FEATURE: Weston Air Festival 2018 - the town's historic links with the RAF
PUBLISHED: 07:00 24 June 2018
Weston Air show returns today (Sunday) with another spectacular display on the seafront scheduled, including the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. The Royal Air Force (RAF) marked its 100th anniversary this year - and former serviceman Ken Delve has explored Weston-super-Mare's links with the RAF.
Weston Airfield was a civil field adopted for wartime use, after Weston Airport opened in 1936 as a simple grass airfield.
Commercial services expanded over the first two years and in July 1939 the main operators, the Straight Corporation, started an Air Ministry contract for flying training.
Although some training continued throughout World War Two, the airfield’s main role was in aircraft production, as a shadow factory.
Western Airways, owned and operated by Straight, had taken on modification and overhaul work of RAF trainers. By late-1940 the airfield had started to produce Beaufighters with a Bristol shadow factory having been constructed on the west side of the airfield near the Oldmixon.
After initial problems with production the factory settled down and at its peak production in 1944 was turning out more than 80 aircraft a month. The final Beaufighter left the factory in September 1945.
Post-war, production switched instead to helicopters with Sycamores and Belvederes rolling off the production lines in the 1950s.
The airfield’s proximity to Locking allowed the RAF to use it for limited flying up to 1966, with the Volunteer Gliding School (621) also operating there for 40 years from 1955.
The Bristol Helicopter Division was taken-over by Westland Aircraft in March 1960 and the factory continued to produce helicopters and parts until the company transferred all its work to the Yeovil factory.
One major benefit of the helicopter connection was the support at Weston of the helicopter museum – now the world’s largest collection dedicated to helicopters.
History of World War One in North Somerset
Millions use Bristol Airport every year, but in World War Two it was RAF Lulsgate Bottom, which was famous for two things – bad weather and the unexpected landing of a German aircraft.
The airfield originally opened as a small grass airfield for use by the flying training unit at Weston. However, Fighter Command needed new airfields in this region and so additional land was acquired for construction of a standard three-runway airfield.
The German Ju 88 plane had been decoyed into landing at the still under construction airfield, landing here at 6.20am on July 24, 1941. The aircraft subsequently joined the RAF’s evaluation unit. Lulsgate did not actually open until January 1942; Fighter Command had lost interest and the airfield was assigned for flying training, a role it retained to the end of the war.
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It was subsequently taken over by the Ministry of Civil Aviation and in due course, Bristol Airport was born.
The main RAF non-airfield location in North Somerset was RAF Locking, a station which played a very important role in training technicians and specialists from 1939-1999; in this 60-year period Locking trained thousands, with No.5 School of Technical Training being the wartime unit.
From airframe, engine and rigging, to parachute packing and fabric working, and even Marine Craft fitters and carpenters, the workshops at Locking were a hive of activity.
Having completed training the young airmen then went to their operational units. In the post-war period, the station underwent changes, including increasing numbers of overseas trainees.
The link to the community was strong, and in 1956 the station was awarded the Freedom of Weston. The first parade took place that year, and the last took place in 1998.
Author: Ken Delve served in the RAF as aircrew from 1975 to 1994; he is an aviation researcher and author and trustee of the RAF Heraldry Trust (www.rafht.co.uk). The trust is a registered charity which aims to make a permanent artwork record of all RAF unit badges. Ken can be contacted at historian@rafht. co.uk