A Brief History of Southend Airport



On this particular page, I would just like to take a moment to briefly cover SEN’s wonderful post-war history. However, my intention here is not to give a comprehensive ‘day-by-day’ account of the airport’s past as this has already been covered most effectively by NickOld Tower Skinner’s Southend Timeline which you will find by clicking here (History of Southend Airport). The official, post-war opening of Southend Municipal Airport took place on August 9th 1947, although its operating licence had been issued somewhat earlier on December 31st 1946 and as a consequence, flights had already been operating from the airport’s 4,200ft grass runway since the beginning of the year. Indeed, if you had turned up on this opening day in 1947 or any day after this, it is possible that you would have been offered an hour’s flight instruction at the controls of an Auster or Tiger Moth for the tidy sum of £3 5s. However, while general aviation has always been part and parcel of SEN’s varied history, it was within the realms of fledgling, independent airlines that Southend would finally come into its own, being the cradle for a good number of aviation companies that would eventually go on to become household names.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Air Charter, East Anglian Flying Services (Channel Airways), B.K.S., Dan-Air, Overseas Aviation and Air Safaris would be just a few of the airlines that would all stake their claim to a small part of the ever growing independent charter, car ferry and freight transport industry that was beginning to thrive during this time, albeit to the dismay of the national carriers who quite naturally used every legal resource in Vis Houseattempts to keep these airlines at bay. The government of the time didn’t help matters either as draconian currency exchange regulations hit many of the smaller airlines hard and in the early ’50s many were forced to cut services and store their aircraft until things picked up again. The mid-50s saw improvements being made such as the opening of the car ferry building during October 1955 and the laying of two concrete/soil runways which took place over the winter of 1955/56. Indeed, such improvements would witness both the number of operations and aircraft types increasing dramatically. However, it wasn’t only within the realms of forward thinking airlines that SEN was making a name for itself. Engineering firms such as B.K.S. and Aviation Traders offered many engineering and modification services, the latter of which became instrumental in supplying and servicing a considerable number of aircraft during the Berlin Airlift. ATEL later went on to create an all new aircraft known as the Accountant plus a number of radical, C-54 conversions that came to be known as the Carvair. Southend also managed to carve itself a niche as an airport that would deal with a large number of customs clearances that still continue up to this very day, not to mention the fact that it is one of the few airports that remain open when the rest of the U.K. is fogged in, thus becoming a natural magnet for diversions.

As the 1960s dawned, the I.T. charter and car ferry business continued to grow with such names as Channel Air Bridge, BUAF, Channel Airways and Tradair, not to mention an entire glut of other national and foreign airlines keeping the ramp at SouthendFreight Shed busy with an assorted variety of piston and turboprop engined aircraft. It was in the early-60s that Southend also started breaking records, becoming the second busiest airport in the country for cargo flights while the ferry services reached their peak in 1962 which for a time, saw the Ostend route becoming the busiest and most heavily trafficked in the world. However, it was not all plain sailing and a good number of independents (including Air Safaris and Tradair) would suffer financial collapse during this time. Meanwhile the British Aviation Licensing Board would continue to display an obvious bias towards government owned airlines when it came to approving new routes with BEA in particular frequently kicking up a stink about these ‘imposters’, even going as far as appealing against routes that had already been approved. However ultimately, it was a mixture of financial overspending and the huge and unsustainable level of competition for seasonal I.T. charter work that killed off most of these airlines while Channel Airways would add to these woes by purchasing old and inefficient jet liners such as the Comet and complicated planes like the Trident while finally making the fatal mistake of moving to Stansted, all of which combined to finally seal the fate of this airline and force it into administration by March 1972.

The long standing Keegan association continued with Southend despite the closure of B.K.S. Engineering in 1970. A year later BAF was firmly in family Hutshands and as the decade went on, car ferry services eventually began to collapse which resulted in the smoky start ups and the distinctive growl of the Pratt and Whitney piston engines of the Carvair being replaced by the whistling, high pitched squeal of the Rolls Royce Dart turboprop as Handley Page Herald and then Vickers Viscount aircraft became a common sight at the airport from 1975 and 1981 respectively. While SEN would never be as busy as it had been during its heyday, the airport nevertheless remained operational although as the ’80s came and went, passenger flights would be reduced to a minimum and a glut of nightly cargo flights run by BAF, Channel Express, BAC and National Airways among others, would keep the airport going. By the ’90s, BAF and Flightline were the two most prominent airlines at SEN while a number of other British and international cargo airlines would do their bit to keep the airport afloat. By this time, the few passenger flights that took place were mostly restricted to destinations on the near continent or to the Channel Islands although by the end of the 20th century, the bulk of the airport’s commercial movements either carried some kind of freight or were visiting for engineering purposes. While the dawning of a new century might have seen a resurgence in SEN’s fortunes, it also witnessed the end of classic turboprop operations and with it, the end of SEN’s ‘Golden Era of Aviation’.

