Open Cock­pit

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Steve Slater

Air­fields be­ing closed for devel­op­ment is an old, old story

These days we con­tinue to be as­sailed by threats of air­field clo­sures, largely driven by avari­cious de­vel­op­ers try­ing to ac­quire the land for hous­ing. At the end of WWII there were no fewer than 683 wartime air­fields, each of which was large enough to sup­port a con­trol build­ing. To­day, even in­clud­ing smaller fly­ing sites, the most re­cent De­part­ment for Trans­port re­search in­di­cates the to­tal is likely nearer 400.

De­spite the ef­forts of groups such as the Gen­eral Avi­a­tion Aware­ness Coun­cil and, more re­cently, the All-party Par­lia­men­tary Group on Gen­eral Avi­a­tion, this rate of clo­sure has in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly in the past decade. The clas­si­fi­ca­tion of air­fields by for­mer Deputy Prime Min­is­ter John Prescott as ‘brown­field’ in­dus­trial land has, since 2006, opened the way for prop­erty de­vel­op­ers to see air­fields as lu­cra­tive, easy-to-build-on lo­ca­tions. Once thriv­ing air­fields such as Pan­shanger, Manston, Huck­nall, Sh­effield and Fil­ton are now just his­tory.

But you have to roll the clock back a lot fur­ther to find the first-ever an­nounce­ment of the clo­sure of a fly­ing site. Mon­day 25 July 1859 to be pre­cise. That was the evening on which, ac­cord­ing to its bill­boards and posters, Vaux­hall Plea­sure Gar­dens an­nounced that 'It Will Pos­i­tively Close For­ever’.

For al­most two cen­turies (it was men­tioned in Sa­muel Pepys’ di­aries in the 1660s), the Gar­dens had en­ter­tained Lon­don­ers with fire­work dis­plays, horse­man­ship, tightrope walk­ing, and mu­sic, while its foot­paths and booths were noted for ro­man­tic assig­na­tions. In 1817 there was even a re-en­act­ment of the Bat­tle of Waterloo, with over 1,000 sol­diers par­tic­i­pat­ing. Then, in 1836, pi­o­neer bal­loon­ist Charles Green struck a deal to pro­vide ‘Thrilling Bal­loon As­cents’ on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

Ac­cord­ing to the (highly rec­om­mended) his­tory of early bal­loon­ing Fall­ing Up­wards by Richard Holmes, Green was al­ready an ex­pe­ri­enced ex­po­nent of the art. The son of a fam­ily of fruit mer­chants Stephen is CEO of the Light Air­craft As­so­ci­a­tion, Vice-chair of the Gen­eral Avi­a­tion Aware­ness Coun­cil, flies a Piper Cub and spent seven years help­ing re­store the ‘Big­gles Bi­plane’ 1914 BE2C replica from the heart of Dick­en­sian Lon­don, he was ap­proach­ing forty years old be­fore his first flights were recorded in the mid-1820s. As he gained in tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise, he proved a canny busi­ness­man too. It was Green who re­alised that, in­stead of us­ing ex­pen­sive hy­dro­gen to fill his bal­loon, he could sim­ply use coal gas from the near­est gas main. The read­ily avail­able do­mes­tic gas would only al­low a bal­loon to lift half the weight, but at £80 per fill­ing in­stead of over £250 for hy­dro­gen, it must have seemed a bar­gain!

By the time Green struck his deal with Vaux­hall’s own­ers he was al­ready a celebrity aero­naut, with over 200 as­cents to his credit. The new agree­ment also helped fund the con­struc­tion of a new bal­loon of un­prece­dented cost and size. The red-and-white-striped Royal

Vaux­hall was over eighty feet high and had a ca­pac­ity of 70,000 cu­bic feet. It had a nine-foot, oval wicker bas­ket, ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing nine pas­sen­gers, and it ap­par­ently came with the un­heard of price tag of £2,000.

Af­ter a se­ries of short teth­ered flights car­ry­ing pas­sen­gers above the Thames (and pro­vid­ing cap­i­tal-wide ad­ver­tis­ing for the Gar­dens), Green put him­self, the bal­loon and Vaux­hall Gar­dens on the in­ter­na­tional map when, on 1 Novem­ber 1836, he em­barked on what would be a world-record transcon­ti­nen­tal flight. Aboard with him were a jour­nal­ist, Monck Ma­son and a wealthy bene­fac­tor, Robert Hol­lond MP who helped fi­nance the flight. The pre-event public­ity rightly fo­cused on their pro­vi­sions as much as their prepa­ra­tions for the flight. The Royal Vaux­hall’s three oc­cu­pants ap­par­ently de­parted car­ry­ing ‘forty pounds of ham, beef and tongue; forty-five pounds of cooked game and pre­serves; forty pounds of bread, sugar and bis­cuits; sixteen pints each of sherry, port and brandy’ and, not least, sev­eral dozen bot­tles of cham­pagne!

Hav­ing de­parted at 1 p.m., they made swift progress across south-east Eng­land reach­ing Calais just be­fore dusk. As they flew on into the night, the flar­ing foundries of Liège in Bel­gium proved an un­mis­tak­able land­mark, then dark­ness un­til they saw the glim­mer of the river Rhine. When, at day­break, they landed, de­scend­ing into snow-cov­ered pine trees, they dis­cov­ered they were 35 miles north-west of Frank­furt, in the Duchy of Nas­sau in north­ern Ger­many. They had flown an un­prece­dented 480 miles in eigh­teen hours.

The fame that at­tended the record­break­ing flight drew crowds to Vaux­hall in un­prece­dented num­bers. Over the next two decades the bal­loon, now named Royal Nas­sau made over 250 fur­ther flights, car­ry­ing pas­sen­gers to view the vis­tas of Lon­don, be­ing used as the launch point for ‘aerial fire­work’ dis­plays, even car­ry­ing ac­ro­bats or trapeze artists. Green also flew for more se­ri­ous pur­poses, car­ry­ing sci­en­tists aloft and also un­der­tak­ing the first aerial sur­veys of the cap­i­tal, al­low­ing both the first ‘A to Z’ maps to be pro­duced as well as the first de­mo­graphic guide, map­ping the rich and poor ar­eas of the city.

Lon­don though was chang­ing and with it Vaux­hall Gar­dens’ for­tunes, as the ar­rival of the rail­ways of­fered Lon­don­ers other places for their en­ter­tain­ment. In July 1859 the fate­ful posters an­nounced the Gar­dens’ clo­sure. Green, now in his seven­ties, with over 500 bal­loon flights to his credit, went into re­tire­ment in a small villa above the Hol­loway Road in North Lon­don, which he named Aerial Villa. The Royal

Nas­sau joined him. Care­fully folded, the ven­er­a­ble bal­loon was stored in his coach house.

The Gar­dens’ fi­nal posters, how­ever, con­tained some fate­ful words: ‘… work­ers will com­mence tak­ing down the whole of the build­ings, and clear­ing the ground in or­der to let it for build­ing pur­poses’. Sound fa­mil­iar, any­one?

Green re­alised he could sim­ply use coal gas to fill his bal­loon

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.