Airport History

Ipswich Airport

By Philip Langford.

With the demise of Ipswich Airport a few years ago it is surprising that nobody has produced a book detailing its history, so the following account was produced by drawing on a variety of different sources. Some of the details are rather sketchy and if any readers can shed more light on events, please let us know!

The aerodrome at Ipswich was officially opened on 26th June 1930 by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales when he visited the town to attend the Wolsey Pageant. The Prince flew in with a RAF fighter escort and went to the aero club house to remove his flying kit before performing the opening ceremony. Then, when at the ceremony in the presence of the Suffolk Aero Club president, Lady Bailey, he congratulated Ipswich on its far sighted policy in establishing the aerodrome.

The Suffolk Aero Club was formed by Mr Courtney Prentice, an ex-Royal Flying Corps bomber pilot, in 1925 and had operated from Hadleigh before moving to Ipswich. In 1928 they were flying 3 Blackburn Bluebird two seater biplanes but these were sold Redwing biplanes with Genet engines. Other club machines seen at Ipswich in the 1930s were a Miles Hawk and a Klemn Swallow, a German designed low wing monoplane built under licence in this country. Two small metal hangers also used by the club at Hadleigh were transported to Ipswich and erected at the Nacton Road Site.

In February 1936 the management of the aerodrome was taken over by the Straight Corporation who prepared ambitious plans for the site including squash and tennis courts, a swimming pool and other recreational amenities. Phase 1 of the scheme was the construction of a new terminal building and this was officially opened by the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Air, Captain Harold Balfour, at the Suffolk Air Day held on 9th July 1938.

He arrived in a De Havilland DH.86B owned by the Air Council and was greeted by Councillor E. C. Ransome, Chairman of the Airport Committee and Mr Whitney Straight, Managing Director of the Straight Corporation. With the closeness of the Royal Air Force experimental establishments several new types took part in the day including a Handley Page Harrow, Bristol Blenheim, Vickers Wellesley and Westland Lysander which all flew over from Martlesham Heath and landed. The M.A.E.E. at Felixstowe sent a Saro London, Supermarine Scapa and Short Sunderland. Other RAF aircraft that took part included 3 Gloster Gladiators which performed aerobatics and the new Vickers Wellingtons from No.9 Squadron at Stradishall. The event attracted an estimated 30,000 people with over 200 taking to the air for the first time.

Earlier in 1938, on 20th June, a passenger service operated by the Straight Corporation had commenced. This was to Clacton using a Short Scion five seater aircraft departing from Ipswich at 10.30am and returning at 20.30pm. The fare was 9/6d return or 6/6d single and the flight duration was 15 minutes.

Also during 1938 as the fear of war increased, Army Go-operation flying in connection with the Observer Corps was carried out from Ipswich. This involved flying a given ground speed over a set rough rectangular course in the early evening. Night flying was carried out near Norwich and Weybourne as part of another contract that required navigation lights to be switched off to make it as difficult as possible for the searchlights to find them. In October 1938 the Civil Air Guard started training here.

Meanwhile, Prentice Air Services of Ipswich, had gained the sole concessionaire in this country for the American Taylorcraft, a high wing monoplane that sold for about £450. The Straight Corporation at this time were overhauling all their aero engines at the airport some of which were delivered to Ipswich Railway Station in crates for transport to Nacton Road.

1939 saw No.45 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School established here to train Volunteer Reserve pilots and when war was declared in September, the government requisitioned the airport facilities and the Straight Corporation left the site. Ipswich was allocated as a satellite airfield for Wattisham and was placed like its parent station in No.2 Group, Bomber Command. Wattishams No.110 Squadron was the first to use the site dispersing its Bristol Blenheim light bombers all around the grass airfield during early September; these bombers, together with similar aircraft of No.107 Squadron based at Wattisham, took part in the first bombing raid of the war on 4th September 1939 against the pocket battleship Admiral Von Scheer. There are two versions of No.110 Squadron's involvement in this operation, either they took off from Ipswich and flew direct to the target or they flew to Wattisham first to be armed and loaded with bombs.

