inaugural flight took place from Farnborough common, not far from the Balloon Factory and was scheduled to fly over London. However, due to strong winds the Nulli Secundus was forced down and seriously damaged. Three weeks later, on 5 October, the flight was again attempted with Capper and Cody at the helm. While over London increasing wind forced her down, she was moored at Crystal Palace and eventually returned back to Farnborough. The Nulli Secundus design was scaled down and on 1 May 1909 the experimental airship, Nulli Secundus II or Baby was launched. Like the parent airship she was not a success but following modifications including a larger envelope Beta proved to be successful. She took part in Army exercises and proved that she was able to stay aloft for almost eight hours. Following which, unusually, both Beta and the Army’s third airship Gamma went into production at Farnborough.

General arrangement drawing of British Army Aeroplane No 1 (Cody 1) biplane, 1909 – front view. IWM

Samuel Cody worked on the development of Britain’s first military aeroplane, British Army Aeroplane No.1. The first flight of which took place at the newly laid Farnborough Airfield on 16 October 1908. Although the flight ended in disaster for the aeroplane Cody started work on British Army Aeroplane No.2 as well as working on the Mayfly airship. Fellow aeronautical engineer in 1908-9, John Dunne, was working on secret experiments in Glen Tilt, a flat area of land in the Grampian Mountains owned by John George Stewart-Murray, Marquis of Tullibardine (1871-1942). The Marquis was an Army friend of Capper and in 1908 Blair Atholl Airfield was laid for the projects. There, Dunne developed a man-lifting glider – almost certainly a monoplane – and a tailless biplane. In 1909 Richard Burdon Haldane (1856-1928) the Secretary of State for War (1905-1912) was instrumental in setting up the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (1909-1979). This was to ‘provide the aircraft industry with a sound body of science on which to base the development of aircraft.’ Shortly after funding was withdrawn on Cody’s aeroplane project and all of Dunne’s projects. Haldane, in October 1909 appointed Mervyn O’Gorman (1912–1916) as the first civilian Superintendent of the Balloon Factory, replacing Capper. However, Capper did remain the Superintendent of the Army Balloon School but his post was of short duration for in February 1911 it was announced that the Balloon Section, School and Factory were to be replaced. They then became the Air Battalion of the Corps of Royal Engineers and the Balloon Factory was restyled as the Army Aircraft Factory.

The British media, at the close of 1911, were reporting that other countries were actively developing their air armoury including the setting up of specialised defence divisions within their armed services. Germany that saw the future in airships, had twenty officers and 465 men in their air service. France had 8 airships, 10 aeroplanes, 24 officers and 432 men in their specialised air division. While the US had set up the American Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps, the 1st Aero Squadron having 29 factory-built aircraft. Back in February 1909, the Aerial Navigation sub-committee of the Committee for Imperial Defence recommended that all government-funded heavier-than-air experimentation should stop. Sir William Nicholson (1845–1918), the Chief of the General Staff Field Marshal British Chief of General Staff 1908-1912, was quoted as saying, ‘aviation is a useless and expensive fad advocated by a few individuals whose ideas are unworthy of attention.’ On 29 September 1911, the Italo-Turkish War broke out between the Kingdom of Italy and the Ottoman Empire. The war lasted 13 months and both sides used aircraft for reconnaissance and aerial bombardment. Realising that progress in aviation, including specialist trained forces to fly and to look after machines, the lack of an air armoury could no longer be ignored. Sir William Nicholson wrote, ‘It is of importance that we should push on with the practical study of the military use of air-craft in the field… (And the) training of menin view of the fact that air-craft will undoubtedly be used in the next war, whenever it may come, we cannot afford to delay the matter.‘ In November 1911 the Committee for Imperial Defence set up a sub-committee to examine the question of the future of military aviation.

Eastchurch sculpture depicting a Short Brothers biplane. Unveiled 2009 to commemorate the centenary of British aviation. Grindtxx

The first Naval Flying School was established at Eastchurch in December 1911 due to the persistence of Francis McClean. It was he who had joined forces with the Short brothers by providing the land at Leysdown and Eastchurch for an airfield and an aircraft production factory. At the end of 1910 he offered both the Admiralty and the War Office aircraft and the Eastchuch airfield to teach naval and military personnel to fly heavier-than-air machines. Even though the RAeC offered its members as instructors the War Office declined though the Admiralty accepted. Of note, in the US, aviator Eugene Burton Ely (1886-1911) on 18 January 1911 had landed his Curtiss pusher aeroplane on a platform on the armoured cruiser USS Pennsylvania. The plane was stopped using the tailhook system designed by aviator Hugh Robinson (1881-1963). It was this feat that aroused the interest of the British Admiralty that set in motion McClean’s ambition.


