Magnificent men in their flying machines

THE story of public transport at Weston would not be complete without gleaning something about flying, the development of Weston Airport

THE story of public transport at Weston would not be complete without gleaning something about flying, the development of Weston Airport, and the brief appearance of that other rival in cross-Channel services, the hovercraft.It was in August Bank Holiday week, 1911, that the first plane landed at the town. Thousands cheered the pilot, Colonel S F Cody, as he stepped from his seat after bringing his biplane down on the sands opposite the Grand Atlantic Hotel.With its eye on publicity, Weston had become interested in aviation even before the first plane was seen over the town. In June, 1910, a paragraph in the Mercury stated: "Probably no seaside resort affords better facilities for aviators than Weston-super-Mare, included in the advantages being the fact that it is separated by but twelve (nautical) miles from the Welsh coast."This was written at a time when E T Willows, in a small airship, had caused a sensation by flying around Cardiff. Mr E J McKaig, the resident engineer at Birnbeck Pier, and other townsmen toyed with the idea of staging an aviation week in Weston.Commending the project, the Mercury stated: "There can be no disputing the fact that the selection of the town for aerial flights constitutes an incomparably more potent advertisement than other forms of proclaimed merit .... With a deal of foresight and ready apprehension many towns and watering places have appropriated the airship as a most fruitful source of advertisement. Several such towns were little known or not known at all, until the flying men made their appearance in them."But nothing came of the aviation week idea, and it was not until the following year that the airmen finally came. When gallant Colonel S F Cody brought his biplane down on the sands near the Grand Atlantic Hotel on that August day in 1911, thousands swarmed around the frail craft and gave him a great cheer.He was whisked away to the Queen's Hotel by Mr J H Stevenson, the manager-secretary of the Grand Pier, and after being entertained to dinner was taken to the Pier Pavilion where he appeared on the stage."Looking thoroughly at home in his everyday attire, and with a soft wideawake hat under his arm," said the Mercury's report, "he had repeatedly to raise his hand before the cheering crowd could be silenced."After his speech, in which he told of his difficulty in having to pick his way through the host of kites children were flying from the sands, and of his experiences in the "Daily Mail" Circuit of Britain, there was such a tornado of cheering that he had to reappear several times and bow in acknowledgement.He said he would be leaving at three o'clock next morning, and added: "I shall expect to see you there!"And he did. Hundreds remained on the beach all night sleeping in deck chairs, and others arrived in the half-light of morning only half dressed, There was a crowd of between 5,000 and 6,000, and the Mercury reported: "simultaneously with the crescendo hum of the propeller the plane lifted, and amid cheers took the air with the grace of a bird". Its maximum speed, incidentally, was 56 to 58 mph.Less than a month later B C Hucks arrived for a few days to give demonstration flights in his monoplane from a large field off Locking Road, opposite Hutton Moor Road.The magazine 'Flight' reported that earlier: "Mr Hucks made some exhibition flights at Burnham, Somerset, and rather than risk the delay on the railway through the strike, he decided to fly over to Minehead, where he was to give an exhibition on Friday and Saturday."He covered the 25 miles between the two places satisfactorily, and made one flight at Minehead on Friday night and another on Saturday. In each case a good crowd of people was attracted, and the flights aroused much enthusiasm."During his Weston visit - on September 1st, 1911 - Hucks, who had a Blackburn plane, made local history by being the first man to fly a plane across the Bristol Channel. Like Cody, he was also off early in the morning at 5.10am. His machine, we are told: "with widely extending wings, rakish tail and beetling fore propeller, resembled nothing more strongly than a huge dragonfly as it rested on the dew-sprinkled grass".The engine was started, the plane ran forward some 50 yards, soared into the air and disappeared over Worlebury. Forty minutes later it was back and, said the report: "With a daring and graceful volplane (glide) the plane's descent was made within a few yards of the precise spot from which it started. The airman stepped from his seat, nonchalantly lit the inevitable cigarette, and smiled his acknowledgments."The report added: "No one can say the precautions against accident were elaborate, but a local motor boat was stationed in mid-Channel and Hucks had borrowed a cork life-belt."Hucks had flown over Cardiff at a height of 2,000 feet, and we are told that crowds gathered in the streets staring skywards on hearing the peculiar hum made by the open exhaust of the Gnome engine. While circling Cardiff, Huck dropped messages addressed to the editors of local newspapers and also handbills announcing his flights.On landing back at Weston he told how he had been carried considerably out of his way by air currents over the Channel, but after getting clear of them he was able to get to Cardiff without trouble. He flew back over Newport, steered in the direction of Marshfield, and then re-crossed the Channel.We are told that: "his speed was very great on the way back as he had the wind behind him".The following year, in August, 1912, Weston had the thrill of seeing the first 'water plane' landing in the bay, piloted by Capt E R Prestridge. He had to rely on bathers and paddlers to pull him ashore and launch him. In succeeding years Weston saw more and more planes, with visits from air 'circuses', and pleasure flights from the sands near the Sanatorium (now the Royal Sands). For several seasons there was flying from a ground on Hutton Moor. Planes were also used to weave advertisement slogans in the sky with their exhausts!In the local go-ahead years immediately preceding he Second World War, the Weston Council planned to construct an airport on Locking Moor at a cost of £60,000. At the start, this had every prospect of being a great success. The airport was opened in 1936, and in the first year carried over 36,000 passengers.The Weston to Cardiff air ferry became one of the busiest internal lines in the country. One could fly to Cardiff and back for as little at 7s 6d or 8s 6d.It appeared that there would be no end to development possibilities. I myself flew on the first plane to go from Weston to Birmingham to inaugurate a twice-daily link with the Midlands. The journey to Birmingham took 55 minutes. We touched down, had a drink and then flew back, the homeward trip taking an hour because of headwinds.Of course the Weston airport was too near that of Bristol to have a big future so far as the development of major services were concerned, and the runway was too short for the bigger planes to land.The airport should have had a useful future on short internal routes, especially that to Cardiff, but as a going concern it was killed by nationalisation. During the war years the airport was 'taken over', and it was never returned to the Borough Council, whose interest was later bought out by the Ministry of Civil Aviation. Crippling landing charges were put on charter companies wishing to operate services, and today the airport has but very small use as such except for pleasure flights.It served factory interests, and was thus a help to employment. Without it, RAF Locking would not have been established in the locality. The RAF station has been of great benefit to trade. The airport has also been greatly appreciated by gliding enthusiasts.Recently the borough council opened enquiries with the Ministry about the possibility of buying the airport back again - not to go into the flight business again, but to use the land for development. In July, 1963, Weston became keenly interested in a new form of public transport, the hovercraft, a Westland SRN2 being used for an experimental season of carrying passengers to and from Penarth. Then craft made the 11-mile crossing at more than 70 mph., and arrived at Penarth in under 12 minutes. Carrying 42 passengers, the machine travelled above the waves on a cushion of air.Hovercraft services have since been developed successfully elsewhere, but they have not been resumed at Weston. With the building of the Severn Bridge, there was even less demand locally, and it seems unlikely that a regular hovercraft service will be revived.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on February 2, 1968


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