1930-1933 Deferred Decisions
1936-1939 Last hopes and Housing
The Last 'Landing' Audax K5132
1931: A Decision is Reached but Progress Deferred
In February, it was finally announced that the Corporation had reached a decision with regards to the airfield and would develop the site as the Sheffield Municipal Airport. Despite the sale and demolition of parts of the site, in 1926, it was felt there was enough surviving infrastructure to form the nucleus of a working, viable airport.
Although accepting that for the foreseeable future there would be no Norton Hospital at or near Coal Aston, the Sheffield Hospitals Council continued to lobby against an airport at the site. Whilst the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce welcomed their views, they stressed that there would be no hospital development for a number of years. Around July, it therefore recommended, being mindful of the long-term view of the hospital, that the aerodrome should be opened as soon as possible on a temporary private license for five years.
However, by August, after reviewing the report by Sir Alan Cobham the Parliamentary and General Purposes Committee of Sheffield City Council decided that, due to ‘prevailing financial circumstances’, the decision on an airport would again be deferred. The City surveyor, who had undertaken a survey of the site estimated that work would involve the removal of Dyche Lane, improvement of drainage, redirecting a drainage gully from Dyche Lane, improvements to the remaining hangar and the alteration and removal of boundaries and hedges to facilitate the provision of a good east-west runway. The estimated initial costs for Stage 1 ground work were £7,300. Further stages of work and land acquisition/site enlargement would bring the total estimated cost to £36,131. An editorial in the Sheffield Independent, concluded with the comment it would not allow the word 'defer' to mean 'forget'.
1932: Commercial Airport Deferred Again but Flying Continues
In February, Sheffield City Council announced it was not prepared to spend the necessary money (estimated at £12-13,000) on levelling work for the landing ground at the airfield. Although the option for a temporary, short-term license was in place, a Council meeting on 3 February resulted in a heated debate between those wanting an aerodrome (largely the Chamber of Commerce) and members of Sheffield Corporation who favoured housing. Alderman Blanchard argued that every major city in Britain had the courage of its conviction and had gone ahead with similar schemes yet Sheffield looked likely to be 'off the map if it failed to take advantage of a suitable site, which it already owned’. A counter-argument was the site's potential for expansion and pressed for housing development. Further fears were raised that if an airport was created, it would not be long before the military started to take an interest. The proposal to go ahead, with the amendment of a short-term license recorded 42 in favour and 29 against.
Cobham’s National Aviation Days
In April, Sir Alan Cobham launched his National Aviation programme. Scheduled to run between April and November, it consisted of Cobham touring towns and cities across Britain with his 'flying circus', promoting aviation. He not only provided flying displays, he gave talks to key groups at each venue. In Sheffield, on 4 April he gave an inauguration speech for his campaign. When he was asked what he thought of the Corporation's plans to build houses at the site, his reply was 'It's a ridiculous suggestion'. This was his only press quote at the meeting. His National Aviation Day Campaign was booked for Coal Aston on 8-9 July.
The two-day National Aviation Day meeting in July was a well-attended occasion. It was estimated 500 people alone managed to enjoy a short flight in one of Cobham's aircraft. The displays included wing-walkers, aerobatic flying and even parachuting providing a 'spectacle rarely seen in the province.' Early on the first day of the display, George Kenning, who had earlier donated a Blackburn Bluebird to Sheffield Flying Club left Coal Aston in a similar aircraft which had been entered for the two-day 1932 King's Cup Air Race. This race started at Brooklands airfield and racing circuit in Surrey. The Bluebird IV, G-AACC King Cobra with the start number of 14, was flown by Mr R.T.M. Clayton for the race. The aircraft, in the hands of a different pilot, had won the King's Cup in 1931. The 1932 race was disappointing – the aircraft retired at Shoreham, West Sussex with a cracked crankcase.