The sub-committee that was set up in November 1911 to examine the question of military aviation, reported on 28 February 1912. They recommended the establishment of a Flying Corps made up of a military and naval wing with a central flying school and an aircraft factory. The recommendations were accepted by Parliament and on 26 March 1912, George V (1910-1936) gave his approval to the title ‘Royal Flying Corps’ (RFC). This received Royal Assent on 13 April 1912. The RFC consisted of a Military Wing administered by the War Office and a Naval Wing supervised by the Admiralty and by the terms of its inception, the Admiralty were permitted to carry out experimentation at its flying school at Eastchurch and shortly afterwards full permission was ratified.

British floatplane with folding wings possibly a Short Type 184 1918. Wikipaedia.

The RAeC offered the Royal Navy two aircraft to train the first pilots and the first training course began on 2 March 1912. The Admiralty advertised for unmarried officers, who were able to pay the membership fees of the RAeC, to apply and two hundred did! Four were accepted and these were Lieutenant Eugene Louis Gerrard (1881-1963) who eventually became an Air Commodore. Lieutenant Reginald Gregory (1883 -1922) who worked with RNAS Armoured Car Division in Belgium and Russia. Lieutenant Arthur Murray Longmore (1885-1970) who eventually became an Air Chief Marshal and Lieutenant Charles Rumney Samson (1883-1931) who was the first pilot to take off from a ship underway at sea (see below) and eventually he too became an Air Commodore. Prior to the beginning of the course, the chosen officers received technical instruction at the Short Brothers aircraft factory and visited French aeronautical centres. A concomitant of the Naval Training School was close to the location of the Eastchurch Short aircraft factory. There, significant developments were taking place including production of folding wing aeroplanes for use aboard aircraft carriers. These days, Francis McClean’s gift is seen as the start of the RNAS.

The Home fleet was restructured and came into force on 1 May 1912 when HMS Hibernia was based at the Nore. This was the naval command for the Thames estuarine area of south east of England and the Nore’s base was the naval port of Sheerness. The Hibernia was a Royal Navy King Edward VII Class pre-Dreadnought Battleship commissioned in 1907 fitted with a temporary runway on the foredeck. This consisted of a trolley-shuttle system ramp that stretched over her forward 12 inch guns from the ship’s bridge to bow. She went to sea on 9 May and on board was a Short S.38 T 2 floatplane (later called a seaplane) modified by air-bag floats as well as wheels. Charles Samson, one of the first four naval officers to be chosen to attend the Naval Training School, agreed to undertake the experiment. While the ship was underway Samson took off along the ramp and both the launch and the subsequent landing on water were successful!

In 1912 a total of 211 pupils were being trained at the various private flying schools around the country. The largest number of these establishments were at Brookland, Hendon and on Salisbury Plain. Flying schools at Eastchurch and Upavon trained 31 pupils that year and Eastbourne 6. The other schools were at Freshfield, Farnborough, Fairlop and Windermere. The pupils were a mixture of military and naval officers as well as civilians all of whom paid for the course themselves but very few could also afford to pay to take the RAeC exam. The construction of the Central Flying School began on 19 June 1912 east of Upavon village not far from Larkhill at the edge of the Salisbury Plain.

Members and Staff on the Central Flying School’s first course at Upavon. Capt Godfrey Paine RN is seated in the front row, at the centre Major Hugh Trenchard  standing in the second row extreme right. Air Publication 3003

The first commandant was Naval Captain Godfrey Marshall Paine, (1871-1932) with Major Hugh Montague Trenchard (1873-1956) his assistant and ten Staff Officers. Paine had commanded torpedo schoolship HMS Actaeon when the first four naval officers who learnt to fly, Lieutenants Gerrard, Gregory, Longmore and Samson spent time there. Throughout their training, Paine had taken a keen interest in their progress and both Paine and Trenchard had learned to fly in order to take up the posts. However, although Trenchard was not a good pilot he excelled at organisation and thus, he ensured that the Central Flying School trainee pilots were well-versed in map reading, signalling and engine mechanics. Later Trenchard became known as the ‘father of the Royal Air Force’. From the outset, eighty flying students were taught on each Central Flying School course which lasted for sixteen weeks. The students did not pay for the course nor to take the RAeC exam as long as their instructors sanctioned them applying. In December 1912, 32 officers graduated with RAeC certificates.

