A short history of Portsmouth Airport...
In 1928, the Air Ministry encouraged all towns and cities with a population of 20,000 or more to consider the benefits of having an airport. Just two years later, in 1930, the city of Portsmouth purchased a 276-acre site in the far northeast corner of Portsea Island for £77,000 (over £4 million in today's money). Initially the purchase had only been for the 76-acre Highgrove Farm at a cost of £37,000; however, when realising that 76 acres was going to be insufficient, the city purchased the additional 200 acres of neighbouring government land, including Napoleonic fortification, for an additional £40,000.
Work began to drain, clear and level the land suitable for grass strip runways of 2,500 feet (800 yards) and 4,500 feet (1,500 yards) in length. The airport saw its official opening on the 2nd of July 1932. At the time of its opening, it was one of just eight aerodromes of its type in the country, and accommodated two hangers, refreshment facilities, a control tower and a customs office. At the center of the landing area, stones signified the name “Portsmouth”.
The opening ceremony was attended by 50,000 people. Those present were treated to static and flying displays involving over 100 aircraft - civil and military - culminating in the evening with the arrival of the Graf Zeppelin (registration D-LZ127), a German airship flown in from London Air Park at Hanworth, Middlesex (just four miles to the south-east of where London's Heathrow Airport stands today). The events of the day concluded with a large reception at Portsmouth Guildhall.
Within a week of its opening, the airport was used as one of the turning points of the prestigious King’s Cup air race, and a little over a month after its opening, on 10 August 1932, another large ceremony was held to mark National Aviation Day.
In the year of its opening, the first commercial air services were conducted by Portsmouth, Southsea and Isle of Wight Aviation (PSIOWA) using a range of small aircraft including a three-engined, eight-seater Westland Wessex. Initially occupying just one of the two hangers, PSIOWA conducted commercial operations across The Solent to Ryde on the Isle of Wight.
1933 marked the arrival of perhaps one of the most important commercial ventures to Portsmouth and the surrounding area. Having been established just two years earlier, Airspeed Limited moved its operations from York to Portsmouth. Airspeed recognised that the new airport at Portsmouth was very close to Langstone Harbour and, as such, very close to a major flying boat terminus that offered services to destinations throughout the Commonwealth. Initially Airspeed produced the pewter-designed Courier aircraft at their factory in Portsmouth. This was soon followed by the Envoy light transport aircraft, the Ferry and the Oxford. The twin-engined Oxford, built by Airspeed, was a pillar of the Royal Air Force. Between 1938 and 1945 the factory built several thousand of the training aircraft. In 1940, Airspeed was acquired by the de Havilland Aircraft Company.
By August 1933, International Airlines Limited was operating air services between Croydon and Portsmouth, as well as Southampton and Plymouth, using Monospar ST-4 aircraft built by General Aircraft Limited (GAL). However, these services were very short lived, lasting less than a month. The assets of International Airlines were taken over by Provincial Airways but even then the services never proved to be a success and Provincial Airlines itself went out of business just 2 years later,
PSIWOA helped to form the Portsmouth Aero Club. The new aero club held its first meeting on 1 October 1931 at the Admirals Head pub at 90 Kingston Crescent in North End. Today, sadly, the pub is gone and in its place...a pizza house. On 6 September 1933 the aeroclub staged an Isle of Wight handicap race and two years later two ‘round the island’ races were staged – the first twice around the island, the second once around the island.
By December 1933, Jersey Airways Limited (later to become British European Airways) was operating scheduled commercial air services between Jersey in the Channels Islands and Portsmouth. As commercial services grew, the airport further developed its facilities on offer, including boarding gates.
Early on the 23 of August 1936, the Portsmouth Aero Club staged a simulated air attack on the city. Five of the aero club’s aircraft were pitted against over 30 attack aircraft.
On 29 September 1936, Portsmouth Airport staged one of its more prestigious events – the start of the Schlesinger African Air Race (also known as the ‘Rand Race’ and the ‘Portsmouth-Johannesburg Race’). Isaac Schlesinger, a South African millionaire, had put up £10,000 of prize money (£600,000 in today's money) divided into two sections – a speed race and a handicap race – between Portsmouth and Johannesburg. With a 6:30am start, of the original fourteen entrants only nine aircraft eventually made it off the start line, hoping to claim the title (and the substantial prize money!). However, not all nine aircraft were to arrive at their destination. Most were forced to land due to technical problems or due to the weather. The Airspeed’s Envoy Gabrielle, number 13, was an obvious favourite amongst the local community; however it crashed in bad weather in southern Africa killing two of its four crew. Pilot Max Findlay and radio operator A. Morgan died while co-pilot Kenneth Waller and passenger Derek Peachey escaped with injuries. Only one of the nine aircraft completed the journey in one piece. A Percival Vega Gull (registration G-AEKE) piloted by C.W.A. Scott and aided by Giles Guthrie won the 6,150 mile race in a time of 52 hours and 56 minutes and 48 seconds. However, it was a rather hollow victory because most of the waiting crowd had given up and gone home by the time they crossed the finish line.
In the years leading up to the outbreak of WWII, PSIOWA expanded rapidly, undertaking aircraft maintenance and modifications in addition to successful air operations to the Isle of Wight and other destinations around Southern England. PSIOWA also joined forces with coach and train services to provide connections from London and Cardiff. At the start of WWII, PSIWOA was ordered to cease air operations and concentrate on manufacture and repair. During WWII the company repaired and modified several thousand military aircraft for return to service.
In 1946, PSIOWA changed its name to Portsmouth Aviation Limited (which still trades on the site today) with a view to expanding the aviation and manufacturing sides of the business. On 18 June 1947 the company saw the inaugural flight of its Portsmouth Aerocar prototype (registration G-AGTG). However, nationalisation of rail and air services meant that the company was unable to manufacture the orders received for the aircraft and, as a consequence, no sales of the Portsmouth Aerocar ever materialised and production was abandoned.
In May 1947, to celebrate the lifting of wartime restrictions, Portsmouth Aero Club organised an air display. Hundreds of people witnessed a display of over 200 aircraft. Also in 1947, a workshop of Hants and Sussex Aviation Limited (H+S Aviation) was established at the airport. H+S Aviation still exists as a business on the site today.
In the early 1950s, Channel Airways established operations at the airport. Scheduled services were launched from Southend and Portsmouth to Paris, as well as from Portsmouth to Jersey. Initially services were offered on Dakota aircraft, although these were later superseded by Hawker Siddley 748 turboprop aircraft.
After the war Airspeed Limited continued production of civilian aircraft, converting over 150 Oxfords into the Consul passenger aircraft. The Consuls were flown until the mid 1950s by small charter and other operators. In the 1950s, following its merger with de Havilland, Airspeed’s production was reduced to aircraft components only. In the 1960s the factory at Portsmouth Airport was finally closed as the firm moved all of its remaining operations to their factory in Christchurch.
By the mid-1960s, the airport was serving more than 60,000 passengers per year. However, as aircraft grew in size, longer tarmacked runways were required. The grass strips on offer at Portsmouth Airport became a limiting factor. As a consequence, and despite the airport having attained ‘regional airport’ status, the airport began to lose money to competitor airports.
This situation was not helped by two high-profile accidents in August 1967. On 15 August 1967, two HS-748-222 Series 2 aircraft operated by Channel Airways were involved in separate accidents on landing within about 90 minutes of each other.
The first accident involving G-ATEK (left) occurred at 11:48am upon its scheduled arrival from Southend en-route to Paris. The second accident involving G-ATEH (right) occurred at 1:34pm upon its scheduled arrival from Guernsey. The first aircraft crashed into an embankment at the perimeter of the airport. The second aircraft, also unable to stop, ended up on Eastern Road. The Air Accidents Investigation Board (AAIB) investigation into both accidents recorded that they "were caused by inadequate braking arising from the extremely low coefficient of friction provided by the very wet grass over the hard, dry and almost impermeable sub-soil of the aerodrome". Basically, both aircraft were unable to stop on the wet grass runway. Although sustaining substantial damage, there were no fires and no injuries to passengers and crew. The aircraft were subsequently repaired and returned to normal service.
Permission to operate the HS748 aircraft at Portsmouth Airport was, to all intents and purposes, withdrawn following these accidents. As a result, the airport ceased to be a viable option as the aviation industry (and the aircraft) grew. Channel Airways, which had suffered the two accidents, continued operations for a while using Heron and Dove aircraft variants, however these were eventually withdrawn.
Following the accidents in 1967, the airport was predominantly devoid of commercial operations. Even a glimmer of hope in the early 1970s through a new service offering from JF Airlines (later Jersey Ferry Airlines ) was not enough to lift the airport out of the financial quagmire that it had fallen into. Jersey Ferry Airlines itelf folded barely a year after getting off the ground. The Council decided to close Portsmouth Airport in 1971, and the airport reported a loss of over £9,000 (£110,000 in today's money) in the financial year ending March 1972.
Although the airport officially closed on 31 December 1973, it was to see one final operation when Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson flew into the airport seven weeks later to attend a meeting in the city.
The 200-plus acre site on which Portsmouth Airport once stood was eventually redeveloped for housing and industry. A housing estate called Anchorage Park (right) now occupies part of the land, with the remainder occupied by local businesses.
A handful of the early businesses that laid the foundation for an aviation industry in Portsmouth still exist today. Portsmouth Aviation still exists but today produces various products mainly for the defence industry. Hants and Sussex Aviation (H+S Aviation) still exists, and is involved in repairing and overhauling gas turbine and turbofan engines and their component parts.
The road running alongside the former airport still bears the name “Airport Service Road”. Also, the area has several roads named after local significant aircraft industry people, including Norway Road and Nevil Shute Road (both named after Nevil Shute Norway who was one of the founders of Airspeed Limited).
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