Abandoned Airports and Airfields in the UK: A Journey through Time

The United Kingdom, with its rich aviation history, contains many abandoned airports and and airfields. Some, like the many bomber bases of World War II in East Anglia, were returned to agriculture use after the war ended. Others were civilian airports that closed after a period of commercial decline brought on by the ecomomic forces of the day. Some have been lost to time, while others have been repurposed for various uses. Let’s remind ourselves of a few, their histories, the airlines and aircraft that frequented them, the famous passengers who passed through, the reasons for their closure, and what has become of these sites today.

RAF Upper Heyford: A Cold War Relic

History and Airlines

RAF Upper Heyford, located in Oxfordshire, was a Royal Air Force station with a history dating back to 1916. The airfield was used primarily for military purposes, housing various bomber squadrons over the years. During the Cold War, it served as a critical base for the United States Air Force (USAF) in Europe, housing the Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command units.

Aircraft Types

Aircraft that once graced the runways of RAF Upper Heyford included the Avro Vulcan, Handley Page Victor, and the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark.

Famous Passengers

As a military base, RAF Upper Heyford didn’t cater to the usual roster of famous passengers. However, it did host notable political and military figures, including American presidents and high-ranking military personnel.

Closure and Current Use

RAF Upper Heyford was closed in 1994 due to the end of the Cold War and subsequent defence budget cuts. Today, the site has been partly redeveloped into a business park and housing estate, while some of the old military structures remain as monuments to the airfield’s storied past.

Plymouth City Airport: A Victim of Changing Times

History and Airlines

Plymouth City Airport, located in Devon, opened in 1925 and operated as a commercial airport for 86 years. Over the years, several airlines served the airport, including British Airways, Brymon Airways, Air Southwest, and Flybe.

Scheduled Flights and Charter Flights

Plymouth City Airport offered scheduled flights to various UK and European destinations, including London Gatwick, Manchester, Leeds Bradford, and Paris. The airport also catered to charter flights for leisure and business purposes.

Aircraft Types

Various aircraft types operated at Plymouth City Airport, including the de Havilland Twin Otter, BAe Jetstream, and the Bombardier Dash 8.

Famous Passengers

Plymouth City Airport welcomed numerous famous passengers over the years, including Queen Elizabeth II, the Beatles, and Winston Churchill.

Closure and Current Use

The airport closed in 2011, primarily due to financial challenges and the withdrawal of key airlines. The site is currently being redeveloped into a mixed-use development called “Plymouth SkyPark,” which will include housing, commercial spaces, and recreational facilities.

Netherthorpe Airfield: A Grass-Roots Legacy

Brief History

Located in South Yorkshire, Netherthorpe Airfield was established in the 1930s as a small grass airfield. It was initially used for leisure flying and flight training, but during World War II, the airfield became an important training facility for the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Airlines and Types of Flights

In its heyday, Netherthorpe Airfield was primarily used by local flying clubs and general aviation enthusiasts. Scheduled flights and major airlines were not a part of Netherthorpe’s operations. Instead, it catered to pilots seeking to learn and perfect their flying skills.

Aircraft Types

As a grass airfield, Netherthorpe primarily accommodated small, propeller-driven aircraft, such as the de Havilland Tiger Moth and the Piper PA-28. These types of planes were perfect for training and leisure flights, requiring minimal infrastructure and support.

Famous Passengers

Given its focus on local flying clubs and training, Netherthorpe Airfield did not see many famous passengers. However, it did play a role in training pilots who would later go on to serve in World War II, making it an essential part of the nation’s wartime aviation efforts.

Closure Reasons and Current Use

Netherthorpe Airfield is still operational today, though it remains a small, grass airfield catering to general aviation. It has managed to retain its grassroots charm, offering a glimpse into the early days of British aviation and serving as a reminder of the important role these small airfields played in the country’s history.

RAF Binbrook: The Home of the Lightning

RAF Binbrook was an airfield located in Lincolnshire, England, which operated from 1940 to 1988. It was primarily used by the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II and later during the Cold War.

History and Airlines

The construction of RAF Binbrook began in 1938, with the airfield opening its doors to the first squadron in 1940. Throughout World War II, it served as a base for several RAF squadrons, including the 12, 101, and 460 Squadrons. Following the war, RAF Binbrook became a hub for jet fighters, such as the English Electric Lightning, and continued to play a crucial role during the Cold War.