From the outset, the Military Wing consisted of three squadrons each commanded by a Major. It was also recognised that squadrons in the field would need dedicated support beyond that provided by the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough. This was assigned to the Line of Communications Workshop, later to become the Flying Depôt then at the outbreak of World War I ‘the Aircraft Park’. During this time, the Army’s Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers had been increased to two companies. Number 1 Balloon Section for balloons and airships and Number 2 for aeroplanes. Together they formed the basis of the Military Wing of the RFC founded on 13 May 1912. The Army Balloon Factory on Farnborough Common was renamed the Royal Aircraft Factory employing it’s first aeroplane designer, Geoffrey de Havilland (1882-1965)

Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough in WWI. RE Official Photograph

In 1912 the Superintendent of the Royal Aircraft   Factory (RAF) at Farnborough was Mervyn O’Gorman, a post he held until 1916 when engineer Henry Fowler   (1870-1938) succeeded him. By this time the RAF was   heavily involved in manufacturing aircraft for use by   both the Naval and Military Wings. A role it maintained until 1918, employing many notable aviation and   aerospace engineers as well as designers, including Alan Arnold Griffith (1893-1963), Henry Philip Folland (1889-1954), Samuel Dalziel Heron (1891-1963) and John Kenworthy (1883-1940). By the beginning of World War I RAF had ready for production, two effective machines, B.E.2 = the Blériot Experimental – tractor or propeller – second layout, and the F.E.2 = Farman Experimental – pusher or propeller – second layout and in both cases their derivatives. By 1918 the RAF had eleven scientific departments researching into full-scale flight and all the other scientific, design  and engineering processes that are needed to support safe and effective flight.

On 1 April 1918 the Royal Air Force was formed and to avoid confusion the Royal Aircraft Factory was renamed the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE). Under engineer William Sydney Smith (1866-1945), Superintendent from March 1918 to 1925, the RAE relinquished its manufacturing role to concentrate on aeronautical research. This, Smith stated, was to make its resources and the results of its work, readily available to the aircraft industry in general. However, due to the serious recession that struck Britain’s economy in the 1920s retrenchment of Government expenditure reduced funding to about 20% of its 1918 level. This forced Smith to reduce the number of employees from 5,052 in 1920 to 1,316 in 1922. That year, as part of the cut backs, the Biggin Hill Wireless and Photographic Departments were transferred to Farnborough. In 1924 further savings in funding were proposed and the Halahan Committee was formed to report ‘what steps, if any, should be taken to reduce the cost without impairing its value as an experimental establishment in peacetime or its capacity to expand in an emergency’. They concluded that ‘The primary function of the Establishment is that it should provide a full-scale aeronautical laboratory for the Air Ministry.’ The Committee went on to list a number of activities that the Establishment could undertake but these remained unaltered other than the Establishment had to keep a close eye on expenditure and to find innovative ways of getting round financial inconveniences.

Memorial commemorating Samuel Cody’s first flight, Farnborough Road (A325) overlooking the airfield.

This was the remit of the Establishment at Farnborough until 1988 and proved to be both successful and financially viable. On 1 May 1988 the RAE was renamed the Royal Aerospace Establishment and the following year Farnborough housed the first civilian operations In 1991 the Ministry of Defence decided that the airfield was surplus to military requirements and should be redeveloped as a business aviation centre. The history of Farnborough airfield, on Farnborough Common, goes back to 1908, the year it was especially laid for Britain’s military aeroplane’s first flight, designed and  piloted by Samuel Cody (see above). A grassy area south of the Balloon and Airship sheds at Farnborough Factory was used and following the 1924 Halahan report it’s use was  specifically for looking at and dealing with problems associated with airfield runways. For instance, in the early days one of the many problems facing pilots was not being able to see the runway when trying to land, hence thought was given to runway lighting by the Establishment. A survey in the 1930s showed that even where civil airfields had installed high intensity lights, in the UK, US and Europe, accidents still happened. During WWII runway lighting was banned except in the US where experiments continued but remained fraught with problems.

