History of General Aviation at Southend

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Evocative shot of Southend Flying Club’s newly painted G-BOLW

While the main purpose of this website is to concentrate on the commercial aircraft and movements that SEN became so well known subsequent to its post-1947 reopening as Southend Municipal Airport, no website would really be complete without a mention of what has undeniably kept Southend going, especially during the leaner years when commercial operations dwindled somewhat – namely General Aviation. Southend Airport’s history of flying goes back as far as the pre-WWI era when in 1912, it became an RFC training ground replete with landing circle. After the outbreak of war, it then served as an airbase for the Zeppelin and Gotha hunting aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps and after the cessation of hostilities the airfield as it was then welcomed its first private aviation company in the form of Navarro who would operate pleasure flights until the airfield finally reverted back to agriculture in 1920.

Early days! Auster J/1 in front of SEN’s first terminal

However, in 1933 the land was purchased by Southend Municipal Council and reopened as a landing strip for private aircraft. Local clubs and aircraft owners quickly began to move their business concerns and their equipment from the nearby yet smaller airstrip at Ashingdon and once more, Southend began to thrive. Needless to say, the outbreak of WWII brought this temporary resurgence in SEN’s civil aviation fortunes to a swift halt as the RAF moved in to what would become 11 Group’s RAF Rochford and quite naturally, all forms of private flying were then either heavily restricted or banned. In fact, it wasn’t until the beginning of 1946, that these restrictions were finally lifted and buy the end of this year Southend, albeit unofficially, found itself quickly becoming one of the area’s most popular landing grounds for private pilots.

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Rare beasty! Ercoupe 415CD owned no less by Aviation Traders

Commercial flights however would not officially begin until January 1st 1947 and somewhat ironically, it would rest with what would evolve into Southend’s largest airline (EAFS/Channel) to get private flying started in earnest with three, single engined aircraft that they had brought with them from Rochester, these being put to work on pleasure flights over the Thames and the Essex/Kent countryside. Then on August 9th, the airport was given its long awaited, official opening. This went ahead to great fanfare with air races, competitions and the chance to take the stick of Southend Municipal Flying School’s Auster or Tiger Moth. From the outset, the Municipal Council would designate half of the airfield for private flying which included gliding and small models, while the other half would be reserved for the expected rise in commercial operations. During its early, post-WWII history, Southend would also see the advent of air rallies, pageants, patrols (mock aerial battles) and fly ins which would bring a whole host of light aviation to the airport from both Britain and the Continent. However, a number of accidents and resulting fatalities eventually brought such events to an end.

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Southend Municipal Flying School’s stalwart Auster – G-ANHX

Some of the known events at Southend included:

August 9th 1947

Southend Opening Day and Air Pageant

May 12th 1951

Southend Tea Patrol

June 20th 1953

National Air Races

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Thanks to ATEL, civilian Prentices were once a regular sight at SEN

Over the next ten years, the Municipal Flying School would expand tremendously, eventually becoming one of the largest, most renowned and respected flying instruction organisations in the country which went on to train more than 400 budding pilots until its demise in 1964. While many may have mourned the winding up of this flying school, its closure would actually see a number of other smaller, yet equally competent organisations rising up to replace it and by the beginning of 1970, Southend was host to a good number of flying schools which included Rochford Hundred Flying Club, Lonmet Aviation (Southend Aero Club) and Southend Flying Club. Moving into the ’80s, yet more schools would emerge, such as the Thames Estuary Flying Club, the Seawing Flying Club and the Central Flying School, while Willowair made their presence felt in the ’90s. Somewhat inevitably, most of these clubs would find a home on the quiet, eastern perimeter of the airport a number of the club houses having bars and restaurants where members could grab a drink and a bite to eat. You can read more about these clubs in the ‘Other SEN Ops‘ menu above.

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Starflite Air Taxis’ Piper Aztec in 1974

Southend was also popular with light twins, especially during the 1960 and ’70s when a good number of executive air taxi services would throw open their doors. Ladi Marmol’s Executive Flying Services would be one of the first to offer such services, later being followed by such names as Southend and Suffolk Taxi Services, while Baron Air Charter, Commutair and Starflite Air Taxis would follow hot on their heels. Pleasure flying and local charters to races and air shows were also undertaken while twin engine instruction also became more popular too. However, by the end of the decade, most of these companies had either been wound up or had gone into administration, leaving Baron Air Charter alone to continue such operations, which it did until 1986. However, a good number of twin engined aircraft would continue to frequent the airport, especially foreign registered types which would often stop off to clear customs either on their inbound or outbound flights.

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Seawing Flying Club Cessna 150 – G-BOLW

Indeed, by the mid-90s and into the new century, it was the the flying clubs that were responsible for a good number of the airport’s operations and movements. With the demise or relocation of Southend’s airlines and commercial operations, the future of the airport looked bleak indeed. However, in 2008, as a result of SEN’s take over by the Stobart Group, a huge reorganisation of the airport’s facilities would see some of these clubs disappear while others would have to relocate to the other side of the airport, being as the new terminal and passenger car park would be constructed on the eastern perimeter of the airport. As of 2017, two flying clubs survive, Southend Flying Club and Seawing Flying Club, both of which are located at the end of the airport’s southern perimeter road.