Aircraft and Famous Passengers

RAF Binbrook was mainly home to fighter aircraft, such as the Hawker Hurricane, Avro Lancaster, and the iconic English Electric Lightning. While there is no record of famous passengers, the airfield played a vital role in the defence of the UK and its allies.

Closure and Current Use

RAF Binbrook was closed in 1988 as part of the UK government’s defence cuts. Today, the site has been repurposed into a mix of residential and commercial areas, while parts of it remain abandoned and overgrown.

Abandoned Airports and Airfields
Abandoned DC-3 in Puerto Rico
Photo by Zach Castillo on Unsplash

Filton Airfield

Filton Airfield was an airport located in Bristol, England. Opened in 1910, it was one of the oldest airfields in the UK. Filton was a vital hub for the development and production of aircraft, playing host to the Bristol Aeroplane Company and later, British Aerospace.

Many notable aircraft were designed and built at Filton, such as the Bristol Brabazon, Britannia, and the supersonic Concorde. The airfield was used for both scheduled flights and charters by airlines like British United Airways, Cambrian Airways, and British Airways, flying a variety of aircraft types, including the Vickers Viscount and the BAC One-Eleven.

Filton Airfield was also frequented by famous passengers, including Queen Elizabeth II and the Beatles, who arrived there for their 1964 concert in Bristol.

The airfield ceased operations in 2012, primarily due to the decline in aircraft manufacturing and high operating costs. Today, the site houses the Bristol Aerospace Centre, which showcases the history of aviation in Bristol and features a Concorde museum.

RAF Greenham Common

RAF Greenham Common was a Royal Air Force station located in Berkshire, England. Established in 1941, it played a significant role during World War II as a base for both British and American forces. Aircraft types such as the Douglas C-47 Skytrain and the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress were based here.

Post-war, the airfield was used for a variety of purposes and was a USAF base during the Cold War. Nuclear warheads were present on the base for a time and this was the catalyst for the creation of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, which protested the deployment of nuclear weapons in the 1980s. No commercial airlines operated from RAF Greenham Common, as it primarily served military functions.

The airfield was closed in 1993 after the Cold War ended, and the land was returned to public use. Today, the site is a public parkland called Greenham and Crookham Commons, which hosts various events and offers numerous walking trails for visitors to explore.

RAF Church Fenton

History

RAF Church Fenton, located in North Yorkshire, was a Royal Air Force (RAF) station that was established in 1937. It served primarily as a fighter airfield during World War II and later transitioned to a training base for pilots.

Airlines and Aircraft

While RAF Church Fenton was an RAF airfield rather than a commercial airport, it was home to several different aircraft types throughout its history. During World War II, the base hosted iconic planes such as the Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane. Later, the base was used for training pilots on aircraft like the de Havilland Vampire and the BAC Jet Provost.

Famous Passengers

As a military airfield, RAF Church Fenton didn’t cater to civilian passengers. However, many notable RAF personnel were stationed there during its operational years.

Closure and Current Use

RAF Church Fenton was officially closed in 2013 due to defence budget cuts. The site was later acquired by a private owner who renamed it Leeds East Airport, focusing on general aviation, flight training, and aviation events. Part of the site has also been developed into a business park.

RAF Manston

History

RAF Manston, located in Kent, has a storied past dating back to World War I when it was established as a Royal Naval Air Service base. The airfield played a crucial role during World War II as an RAF base, with its strategic location near the English Channel.

Airlines and Aircraft

Manston was primarily a military airfield, but it also saw civilian use in its later years. During the Cold War, Manston served as a base for RAF and United States Air Force (USAF) aircraft, including the English Electric Canberra and the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. The airfield was later converted into Kent International Airport, which was served by several airlines, including EUjet, Flybe, and KLM, operating aircraft such as the Fokker 100, Bombardier Q400, and the Boeing 737.

Famous Passengers

A number of famous figures passed through Manston during its civilian operations, including musicians, politicians, and actors. The Beatles, for example, used Manston as a departure point for their European tours in the 1960s.

Closure and Current Use

Kent International Airport ceased operations in 2014 due to financial difficulties. The site has since been acquired by the UK Ministry of Defence, with plans to redevelop it into an aerospace business park and a relief lorry park for Operation Stack.