In 1946, in Britain, the problem was passed to Farnborough, specifically to Edward Spencer Calvert (1902-1991). He had designed and specified the use of the spotlights that enabled the bombers of 617 squadron to carry out the attack on the Rhur dams in May 1943. Calvert,  helped by another Farnborough researcher, John Sparke took up the cajole. Backed by simple practical simulations they attempted to ascertain the visual and mental processes by which a pilot lands an aircraft. They then developed a theoretical model by which different lighting systems could be compared, and tested the theoretical results using simulation on a cyclorama, a panoramic image on the inside of a cylindrical platform designed to give viewers standing in the middle of the cylinder a 360° view. This demonstrated conclusively that the mental processes by which visual judgements on the present position of the aircraft, aiming point and the rate of change of position were extracted from the changing perspective of lighting patterns. They aimed to provide smooth transition from instrument to visual flying without optical illusions, and to provide sensitive and natural indications which could easily be interpreted by the average pilot. The approach lighting pattern should consist of a centre line of light with horizontal bars of light running transversely across it at even intervals. This pattern consists of two basic elements – a line of lights leading to the runway threshold, and horizontal lights to define the altitude of the aircraft. Calvert was the first to realise that it was easy to confuse lateral displacement with angle of bank so placed much stress on roll guidance.

Calvert cross-bar airfield lighting system. CAHS Collection

The Calvert cross-bar system, as it is called, does not indicate a defined glide path, but the widths of the horizon bars take him to the correct touch down point. If a pilot maintains a glide each bar will appear to be the same width as the previous one as it disappears under the nose of the aircraft. Distance was indicated by using single lights in the centre line to indicate 1000 ft or less from the threshold, double lights for 1000-2000 ft and triple lights for 2000-3000 ft. In 1948 a temporary cross-bar approach lighting system was installed on the Farnborough airfield. Following its success the system was adopted for London Airport at Heathrow. On 24 June 1948 the Soviet Union blocked the Western Allies’ railway, road, and canal access to the sectors of Berlin under Western control. Britain and the US responded by airlifting food and fuel to Berlin from Allied airbases in western Germany but landing in Berlin was fraught. Calvert and Sparkle flew to Berlin and installed their lighting system. Pilots found this easier to use than being talked down by the control tower and the system radically speeded up the airlift. The outcome was that the Soviet forces lifted the blockade on land access to western Berlin on 12 May 1949. Following the Berlin airlift, the Calvert cross-bar system was widely employed throughout the World.

Farnborough Airshow Programme 1948. Wikimedia

Due to the development of heavy bombers in WWII concrete runways were laid at Farnborough Airfield. They were extended when, post-war, the Establishment became the centre for excellence in experimental aircraft and research. High speed wind tunnels and high pressure technologies to supersonic levels were introduced. In 1946 work began to convert RAF Thurleigh into RAE Bedford as a subsidiary of the Establishment and in September 1948, the first Farnborough Airshow took place. This enabled the public to see what developments were taking place and over the following years, the event grew to become the second largest airshow of it’s kind, only to the Paris airshow. Further, experimental research also continued especially the updating of the wartime makeshift ways of dealing with problems. One such problem was landing aircraft in poor visibility conditions and to deal with this the Blind Landing Experimental Unit (BLEU) was formed. They were tasked with creating an early autolanding system for military and civilian aircraft. Initial research led BLEU to conclude that blind landing would be best achieved with a fully automatic system by increasing the accuracy of the Instrument Landing System (ILS). This had been developed during WWII but increasing the accuracy was subject of numerous experiments and trials. Favoured was ‘Lateral Guidance’ that was enhanced using mile long magnetic leader cables extending from each end of the runway together with an improved FM radio altimeter developed by BLEU. Although this was capable of resolving height differences to 2 feet at low altitude, most airports did not have room for mile long cables so the system was replaced by a radio-based solution.

