Ford Airfield 1917-1938

In 2018 the Royal Airforce was not the only aviation concern to celebrate their centenary, Ford airfield also enjoyed this honour.

With WW1 entering its fifth year, the RFC was suffering very heavy casualties and had a pressing need for a constant supply of trained pilots. To meet this demand five sites along the south coast were earmarked for the construction of new aircrew training airfields, Ford being one of them.

Authorisation was given in November 1917 and construction soon began on the western edge of the 85-acre site using German POW’s as labour (the area is now covered, in part, by the Peregrines housing estate). The design was of a standard Training Depot consisting of six brick walled, wooden roofed, hangers, an aircraft repair shed and a range of offices, workshops and accommodation huts. The first squadron to arrive was No. 148 which flew in on March 1st 1918. Two days later No 149 Squadron was formed on the airfield which had become known as Ford Junction.

Following the USA’s entry into the war, Ford Junction was earmarked for the Americans to build Handley Page 0/400 bombers and to train their pilots to fly them. It was not long after their arrival that the Armistice was signed removing this requirement without a single bomber being built. After the Americans departed, the newly formed RAF used the airfield to disband the squadrons returning from France. The RAF, having no further need for the airfield, closed Ford Junction and it reverted to farmland with the accommodation buildings being converted to homes for the villagers.

Flying returned to the airfield in 1929 when the famous pilot Dudley Watt moved his company D.W.Aviation from Brooklands to Ford. He developed his aeroplane, DW2, while based at Ford which had the incredible capability of being able to fly as slow as 10 mph. With J.E.Doran-Webb he formed the Sussex Aero Club, renting two of the empty hangers vacated by the RAF, offering flights to the general public in their three Avro 504k’s.

It was in 1931 that the Ford Motor Company took an interest in the disused airfield, no doubt attracted by the name. Their aero division, which manufactured their Tri-Motor passenger plane, took over the lease of the airfield and facilities with the aim of setting up a passenger service to the Continent. In the event this was never achieved as Ford ceased manufacturing aircraft in 1933 before the project could go ahead.

It was while the Ford Aviation Division was trying to establish their air service that another flying concern moved their operation to this corner of Sussex. Rollason Aviation Ltd moved their flying school down from Croydon, re-naming it The South Downs Flying Club. Another flying club also appeared on the scene. In 1935, Yapton Flying Club was formed and offered to teach people to fly for "ONLY £15" (approx. £750 in today's money). Perhaps their most famous pupil was Lettice Curtis, one of the Air Transport Auxiliary pilots. As well as giving flying lessons they offered joy rides to the general public.

Advertisement for Yapton Aero Club

It was not only resident flying clubs that made use of the airfield. On at least two occasions during 1937 and 1938, the Oxford University Air Squadron spent their six-week Summer Camp there. The young pilots were encouraged to fly as many individual cross-country flights as possible to improve their navigational skills.

Following the departure of Ford Aviation, Sir Alan Cobham arrived at Ford, using the existing facilities as the base for his Flying Circus which toured the country giving flying displays for several years during the 1930s. It was while he was at Ford that he formed Flight Refuelling Ltd to experiment with refuelling aircraft in mid-air, a company which today is in the forefront of the industry and trades under the name Cobham PLC.


Alan Cobham's Flying Circus

Flight refuelling trial over River Arun and Clymping Church

Leisure flying was to come to an end in 1938 when the Air Ministry commandeered the airfield in preparation for the outbreak of WW2.

Allen Misselbrook
August 2018

(Originally published in Sussex Local Magazine, Arundel, October 2018)

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