1933: British Hospitals’ Air Pageant Hosted and a Forced Landing
In something of an ironic turn of events, in August 1933, Coal Aston hosted the British Hospitals’ Air Pageant. Locally this event supported the Sheffield Hospitals Council and Sir Charles Clifford (after whom the Sheffield dental hospital is named) opened the event. Fifteen aircraft were booked, along with a number of well-known and record-breaking aviators of the day. These included Charles Scott (England-Australia record holder), Mrs Victor Bruce (first round the world solo), W.E.H. Drury (winner Canadian International Air Race), Flight Commander Robert McIntosh (first flight across the Sahara). For the first time at an air pageant in Britain, a female pilot, Ms Pauline Gower and her female mechanic, Ms Dorothy Spice also appeared.
Apart from the usual pleasure flights and demonstrations, a ‘race’ was run between a light aircraft and motorcycle around the perimeter of the airfield. A further aircraft, painted to represent a dragon, with spikes attached to the outer wings was used for low-level ‘pig-sticking’ – balloon bursting at low level, a feat never before attempted in Britain (apparently). One of the methods of admission was unusual to say the least. It involved would-be visitors purchasing a quarter pound of CWS Tea from the Brightside & Carbrook Co-Operative Society shops in return for a ticket ‘whilst stocks last.’
The only other incident at Coal Aston deemed worthy of reporting, it seems, was a forced landing. This was an unknown light aircraft belonging to Inca Aviation. The aircraft had been hired by a local firm engaged in a promotional event. After landing to refuel, the aircraft suddenly lost height on take-off and crashed. The crew were taken to hospital for treatment of minor injuries.
1934: Permission to Land, Advocates for the Aerodrome; and More Public Displays
Although not yet licensed as a commercial aerodrome, permission to land for visiting pilots could now be obtained by telephoning ahead. The named contacts were Mr E Partington (Town Hall, Sheffield 20061) or at Cavendish Avenue, Dore (after 5.00 p.m., Sheffield 70836). Facilities listed as available near the aerodrome were a garage, inn, taxi and telephone.
Advocates for the Aerodrome
Frank Russell of General Refractories Ltd, Sheffield was one of the continuing advocates for a commercial airfield. He commented after a recent journey by air he had made between Copenhagen and London, that it was both quick and comfortable. He speculated that in view of Sheffield’s population and location, he did not see why the city should not have an airport where for example, continental services en-route to Glasgow could stop. Indeed, he envisaged the possibility that air travel would allow businessmen to travel direct to Paris or Copenhagen and back to Sheffield and would no doubt be fully backed by businesses if made aware of how far aviation had progressed in recent years.
In 1931, Charles Scott had broken the England-Australia air record, setting a new time of 8 days 19 hours. Shortly afterwards, he made a visit to Coal Aston on a tour of British aerodromes and stated at the time how he considered it to be an ideal site for a municipal airport. He did think, however, the grass may need cutting! An Editorial column in an October 1934 edition of the Sheffield Independent noted this and lamented the fact that Scott had since brought the journey time from England-Australia down to two days and a few hours, yet Sheffield still lacked a proper aerodrome – and the grass was still long!
Public Displays Continue
Public displays were again on offer in 1934. On 16 June, the Sky Devils Air Circus came to the airfield. The centre piece was an Imperial Airways Armstrong-Whitworth Argosy 28-seat air liner. This was the largest, certainly heaviest, aircraft yet to land at Coal Aston and the largest touring the country at the time.
1935: ‘Sheffield Returns to the Dark Ages’
The Great Yorkshire Show
In January 1935 an announcement was made by the Town Clerk following a letter dated 18 December 1934, that no aircraft would be permitted to use the airfield after 1 March. The reason given was the elaborate preparations for the forthcoming Great Yorkshire Show that was being held on the airfield site that summer. However, rumours circulated that the temporary ban would, in fact, become permanent and the site would be given over to housing.
