Stanley Park Aerodrome

Stanley Park Aeordrome, image courtesy of Barry Shaw

In 1927 Sir Alan Cobham was commissioned by Blackpool Council to recommend a site for the town’s Municipal Aerodrome. Cobham’s chosen site was on land east of Stanley Park owned by Sir John Bickerstaffe and partially occupied by Whinney Heys Farm. The area was acquired by the Corporation for aviation and sports use under the Blackpool Improvement Act 1928.

Some two hundred men worked for two years on the 120 acre site. This included a hangar to accommodate twenty light aircraft, a luxury club house which had a lounge bar and dining room on the ground floor, with three bedrooms on the first floor and an observation tower on the top. Both were completed in 1931. The Art Deco Hangar was similar to the First World War Belfast Truss aircraft sheds, with a curved roof and full width opening doors at one end. The word Blackpool was written in large letters over the doors.

Programme for the opening ceremony of the aerodrome in 1931

The Aerodrome was licensed and open for use in August 1929, however, there was a great deal of local opposition. It was never going to be large enough to develop into a commercial success. Initially there was no ground control handling or repair facilities, no radio, but a phone was installed. Fuel was available and flights were restricted to daytime only. To its credit, it boasted four grass landing strips. In spite of its basic facilities, Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald officially opened the Blackpool Municipal Airport on the 2nd June 1931. It was the first Muncipal Airport in the country, costing £88,000 to develop.

It was intended that Blackpool would be a staging post for aircraft bound for Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. For the first few years the airfield was used by private aircraft and flying clubs including Blackpool Aero Club. Passenger traffic was slow to materialise and much of the early flying comprised trips around Blackpool Tower for five shillings (25p).

Scheduled flights from the airport began to Leeds/Bradford and in 1932 to the Isle of Man. United Airways operated in 1935 and flew restricted services linking London – Blackpool – Isle of Man.

The site was closed in 1936 as a Municipal Aerodrome but re-opened in 1937 as the Stanley Park Aerodrome when Railway Air Services operated a scheduled service. National Flying Display Days and Kings Cup Air Races also used the airport. A public air pageant was held in June 1932 and in September 1935, Sir Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus performed at a national aviation day event. The RAF staged an Empire Air Day in 1939.

Operation in World War II

On the outbreak of war, Stanley Park Aerodrome was requisitioned by the Air Ministry and all civil flying ceased immediately. It was initially used by the RAF No 3 School Technical Training and the Polish Air Force for training purposes. Stanley Park Aerodrome was selected as a satellite assembly line for the construction of Wellington Bombers. Five Bellman hangars were erected and the component parts were brought in from various factories including Squires Gate. The first Wellington took off from Stanley Park airfield in October 1941 landing at The Vickers Armstrong Factory at Squires Gate where all the test flying took place. The airfield runway was strengthened by sommerfield tracking, a form of steel mesh design to be rolled over grass, staked down and thus spread the weight of the aircraft to prevent it sinking into the ground. The Aerodrome stayed in use mainly for military purpose until the end of the war with aircraft repairs being undertaken by both the RAF and the Lancashire Aircraft Corporation.

By 1946 all aircraft repair and manufacturing had ceased and except for No. 181 Gliding School formed in 1943 all flying had ceased by 1947.Finally, approximately forty Hurricanes were flown into Stanley Park at the end of the war for scrapping. The airfield was still used for aircraft scrapping until at least 1952.During the 1950s and 1960s the Aerodrome site was home to the Royal Lancashire Agricultural Show and in 1972 Animal Magic presenter Johnny Morris officially opened The Blackpool Municipal Zoo. The original Art Deco Belfast Hangar, Club House and Watch Office, alongside the wartime bellman hangars, survive within the zoological gardens to this day.

The Club House and Watch Office, now part of Blackpool Zoo, image produced by RuthAS under Creative Commons license

The 15th June 1932, Captain Neville Stock was at the controls of a Spartan Mailplane on the first leg of a flight to Karachi carrying two passengers. His route took him via Vienna – Constantinople – Aleppo and Basra. After being named Blackpool, the aircraft was given a civic send off and reached Drigh Road Aerodrome 5 days, 23 hours and 50 minutes later. It was a publicity flight promoting the pleasure and delights of Blackpool. Also on May 13th 1936, a four engined De-Havilland Dragon Aircraft named The Spirit of Blackpool took off from Stanley Park visiting the major airports of Europe on a similar publicity exercise.

When Amelia Earhart successfully crossed the Atlantic in 1932, after landing in Ireland, she was shuttled in another aircraft across the Irish Sea to Stanley Park, and changed planes there for a flight to London. Allegedly, Amy Johnson used to land her aircraft at the far end of the aerodrome, away from the buildings, drop off whoever was her passenger and take off again to avoid paying airport fees!

There was a tragic accident at the airport in November 1936, when a three engine Spartan Cruiser Aircraft bound for the Isle of Man was attempting to take off in a blanket of thick fog. The pilot first officer Charles O’Connell, was unable to control the aircraft in difficult circumstances and, consequently it veered off the runway and crashed into the south west corner of the main hangar, exploding and bursting into flames.

Both the pilot and passenger, Mrs A. Miller, sadly died in the resulting inferno.

Barry Shaw

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