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Posts Tagged ‘Southend Airport’

Ryanair, Europe’s biggest budget airline, has announced that it will base three aircraft at London Southend Airport from summer 2019, with between 55 and 60 weekly flights to 13 destinations in eight countries. The Irish airline expects to create 750 on-site jobs per year, and carry around a million passengers a year from the Essex airport, largely to Spain and Italy. However, the €300m investment in basing three planes at Southend is to be accompanied by the airline closing its Glasgow airport base because of low demand.

EasyJet established a base at Southend in 2012 after the site boundaries were secured, but with most of the Ryanair routes flying to four sunshine destinations already served from Southend by EasyJet – Alicante, Faro, Malaga and Palma, the competition between the two airlines could trigger a fares war.

Ryanair is also adding holiday services to Reus (described as ‘Barcelona’) and Bilbao in Spain, Brest in France, the Greek island of Corfu and Venice. Four city links are also on the new route map from the Essex airport: Dublin, Milan Bergamo, Kosice in Slovakia and Cluj in Romania.

The Stobart Group, which purchased the airport in 2008 for under £21m, announced pre-tax profits in May 2018 of £100m for the year to 28 February 2018, and is set to invest £40m in the airport between 2018 and 2021 following a 25 per cent increase in passenger numbers in 2017, and a 10 per cent increase in passenger numbers flying its own airline Stobart Air (formerly Aer Arann), which has been operating for Aer Lingus Regional and Flybe. The rapid expansion at Southend is set to continue, with Stobart anticipating five million passengers using the terminal by 2022.

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EKCO’s involvement in Airport Radar Approach Aid (ARAA) came about as a direct result of an early example of industrial and commercial co-operation between EKCO and Southend Municipal Airport, and was the first in the world to develop Airborne Weather Radar for commercial use and had produced a succession of equipment of improved performance since 1949.

Noting the development and use of Ground-Controlled Approach (GCA) radar during the Berlin Airlift, which materially contributed to the success of the operation by allowing aircraft to operate in all but the worst conditions (particularly at the Gatow and Templelhof airfields in Berlin), and proved that ‘talk-down radar’ was an invaluable aid to airports, Squadron Leader Bernard F Collins (who had been appointed the manager of Southend Municipal Airport in 1946) realised that this equipment would be needed at Southend if it was to offer ‘all weather’ capability. He also realised that GCA radar was hugely expensive (estimated at around £50,000) and only the military and large civil international airports could afford it.

Daunted by this, Bernard Collins arranged a meeting with EKCO, and local folklore says that Eric Cole was at a luncheon with the Mayor of Southend and Bernard Collins, where the issue of GCA talk-down radar was discussed together with its high price and it was suggested to Eric that he could produce something cheaper that would work just as well, to which, Eric apparently replied, ‘I’m sure we can’.

Eric tasked Tony Martin, the chief engineer at EKCO, to investigate the feasibility of designing a system which would provide a talk-down service at a fraction of the cost of the existing systems. Tony sat down with his team of engineers, lead by Ted O’Flynn (a wartime radar engineer with the company who ran a ‘special projects’ laboratory above the car radio laboratory at Southend) and they started by redesigning a simple radar that might have been developed in the early days if military money had not been so plentiful.

Their work was made much easier by the fact that work on the Hawker Hunter Radar Ranging (ARI-5820) System at the Malmesbury factory was in the advanced stages of development, and was an almost a perfect match in meeting the range requirements. It also incorporated a pulse repetition frequency (PRF) which could give the high resolution image needed to bring a ‘target’ down the glide-path when mated to the five-inch high visibility CRT (and was also used on the ASV Mark 19 for the Fairey Gannet).

Southend Airport Radar

Ground-Controlled Approach (GCA) at Southend Airport

The finished design was a structure which has been likened to a periscope in a submarine; the operator stood at a console, which was about three feet square, and had a five-inch diameter ‘A’ scope and an illuminated compass above it together an illuminated series of lights, which told the approach controller if the aircraft was ‘on track’, or off to the left or right. The operator was able to follow the aircraft by literally rotating the entire radar-receiving unit by turning it on its axis.

The equipment gave a range of 16 miles and had two scales these being 0-16Nm for general acquisition and guidance and 0-4Nm for final precision talk-down. While no height information was given, these two scales did allow accurate distance information to be passed to the approaching aircraft via a graticule overlay on the screen, which compensated for the fact that the radar was not on the runway centre line. At Southend, the control tower was about 800 yards offset from the main 06/24 runway. Once the parameters were decided on, development proceeded rapidly so that by June 1949, the first tests were taking place at the airport using a Percival Proctor owned by the airport as the target aircraft.