Ipswich was used by Wattisham as an outstation for both Nos.107 and 110 Squadrons through 1940 and 1941, the latter flying some operational sorties from the airfield during February and March 1941. Another unit stationed at Wattisham, No.1517 Blind Approach Training Flight, also used Ipswich around this time.

Ipswich was fortunate in February 1940 when a Blenheim IV taking off from the airfield suffered engine failure while climbing out over the town. The pilot managed to crash land in the River Orwell near Ipswich Station and together with the other crewman managed to get a dingy inflated and paddled to safety.

The Luftwaffe visited Ipswich on 24th March 1941 when three Heinkel HE.llls and two Messerschmitt BF.iOSs attacked the airfield with high explosive bombs and machine gun fire.

On 12th August 1941 No.2 Group Bomber Command launched their brave and memorable low level daylight attack on the Cologne power stations, Knapsack and Quadreth. In preparation for this raid three squadrons of Spitfires, Nos. 19, 65 and 266, had arrived at Ipswich beforehand to refuel. On the day itself the Spitfires left Ipswich, along with a Blenheim from No.226 squadron, to escort the main force of Bristol Blenheims back from over Holland. Unfortunately the navigator Blenheim was shot down over Holland by a Messerschmitt BF.109 and 12 of the original 56 Bristol Blenheims dispatched were destroyed.

Ipswich played host to Wattishams Blenheim squadrons until March 1942 when the airfield was transferred to No.12 Group Fighter Command and became a satellite airfield for Martlesham Heath. Thus, a succession of fighter units came here including No. 340 Squadron in July 1942. This was a Free French squadron, which flew Spitfire VBs identified by the Cross of Lorraine just below the cockpit. In the main it was Spitfires that visited the station but Hawker Typhoons were sometimes seen. Airspeed Oxfords flown by No.1517 Blind Approach Training Flight were also seen here during this period.

On 1st March 1943 Ipswich was upgraded to full RAF station status followed 11 days later by the arrival from Martlesham Heath of No.1616 Target Towing Flight which flew Hawker Henley target tugs. Together with No.3 Anti-Aircraft Target Towing Flight, which had arrived in April 1943, they spent most of their time towing targets for the navel gunners at Harwich. On 19th June 1943 No.1499 Gunnery Flight started lodging at the station with their Miles Martinet aircraft, this arrangement lasted until 15th February 1944 when the flight was disbanded.

Following the disbanding of Army Co-operation Command on 1st June 1943, No.3 AATT Flight was absorbed into No.1627 Flight, which arrived here in the summer of that year. Summer 1943 also found a detachment of Martleshams ASR squadron at Ipswich and the following month another detachment, No.7 Anti-aircraft Co-operation Unit, flew from the station. On 6th November 1943 No.652 Squadron arrived with Auster Ills and remained until March 1944 when they moved out to make way for a naval servicing unit.

Occasionally the aerodrome was used by damaged aircraft that could not make it back to their home base. One such incident occurred on 4th November 1943 when a B-17F of the 351st Bomb Group based at Polebrook in Northamptonshire made an emergency landing in cloudy weather.

On 1st December 1943 Nos 1616 and 1627 Flights were dissolved in to a new squadron, No 679, and flew Miles Martinets and Airspeed Oxfords on anti-aircraft and searchlight co-operation duties. These aircraft, together with 2 rare RAF Fairey Barracudas which joined the squadron on 18th March 1944, flew from Ipswich for the remainder of the war providing target facilities for the Navy at Harwich. In March 1944 No.1696 Bomber Defence Training Flight arrived flying Martinets, Spitfires and Hurricanes. This flight stayed until 1945 then moved to Gransden Lodge and Wyton. Around this time detachments of Austers belonging to No.658 Air Observation Post Squadron were also based at Ipswich.

On 26th May 1944 a Miles Martinet crashed at Gulpher Farm in Felixstowe. The pilot, Flight Sergeant Pritchard and his crewman Leading Aircraftsman Lambourne, were both injured in this mishap. On 1st September the airfield suffered a near miss from a V1. The rocket landed just outside the perimeter demolishing a requisitioned house but also unfortunately killing a RAF NCO.