Abandoned aircraft DC-6
Photo by Nate Johnston on Unsplash

Portsmouth Airport: A Once-Thriving Aviation Hub

Portsmouth Airport, located in the city of Portsmouth on the southern coast of England, was originally opened in 1932. The airport initially served as a base for commercial flights, with airlines such as British Airways, Channel Airways, and Silver City Airways operating from the facility. The airport was predominantly used for scheduled flights, with a range of aircraft types, including the de Havilland Dragon Rapide, the Bristol 170 Freighter, and the Vickers Viscount.

During World War II, Portsmouth Airport was requisitioned by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and was utilised as a base for military operations. Famous passengers who passed through Portsmouth Airport included Sir Winston Churchill, who used the airport during wartime as a base for his flights to and from London.

In the years following the war, the airport experienced a decline in demand, leading to its eventual closure in 1973. The primary reason for the closure was the opening of Southampton Airport, which offered more modern facilities and better transport connections. Today, the site of Portsmouth Airport has been redeveloped into the Portsmouth International Port, which serves as a hub for ferry services and cruises.

Fairoaks Airport: The End of a Local Aviation Landmark

Fairoaks Airport is located in Chobham, Surrey, and was initially established as a private airstrip in the 1930s. The airport was mainly used for charter flights and general aviation, with a variety of aircraft types operating from the site, such as the Piper PA-28 Cherokee and the Cessna 172 Skyhawk. Fairoaks Airport was also home to several flying clubs, including the Fairoaks Flying Group and the Surrey and Kent Flying Club.

While Fairoaks Airport never hosted any major airlines, it was a popular destination for private and business flights. Notable passengers who visited the airport included celebrities, businesspeople, and even members of the British Royal Family.

Fairoaks Airport was closed in 2020 due to a combination of financial difficulties and a decline in demand for general aviation services. The site is now earmarked for redevelopment into a mixed-use community, comprising housing, commercial facilities, and public amenities.

Blackbushe Airport

History

Blackbushe Airport, located in Hampshire, has a rich history that dates back to World War II. Established in 1942 as RAF Hartford Bridge, it served as a base for several fighter and reconnaissance squadrons during the war. Post-war, the airfield was used for various purposes, including housing the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment (AFEE) until its closure in 1950.

Airlines and Flights

Following the departure of the AFEE, Blackbushe Airport transitioned to civilian use in 1955. It was home to a variety of airlines, including:

  • British United Airways
  • Dan-Air
  • Autair

These airlines operated both scheduled and charter flights, with the main destinations being domestic cities and European holiday spots. The aircraft types commonly seen at Blackbushe included the Vickers Viscount, de Havilland Dove, and the Airspeed Ambassador.

Famous Passengers

Blackbushe Airport was frequented by many famous passengers during its heyday. One notable individual was Marilyn Monroe, who arrived at the airport in 1956 during her honeymoon with Arthur Miller. Other celebrities who passed through the airport include Frank Sinatra, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Sir Winston Churchill.

Closure and Current Usage

Blackbushe Airport faced a decline in passenger numbers in the 1960s due to the growing popularity of London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports. By 1963, the airport closed its commercial operations, and the site was divided into two parts. One section continued to operate as a smaller general aviation airfield, while the other part became an industrial estate and a car auction site.

Interestingly, the general aviation airfield still exists today as a thriving hub for private pilots and flying clubs, while the industrial estate and car auction site continue to operate as well. The airfield has reinvented itself as another of the outlining London airfields catering for private jets and other aircraft.

RAF Kenley

History

RAF Kenley, situated in Surrey, was one of the most important fighter stations during the Battle of Britain. Established in 1917, it served as a base for multiple squadrons, playing a crucial role in the defence of London. During World War II, the airfield was targeted by German bombers, but it managed to continue operations throughout the conflict.

Airlines and Flights

RAF Kenley was primarily a military airfield, hosting various RAF squadrons and their aircraft. Some of the most famous planes to have flown from Kenley include the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.

Famous Passengers

While RAF Kenley was mainly a military airfield, it did witness some notable visitors. Sir Winston Churchill visited the airfield during World War II to inspect the squadrons and boost morale.

Closure and Current Usage

RAF Kenley continued to serve as a military airfield until 1959 when it was handed over to the Air Training Corps. Today, it remains an active site for the Air Cadets and is also home to several gliding clubs. The airfield is a designated conservation area, with many of the original World War II structures still standing, offering a glimpse into its historic past.

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