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Bournemouth’s flying circuses

The Bournemouth Air Festival next month will be one of the largest events ever held in the town. John Walker looks at the dramatic history of air shows in Bournemouth.

Southbourne aviation meeting
The 1910 equivalent of the jet set came to the Southbourne aviation meeting in some of the smartest motor cars in the country

Nearly one hundred years ago, the large and comprehensive Bournemouth centenary celebrations of July 1910 included Britain’s first international aviation meeting, the success of which was tragically overshadowed by a fatal flying accident involving the Hon. Charles S Rolls. July 1910 was selected for the centenary celebrations as it was supposed to be exactly one hundred years on from the month when Captain Lewis Tregonwell, the ‘Founder of Bournemouth’, brought his wife Henrietta (née Portman, from Bryanston House near Blandford) to the area to show her the countryside over which he used to lead patrols looking out for Napoleonic invaders. Legend has it that it was at Henrietta’s instigation that, later in 1810, Lewis completed the first purchase of land in the area for residential development.

The international aviation meeting took place from 11 July 1910 under the auspices of the Royal Aero Club. The selected site was a specially laid out aerodrome at Southbourne on a mile of grassland between Tuckton and Double Dykes near Hengistbury Head. Some twenty famous aviators from around the world competed in a series of events: speed trials (including prizes for the fastest and slowest circuit of the field), spot landing competitions, altitude tests, weight carrying and distance competitions.

The prize for the leading pilot at the show went to Leon Morane flying a Blériot aeroplane. Local entrepreneur and aviator William E (Bill) McArdle, who was very much involved in the organisation of the event, won the long-distance prize with a non-stop flight from Beaulieu in the New Forest via the Needles on the Isle of Wight, a distance of twenty miles. Also taking part in the meeting was American-born and naturalised British pioneer aviator Colonel Sam Cody, who had built an aircraft which was known as the Bournemouth aeroplane. In October 1908 he had become the first man to fly in Great Britain and in 1913 he was killed in a flying accident.

The remains of the aircraft in which Charles Rolls became the first airman to die
The remains of the aircraft in which Charles Rolls became the first airman to die in an accident in Britain, at Southbourne on 12 July 1910

At that time pilots sat in the open among the struts and wires of their aeroplanes, heavily protected in leather coats, scarves and helmets as they nursed their controls. The 33-year-old Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls was the third son of the 1st Baron Llangattock and a director and co-founder of Rolls-Royce Ltd. He was only the second man in England to fly a circular mile and earlier in 1910 he had carried out the first non-stop double crossing of the English Channel by aeroplane. His fatal accident occurred on 12 July, the second day of the meeting, when he was piloting a Short Wright No. 5 biplane. He was taking part in a competition to win a prize by landing as near as possible to a given spot marked by a chalk circle. A stiff wind hit Rolls’s plane beam-on during a tight turn, and it seemed to break up approximately sixty feet off the ground as he was coming in to land. Witnesses reported hearing a sharp metallic crack as two rear rudders broke loose from the tailplane, the tail bent upwards and the whole machine crashed head first into the ground. Although he was thrown clear, Rolls was fatally injured and died shortly afterwards with his neck broken and his skull fractured. It is said that he died in the arms of a distressed Sam Cody.

This was Britain’s first fatal flying accident involving a powered aircraft. The air show was immediately halted for the rest of the day. Today the accident is commemorated by a memorial plaque placed on the site of the crash (now St Peter’s School sports ground) seventy years after it took place, and by the naming of Rolls Drive nearby.

Edmond Audermars not only walked away from this crashed Demoiselle monoplane
Edmond Audermars not only walked away from this crashed Demoiselle monoplane, he had had the foresight to bring a second aeroplane to the meeting at Southbourne Aerodrome

In November 1915 an aerodrome opened on Talbot Village (later Vine’s Farm). Located where Bournemouth University’s Talbot Campus is today in Wallisdown Road, it was run by the Bournemouth Aviation Company and trained pilots for the Royal Flying Corps. Public exhibitions were organised regularly and passenger flights cost £3. Early in 1917 the aerodrome moved to a new site at Ensbury Park after the Bournemouth Aviation Company had purchased the 88-acre Ensbury Farm estate. The new site was named Ensbury Aerodrome. The Talbot Village site remained available until at least 1930, as on 27 August that year, the celebrated 27-year-old woman aviation pioneer, Amy Johnson, landed there on her way to open a fete at Meyrick Park in aid of a hospital building programme. She arrived in the famous Gypsy Moth in which, just four months earlier, she had become the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia. After stepping out of the cockpit of her plane she put on her make-up with the aid of its wing mirror. While in Bournemouth she was presented with a beautiful six-cylinder saloon car by motor car tycoon Sir William Morris. The site returned to farmland until the Central College, a forerunner of Bournemouth University, was built.

In 1919 the Bournemouth Aviation Company started a passenger service from Ensbury Park to Cricklewood Aerodrome near London. The first Cricklewood flight took place on 4 May and the service was then operated on weekends only from June to August, but it did not prosper. The company also operated joy flights round local circuits and occasional air races. Twelve thousand people attended Bournemouth’s first summer aviation meeting on the August Bank Holiday weekend of 1926, which included races for various categories of aircraft using a triangular course with turning points over Kinson Farm and Parley Green. One local farmer was not amused and blasted one of the low-flying aircraft with pellets! The meeting held at Whitsun 1927 proved very dramatic, with three people killed in crashes. An Inquiry then decided that the racecourse that shared the site placed too much restriction on air activity. The aerodrome finally closed in about 1928 and within a few years the site was that of a major housing development around what is now Leybourne Avenue in Ensbury Park.

Also during this era Supermarine Aviation was operating Channel flying boats from Bournemouth sea front to Woolston on Southampton Water and to the Isle of Wight, and trips around the bay during the summer season.

The entrance to Ensbury Park aerodrome
The entrance to Ensbury Park aerodrome on a busy flying day on Easter Monday 1927. An Avro Avian and a de Havilland Moth are in the air, while “joy flights” are advertised at 10s 6d (52.5p) each

When the airfield at Ensbury Park closed, a grass airfield at Somerford to the east of Christchurch, on an eighty-acre site on meadows between the River Mude and the A35, was expanded by Bournemouth Airport Ltd and various scheduled services began operating from it in May 1934. It was called Bournemouth Airdrome, a name that did not please Christchurch, within whose boundary it lay. Sir Alan Cobham was one of the directors of the enterprise. RAF squadrons visited the airfield for summer camps, and flying displays, including Alan Cobham’s National Aviation Display in August 1935, and the RAF Empire Air Day in May 1938 took place there. This activity continued until September 1939, when civilian flying in the area was banned on the outbreak of World War 2. The airfield then became known more simply as Christchurch Airfield.

In the tradition of these events but far exceeding them in size and scope will be the Bournemouth Air Festival, taking place on the sea front between Bournemouth and Boscombe Piers from 28 to 31 August this year. The Red Arrows will be appearing on three of the days and the Eurofighter Typhoon, capable of speeds of 1500 mph, will be showing off its combat performance. Other military highlights will include the Navy’s Black Cats Helicopter Display Team and the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

Heading the civilian displays will be Team Guinot, the world’s only formation wing walking team, and the locally based Yakovlevs Aerobatic Team. There will also be ground-based displays and events, live music and fireworks. It is all a long way from those open cockpits of 1910!

The Eurofighter Typhoon, Bournemouth air festival
The Eurofighter Typhoon will be showing off its paces at the Bournemouth Air Festival in August

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