Among the rarer visitors to the aerodrome were Avro Rota I autogyros of No.529 Squadron. This unit used the airfield as a base from which to carry out calibration flights for radar stations and gunners defending the east coast.

No.679 Squadron was disbanded on 30th June 1945 when its operational duties were passed to No.695 Squadron at Bircham Newton. Later in the year, on 1st August, Ipswich was placed under Care and Maintenance remaining as such until April 1946 when the RAF left the site and civil flying resumed.

By 1951 the airfield had largely fallen in to disuse although there was still some limited amateur flying from the 2 grass runways. It was also overgrown and accumulating various types of rubbish. It was around this time that Mr D Burgess, a former Avro Lancaster pilot, was asked to check the possibility of using Ipswich Airport in the expansion of a local airline. He reported that Ipswich had potential and he could get it operational again although it would be quite a task.

Consequently early in 1953 a long term lease was taken out on Ipswich Airport by East Anglian Flying Services (EAFS). Dan Burgess then set about clearing the airfield site with the help of willing volunteers. These came from the local ATC who were persuaded following a flight in a Douglas Dakota. EAFS was East Anglia's first international airline and was formed on 16th August 1946 by Squadron Leader R.J.Jones, an ex RAF Transport Command pilot who had also served in the Royal Navy.

By Easter 1953 the airport was back in operation and scheduled services began under the name of East Anglian Airways. Passengers could be picked up by coaches from the surrounding area before flying to Southend and then onward to Paris or the Channel Islands. The shuttle aircraft was a 8 seater De Havilland Dragon Rapide bi-plane. In the terminal building the first floor was converted to bedrooms complete with ensuite facilities.

Soon after the airport became usable the East Anglian Flying Club was formed, Initially with one Auster Autocrat. This was soon joined by another Auster Autocrat and a De Havilland Tiger Moth, but unfortunately the latter was written off by a New Zealander while attempting a low altitude turn. A great supporter of the airport, Mr Stanley Ward, was appointed Chief Flying Instructor in 1954. He trained many pilots at Ipswich and following his retirement fought tirelessly to keep the airport open.

Another business trading at the airport in 1954 was Vicon. This company made small components for large aircraft manufacturers including De Havilland and Hawker Siddeley, but sadly went in to liquidation 2 years later.

By 1957 3 twin engined De Havilland Doves had been purchased from the West African Airways Corporation and were operating on the feeder service between Ipswich and Southend. On 29th October 1962 East Anglian Flying Services became Channel Airways and bought up Tradair, a Southend based company which had fallen on bad times. The incorporation of Tradair marked another advance for Channel Airways as the company now possessed its first turbine powered aircraft, a Vickers Viscount Series 700. An order was then placed for 4 Hawker Siddeley 748 twin engined medium range airliners at a cost of £1.5 million.

These aircraft were required for a new service called the Scottish Flyer which linked Southend and Aberdeen with intermediate stops at Ipswich, Norwich, Leeds, Teeside, Newcastle and Edinburgh. It is said that the outward bound departure from Ipswich at around 1000 hours each day was an Impressive sight with the quietness of the Rolls Royce built turboprops a marked contrast to the roar of the Douglas Dakota's Wright Cyclones.

In 1966 Channel Always was granted a 21 year lease of the airport site. The latest navigation aids for ground air control were then Installed together with other safety equipment at a cost of £9,900.

Channel Airways continued to operate the feeder service to Southend until the early 1970s but by then the De Havilland Rapides and Doves had been replaced by more modern aircraft. During the 1960s other aircraft owned by Channel Airways were also seen at the airport including Bristol Freighters and Vickers Viscounts.

