Aviation at Sherburn

The Early Years

It has been suggested that a group of early flying enthusiasts, including Robert Blackburn, were using fields to the west of the present airfield as early as 1911. There is little knowledge of this period but an airfield certainly existed before the First World War as it was commandeered by the Armed Forces. By 1918 it covered 177 acres and, on the western side by the railway, there were 8 hangars, 21 storage sheds and associated camp buildings.

The airfield was probably not operational but was used as an Aircraft Acceptance Park for aircraft manufactured at Blackburn’s Olympia works and others in Leeds.

In February 1918 Blackburns received an order to manufacture 230 Sopwith Cuckoos, a single seat folding wing aircraft that was capable of carrying a torpedo and being flown from an aircraft carrier. The first machines were built in April 1918 at Sherburn and production continued into 1919. 162 were built, but they were too late to be used in World War 1. Six of them were used by the Japanese Imperial Navy to develop their carrier based capability that would eventually lead to the attack at Pearl Harbour.

The Inter War Years

After the war the Air Force ceased to use the airfield at Sherburn but Blackburns retained some workshops where they carried out some testing work as well as breaking up obsolete aircraft. The buildings were purchased by Burnett & Co to use as a Railway Carriage Works.

The Yorkshire Aeroplane Club was formed in 1924 ‘to gather together those interested in flying, to teach flying, to provide a number of machines for the members’ use, and to help those interested to obtain a thorough knowledge of the construction, maintenance and repair of aeroplanes’.

A home for the club was found at Sherburn and the opening ceremony took place on 20 January 1926. The membership at this time was 240, including 3 lady members. Flying training soon commenced and the first Yorkshire Air Pageant was held on 24 July with an estimated attendance of between 5,000 and 8,000 people.

Flying at this time was not for the faint hearted and there seems that a number of planes crashed in and around the airfield. A clubhouse was opened in 1928, celebrated with flying exhibitions to which the public were admitted free of charge.

The author Neville Shute was an early member of the club, serving on the committee and learning to fly in 1926/7. At the time he was working as a designer on the R-100 airship with Barnes Wallis at Howden. In 1930 he went on, with others, to form a company called Airspeed to design and manufacture aircraft, starting work from a redundant bus garage in Piccadilly, York. Their products, including a passenger aircraft, the AS4 Ferry, were assembled and tested at Sherburn.

In 1931 the club moved away from Sherburn to operate from Yeadon, now Leeds-Bradford International Airport. Later that year a new club was formed at Sherburn, the York County Aviation Club Ltd, which continued as a private flying club using planes such as the Blackburn Bluebird, de Havilland Gipsy Moth and the Avro Cadet.

During 1934 Sherburn was used as a terminus for a twice daily Leeds – Paris air service. Using Airspeed aircraft, the service departed Sherburn at 10am and 3pm calling at Tollerton, near Nottingham and Hendon arriving at Le Touquet 4 hours later. Return flights left Paris at 9.30am and 2.30pm. Although, at its peak, 40 passengers were carried in one week the service did not last long.
Later that year the RAF considered developing Sherburn as a base but decided instead to build a new facility at Church Fenton.

In June 1935 Robert Blackburn purchased the airfield from Harry Hey and then in 1937 he bought a further 64 acres enlarging the airfield to a total of 164 acres. Robert was an enthusiastic supporter of the club and saw an opportunity to develop a training school. However, at the start of World War 2 in 1939, the airfield and the club’s aircraft were impressed for military service.

During the Second World War

The airfield was used as a ‘scatter’ field for the storage of Hurricanes, detached from Church Fenton, and Avro Anson, Bristol Blenheim and Bristol Beaufighters from the Operational Training Unit at Catfoss.

No. 7 Pool of the Air Transport Auxillary was established at Sherburn from November 1940. This unit comprised of a group of civilian pilots, many of whom were women, whose main function was to deliver aircraft from the factories to the airfield where the RAF or Fleet Air Arm would take them over. They had to fly every type of aircraft, often with minimal training. Initially they were given rooms with the farmer in Lennerton Lodge but soon they took over the Lodge completely and it became their headquarters.

The unit was equipped with a variety of ‘civil’ aircraft that had been ‘impressed’ for use as taxis taking pilots to collect machines and bring them back to Sherburn after they had made the delivery.
The unit was disbanded in October 1945.

