Saturday, September 20, 2008

Those Magnificent Men (and Women) in their Flying Machines

It might not be as big and as controversial as Heathrow perhaps (actually, to the best of my knowledge, it’s only got one terminal and three runways) but, nonetheless, Frank Smith (Wyre Archaeology Committee Member for Aerial Reconnaissance) will be down on me like a…well…like a Boeing 707 with engine failure, if this brief history of Squire’s Gate airport is factually inaccurate. So I’d better watch what I’m writing here.
Squire’s Gate airport was opened in 1909 and hosted, that same year, Britain’s first major air show. (See…it’s a record holding airport, regardless of how big it is, so stick that in your RAF Officer Issue Pipes and smoke it.) More than 200,000 spectators turned up on that occasion to watch the daredevil antics of Henri Farman and Claude Grahame White, etc. What do you mean, who are they? It’s photograph time I reckon.

Right, that’s Henri Farman in the photograph above that is. Or rather it’s Henri Farman’s plane…you can just about make Farman out in the middle of all those struts somewhere. Oddly enough, Farman was originally a keen cyclist who only turned to aviation after a serious car accident. He flew the first ever one kilometre loop in under a minute in 1908. Later the same year he conducted the first European airplane passenger flight (again one kilometre in length, but we’re obviously not talking about trans-Atlantic supersonic jets here) and in 1909 he won the distance competition at the Reims International Air Meet in his Henri Farman III (well, if you’re going give your plane a name you might as well make it one you won’t forget in a hurry) travelling almost 112 miles in three hours four minutes and fifty-six seconds.
You see…a bit of a pioneering hero really, and you’d never heard of him!
Next photograph then…

Now that is Claude Grahame White, another aviation pioneering hero. Here’s what one of the many Internet sites devoted to him had to say:
“Grahame White was one of the first Britons to exploit aviation commercially after achieving heroic status for narrowly losing the £10,000 prize the Daily Mail offered for the first London to Manchester flight to a Frenchman! He went on to scoop almost all the prizes on a tour of America, which included a flight into the White House grounds where he invited President Taft up for a flight. As Taft weighed 21 stone it is probably as well that he declined!”

There were other famous pilots of the time (along with their planes) at that initial air show, of course, and the whole event proved so popular that, for reasons best left to those in authority, the airport was immediately sold off and converted into a racetrack.
Now, believe it or not, we do actually have a photograph of said racetrack (always a popular pastime down that end of town). It’s amazing what we can get our hands on if we want to badly enough.

With the advent of the First World War, obviously the military need for airfields became more important so the authorities had another brainwave and converted the land into a convalescent home. This was closed in 1924 because, presumably, everyone got better.
Three years later an aerodrome offering flights to the Isle of Man was built at the back of Stanley Park, where the zoo is nowadays. In fact, unless I’m very much mistaken (which is a distinct possibility) the elephant house used to be one of the old hangers. At least, that’s how I recall it from my childhood.
An increase in commercial air travel meant that by 1932 airlines were introduced to Squire’s Gate and by 1936 the ‘Stanley Park’ airport was up the Suwannee. Squire’s Gate itself was now well and truly back in business, expanding its commercial flights and feeling rightly smug with itself.
But not for long…obviously, because nothing ever lasts around Blackpool.
By 1939 World War Two was underway, and Squire’s Gate Airport had fallen into the hands of the Air Ministry. Hangars, ammunitions stores, three runways and even aircraft testing sites were added.
It was around this time that one of the airport’s least publicised (for obvious reasons) events occurred. On the fifth of January 1941, Amy Johnson, the world famous female aviator who, in 1930, had flown single-handedly from Britain to Australia in the ‘Gipsy Moth’, set off from Blackpool to RAF Kidlington in adverse weather conditions. Events took a turn for the worse and Amy was forced to ditch her plane in the Thames estuary where she subsequently drowned.

Anyhow, leaving that rather depressing anecdote aside, let’s move on. The war, of course, didn’t last forever, as soon as hostilities were ended, the airport was handed over to civil aviation authorities. By 1949 extensive renovations had taken place and in 1962 Blackpool Corporation bought the whole kit and caboodle up chocks, stocks and propellers.
The original wooden terminal building was finally knocked down in 1995 (so much for heritage) and replaced with something a bit more modern.
In 2004 City Hopper (apparently…whoever they are) took over the airport’s running.
Nowadays Squire’s Gate airport, it goes without saying really, is most famous for being the base of Wyre Archaeology’s aerial investigations. And just to add a splash of colour to this otherwise black and white article, let’s finish on a photograph of Gary Thornton (Wyre Archaeology Treasurer) waiting for Frank to get him airborne in search of long lost archaeological treasures.


Feral Beast said...

I wonder if Henri Farman ever had plaster on the studs in his plane.

Brian Hughes said...

The odd thing is, Mr. Beast, I've often wondered the same thing myself.

Anonymous said...

It might not be as big and as controversial as Heathrow...

Nothing beats a bit of spin, utter nonsense and avaricious corporate profit margins.

Jayne said...

I'm guessing the planes outran the gee-gees :P

Brian Hughes said...


Apart, of course, from a bit of bully.


Hopefully the gee-gees veered off somewhere down the track, otherwise there would have been a lot of cheap dog food for sale down the local pubs.

Gary T said...

1. It is a little known fact that Squires Gate was the largest RAF base in the UK, during the war, in terms of personnel. All the Polish Free Air Force were trained there, as well as thousands of other RAF servicemen who were easily billeted in Blackpool.

2. Not my best side
Gary T.

Brian Hughes said...


I didn't know that...although, obviously, I do now.

Best side or not, it's a good photograph that and I'm sure there's some milage left in it yet.