By 1971 Channel Airways had moved to Stansted from Southend in order to operate its newly acquired Hawker Siddeley Comets and Tridents. These new aircraft had gold painted tail fins and became known as the Golden Fleet. The company was now able to fly further afield with the Tridents now operating to Istanbul In Turkey. Thus in 1971, Channel Airways had a streamlined and modernised fleet consisting of 2 Trident 1Es, 2 BAC One Eleven Series 400, 5 Comet 4Bs, 1 Comet 4, 9 Viscount 812s and 6 Heron feeder airliners.

In 1973 Channel Airways agreed to purchase 7 Vickers Viscounts that were in the United States. All looked well until the government devalued the pound which made these aircraft extremely expensive. The company continued to operate for a few more months but then the money ran out and the axe fell resulting in offices closed and all aircraft grounded. What was once a big independent airline, with over 430 staff and 27 years of service to the Eastern Counties, just disappeared.

Soon after Channel Airways went out of Business the airport lease was taken over by Lonmet (Aviation) Limited. This company, like the Straight Corporation 35 years earlier, had plans to develop the site and up to 1975 ware reported to have spent over £100,000 on improving facilities. Aircraft movements were also reported to have grown from 10,000 in 1972 to over 46,000 during 1974.

The arrival of Lonmet Aviation brought the British School of Flying to Ipswich Airport. This company ran Ministry of Defence scholarships and Civil Aviation Authority Traffic Control cadet courses, and used the airfield alongside the Ipswich School of Flying, which had been formed in 1971 by John Thurlow and John Pickering. There were soon disagreements between Lonmet and the local flying schools resulting in the former being accused of "actively discouraging" the use of the airport by aircraft other than those of its own British School of Flying. This accusation was dismissed by the company as "sour grapes".

In 1975 a newspaper reported that the 254 acre site, which was owned by Ipswich Council, may not remain as an airfield after the 21 year lease ran out in 1987. The then Chief Executive of Ipswich Council, Mr Robert Cross, said a review would take place to way up the advantages between having an airport and other needs existing at that time, for housing.

Also in 1975 another company opened for business at Ipswich Airport. This was Orwell Air Services which operated a Queenair twin engined monoplane, registration G-AUNA, for its air taxi and charter work.

On 1st November 1976 the Suffolk Aero Club was founded by Peter Collier. It originally operated two leased aircraft, a French built Rallye MS880 and a Cessna 150.

So with flying schools, charter work and an air taxi service things looked good on paper, but towards the end of the 1970s Ipswich Airport was going through some difficult times. Therefore, in 1978 Ipswich Borough Council began legal action against Lonmet (Aviation) Limited to regain control of Ipswich Airport.

In 1980 the owner of the airport lease changed once again when it was purchased by Ipswich Co-op in a face saving deal. This resulted in Ipswich Borough Council dropping its legal action to regain control against Lonmet (Aviation) Limited, which had started two years earlier. It soon became clear that the Co-op was not really interested in running an airport and in the following year announced plans to build a huge superstore and houses on the site. To fight these proposals the founder of Suffolk Light Aircraft Maintenance (SLAM), Mr Laurie Usher, formed the Users and Friends of Ipswich Airport and threatened to call in the Ombudsman claiming maladministration. The Co-op's plans were withdrawn following a public enquiry.

Meanwhile on the airfield site in 1980 another flying school began operations. This was the Horizon Flying Club, which was formed by Bill Stitt and his wife Gill who also owned the Essex Flying Club at Earls Colne.

In 1982 the Leader of Ipswich Borough Council, Mr Jamie Cann, reaffirmed the Council's support for a Co-op superstore and development of part of the airport site leaving one runway. The Council also approved an application by the Vinten Group of Bury St. Edmunds to build light aircraft on the airport site but this unfortunately came to nothing.

Two years later in 1984 the Council's view of the airport completely changed. It now supported the development of the site and retention of both its grass runways. The Council also informed Harvest Air that they would be granted the airport lease if they carried out improvements to the value of £600,000.

The popular pastime of parachuting came to Ipswich in the 1980s with the first full time club being opened by Pat Slattery. This was taken over by Tony Knights who opened the Ipswich Parachute Centre in 1985. After it opened an average of around 2,000 people a year made their first parachute jump over Ipswich using the Centre's Piper PA-32 Cherokee Six (G-BAXJ) or Britten Norman BN2A-8 Islander (G-OWIN).

