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Wonders of the Western Group world: 1. Small remote airport reflects on past glories

publication date: Sep 30, 2013
 | 
author/source: Dave Moss

 

By Dave Moss

Prologue

Travel supplement editors seem to have unrivalled opportunity to indulge in expansive travelogues packed with glossy and colourful pictures of far flung exotic locations - enticing readers to enjoy the hospitality of the locations covered. Well, this travelogue offers none of that: its a distinctly radical alternative, and an unashamedly eclectic collection of material - mostly involving wings and wheels - from the length and breadth of our region. There are pictures, but glossy and colourful would be the wrong adjective in both cases: some are grainy, some black and white - and some are absent, simply because they're unobtainable.

Here we offer a different kind of regional viewpoint, looking at diverse but important happenings in our region, some recent, some not, by peeking well underneath the familiar tourist-oriented facade of stunning scenery, mild climate, friendly folk running bed and breakfast operations... and the ubiquitous clotted cream tea. 

In this specially compiled series the stories are sometimes edgy - and tend to celebrate the unusual, the surprising, the little-known, the sad-but-true, the former glories - and, yes, the slightly curious. Some stories are long on coincidence; all are entirely based on historical fact - and everything you can read about here has come into sharp focus as a story worth telling while researching the latest Western Group Travel Supplement found elsewhere on this site. 

These are stories to fill idle minutes waiting for a train or plane, or perhaps eating lunch at your desk; the chances are that, afterwards, you'll probably find yourself thinking... that's remarkable/sad/amazing... I'd never have guessed that... For the determinedly curious, each feature offers links to further information if you want to delve more deeply. 

So, although this specially compiled series meanders through the west country and into south Wales, any similarity to ordinary travelogues categorically ends there. Everything you are about to read is true, and absolutely no names have been changed to protect the innocent. Take this opportunity to relax, reflect and enjoy a journey of discovery amongst some well-hidden Wonders of  the Western Group world.

 

1. Small remote airport reflects on past glories - by Dave Moss

Lands End is Britain's most westerly mainland airport - and its also one of the smallest, yet it was once very much better connected than today, playing a strategic part in aviation history.

Opened in a field south of the small Cornish town of St Just in June 1937, Channel Air Ferries operated the first scheduled service from Lands End, departing at 9am on 15th September 1937.

BEA De Haviland at Lands End  

One Capt. D. Dustin flew four paying customers in a De Haviland Dragon to the Isles of Scilly - where he landed on St Mary's Golf Course. It was no mistake - there was simply nowhere else, and the fairways were used for these flights until the present tiny airport opened on the island in 1939.    

Scheduled services to Plymouth and Bristol followed when Great Western and Southern Airlines merged with Channel Air Ferries in 1938, and although there were brief periods without flights during the war, Lands End was one of very few British airports open for commercial services during the hostilities, keeping the Isles of Scilly link operational.

However Lands End airport's biggest claim to fame came in the 1950's, following the 1947 merger of Great Western and Southern airlines into the country's monopoly internal airline of the day - British European Airways (BEA) A major service crossing all of southern England was then inaugurated, directly linking the islands with Lands End, Newquay, Exeter, Bristol and Croydon airports - and with onward countrywide connections.

So popular did this route from London to the Islands become, reports suggest that during the 1953 season alone, 36,000 passengers were carried, as well as over 50 tons of freight - and 12 tons of mail. Modest numbers today perhaps, but significant indeed in the 1950's when it was achieved in small aircraft seating modest numbers of passengers - using grass landing strips subject to the vagaries of the weather at Lands End... 

After BEA lost its monopoly on UK commercial flying, competition in the 1960's for routes to fast-growing places across southern England gradually increased, while bigger and heavier aircraft required longer, hard surface runways. Space was at a premium at St Mary's airport, while long hard surface runways were beyond Lands End's means - so direct scheduled links to other parts of England faded away - never  to return.

The lifeline service to the Isles of Scilly was however retained by BEA, which acquired two Sikorsky S-61N passenger-carrying helicopters to replace the ageing fixed wing De Haviland Rapides previously in use (above). On May 2nd 1964, the first scheduled helicopter service to St Mary's left Lands End: but helicopters are versatile aircraft not needing runways, and that summer BEA also departed Lands End.

The service continued instead from the newly opened and much more accessible Penzance Heliport - located adjacent to the main trunk road route on the outskirts of Penzance. Despite this, commercial fixed wing flights to the Isles from Lands End continued, rather intermittently at first, and with a succession of operators - but on a more stable and sound footing since the 1980's. 

Lands End Airport is a pretty grand title for a minor airfield in the middle of a beautiful but remote region, but its one-time connection to other parts of Britain played a key role in the development of scheduled civilian flying. Though tenders are out for surfacing of two runways, at present all flights still land on and depart from grass strips, so only small aircraft can use the airport.

Amongst aviators, the field's characteristics have achieved a certain notoriety, for it suffers from sudden weather changes, while the grass is prone to waterlogging in wet weather - not at all unusual this far west. There've been quite a few minor incidents here over the years: hedges have been attacked as aircraft have come off runways - and when trying to achieve take-off, pilots find that wet Lands End grass does tend to slow things down quite a bit. 

Today, Land’s End Airport is run by the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, which has operated the sea ferry service between Penzance and St Mary’s since 1926. Its also responsible nowadays for the single destination scheduled services which last year allowed the airport to celebrate 75 years of flying to the Isles of Scilly. At around 20 minutes its one of the shortest scheduled airline routes in the world; reputedly falling to under 10 minutes with the wind behind you - to the still-tiny airport on Britain's most westerly outpost... 

If you'd like to know more about the history of flying from the west country's most remote airport, take a look at these:

Book: London, Peter, 1997. ‘Aviation in Cornwall.’ Pub: Air Britain (Historians) Ltd. ISBN: 0 85130 261 0 

Websites:

www.britishpathe.com/video/lands-end-airport

This site has film footage of the airport dating from 1962.

www.landsendairport.co.uk




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