The old Southend Airport Control Tower

The old Southend Airport Control Tower

The radar tests were complete by June 1950, resulting in the system gaining Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approval and certification in December 1951, thus allowing the system to be used operationally and it was demonstrated to the press in January 1952. While the equipment was highly regarded by the operators who used it, and it was certainly cheap (believed to be circa £4,000 installed in the case of Southend Airport), it was never a best seller and probably no more than thirty were ever manufactured in the early to late 1950’s.

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Turn the clock back eighty years for an almost incredible contrast of Southend Airport as daring enthusiasts racing across the turf in home-built aircraft of wire and plywood. “Pou-de-Ciel” the French inventor dubbed them; “Flying Fleas” was the English translation, and the men who flew them just were as daring as the contraptions were dangerous.

It was in the 1930’s that M. Henri Mignet (19 October 1893 – 31 August 1965), a French radio engineer, designed and built the minimum single-seater aeroplane. There were no roll controls – it being assumed that the fuselage would continue to dangle from the main upper wing. This flea, powered by a 500 cc two stroke motorcycle engine, had neither ailerons nor rudder, and control was by tilting the joystick for up/down flight via a flexible upper wing. It couldn’t achieve very great height, and if long grass wore down the tips of the wooden propeller too much, it couldn’t take off.

Pou-Du-Ciel (G-ADXS) at Southend airport on 24 June 1972

Pou-Du-Ciel (G-ADXS) at Southend airport on 24 June 1972

Southend was a big centre for “Fleas”. Hundreds of spectators flocked to grounds at Ashingdon, Rochford and the present airport site for the thrill of watching a handful of enthusiasts risk their necks for a few seconds of flying. Four of the Flea enthusiasts were well-known figures in Southend. They were Mr. Bernard Collins, MBE, Southend’s airport commandant (and later with Channel Airways); Mr Chris Story, proprietor of the Alexandra Street garage that bore his name, Mr Alick Pearce, by day assistant sales manager with the Southend Motor and Aero Company, and by night licencee of the George and Dragon on Foulness, and finally Captain Claud Oscroft, a senior captain with Swissair.

The aerodrome, known as Canute Aero Park, was opened in 1909

Two of the four built their own Fleas in garages only a couple of hundred yards apart in the heart of Southend, each advising the other on technical points. Chris Story’s Flea took three months to construct, often working through the night. Just around the corner in Nelson Street, pilot Alick Pearce, Harry Sawyer of the Anchor, Great Wakering, and Mr. Leo Len Hendrie, were working on their machine. Their Flea was powered by a converted car engine, and the overall cost of production (£70-80) was shared between the three partners. Their Flea, the “Fleeing Fly”, came to grief almost as soon as it was completed. Chris’s flying instruction came straight from the pages of a manual, and he managed a few hops on the first occasion. About a week later he took off ‘more by accident than anything’, but then the little aircraft flipped upside down. Hanging head downwards, he released the seatbelt dropped out onto his head. The damage cost £150 to rectify, but the Fleeing Fly was never to fly again, and lay in his garage.

Bernard Collins was only twenty years old when he set up the British long-distance flying for Fleas – 87 miles from Heston to Melton Mowbray in May 1936. He knew nothing about the record until it was announced on the BBC News while he was sitting at home that evening. Flea flying was highly dangerous – a number of pilots were killed. The Airport Commandant’s first log book gives some idea of the hazards.

One entry reads: Approached Dorking at 3,000 feet, machine dived out of control to 500 feet. Floor gave way. Resolved never to fly Flea again.

In both Fleas and his Heath Robinson painted drone, bought for £42, he often visited Southend and the Canute Air Park at Ashingdon. He recalled that one Flea owner was so irate that his machine would not fly – there were many that did little more than hop – that in desperation he sawed off the propeller and let spectators race it round Canute Air Park at five shillings a go. All went well until, with the combination of a light passenger and an overheated engine, the Flea leapt into the air coming to a rest on top of a tree.

Bernard Collins’ British long-distance record was challenged by a Southend pilot. “Ossie” Oscroft, a dare-devil, who aimed to fly his Machine which was owned by the Aero 8 Club, from Ashingdon to France and back again. Rather than risk crossing the Thames at an early stage of the flight he flew up to Tilbury and then crossed the river. The “Buzzcraft”, designed and built at Ashingdon, covered fifty miles until an oil feed pipe cracked, blinding him with oil. He landed on a hillside running straight into a muck heap, the whirling propeller showering him with foul-smelling manure.

Many more stories of the Fleas remain untold. The era came ungraciously to an abrupt end when, after a long chapter of accidents, insurance companies refused to insure them against the necessary third party risks.

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