Ipswich Icons: Town's former airport was home to Spitfires and Hurricanes during Second World War
PUBLISHED: 11:00 17 April 2017
The story of Ipswich Airport: from 1940 to the end, at the turn of the millennium, is the focal point for John Norman, from the Ipswich Society today.
In the early days of the Second World War the Air Ministry upgraded, with concrete runways, many of the United Kingdom’s civil and municipal airfields, particularly those across eastern England.
Those close to residential areas were considered too risky for front line military use, so Ipswich’s grass runways remained. Ipswich airport (RAF Nacton) was, however, used for the war effort as an outpost of RAF Wattisham.
During the early years of the war it was equipped to accept incoming damaged aircraft limping home from the continent.
A B17 of the 351st Group based at Polebrook (near Peterborough) made an emergency landing, suffering only minor damage. Later in the war a seriously-damaged P51 was not so lucky and crashed close to the airport.
RAF Wattisham was transferred to the USAAF in September, 1942, and as a result Ipswich airfield too became an outpost of RAF Martlesham Heath.
Over the winter and following spring seven squadrons of Spitfires were based here (usually just one squadron at a time).
In addition, a wide variety of aircraft passed through and in March, 1943, it was given full station status (but not a concrete runway).
In the spring of 1944, Hurricanes and Spitfires of the Bomber Defence Training Flight came to Ipswich and stayed until the end of the war.
In August, 1945, RAF Nacton was placed into “care and maintenance”, a status which remained until early 1946, when the airfield resorted to civilian use.
In the years of austerity immediately following the war there was very little activity and by the early 1950s the airfield had fallen into disuse.
In 1953 a long lease was taken out by a commercial company: East Anglian Flying Services, run by ex-RAF pilot Dan Burgess.
A service to Southend in an eight-seater De Havilland Dragon Rapide bi-plane commenced, with onward connections to Paris and the Channel Islands.
In October, 1962, EAFS became Channel Airways. It purchased another Southend-based airline, Tradair, which had gone into administration.
The assets of Tradair included a Vickers Viscount Series 700 which became Channel Airways’ first turbine-powered aircraft.
As well as the routes mentioned above, it opened a new service: Southend to Aberdeen via Ipswich, Norwich, Leeds, Teeside, Newcastle and Edinburgh, clearly airport-hopping.
Channel Airways moved from Southend to Stansted in 1972, perhaps a step too far, and in 1973, with bigger planes and more ambitious routes, went out of business.
Ipswich airport staggered on. Various companies came and went: flying schools and aircraft repair businesses. Amongst them the most notable and probably the noisiest: the parachuting school.
Parachuting came to Ipswich in 1980, and then in 1985 the Ipswich Parachuting Centre opened, operating a Britten Norman BN2A-8 Islander. About 2,000 people a year made their first (and, for most, only) parachute jump.
Later in the year (1980) the airport was purchased by the Co-op, who intended to build a superstore on the site (and continue flying), but the planning inspector ruled the facility was much too important to be split and should continue as an airfield.
In 1986 Roy and Merlyn Suckling commenced a scheduled service between Manchester and Schipol (Amsterdam) via Ipswich, using a £2million Dornier commuter plane. Suckling Airways had endless problems with the grass runway in Ipswich and moved the East Anglian stop-off point to Cambridge Airport.
In 1990, Ipswich Airport had its busiest year ever, with 43,000 aircraft movements, but the decision was taken by the borough council to build houses on the site and the airfield was closed.
Despite the grass runways and extensive green outfield leased to a local farmer for arable crops, Ipswich Airport was classified as a brownfield site, which allowed Ipswich Borough Council to exceed their targets for building on previously-used land.
The Ravenswood estate, which will eventually consist of 1,200 homes, was planned for the site and work started in 1999.