All black and white pictures above © Nicholas Cox

Many thanks to Peter Clark for providing a good deal of extra information for this page both above and below.


Southend Airport Owners

Southend Municipal Council – 1933 to 1939

Royal Air Force – 1939 to 1945

Southend Municipal Council – 1946 to 1985

British Airports International – 1985  to 1993

Regional Airports Ltd. – 1993 to 2008

Stobart Group – 2008 to Present


Southend Airport Videos

Southend Airport – Official Opening Day – August 9th 1947

Unused footage from a Pathe news reel as Southend is once more officially opened to civil flying – Click below to view

Southend Open Day – August 1947


Southend Airport – 1958 and 1963

Two short Rank films about operations at Southend – The first covers ACL livestock movements and the second Carvair car ferry operations

Click below to view

Southend during 1958 & 1963


 Southend Airport – 1969

Almost 20 minutes of pure SEN magic from 1969, courtesy of the East Anglian Film Archive.
It takes a while to load, but is well worth the wait. Many thanks to Richard Nash for finding this little gem
Click  below to view

Southend Airport – 1969


Southend Airport – 1970 to 1979

More unused Pathe footage from Southend which primarily covers the car ferry operations – Click below to view

Southend 1970 – 1979

With Bill McEligott on the Hylo, loader Frank Levy in the black hat and Dave Turnage on the fork-lift.
Carvair Foxtrot Whiskey’s crew for the flight consisted of Capt. Rory McNamara and First Off. Bill Moore.


Southend Airport – November 1984

Thames News footage filmed at Southend on a rather wet and dull day – Click below to view

Southend 1984


SEN Models Through the Ages

Peter Smith from Leigh-on-sea was a former employee of the Southend Corporation at SEN and over the years, he was commissioned to put together six models of Southend Airport from 1880 before it became an airfield, through to 1968 when Southend had just passed its peak. Also included is a rather rare look at the proposed extension to the former 15/33 runway which was of course never realised. Sadly, Peter passed away in 2007, however with his daughter Lisa’s permission, Ron Circus gave these amazing models a well deserved airing and in the process, put together a wonderful video of these evocative creations which really do deserve a place of prominence in a museum or within the SEN airport terminal itself so that those who love classic aviation, the SEN of old or even quality model making can both view and appreciate them in their full glory.

Click here to view


Southend Airport Aircraft Records


Largest Aircraft by MTOW – 200 tons


Lockheed L1011-385-1 Tristar – EI-COL

Arrived August 1998 for scrapping


Largest Aircraft by Wingspan – 50.5m


Ilyushin Il-76TD – 7T-WIV

Arrived April 1999 for avionics work – Tragically, this aircraft would later crash in Algeria on April 11th 2018


Largest Aircraft by Length – 54.47m


Boeing 757-300 – G-JMAB

Seen at SEN during November 2014 although came in 2001/2 for refinishing with Air Livery


Largest Passenger Lift – 170 passengers + 9 crew


Canadair CL-44D-2 – G-AZIN

This passenger lift was achieved on the inaugural service to Ostend with the CL-44, taking place on July 28th 1972

(This record has now gone to a couple of Easyjet A320 flights which have lifted 184 and 187 pax and crew respectively)


Largest Customs Seizure

Boeing 707-373C – 3C-GIG

This Koda Air 707 flew in to SEN from Jamaica via a refuelling stop over in the Canaries, landing at around 8.30pm on the evening of October 15th 2001, after having diverted to the airport with ‘technical issues’. The aircraft taxied to the church end of the runway with the pilot reporting that the aircraft had a steering problem and needed a moment before they could taxi to the apron. Meanwhile, the crew onboard opened the cargo door and pushed six cases of cocaine out onto the tarmac, the total sum of which weighed almost 300kg and was estimated to have a total street value of around £22 million. Thanks to a tip off, H.M Customs officers were already waiting for the aircraft and as a result, 6 individuals were arrested and the aircraft was impounded. It remained at SEN until being sold on with the aircraft finally departing for Malta on October 11th 2003.