Regarding the December letter from the Town Clerk to the Chamber of Commerce, Flight magazine (17 January 1935) reported:
"SHEFFIELD RETURNS TO THE DARK AGES: The supporters of aviation in Sheffield have received a severe blow. In a letter to the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, on December 18, the Town Clerk stated that on and after March 1st no aeroplanes will be allowed to land at Coal Aston, Sheffield. The reason given for this ban is that elaborate preparations are necessary for the Yorkshire Show to be held there in July, but it is rumoured that the ban will remain, and that the site will be used by the Corporation for housing. This retrograde step has caused much dissatisfaction, for Coal Aston has been described by Sir Alan Cobham as 'The only possible site within reasonable distance of the city.' Meanwhile, Rotherham, 'Sheffield's little sister', is interested in a site near Thurcroft."
On Wednesday, 10 July the Great Yorkshire Show opened on the airfield site. The site was described as ideally suited, being flat and with ample car parking. The area covered by the show broke the previous record for size. Whilst the show ground was being constructed, the area was expanded to cover 50 acres and a further 1,000 wooden sheds were constructed and still entries had to be turned away at the last minute. After the show was over, the site was cleared and buildings were sold at a second great auction, the first being the sell-off of building and equipment from the WW1 Aircraft Repair Depot a few years previous.
Sheffield Loses Ground
Attention then turned back to the future of the site. Despite rumours, it was expected that the Council would lift the ban on flying at the site. Councillor Fred Lloyd was especially keen for a positive outcome pending further report reviews, as Leicester had recently opened its own municipal airport and he feared (as did many) that Sheffield would be left behind. He pointed out the Great Yorkshire Show had enjoyed royal patronage, when the Prince of Wales visited the show on the second day. The prince had expressed a wish to return to London by air from Coal Aston but instead, had to travel to the small club airfield at Firbeck near Maltby to make the flight. This, argued Lloyd, was unacceptable. Sir Alan Cobham was again due to visit Sheffield in September as part of a further National Air Day campaign.
In an open letter to the Sheffield Independent, Lloyd indicated a report quoted at a council meeting indicating Sir Alan Cobham’s views had changed and his preferred choice for an airport near Sheffield was now at Todwick. This was, in part, used as a basis for council decisions but, asserted Lloyd, it was incorrect. By the time Cobham had written his report, he was under the assumption that any aerodrome scheme at Sheffield had been abandoned in favour of housing as he states in his report: ‘perhaps the development which has done more to kill the potentiality of Coal Aston as an aerodrome site is the fact that the whole area is now subject to a town planning scheme.’
1936/37: An Attempt to Revive the Commercial Aerodrome with Sheffield Falling Further Behind
The situation at the airfield appeared quiet with nothing particularly noteworthy happening until August 1937 when a proposal headed by Councillor Lloyd was presented to Sheffield City Corporation. The proposal instructed the Town Clerk to approach Dutch national carrier KLM Air Lines with a view to them using Sheffield (Coal Aston) as a stop-over on their cross-country routes throughout Britain from the Continent. This would be at KLM’s expense and not the Corporation’s. Since 1936, KLM’s Amsterdam-Liverpool route had been using Doncaster which, by now, had a well-established municipal airport; it was being used for the daily Amsterdam-Doncaster service too. The service was for both passengers and freight and operated in all weathers. The Doncaster Local Authority had just spent over £50,000 on developing the site. North-Eastern Air services also ran a daily London-Edinburgh service, again calling at Doncaster, together with a daily Doncaster-Manchester service. Sheffield, in the meantime, being unlicensed was being used by private and club pilots who only paid the briefest of visits and Cllr Lloyd had real concerns that Sheffield was falling quickly behind.
The Dutch airline had a fleet of 42 aircraft, according to an Air Ministry report. It was thought that the use of these aircraft at Sheffield would be of considerable service. In a statement, KLM indicated that if the local authority put forward a good case, it could not see any issues with using Coal Aston airfield for operations. In Doncaster, KLM were very active in promoting their flights with winners of a local golf charity match at Wheatly being offered prizes of return flights from Doncaster to Liverpool. North-Eastern offered a similar prize of return tickets from Doncaster to Croydon.
