Many airfields built in the heat of war have done their duty and faded into history, the majority returning to their former lives serving agricultural needs, probably unrecognisable as airfields today. Not so all airfields borne of war's necessity, a few would be destined to serve their country's needs far beyond the call of combat. Blackbushe Airport is one such airfield. The recent “Festival of Flight” celebrating her 75th Anniversary confirmed Blackbushe is still very much ‘operational’.
The Perfect Airfield
A perfect natural airfield, situated on the expansive plateau known as Hartford Bridge Flats in north-east Hampshire, Blackbushe Airport is within easy reach of London, affords excellent surface links, boasts an excellent ‘good weather’ record, and could not be more environmentally friendly with its long unobstructed approaches over open common and forestry land leading to an excellent all-weather runway.
Flying started at the new RAF Hartford Bridge before the official November, 1942 opening. Aero Airborne Flight were suffering from lack of space at their Farnborough base, and fortunately the new Hartford Bridge provided the necessary facility for their ongoing Horsa and Hamilcar glider trials using RAF Whitleys for aero towing.
The winter of 1942/43 passed fairly quietly as the airfield's infrastructure was brought to operational readiness. The summer witnessed a rapid build-up of squadrons and the public highway that ran through the airfield was closed 24 hours a day.
The airfield took on a distinctly international flavour as the growing number of home based squadrons included the famous Free French “Lorraine Squadron”, together with Canadian, Polish and Dutch squadrons. 88, 226, and 342 Lorraine Squadron flew Bostons and Mitchells to great effect attacking strategic enemy locations.
The somewhat fearsome FIDO system was installed in 1943. “Fog Intensive Dispersal Of”, the awe inspiring system consisting of pipes either side of the main runway through which large quantities of petrol were pumped, when ignited the resultant blaze gave the name “flare path” a whole new meaning. Incredibly costly to run, FIDO was used to good effect burning off fog when necessary, but it would never be a “commercial” success.
Photo Reconnaissance work carried out from Hartford Bridge prior to D-Day was of the immense value in both the planning and execution of D-Day. PR units photographed the French coast from dawn to dusk. 16 Squadron with PRXI Spitfires certainly emphasised the dawn to dusk element operating blue and also completely pink Spitfires to match the time of day sky. A genuine blue 16 Squadron Spitfire participated in the 75th Anniversary celebrations.
The name RAF Hartford Bridge was changed during 1944after new personnel posted to the airbase sometimes mistakenly travelled to Hartford Bridge in Northumberland 300 miles north of their intended destination. The new name, RAF Blackbushe, was taken from a local farm.
At Peace, a New Era Beckons
As war ended the airfield transferred to RAF Transport Command's care. However, the London area was very short of suitable ‘all weather’ runways. As the Ministry of Civil Aviation realised the benefits of Blackbushe, her new life as a commercial airport began.
She played a large role in the Berlin Airlift, while becoming a focal point in the post war growth of the British independent airline industry. Many new British independent airline names first appeared at post war Blackbushe: Airwork, Britavia, Continental, Dan-Air, Eagle, Falcon, Orion, Pegasus, Silver City and Westminster. The Airport’s excellent weather proved a bonus when Heathrow fell below limits! Heathrow bound flights would divert to fog-free Blackbushe. The airfield’s importance took a large step forward when the US Navy decided to establish their only UK land base at Blackbushe, while BOAC and BEA carried out extensive crew training with many types, including all the Comet variants.
The government elected to close Blackbushe in May, 1960. Following the Gatwick investment Blackbushe had to be closed, despite the airlines of Blackbushe forming a ‘buy and takeover’ consortium.
The Future, the Prospects, the Potential
Thankfully, soon after its closure, AVM “Pathfinder” Bennett appreciated the lost potential of Blackbushe, and purchased the 360 acres that form today's airfield.
Kings, Queens, Presidents and Prime Ministers, all have flown from Blackbushe. Today, Blackbushe is home to Aerobility, the amazing charity that brings the joy of flight to injured service personnel, and to those who are disabled. Wijet, Europe's largest jet taxi operator, Phoenix Helicopters, and flying schools Air First and Blackbushe Aviation are all established residents.
The Airport is now owned by a consortium intent on developing the great potential locked up in what is one of southern UK’s most outstanding airfields.
Blackbushe has survived 75 years of war and peace, even closure, but still she lives - a fact not lost on the thousands who joined in to celebrate her 75th birthday this July.