The Blackburn Aircraft Company Ltd.

Robert Blackburn was born in Kirkstall, Leeds and designed and built his first aeroplane in 1910. In 1914 he acquired the former Olympia ice skating rink in Roundhay that became the main Blackburn factory site until the 1930s. In 1916 he built a factory at Brough and expanded further in 1937 by going into partnership with Denny Brothers of Dunbarton. The company was eventually absorbed into the Hawker Siddeley Group in 1963. His career spanned the extraordinary transformation of flight from the earliest days of rickety machines through to the jet age. Over 80 different types of Blackburn aeroplane were designed and built, among them the 1911 Mercury monoplane and the 1919 Kangaroo, that pioneered the first scheduled passenger flights from Leeds to London. Other famous Blackburn aircraft were the Bluebird, the Iris seaplane, the Skua dive-bomber, and the Beverley freight carrier. His final aircraft commissioned in 1955, the year he died, was the Buccaneer that became the standard strike aircraft for the Royal Navy for three decades.

The company had been busy at Sherburn since the start of the war, repairing damaged aircraft at the factory on the western side of the airfield and using the former Burnett Railway Carriage Works. A new factory was built by December 1940 when Blackburns were awarded a contact for the production of the Fairey Swordfish, a single engine torpedo carrying biplane, used by the Fleet Air Arm to operate from Aircraft Carriers.

The factory was managed by Norman Blackburn, Robert’s brother, and his daughter Joan acted as one of the four ‘progress chasers’ who were responsible for ensuring that the various components, made at many small engineering firms mostly in Leeds, arrived at the factory on time. Total production, in just 3 years, was 1,699 aircraft with the last one delivered in August 1944. This was a remarkable achievement recognised by the issue of a “Swordfish Badge” to the company and production staff.

The Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment (AFEE)

In June 1942 the AFEE moved to Sherburn from Ringway, now Manchester Airport. It was a branch of the Air Ministry that researched and developed the best means of delivering airborne forces into battle, such as gliders, rotary winged aircraft and parachutes for both personnel and their equipment.

This work required the use of heavier aircraft and a concrete runway 2,100 yards long was constructed together with a shorter one 1000 yards long at right angles. Eventually 5 giant hangars were also built.

Tests carried out included dropping containers, dummy paratroopers and live personnel over the airfield and over Byram Park. They also carried out numerous experiments with gliders testing towing techniques and equipment.
Experiments were conducted into the best way to get guns and vehicles to the landing sites, including dropping a jeep from a Halifax bomber with parachutes in each corner. A ‘flying jeep’ was developed with rotating blades to give it lift so that it could be towed as well as attempts to fit detachable wings to tanks. Eventually gliders capable of carrying guns and vehicles were developed.

The AFEE moved to Beaulieu in Hampshire in January 1945.

page25image1712 Plan of Airfield November 1944

The Post War Years

The ban on private flying, imposed in September 1939 was lifted in January 1946. Arnold G Wilson and Ronald H Braime re-formed the Yorkshire Aero Club in July 1946. They leased the airfield and Lennerton Lodge, which was to be the clubhouse. The club owned a number of aircraft and several private planes used the facilities. In 1949 the Club organised the first International Rally to take place in the North of England.

On the 22nd July 1950, International Air Races were held at Sherburn. There were 3 races, one for jet aircraft, and the public supported the event in large numbers. A new bridge was constructed over Bishop’s Dyke to allow public access to the Northern side of the runway and it was estimated that the event was attended by 30,000 people with 800 motor cars.

The cost of flying was increasing during the 1950s and the club went into gradual decline, finally closing in 1958. When the airfield came up for sale in 1961, Digby Lamb and his family took the opportunity to buy it and add the land to their adjacent farm. They then sold Lennerton Lodge and a small parcel of land to John Hoyland.

The Sherburn Aero Club was formed at an inaugural meeting held at the White Swan in South Milford in 1964. It was intended to provide cheap flying for its members and it has evolved into the thriving private flying club that it is today.

Part of the wartime concrete runways were removed in 1967/8 but the Eastern end of the main one was used as a Heavy Goods Vehicle testing facility up until 2013.

Compiled by Kevin Sibson.