At the start of September, the Corporation’s Estates Committee announced the development of housing at the airfield, which seemed to put an end to any future hope of aviation at the site. Councillor Lloyd’s proposal to approach KLM was voted down by 44 votes to 22 and 200 houses were scheduled to be constructed on the site. Despite Lloyd’s protest, the council argued that enough time had been spent on reports and studies and a decision had to be made. Citing un-named outside expert advice, it was argued that the site was wholly unsuitable to the landing of aircraft and that a license of the type being sought would most definitely not be granted.
In what must have been the last attempt to start flying at Coal Aston in any form, ex-Army and RAF Officer Cpt O. Welch proposed a private venture ‘air taxi’ service which he was willing to fund and operate. In his opinion, the airfield was the only suitable aerodrome site within 20 miles of Sheffield. He reasoned that despite the grass surface, modern advances in aircraft tyres, brakes and ground handling, together with wireless communication would make it a viable operation. The proposed inaugural service would run from Sheffield to Birmingham for passengers and light freight, operating a four-times daily service, acting as a taxi to Birmingham where passengers could change for Continental flights. Thinking ahead, Welch indicated his desire to expand, once established, to run services to Manchester and further north. His interest in the scheme was raised after learning of the Council’s decision to turn down the KLM proposal. His aircraft of choice was to have been a de Havilland Dragon Rapide.
1939: Housing Plans Deferred and a New Conflict Looms; the Last Landing
Unfortunately, Capt. Welch’s scheme came to nothing as no more is heard of it. The Corporation, meanwhile, took the decision to drop its housing scheme for the airfield site in favour of development, a little further west, on land acquired at Greenhill and Bradway. This was with a view to build 2,500 homes. Although reports that the government had told the Council to ‘go slow’ with any development at Coal Aston were denied, it was admitted that any housing development at the former airfield was unlikely for some time. The Corporation still maintained, based on poor drainage, size and local weather conditions that Coal Aston was still an unsuitable airport site.
This was the time of the Munich crisis and it seemed almost certain that at some point, unless diplomacy worked Britain would be at war again within 20 years of the previous conflict. At the Corporation meeting of 4 January, the potential use of Coal Aston aerodrome for some sort of defence of Sheffield was raised. The matter was briefly discussed with a view to putting any suggestions before the Corporation’s Air Raid Precautions Committee at the earliest opportunity.
The Last Landing - Audax K5132
Undoubtedly the last landing made by an aircraft at the Coal Aston airfield occurred on 7 February 1939, when a Hawker Audax I K5132 crashed in a forced landing. Pilot Corporal William Thompson took off from 11 Flying Training Squadron, RAF Finningley (K5132 was part of Finnigley's Station Flight) on a night cross-country navigation exercise. Straying off-track and short of fuel, he finally determined his position to be over Sheffield. He opted to land at the former WW1 airfield to take stock. With the area being almost completely unlit, he only had his dim navigation lights as an aid. On the ground, mechanic Cedric Rotchell was working on the night shift at the nearby Newboult & Sons, Meadowhead Crossroads. He drove to the airfield and switched on his car headlights as an aid to the pilot and he was soon joined by Mr Neal of Norton Lane, who did likewise. Seeing the extra lights, Thompson made another attempt at landing but at the final moment, in an effort to avoid some trees, he banked the aircraft. He was seen to loose height, hit the ground and somersaulted the Audax. The impact appeared to discharge the pilot's Verey flare pistol, which ignited the remaining fuel, with fire quickly taking hold. Climbing onto the wing, Mr Rotchell discovered Thompson alive but badly shaken. With the help of Mr Neal and policeman PC Price, who had rushed to the scene, he helped the airman down and away to safety. The Audax did not fare so well – it was completely destroyed in the fire started by the flare and the following morning, made for a sorry sight (recorded by local resident Mr Frank Lowe). This event marked the end of any direct connection with flying at RAF Coal Aston (Greenhill)/Coal Aston Aerodrome.