Celebrating 80 years of Yorkshire’s airport

Jumbo day: this was the day in November 1984 when Boeing jumbo jets first arrived at Leeds Bradford Airport, marking the opening of the extended runway.  First to arrive was British Airways 747 Spirit of Yorkshire, followed by the Canadian Wardair aircraft. The BA plane was first to take off, on a sight-seeing trip round Britain, and the Wardair aircraft later took off for Canada. The occasion was captured by then Courier photographer David Green.

Jumbo day: this was the day in November 1984 when Boeing jumbo jets first arrived at Leeds Bradford Airport, marking the opening of the extended runway. First to arrive was British Airways 747 Spirit of Yorkshire, followed by the Canadian Wardair aircraft. The BA plane was first to take off, on a sight-seeing trip round Britain, and the Wardair aircraft later took off for Canada. The occasion was captured by then Courier photographer David Green.

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In this, the 80th year of the existence of Leeds Bradford aerodrome, the airport is telling the story from its opening to the growth of today, when the airport has become the most successful regional airport in the United Kingdom.

After World War I the civil aviation industry grew slowly, using old RAF bombers converted to carry passengers.

In the Leeds area initially, in November 1919, this was from Roundhay Park but during Sir Alan Cobham’s initiative, touring British towns and cities with his Flying Circus, the site on Yeadon Moor was selected.

This initiative gave many people their first experience of flight and promoted the ease and safety of flying. With the opening of the airfield, Yorkshire Aeroplane Club, one of the county’s oldest, moved to Yeadon aerodrome.

Regular services restarted shortly afterwards and within a short time services were offered to Scotland, London, Belfast and the Isle of Man.

Services came and went but in September 1939, and the start of World War II, all civil aircraft were grounded and most taken over by the Government.

As the war clouds gathered in the late 1930s the Civil Air Guard had been formed from local aviators, and 609 (West Riding) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force, formed with a strong contingent from wealthy West Yorkshire families.

Initially the squadron was equipped with obsolete biplanes but it was one of the first to receive the Spitfire, the first arriving at Yeadon in late August 1939.

The war years saw a total change in activity. The site to the north of Yeadon aerodrome was selected for a vast aircraft production “shadow” factory, as aircraft production was scattered around the country, the factory being operated by the Avro Aeroplane Company, first to build Anson light bombers and trainers and then the mighty Avro Lancaster bomber.

The factory, the largest of its type in Europe, was skilfully camouflaged by members of the film industry and it was never discovered by the Luftwaffe.

The airfield itself became the RAF’s 20 Elementary Flying Training School and the airfield was formally known as RAF Yeadon. It was also used as a dispersal airfield for Bomber Command in the early war years.

The end of the war brought about another change as Avro’s production switched to civil and transport aircraft with Lancasters being modified to the Lancastrian airliners, and Yorks transports, both of which were to have a impact on the Berlin Airlift.

Lancashire Aircraft Corporation moved in to the airfield and began modifying old RAF Halifax bombers to transports and tankers, also destined for Berlin.

Slowly the civil market emerged from austerity, with Yeadon Flying Services and LAC starting civil flights with Rapide biplanes.

For a while Yeadon Aero Club was the only club operating at the airfield but eventually this was taken over by Yorkshire Aeroplane Club, which returned from “exile” at Sherburn in Elmet.

Several aircraft maintenance businesses mushroomed in the old RAF buildings and hangars, including Yorkshire Light Aviation Ltd and eventually Northair Services.

It was also at this time RAF Yeadon disappeared into history and the Ministry of Civil Aviation took over the running of the airfield until the cities of Leeds and Bradford took control, renaming the airfield Leeds and Bradford Airport.

At this time the airfield hosted annual air displays for 10 years, showing the great changes happening in military aviation.

As larger war service ex-RAF Douglas Dakota transports emerged on to the civil market, so small airlines grew, including British European Airways, Dan Air, Silver City airways and one that was to have a major influence on Yeadon, BKS Air Services, which was named after three north eastern businessman founders, Barnby, Keegan and Smith.

During the 1950s and 1960s the BKS aircraft were familiar sights, with Dakotas, Bristol freighters and Anson survey and charter aircraft.

As the “swinging 60s” progressed new turbo-prop jet airliners were introduced. The air resounded to the whistle of the turbo jets and the heavy sound of the old piston engines faded into history.

A new concrete runway was built and after a disastrous fire in 1965 in the wooden terminal, financial approval was given for a new terminal building.

The RAF hangars had long gone under the new runway and with the loss of the RAF buildings the light aircraft operators moved to the south side of the airfield, with a new Bellman Hangar and tailor-made buildings for Northair, and Yorkshire Aeroplane Club.

Full jet services began in 1972 with the explosion of the package holiday industry, which brought many new airlines to the airport. Other authorities became involved with the airport, with the councils in the Wakefield, Huddersfield and Halifax areas all taking a financial interest.

Work also began to improve the radar, radio and air traffic control systems to bring the airport to contemporary standards. It was really the 1980s that brought about the biggest changes, with new, sophisticated radar and instrument landing systems and major extensions to runway and terminal infrastructure.

Victoria Avenue disappeared into a tunnel and local roads were rerouted. This enabled larger aircraft, as big as Boeing 747 jumbo jets, to use the airport, the first of these arriving on November 4 1984.

Large tri-jet aircraft, such as the DC-10 and Lockheed Tri-Star, became regular visitors and the biggest highlight for many years was the first arrival of Concorde, an Air France aircraft arriving on August 2 1986 in very windy conditions.

Concorde was a regular visitor from April the following year until it was withdrawn from service in the early 21st century. Many Yorkshire folk took the opportunity to fly supersonically, a privilege that is now again only available to military pilots.

Long-range travel for the public became the norm in the 1990s and Leeds Bradford International Airport, as it was renamed, became part of that with regular flights to faraway destinations.

Two new airlines became major operators, including Ireland’s Ryanair, which selected Leeds Bradford as one of its main bases. And the arrival of Jet2 as “Yorkshire’s Own Airline” meant that, for the first time in many years, Leeds Bradford had an operator it could call its own.

The airport also was involved in world events with refugee flights from the Balkans and troop flights to the Middle East. The airport also became the base for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance.

As the century turned there was another major change to the infrastructure with the erection of a double bay hangar by Multiflight, capable of taking large airliners for maintenance.

As the 21st century begins its second decade, Leeds Bradford International Airport continues to expand the routes, with new services around Europe and to the Indian sub-continent. Its a long way from that foggy opening day on October 17 1931.

l Ken Cothliff is an aviation historian, author and display commentator. His new book, Yeadon Above the Rest, with 225 pages and over 300 illustrations, is available from the author at kencothliff@hotmail.co.uk or Croft Publications in Boroughbridge (www.croftpublications.co.uk)