Gravesend Airport History

In June 1932 the private limited Company of Gravesend Aviation Ltd, was formed. It had a capital of £100 in 1/- (5p) shares and was described as proprietors of aerodromes, aeroplanes, airships etc. The Directors were T.A.B. Turnan of London and W.A.C. Kingham of Beckenham, doubling as Company Secretary. Its main aim was to establish an aerodrome at Thong lane, Chalk, for general aviation, with the hope of persuading KLM and Lufthansa to consider the site as an emergency landing ground for their airliners. It appears that some preliminary negotiations had taken place to this end, at least with KLM. The site at Thong Lane was 250 feet above sea level and covered 148 acres, although only a part of this area was put down to grass at this time. It had been used on occasions by light aircraft of the day and Captain Edgar Percival, an Australian aviator, is reputed to have used the site when visiting his brother who was a well-known Gravesend doctor.

Gravesend Aviation Ltd. acquired the district agency for de Havilland aircraft and engaged Mr.A.D.Carroll as Chief Flying Instructor (CFI). After the preliminaries were completed, a rally was held at the site on Thursday 25th August 1932, when local Councillors, landowners and guests were joined by a good selection of light aircraft of the period; at least twenty putting in an appearance for the press and newsreel film company who joined the guests. Several aircraft present gave joy rides during the afternoon and evening.

After this preliminary rally the work of grassing the whole area, together with fencing was undertaken. Mr. Herbert Gooding, a local builder, was engaged to carry out the building of a combined control tower and clubhouse. Two hangers were speedily erected and fuel and oil stores, together with all the necessary ancillaries, although in those days these consisted of little more than strategically placed windsocks together with wedges to chock the wheels of the aircraft.

At this time four aircraft were available at the aerodrome for instructional purposes, two de Havilland Moths, an Avro Avian and a Desoutter, but Mr. Carroll was soon replaced by Flt./Lt. P.H. Smith as CFI. The Board of Directors of the Company was expanded in September 1932 by the addition of Mr. Herbert Gooding and Jim Mollison, the record-breaking flier. Mollison had earlier married Amy Johnson, another famous flier of the era, but he appears to have been only a short lived “sleeping” director of the Company.

The official opening of Gravesend Airport, as it became known, was performed by Councillor E. Aldridge J.P., the Mayor of Gravesend, on Wednesday 12th October 1932. For this occasion the National Aviation Air Days display team under its leader, Sir Alan Cobham, visited the airport and gave demonstrations with their 3 engined “Ferry” aircraft, purpose built for Cobham by Neville Shute Norway’s Airspeed Company. Also demonstrated was an autogiro built for the Spaniard, Cierva, by the Avro Company. Amy Mollison was expected to appear but was delayed elsewhere.

Herbert Gooding had proceeded apace with the construction of the control tower, which had both clubrooms and bedrooms for the use of club members of the projected Aerodrome Club. This no doubt encouraged KLM to try their Fokker Xl airliner (PH–AEZ), which landed at Gravesend early in November 1932 carrying ten passengers. The KLM officials who were aboard were well pleased with their reception and the layout of the airport. This month also saw Herbert Gooding take over as Managing Director of the Company, probably due to shortage of cash amongst the first directors, who seemed to depart from the scene at about this time. It may have been that Herbert Gooding found himself a reluctant aviation investor because of non-payment for his building activities at the airport, but he certainly was its guiding light in those days, using his energies to promote the airport in all ways possible.

KLM’s airliner (PH–AEZ) again chose to land at Gravesend on Friday 24 February 1933, due no doubt to the heavy snowstorm blowing over South East England at the time. The four passengers were quickly transported to London by road, but an armed guard and suitable transport for its journey had to be found to transfer £52,000 of gold bullion that the plane carried. The late Mr. Archie Pratt remembered driving the van transferring the bullion with extra special care not only because of the icy roads but also because of the value of his cargo. The satisfactory conclusion of these emergency arrangements no doubt encouraged other companies to use Gravesend as an emergency landing ground for aircraft unable to reach Croydon airport, due usually to bad weather conditions nearer London caused by the coal smoke surrounding the capital city.

On Thursday 17 March 1933 a three-engined Armstrong Whitworth Argosy airliner (G–AACJ) arrived from Brussels with nine passengers and mail diverting from Croydon. Unfortunately the tail plane was damaged when high winds tore the aircraft from its moorings but the airports’ workshop staff speedily carried out repairs.

The Aviation Air Days team again visited Gravesend on Easter Sunday, 16 April 1933, when scenes of races thrilled the crowd, parachuting, balloon bursting and formation flying. One interesting sight was the demonstration by Mr. L Lowe Wylde in his 6 HP motor glider, designed and built at the Maidstone works of his British Aircraft Company.

