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Wonders of the Western Group World: 7 The Dragon's unlikely tale
publication date: Mar 17, 2014
author/source: Dave Moss
As another episode in this series reveals, the biggest regional airport in the Western Group area has an interesting but hidden history.
Not to be outdone, the Group's Welsh subdivision boasts a major airport with a long tale of its own, beginning in 1855, when a new racecourse opened in Ely - then open countryside, today a west Cardiff suburb. Racing became especially popular in Victorian times at Ely, with a vast crowd of 40,000 reportedly attending the first Welsh Grand National in 1895. Its racing fortunes came and went afterwards, but in summer 1911 this vast grassed space became licensed as one of Britain's very first airfields.
One early machine which visited that year was the Mercury II, built by the Leeds-based Blackburn Aeroplane Co, powered by a 50HP Isaacson engine. On 11 September 1911, one B.C. Hucks began demonstration flights, the aircraft apparently making history here on 23 September when, at an altitude of 700ft, Hucks received the first in-flight wireless telegraphy signals.
It's on record that Ely remained licensed for aviation until at least 1920, possibly longer, but as aircraft advanced and development began in the area, flying faded away. Racing ceased in 1939, and though part of the old course remains as open space today, of its airfield history there is little sign.
Meanwhile, in 1910, flying began at Tremorfa, in an area known as Splott, on the edge of the Severn estuary south west of Cardiff. On 6 August that year, aviator Ernest Thomson Willows became the first man to cross the Bristol channel by air, flying a self-constructed airship from Tremorfa's tidal flats on a marathon overnight trip to London. By the late 1920's this rather flood-prone area had become established as an informal flying centre, developing until in late 1931 a civilian airfield with grass strip was opened, initially known as Splott or Tremorfa airfield, and later Pengam Moors Aerodrome or Airfield (above).
Cardiff Aero Club were early incumbents, and commercial services began in 1932, when British Air Taxis opened a Bristol route. Within a year the site had become Cardiff Municipal Airport, with Railway Air Services offering flights to Plymouth - and later Birmingham and Liverpool. Services to Paris and Le Touquet were established in the mid-1930's.
The first wholly Welsh airline, Cambrian Airways, was founded at Pengam Moor in 1935, and flew successfully until the war. Afterwards the 1946 Civil Aviation Act required nationalisation of private scheduled airlines, which were then absorbed into the new, state-owned, monopoly carrier British European Airways. Cambrian somehow circumvented this by operating in "associate" status, flying in its own colours until 1974, when it was merged into the state-owned monolith which eventually became British Airways.
On the outbreak of WW2 with local preparations already completed, the newly renamed RAF Cardiff began hosting operations ranging from the National Air Communication unit to the anti-submarine specialist 815 Squadron. The famous RAF pilot Guy Gibson, commander of The Dambusters was a visitor to RAF Pengam Moors in 1940. Gibson met the Penarth born actress and show dancer Eve Moore at a party in Coventry during early December 1939 while he was on three days rest leave at his brother’s house. The following year Guy and Eve were married at All Saints Church in Eve's home town of Penarth. Gibson was based at RAF Digby in Lincolnshire at the time and for the wedding he flew a Bristol Blenheim bomber from RAF Wellingore satellite field in Lincolnshire to RAF Pengam Moors, returning three days later with his new wife as a passenger.
New hangars and an extended apron were built to accommodate more aircraft, and in 1942 a 2800ft concrete runway replaced the grass strip. Post war de-commissioning was rapid, and Cambrian Airways is believed to have operated the very first post-war British civilian flight - to Bristol on 1 January 1946, the first day it was permitted.
Cardiff Municipal airport benefited significantly from the new concrete runway, but commercial flying was initially subdued - and when traffic improved, familiar problems emerged. Aircraft were getting larger and heavier, requiring longer runways, and 2800ft was hardly adequate. Housing was also appearing to the north and west - and though potential existed for a north-eastern runway extension, political will was lacking, for as well as great cost it necessitated landscape realignment and alterations to the course of the adjacent Rhymney River.
Civilian flights at Pengam Moor ended in April 1954, though some general aviation continued until abandonment following a serious accident in 1959. Just months later the then still-independent Rover Car company negotiated to build a plant on the site: it opened in 1963. Local folklore suggests the runway hosted tests for Rover's last jet-powered prototype cars, but the plant is better known as gearbox supplier for the troubled 1970's Rover SD1.
It was closed by Leyland in 1983, the runway has long since been removed, and housing, industrial units and a supermarket now occupy much of the site. Today, only road names hereabouts recall a busier bygone age: Rover Way traces the old perimeter, and other evocative names include Runway Road, Hawker Close, and De Havilland Road.
After some thought, the government of the day chose a disused RAF station at Rhoose, 12 miles west of Cardiff, as Pengham Moor's replacement. The Air Ministry requisitioned land here in 1940, and RAF Rhoose duly opened as a 'satellite' training base for Spitfire pilots two years later. Post war site clearance (left) allowed Cardiff's third new airport to open in 1952; as elsewhere commercial flights were slow to take off, and club flying predominated. Passenger services began with Aer Lingus flights to Dublin, but after Pengam Moor ceased scheduled flights in 1954, more services gradually followed - led by Cambrian Airways.
In 1965, Glamorgan County Council took ownership from the Ministry of Aviation: a new terminal building was opened, and the main runway length was doubled to 7000 feet. Another 750 feet was added in 1986, giving access for aircraft like Boeing's 747: British Airways took advantage, establishing a maintenance base for such aircraft.
Mixed fortunes followed airport privatisation in 1995: CAA figures revealed 2007 as a record year with 2.1 million passengers, but a small operating loss was reported in 2011, and passenger numbers declined to 1.013m in 2012. Cardiff's Rhoose airport has a long history of controversy, ranging from House of Lords debate over 1950's TV mast placement to recent unexplained senior staff departures. This year, pundits decried the airport's sale to the Welsh Assembly Government; though much here turns on precise definitions, unease centres on the closing of a 50-year old circle - as the operation has returned to nationalised ownership.
If you'd like to know more about the fascinating history of Cardiff's three airports - and the early years of flying (and horse racing) in the south of the principality, have a look at these:
Book: Lee, Brian, 2009, History of Cardiff Racecourse, Cwm Nedd press.
Book: Jones, I, 2007, Airfields and Landing Grounds of Wales: South.
Book: Phillips, Alan, 2006, Military Airfields of Wales.
Book: Smith, David J, 1982, Action Stations 3: Military Airfields of Wales and the North West.
Book: Western Airways: the West Country Airline. G M Simons. Redcliffe Press Ltd, Bristol. 1998. 40pp. Illustrated.
This is a short history of Norman Edgar (Western Airways) Ltd - originally Bristol Air Taxis Ltd - inaugurated on 7 September 1933, and later taken over by the Straight Corporation Ltd. It suffered the same fate as Cambrian Airways.
Book: Stroud, John, 1987, "Railway Air Services", Ian Allan Ltd, Shepperton, Surrey, ISBN 0-7110-1743-3.
Book: Jones, Geoff, 2011, 'Cardiff Airport At Rhoose: 70 Years Of Aviation History'
The History Press, ISBN 978 0 75245 9882 Paperback, £16.99
Newspaper report: Council Take Over An Airport" The Times (London). Friday, 2 April 1965. Issue56286, col D, p. 8.
A delightful report from 'Flight' magazine on a Cardiff Municipal Airport event which took place in June 1933 can be found at: