The Airport that Never Took Off
‘Fasten your seatbelts please, we will shortly be landing at Hastings Airport.’ Today you’d have to fly to Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, or Hastings, Nebraska to hear such an announcement – but it could have happened here. By Dave Young.
PICTURE: Dave Young
Eighty years ago Hastings was expanding rapidly, propelled by a visionary borough engineer ambitious to compete with other seaside towns and the need to create employment in the midst of an economic depression.
Transport of delight
Flying was a source of great public excitement, a thrillingly futuristic concept promoted by the touring air circuses of world speed record challenger Sir Alan Cobham and the long-distance exploits of pioneer aviators such as Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson. Cobham had been running a ‘Municipal Airfields’ campaign, touring the country during the early 1930s to encourage local authorities to embrace this new mode of travel and ‘Get Britain air minded.’
Arguably it was Amy Johnson’s ‘accidental’ discovery of Hastings (she’s said to have landed in a field at Fairlight in 1931 and wondered at the absence of an aerodrome) that encouraged local attempts to build one.
Shoreham had – and still has – a gem of an art deco airfield. Why not Hastings? It would attract passenger and goods traffic, enhance the town’s status and create much needed employment, suggested the town’s politicians.
In 1929 they asked Cobham to seek a suitable site and, in 1933, work commenced, initially as a joint venture between Bexhill and Hastings Councils. The De la Warr Pavilion and Bottle Alley were imminent and, like streamlined aircraft, the epitome of modernity. An exciting future beckoned.
Dacre Adams 1929
PICTURE: Shell Art Collection
An inauspicious start
The site Hastings Council had bought, the Pebsham Estate, was already informally used for flying. On 5th July 1930 the Hastings & St Leonard’s Observer had even carried an advertisement for pleasure flights by Kent Aircraft Services promising ‘Exhilarating, thrilling flying, every day from 10pm till dusk, for the price of 5/-.’ (25p in today’s money – the average weekly wage was then around £2.00.)
As the proposed site was low-lying and subject to flooding (adjacent to Bulverhythe, behind the A259 where the football pitches are today), it was first raised by allowing Bexhill to dump its rubbish there. Next, financed by money from (confusingly) the Department of Health, the site was levelled and drained into the Combe Haven River.
Right from the start the project was constrained by a lack of imagination and sufficient finance. More worryingly, it was tight for space, something crucial for getting the Air Ministry certificate that would be essential to becoming a municipal airport. However, council minutes of the time detail long arguments about the type and cost of the grass sown to create runways: inexpert councillors bogged down in minutiae at the expense of the bigger picture.
By 1938 the Air Ministry had already made it clear (since aircraft were getting larger every year) that there was no prospect of extending the runways sufficiently for the scheme to function as a commercial enterprise. Even worse, there was no infrastructure: plans to develop Pebsham farmhouse into a hotel or flying club HQ had foundered and railway access (including pleas for a dedicated station stop) had come to nothing.
During its short life the putative aerodrome was little more than a mown grass strip and home to a handful of aeroplanes. True, there was some interest from flying clubs prepared to base themselves there and provide private and pleasure flights, but with no hangars, service areas or hard standing the airfield was humiliatingly turned down by the military for use in WW2 when development came to a halt.
Barnett Freedman 1932
PICTURE: Shell Art Collection
Despite this the burghers of Hastings seemed unable to read the runes; having almost abandoned the project in 1945, the aerodrome was formally opened by the Mayor three years later. Never used commercially, early hopes of cross channel connections to Le Touquet and internal UK flights soon foundered.
Instead a 14-year lease was granted to Hastings & East Sussex Air Service, who operated mostly pleasure flights; as the Air Ministry had earlier warned ‘private-use licenced at public expense’. Some reports say operations had virtually ceased by the early 1950s, but a 1957 article in Flight magazine refers to expansion plans being considered by Hastings Town Council – consistently inconsistent.
Loved by aero modellers
Reputedly disliked by local residents, the airfield was at least popular with some local lads. Chris Parris recalls: “During the 1940s and 50’s I lived at 412 Bexhill Road so had a good view of aircraft activity. I was an avid enthusiast and an aero modeller and spent much of my school holidays at the aerodrome. The booking hut for pleasure flights was operated by Hugh and Shirley Gordon, who then lived in a bungalow in York Road close to what was then the Glyne Gap Gasworks.”
Phil Sellens adds: “In the 1950s I lived quite close to Pebsham Aerodrome. I can remember only three resident aeroplanes. My best memories are the air shows … there would be dozens of aeroplanes present. Many of us would watch from a nearby hillside, locally known as the Daisy Bank, from where we had a grandstand view of the action.
I can remember an incident when an Auster had to land on the beach near Hastings Pier. I believe it was recovered without much damage.“
Some online posts refer to the Council resurrecting the airfield plan in 1963, only to be defeated by opposition from local residents (at a local meeting precisely no one was in favour), and again as late as 1967. Others claim flights ceased completely as far back as 1959.
So was it an airfield, airport or aerodrome? In reality, none of these, simply a folly that rapidly disappeared leaving some very expensive and well-drained playing fields, ironically also very popular with aero modellers.
• Footnote: If anyone knows of any pictures of Hastings aerodrome, HIP would love to see them.
• For more information try online flight enthusiast sites and local history boards, the archives of the Hastings and St Leonards Observer, Commercial Motor, Flight International, and the 1066 Model Flying Club website.
Also www.ukairfieldguide.net and Hastings: Looking Back to the Future, A tribute to Sidney Little by Richard Pollard available from the central library.
• Model aeroplanes can be bought at the Craft Box Norman Road.
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