Farnborough Airfield 2010

On 3 July 1950 Flight Lieutenant Noel Adams made the first automatic landing in BLEU’s test plane, a Vickers Varsity. In the following 20years BLEU, in conjunction with UK industry and the UK airworthiness authorities, was responsible for almost all the pioneering work needed to convert the concept of those experimental demonstrations into safe accurate blind landings by civil and military aircraft. On 4 November 1964, Captain Eric Poole landed a British European Airways (BEA) flight at Heathrow with visibility of 40 metres, which was the first use of the system to land a commercial flight in such severe conditions. R W Howard in his essay ‘Progress in the use of automatic flight controls in safety critical applications’, published in The Aeronautical Journal, October 1980, p. 318 reported that ‘the Trident had carried out more than 50,000 in-service automatic landings. The VC10 accrued 3,500 automatic landings before use of the system was curtailed in 1974 for economic reasons. By 1980, Concorde had performed nearly 1,500 automatic landings in passenger service.’ Airfield research continued and in 1961, the world’s first grooved runway for reduced aquaplaning was constructed. However, as noted above, in 1991 the Ministry of Defence decided that Farnborough airfield was surplus to military requirements and was put on the market. TAG Aviation, an acronym of Techniques d’Avant Garde, a company that generates revenue through its various subsidiaries that offer products and services in the business aviation industry, won the bid. They took over in 1997 and in 2003 TAG Farnborough Airport Limited took full control under a 99 year lease as a fully compliant CAA airport for business aviation. Four years later TAG bought the airfield freehold and in 2019 the shareholders sold TAG Farnborough Holdings Limited to a long-term infrastructure fund managed by Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets (MIRA). The package included the airport, Aviator Hotel and the Swan pub.

Back in 1912, Farnborough airfield was at the beginning of its prodigious career in research aeronautics. For the first six months of that year the Secretary of State for War, Viscount Haldane, was desperately trying to achieve détente with Germany, earning  the name Haldane Mission. The German Empire had recently passed the fourth Flottengesetze that increased the size of her navy. This was justified by the 1905 Schlieffen plan of preparing to take the offensive against the perceived attack. This, the German’s believed was about to be launched by France and if war resulted Germany wanted Britain to remain neutral thereby reinforcing their claim that Germany was not the aggressor. Haldane could not accept this and in consequence the Mission not only failed but also forced the introduction of the 1912 Anglo-French Naval Agreement. The Agreement was an extension of the 1904 entente cordiale between France and Britain. In June 1912, following the retirement of the Lord Chancellor, Haldane was promoted to succeed him and John Edward Bernard Seely (1868-1947) was appointed Secretary of State for War (1912-1914). Seely was a yeomanry colonel and from the outset was active in preparing the army for war with Germany. Further, he was also particularly interested the development of the RFC.

However, there were many both in Parliament and in the media, who argued that Churchill and Seely were over reacting and in particular were exasperated over the establishment of the RFC. Aeronautics, they said, was no more than a dangerous pastime for rich gentlemen and therefore the RFC was a waste of public money. In May 1912 in the House of Commons, this disapproval was levelled at Seely who responded by telling Members that the RFC had five aeroplanes that could fly 70 miles per hour and that there were 15 more on order. ‘The Corps also had 26 trained military pilots,’ he added, ‘with another 36 expected to graduate in December by which time the number of aeroplanes would have increased significantly.’ Winston Churchill, agreed adding that Germany had five rigid airships, one military, one naval, two civilian and one experimental. He went on to say that opinions differed as to which were better, airships or aeroplanes and the subject was still receiving the attention of the Admiralty. Nonetheless, ‘the Navy would continue to endorse the growth of aeronautics as part of the country’s defence.’ Dover’s Member of Parliament, George Wyndham, (1863-1913) supported both Ministers, making it clear that in his opinion, more money should be spent on increasing the number of aircraft, airfields and pilots.

Memorial to Captain Loraine and Staff Sergeant Wilson killed 05.07.1912 when their plain went into a spin. Ashley Columbus

Nonetheless, it was agreed that with the opening of Upavon airfield, Larkhill would close by 1914. This sad demise of Larkhill airfield was given in May 1912 when the first RFC squadron to use aeroplanes, No.3 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, was renamed at Larkhill aerodrome. The Squadron evolved out of No. 2 Company of the Air Battalion Royal Engineers. Further, two of their members on 5 July 1912, Captain Loraine and his observer Staff Sergeant Richard Hubert Victor Wilson (1883-1912), left from Larkhill airfield but shortly after their aeroplane went into a spin, crashed near Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain and both were killed. A memorial was originally erected near the A303 road but later moved to a site near the Stonehenge visitors’ centre in 2013. The accident added to the despondency of the other aviators moral in the Squadron but later that day the order ‘Flying will continue this evening as usual’ was issued setting a tradition that still holds today in the RAF.