The display was slightly marred when Captain Mackay, whilst flying very low, tried to recover his dropped umbrella from a mechanic standing on the top of a pair of steps. This comic routine went astray when the tip of the aircraft’s wing struck the 21 year old Harry Sharp, who suffered injuries to his back and arm that necessitated his admittance to Gravesend hospital.

At this time Gravesend Aviation advertised trips by air taxi to the Grand National at Aintree at the cost of 6d. (2½, new pence) per mile and with the better weather of spring, instruction in flying was in full swing. The late Mr. William Bames, son of the landlord of the old White Hart public house at Chalk was one pupil of those days who remembered his instruction period well. Mr. Barnes, who retained his original licence and membership card of the Aerodrome Social Club, was taught to fly by Flt./Lt. Smith at the airport’s School of Flying. The instruction cost Mr. Barnes £3 per hour with 6 hours being an average time taken to go solo. This was followed by dead engine landings from 3000, 2000 and 1000 feet together with an eyesight test before the award of the coveted pilot’s “A” licence.

During April 1933, Frank W. Humphreys, who farmed Brookvale Farm at Northfleet and Latters Farm at Higham became the first member of the Gravesend club to own his aircraft, which was Avro Avian (G–EBWU), a 2 seater biplane. Frank Humphreys was a Northfleet Councillor and had many local interests apart from flying. His younger daughter, Mrs. Joan Heeley, recalls with pleasure many flights taken with her father from Gravesend in those days. This adventurous lady who enjoyed the views of Gravesend and surrounding districts from the air took the draughty open cockpit of the machine in her stride.

Tragedy struck the airport, when on Thursday I June 1933 at 7.30 p.m., a 22 year old pupil of the Flying School disappeared in the school’s de Havilland Moth (G AAKX). The pilot, Mr. R. Fortescue, a bachelor of Chapel Lane, Isle of Grain, had flown solo for the first time in April after 5V2 hours of instruction and was last seen flying over the Isle of Grain heading in an Easterly direction, with enough petrol for 3½ hours flying, and was assumed to have been lost at sea.

At the beginning of July 1933, the airport had its first visit by machines from the Royal Air Force when three Hawker Audaux aircraft together with an Armstrong Whitworth Atlas used the airport as its base whilst engaged in army co operation exercises with the Royal Marines.

This first period of operations saw the erection of the largest building on the site, a hangar

‘Law’ Hangar under construction 12 October 1933

constructed by Messrs. A.J. & J. Law which measured 130 feet by 100 feet. During September, negotiations had taken place with KLM that, if successful, would have resulted in the Dutch airline using Gravesend, by now called “London East” as their London terminal. However, this breakthrough for the airport was destined not to succeed, but Short Brothers of Rochester did use the airport for a time. Shorts had at this time designed and built an aircraft which could not land on the waters of the River Medway, and as Rochester Airport was still under construction the Short Scion twin engined monoplane (G–ACJI) was test flown from Gravesend. Several long-lived examples of this design are still in existence, but unfortunately not the actual aircraft flown from Gravesend.

In 1933 the Percival Aircraft Works were established in the two hangars and between then and the move to Luton in 1936, 22 Gulls and Mew Gulls were constructed at Gravesend. These included those flown by Jean Batten, (G–ADPR), Amy Mollison, (G–ADZO), Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, (G–ACJV), Beryl Markham, (VP–KCC) and Percival himself, (G–ADEP), when setting new records for flights to Africa, Australia and South America. The prototype Mew Gull, (G–ACND), in its original form was unveiled to the public on 15th March 1934, when Edgar Percival demonstrated his new aircraft in strong winds. This original Mew Gull was destroyed in a crash in France, but a new aircraft carrying the same registration marks was built.

Three Mew Gulls were readied for the Schlesinger race to South Africa in September 1936. (G AEKL) for Tom Campbell Black, (ZS–AHM) for Major A. Miller and (ZS–AHO) for Captain S.S. Halse. Unfortunately Campbell Black was killed when a RAF Hawker Hart taxied into (G–AEKL) at Speke airport, Liverpool, a short time before the race. Although both the Mew Gulls failed to finish the race, a Vega Gull (G–AEKE) won.

When the Percival Company left Gravesend in December 1936, their place was taken by Essex Aero Limited whose Managing Director was Jack Cross. Apart from normal aircraft overhauls, Essex Aero became specialist tuners and converters of aircraft for racing and record breaking. Amongst the aircraft that they worked on were the de Havilland Comet, (G–ACSS) for Alec Clouston and Victor Ricketts record breaking flight to Australia and New Zealand in March 1938, and the Percival Mew Gull (G–AEXF) used by Alex Henshaw for his Cape of Good Hope record in February 1939.

The CLW Curlew, (G–ADYU), was assembled and test flown at Gravesend in September 1936. It was intended as a trainer for the RAF but was not accepted as such. It was sold to Essex Aero, survived the war and was broken up when the company went into liquidation. The Scheldemusch Pusher from Holland also had its first flight in this country at Gravesend. Although it crashed in front of the newsreel cameras and the pilot Mr. W. Doig was injured.