In April 1986 Suckling Airways commenced scheduled services between Ipswich Airport, Manchester Airport and Schipol Airport in Amsterdam. Set up by Roy and Merlyn Suckling, the company operated an 18 seat Dornier Do.228-200 commuter airliner, which cost £2.2 million and carried the registration G-BMMR.

On 4th October 1986 a familiar looking twin engined aircraft was seen flying circuits over Ipswich. This turned out to be Douglas DC-3 Dakota, serial N4565L, which was then employed on film work but ended up staying at Ipswich Airport into the 1990s.

The Suckling Airways scheduled services appeared to guarantee the future of the airport and also gave the local flying schools a new lease of life. In 1987 there were 45,000 aircraft movements at the airfield, which included the Cessnas and Pipers of the local clubs and also a variety of visiting aircraft. One of the more interesting resident aircraft at this time was the North American AT-GC Harvard IIA owned by Colin "Eddie" Edwards with the civil registration G-BICE.

Ipswich Airport suffered a set back on 25th September 1987 when the two people who were masterminding the redevelopment of the site were tragically killed. Nigel Brendish and Ron Sullivan were flying in a Cessna 150 on a flight to Southend when it crashed in to a field at Tollesbury in Essex. An Inquest returned a verdict of accidental death. In the following month, on 16th October, very strong winds caused several thousand pounds worth of damage at the airport. Nine aircraft were damaged including the Douglas Dakota, which was blown into a fence. Also the Ipswich Parachute Centre building was destroyed and the control tower suffered several broken windows.

During early November 1987 another Douglas Dakota was seen at the airfield. This was G-AMPZ, which was owned by Harvest Air and used on pollution control duties, which included the location and dispersal of oil slicks. Later in the month on 20th and 21st the airport was closed to ail traffic due to above average rainfall making the runways water laden. During this time Suckling Airways operated from Stansted and used buses between the two airports. Other aircraft owned by Harvest Air and used on pollution control duties were also seen at the airport. These included Britten Norman islanders, G-BJWM, G-BJWN and G-BJWP, which were seen with the Douglas Dakota during late February 1988.

The wet weather continued into 1988 and by February the grass runways were reportedly being damaged by the Dornier Do.228-200 owned by Suckling Airways. The flying schools complained about the damage caused by the Dorniers wheels, especially at the end of the runways where it turned. To alleviate these complaints Suckling Airways temporary moved to RAF Wattisham during the second week of February where it operated its services to Manchester and Amsterdam until early March when the airline returned to Ipswich. Unfortunately the complaints of damage to the runways, and a new disagreement over landing fees, turned in to full scale rows between Suckling Airways and Harvest Air which resulted in the airline leaving Ipswich and permanently relocating to Cambridge.

From February 1988 to April 1989 at least 5 vintage American military aircraft were imported into the UK via the Port of Felixstowe. These aircraft, 3 Chance Vought Corsairs and 2 Grumman Avengers, were transported by road to Ipswich Airport from where they were flown to their new homes.

Late In 1988 the Ipswich Helicopter School was formed at Ipswich Airport. For £140 an hour pupils could learn to fly in one of the company's 4 Robinson R22 Beta two seat helicopters which were registered GOLIE, G-IHSA, G-ISHB and G-IHSC.

Land/Air rallies and other spectator events attracted large crowds and several visiting aircraft during the late 1980s. At the Air Fete organised by the Ipswich Lions in July 1988 there were 63 aircraft seen on the airfield. Another event of note was the 2nd Race in the 1989 British Air Racing Championship held on 21st May 1989. This was a 4 lap handicap race over a 25.85 mile circuit which took the participants over Bentley, Brantham, Trimley St. Martin and Bucklesham.

In both 1988 and 1989 Ipswich Airport handled 43,000 aircraft movements proving that it was still a very popular airfield especially for training flights. During June 1989 control of the airport changed again when Ipswich Borough Council paid Harvest Air £1.2 million for the lease. The Council then revealed plans for housing on the site so Ipswich Airport ended the decade as it began it, with uncertainty.