In August 1912, the first Military Aeroplane Trials were held at Larkhill aerodrome rather than Upavon, before a military team headed by Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson (1862-1921). Thirty different aircraft, based on eight different designs, were assessed and each plane had an RFC’s trained military pilot on board. Two were biplanes based on the Blériot Experimental or BE series of monoplanes built by the Royal Aircraft Factory. For the trial, Edmond Perreyon (c1882-1913) flew these. There were two built by René Hanriot (1867-1925) one of which was flown by Major Sydney Vincent Sippe (1889-1968) and the other by Juan Bielovucic (1889-1949). There was also a Maurice Farman biplane flown by Pierre Verrier and a French Deperdussin Monocoque flown by Maurice Prévost, (1887-1952), a Cody V Riplane flown by Sam Cody and finally a Coventry Ordnance aeroplane flown by Tommy Sopwith. The challenge was to assemble the planes and then to carry a load of 350lb and included fuel and oil to last 4hours 30minutes along with a passenger for 3hours. The aeroplane had to maintain an altitude of 4,500feet for one hour, the first 1,500feet could be gained at 200feet a minute although 300feet a minute would be ideal.

The weather was stormy on the day of the test, and the first part – preparation of the aeroplane, showed a huge variation in the length of time taken, from 14 minutes 30 seconds to 116 minutes 55 seconds! Except for the Coventry Ordnance and one of Hanriot’s aeroplanes, the other aeroplanes completed the test successfully. The Hanriot’s number 1 flown by Bielouvucic retired, while the Coventry Ordnance was forced to land after 25 minutes. The passenger in the latter was Major Henry Robert Moore Brooke-Popham (1878-1953) – later knighted and becoming the Air Chief Marshal of the Royal Air Force – who reported that a valve spring regulating the petrol supply had broken. Sopwith repaired the faulty valve spring and again set off, managing to fly the furthest distance.

BAC hangars at Larkhill, remains of the first military aerodrome in Britain. Ranger Steve

The competition was won by Sam Cody and not only were the military and Parliament interested in the outcome of the trials but also Prince Edward (1894-1972), the Prince of Wales and the future Edward VIII (1936), who was to actively support the RFC. That year, the estimate for government spending on air defence was £85,000. Larkhill airfield continued to be used both for trials of prototype aircraft and by the Bristol Aeroplane Company (BAC) flying school. But in June 1914, only months before the outbreak of War, the airfield was formally closed and hutted garrisons were built over the airstrip. The original Bristol Aeroplane Company hangar remains and is the oldest surviving aerodrome building in the UK. It was given Grade II* listed building status in 2005 and is at the corner of Woods Road and Fargo Road.

Swingate Down Map inc Military area, WWI Airfield, Masts, Memorials, Fort Burgoyne, South Foreland & St Margarets LS

At Swingate in east Kent, due to the mounting demands of a possible war and the fact the the aeroplane as a form of defence was held in low esteem, the training of ground forces became paramount. The increasing number of military exercises on the site ensured that Swingate ceased to be used as an aerodrome and all aeronautical buildings etc. reverted to ground military use. Then on 14 October 1912, a 450-foot long Zeppelin paid a clandestine visit to north Kent. Shortly afterwards the War Office made £45.000 available to extend the Swingate site and to build the largest flying depot in the country. The Commander was Major Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding (1882-1970), later commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, Royal Air Force, from its formation in 1936 until November 1940 and is generally credited with playing a crucial role in Britain’s defence during the Battle of Britain 1940 (1940).  The new airfield, named Dover (St Margaret’s) aerodrome, was formally established in June 1913. Its old name of Swingate elevated to aerodrome was affectionally retained.

The new aerodrome on the top of cliffs overlooking Dover harbour covered 219acres with three large hangars constructed of brick 180 feet x 100 feet and twelve portable timber and canvas Bessonneau hangars. Besides the hangars, the site had administrative and recreational buildings, workshops, motorised transport garages and a coal yard. During October and November 1913, two Maurice Farman biplanes arrived with the pilots, and ground crew all of whom were billeted in the nearby former Langdon Prison. With the possibility of more men arriving it was decided to accommodate them in Nissen huts – prefabricated steel structures made of arcs of corrugated iron that could be assembled in a few hours. When completed, the aerodrome was categorised as First Class with a squadron based there.