Airports Limited, who owned Gatwick, bought Gravesend Airport but found it unprofitable and offered it to the Gravesend Council for use as a municipal airport, but a satisfactory sum could not be agreed between the owners and the Council.

In October 1937 it was arranged with the Air Ministry for Gravesend to be used as a training school under the rearmament programme. The establishment of No.20 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School resulted in a rapid influx of service machines to Gravesend and the available flying hours were fully utilised to train as many pilots as possible. A contract was also obtained to teach Royal Navy pupils to fly and the White Ensign was added to the Airport flagpole.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, No. 20 E.R.F.T.S. closed and Gravesend Airport was requisitioned by the Air Ministry to become a satellite station of Biggin Hill. Blenhelms, Hurricanes and Spitfires of several squadrons spent time at Gravesend on detachment from Biggin Hill and in July 1940 No. 501 (County of Gloucester) Squadron arrived with its Hurricanes. 501 left Gravesend on 10 September 1940 and were replaced by the Spitfires of 66(F) Squadron. These two Squadrons were heavily involved in the Battle of Britain. At the end of October 1940, 66(F) Squadron was replaced by 141 Squadron flying Defiants in a night fighter role. They were joined at first by the Hurricanes of 85 Squadron under S/Ldr. Peter Townsend but when 85 Squadron left they were replaced by another Defiant Squadron, No. 264.

In November 1940 RAF Gravesend became an independent station and the task of providing more suitable buildings on the site was undertaken. Previously the personnel used the old civil clubrooms in the control tower, the Laughing Waters roadhouse on the nearby A2 road, Nissen huts, requisitioned houses and Cobham Hall, the home of Lord Darnley.

In April 1941 the Defiant Squadrons left and various Squadrons occupied Gravesend, mainly flying Spitfire IIa’s and Vb’s. During 1942/3 the area of the airfield was increased to enable both the North South and the East West grass runways to be considerably lengthened. Sommerfield track was laid on the grass and Drem runway lighting was installed at the same time. On 7 December 1942 277 Squadron (Air Sea Rescue) commanded by S/L. Linney arrived at Gravesend to stay until mid 1944. This period saw the switch from defensive to offensive operations and the Squadrons at Gravesend joined with the Biggin Hill wing carrying out sweeps across Northern occupied Europe. With the increased size of the airfield, a third squadron was stationed at Gravesend. Nos. 245, 174, 247, 193, 266 and 257 squadrons flying Typhoon Ib’s and Nos. 19, 65 and 122 Squadrons flying Mustang Ill’s also spent time at Gravesend before being replaced in April, 1944 by three Squadrons flying Mosquito FBVI’S. These were Nos. 21, 464, (Australian) and 487, (New Zealand) comprising 140 Wing. These aircraft were used as night raiders to soften up German defences in Northern France for the approaching invasion, sometimes flying three sorties in a night. Shortly after D Day the smooth flow of operations was interrupted when in the early hours of 13 June 1944, the first of the V 1 flying bombs landed nearby at Swanscombe. In succeeding days the constant stream of these missiles rendered flying operations too hazardous to continue at Gravesend, so on 13 June the three Squadrons of Mosquitos moved to Thorney Island leaving Gravesend to become the command station for the balloon barrage that surrounded the area. This heavy balloon barrage was put up to help stop the flying bombs reaching London.

With the end of the war in Europe in 1945, the airfield was put on a care and maintenance basis. All through the war years Essex Aero Limited had maintained on the airfield site, a factory making self sealing petrol tanks for aircraft. It had also taken over several factories in Gravesend and Northfleet for its activities. The bulk of the Company’s work was in magnesium alloy but some work on aircraft continued to be carried out. Two each Walrus and Sea Otter amphibians were bought and either resold or cannibalized for spare parts. A Vega Gull was civilianized and in 1949 work was also carried out on two Avro York aircraft for use as VIP transport, one of these for Earl Mountbatten of Burma. These aircraft needed every inch of runway on which to land and take off. In spite of its expertise in magnesium, Essex Aero went into liquidation in March 1956 due to cash flow problems.

From 1958 a large private housing estate (Riverview Park) was gradually built on the area of the pre war airport and later two schools, a sports centre and playing fields were constructed on the wartime extensions to the airfield.

During April 1990 many of the residents of the estate were evacuated whilst the Royal Engineers removed a number of pipe explosive devices that had been laid by sappers during, the war to explode and deny the airfield to the enemy. This work was given the code name “Operation Crabstick”.

This history of the Airport was written by (and is ©) Ray Munday and is reproduced here with his permission. Ray has been researching Gravesend Airport since 1969 and in conjunction with Philip Connolly and Ron Neudegg, published ‘Gravesend Airport in Photographs’, in 1997. ISBN-10: 1901132005 ISBN-13: 9781901132007

Updating and edits: John Tate 2017