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Wonders of the Western Group World: 10. How should you spell Gloster?
publication date: Jun 30, 2014
author/source: Dave Moss
by Dave Moss
Gloucestershire is famous for many things and so idle musings when traversing the county on the M5 motorway might reasonably run from why both single and double Gloucester cheese varieties exist, and exactly how they differ; all the way to the vagaries of horse racing on a grand scale.
But few drivers will know one of the county's best kept secrets, its a claim to have once been the aviation capital of the UK, and fewer still appreciate part of Gloucester's aviation history now today lies buried beneath that motorway tarmac they are relying on to get from A to B. Also largely forgotten is the connection between historic aviation events in the county seventy years ago and the employment the industry provided for thousands of local people who once lived and worked in and near what were then rural villages hereabouts - now partly Gloucester suburbs - and the thousands of people living and working hereabouts.
This story opens in Cheltenham Spa, birthplace of famous figures such as Sir Frederick Handley Page and Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, where, military aircraft were being produced during the First World War, leading to the formation of and the Gloucestershire Aircrarft Company Ltd in 1917.
Its Cheltenham-made aircraft were test flown from Brockworth airfield, laid out by the Air Board on the parish boundaries of Hucclecote and Brockworth villages, which now lie just east and west of the M5 motorway, close by Junction 11A. In the 1920's the expanding company moved its operations to Brockworth airfield around which time the Gloucester name was changed to the phonetic 'Gloster.' Wikipedia reckons that foreign customers of the day had difficulty pronouncing the name Gloucester.
Hawker Aircraft took over what had become a struggling company in 1934, with Armstrong Whitworth, producer of Armstrong Siddeley cars, joining the fold soon afterwards. The Gloster name nonetheless continued in use on the aircraft it designed - most famous then being the Gladiator, the last bi-plane RAF fighter. Gloster found itself building large numbers of Hawker Hurricane and Typhoon aircraft as war broke out once again - but history was about to be made.
In a Gloucester garage, actually Regent Motors located where the Regent Arcade is today, the first example of Sir Frank Whittle's revolutionary turbo-jet engine - made by his Power Jets company in Lutterworth - was installed in a prototype aircraft. This was designed and made in great secrecy by Gloster under War OffceOffice contract number E28/39, and made taxi-ing trials on Tuesday 8 April 1941 at Brockworth. However, enthusiasm was such that the prototype left the ground, reputedly reaching a height of perhaps 2 metres - sufficient for Brockwoth to enter the record books, as the place where Britain's very first jet-powered aircraft took off (above).
This rushed development work was undertaken in far from ideal conditions but a brand-new design and experimental factory was simultaneously taking shape nearby at Bentham, in the shadow of Crickley Hill, near the now regionally-renowned Air Baloon Balloon pub. This new factory and Brockworth were deeply involved from 1940 in the design and construction of the new Gloster Meteor - the very first British jet fighter.
Its development began before E28/39 had flown with the first Meteor prototype becoming airborne in 1943. Runway length and inadequate power conspired against completed aircraft flying directly out from Brockworth, so near- complete machines were transported by road to RAF Moreton Valence six miles south of Gloucester for final assembly in new purpose-built hangars.
Moreton Valence grew out of RAF Haresfield, an emergency landing station which opened in 1939. The name change in 1943 coincided with the opening of a much lengthened main runway, longer than then typical propeller driven aircraft would of the day normally required. Its installation allowed the first of many locally-completed production Gloster Meteors to take off - heading for an operational life which began on 27 July 1944 with 616 Squadron Royal Air Force.
The Meteor then became the only British jet fighter to see active second world war service, and over 3000 were eventually built, with a handful remaining operational today.
Brockley and Bentham were deeply involved in the design and build of the next and last Gloster miltary military aircraft - the Javelin, a delta-wing, two seater, all-weather jet fighter. It first flew late in 1951, and remained in RAF service until the late 1960's. Many Javelins were built in the midlands but, like the Meteor, fully assembled, Gloucestershire-built examples were unable to depart from Brockworth. An audacious plan got round this problem: lighter, fly-able but incomplete aircraft were 'hopped' south to RAF Moreton Valence for completion and testing - before despatch to their operational bases.
With jet aircraft and their engines both then still at an early development stage, sufficient runway length was vital to get them airborne and Gloster kept the facility post-war after the RAF moved out. But the coming of the jet age had laid bare the shortcomings of the company's early aviation inheritance as bigger and heavier aircraft were developed in peacetime.
The last Javelin left Moreton Valence on 25 July 1962 and within 12 months Gloster Aviation was wholly absorbed into Hawker Siddeley opertations, the name disappeared, and all Gloucestershire local facilities were closed. The sister airfield buildings were sold off, though the silent runways remained until M5 motorway construction commenced nearby in 1969 - the year the Javelin was withdrwawn from active service.
Where the M5 route crossed the abandoned airfield, the main runway's northeast - south west alignment allowed the contractors the cost effective move to incorporate it into the new carriageway foundations, and today traffic between Junctions 12 and 13 still passes along the old runway. Material from the taxiways was broken up and used in the road construction and underpins Junction 12, the Stroudwater interchange.
Today, remarkably flat farmland hides its secret well, but fastidious searching still reveals fragments of the old perimeter track. As a Google Earth area view faintly reveals it's still possible to discern the line of two runways and some taxiways used long ago by some of the most historically significant aircraft Britain has ever produced.
Cheltenham was the birthplace of at least two very famous aviation related figures: Sir Frederick Handley Page, probably best known for the Handley Page Victor aircraft, and Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris. But that's another story entirely, or two.