Although formed of an Army and a Naval branch of the RFC, the two branches operated separately and the Admiralty set up their own Air Department. In September 1912 Captain Sueter, who had overseen the failed Mayfly airship experiment was appointed Director of the newly formed Air Department. Not long before Sueter had given his blessing to Commander Oliver Swann (1878-1948), to take off from salt water, the first British pilot to do so and a naval officer too! Swann was appointed assistant director and although the Admiralty Air Department was unofficially known as the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS), together for the following two years Sueter and Swann worked to officially establish the RNAS. During that time the Admiralty established a ‘regular chain of stations for naval aircraft along the coast of the United Kingdom within easy flight of each other.’ The first air station was , approved on 3 December 1912. This was at the Isle of Grain on the Hoo peninsula on the Medway, Kent.  Known as the Isle of Grain Air Station it was commissioned on 1 January 1913 under the command of Lieutenant John Wilfred Seddon (1886-1969), R.N. At the time of his appointment Seddon together with A.G ‘Willy’ Hacket designed a tandem biplane with the bracing constructed with crossing hoops instead of struts and ties. They too named their invention ‘Mayfly’ and in some write ups Seddon’s biplane is confused with Sueter’s airship experiment of the same name.

Short Folder seaplane (S.64), serial number 81, being hoisted out from the Royal Navy ship Hermes with wings folded. wikimedia commons

Grain air station, by the outbreak of WWI, was one of the largest seaplane stations in the country employing some eight hundred workers. The Grain air station was used as an holding unit for reserve Short and Sopwith seaplanes for the forward bases at Westgate, Kent and Clacton, Essex. From early 1915 it was upgraded to Grain aerodrome with an airfield formed over boarded dykes and  Bessoneaux hangars were also erected next to seaplane sheds inside the sea wall. As the newly formed R.N. Aeroplane Repair Depot it was commissioned under Squadron Commander G. W. S. Aldwell and named Port Victoria Marine Experimental Aircraft Depot.  Later in 1915, the Experimental Armament Section was set up beside the Repair Depot where they evaluated British and German equipment. included were such devices as the Davis recoilless gun and the Rankin anti-Zeppelin explosive dart. Early the following year the Seaplane Test Flight and the Experimental Construction Depot came into being. While in three large sheds work was undertaken to modify the Sopwith Baby with high-lift wings for use at sea. This  was designated the PV1 (for Port Victoria) and was the start of a number of Port Victoria designs. The Depot also redesigned other aircraft for use at sea and were produced under the name Grain Griffin. The Seaplane Test Flight had become a separate organisation with hangars and tested both land and seaplanes involved in a number of diverse experiments. One such instrument were hydrophones that went on to be used by the Dover Patrol to detect submarines under the water. During this time the Isle of Grain Airfield and sheds remained as an Acceptance Depot and also the administrative unit for the different sections that between them occupied 15 separate buildings.

Three slipways had also been cut and a large accommodation camp housing some 1,500 staff had been built nearby. Albeit, when in 1917 saw the amalgamation of the Army’s Royal Flying Corp and the Navy’s Royal Naval Air Service to form the RAF, there was an obvious duplication of facilities. Following the War, excepting the seaplane station, the different sections were amalgamated and the Depot retained the Seaplane Test Depot while the Aeroplane Repair Depot was renamed the Experimental Construction Depot. The airfield was part of the Experimental Aircraft Depot and a 200 feet diameter dummy ships deck with various arrangements of arrester wires was constructed for ship landing trials. The seaplane station was integrated into the newly formed RAF and renamed the Marine Aircraft Experiment Station where they tested all new seaplanes. During these years. Shorts aircraft company also used the facilities to test their seaplanes. On 16 March 1920 to recognise that the new Experimental Armament Section was added where weapons and other equipment were evaluated it was renamed Marine and Armament Experimental Establishment and the name changed again again on 1 March 1924 when it became the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment. It was then moved to Felixstowe and the Isle of Grain facilities closed.

To be continued …

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
This entry was posted in Airfields to World War I, Airfields to World War I, Airfields to World War I, Airfields to World War I, Airfields to World War I, Airfields to World War I, Airfields to World War I, Airfields to World War I, Airfields to World War I, Armed Services, Aviation, Buildings, Guston, Maritime, Open Spaces, Sea Front, Swingate, World War I. Bookmark the permalink.

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