In 1990 Ipswich Borough Council announced plans to close the airport at the beginning of 1994. This decision was followed by a public inquiry in July 1991, which was held at County Hall in Ipswich. At this Inquiry Ipswich Borough Council argued that housing development in the town would be delayed if it was not allowed to build on the site until an alternative airport could be found. For Suffolk County Council, the Assistant County Planning Officer stated there was plenty of room for extra housing adjacent to the Nacton Road site and possibly in the Westerfield Road area. The government, after hearing both sides and considering the views of the Users and Friends of Ipswich Airport, found in favour of Ipswich Borough Council therefore effectively giving approval for the airport to be closed. A closure date of 31st December 1993 was then announced.

During 1992 and 1993 there were 2 telephone polls in the Evening Star. The second poll, conducted on 23rd September 1993, concluded that nearly 90% of those who rang to vote wanted a referendum over the plan to close Ipswich Airport. There were 4,052 readers who said Yes compared to only 487 who said No. In the same month people living close to the airport signed a petition to declare their support for retaining the airport. However this level of support was rejected by Ipswich Borough Council who were still determined to go ahead with housing and sports facilities on the site, and insisted there would be no public vote over the airport. Also in 1993 the Local Government Ombudsman ruled that the airport closure plans had been handled correctly and rejected complaints lodged by the Users and Friends of Ipswich Airport.

Meanwhile away from politics the airport was still staging air shows. At the event held on 28th May 1990 there were displays by a Royal Navy Westland Lynx, a RAF BAe Hawk, a RAF Westland Wessex and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. There was also a flyby by one of the last Avro Shackletons. The Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight also made a single flyby at the air show held on 26th May 1991. Two years later at the Air Fete on 16th May 1993 the star of the show was a BAe Harrier. This RAF aircraft, based at RAF Wittering, performed a typical display before landing to be refuelled from a RAF tanker, which had arrived at the airport by Road. However pride of place at any air show was the only flying Bristol Blenheim, Z 5722, which attended a Land/Air Rally organised by the Suffolk Vehicle Enthusiasts Club. The person who put the aircraft back in the air, Graham Warner, felt the Blenheim should come to Ipswich as a tribute to the part the airfield played during the early years of the World War 2.

An unusual visitor to Ipswich during 1990 was a Thunder and Colt airship. This 90 foot long airship made an overnight stop at the airport on 17th/18th June while on route to Finland. Other interesting visitors during 1990 were a pair of vintage American fighters made by Grumman. These aircraft, a Wildcat and a Bearcat, left Ipswich Airport on 30th December 1990 after having arrived by road from Felixstowe. Similarly a Lockheed P-38 Lightning arrived at Ipswich on 5th June 1992 via the docks at Felixstowe and left a week later for Duxford.

The closure date of 31st December 1993 came and went without any noticeable changes at Ipswich Airport. The flying schools and other businesses continued as usual although by this time the airport buildings were in need of some repairs and maintenance. This borrowed time lasted until 1996 when Ipswich Borough Council announced that the airport would finally close at the end of the year.

More unusual visitors appeared on the airfield during 1995. In February a Jet Provost, piloted by owner Richard Everett, landed on the grass runway to loin 2 Hawker Hunters that were already in outside storage.

The latter 2 lets were also owned by Richard Everett and had arrived at Ipswich Airport by road. Like the Lockheed P-38 Lightning in 1992, the Jet Provost was later flown to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford.

In 1996 Hawk Air, an air taxi firm based in Cambridge, announced it wanted to take over the site and move its headquarters to Ipswich. Detailed plans, which included a hard runway, were sent to Ipswich Borough Council but they were promptly dismissed allegedly because the Borough Council would have got nothing from the deal.

On 31st December 1996 Ipswich Airport was delicensed, and ceased to be registered by the Civil Aviation Authority. However pleasure flights from the airfield continued until legal action forced all aircraft to leave Ipswich Airport.

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