Flying high in Lincs
I wasn’t amongst the tens of thousands thronging The Mall to watch the flypast of 100 RAF aircraft present and past a couple of weeks ago. Instead, I had the privilege of seeing much of the formation from the comfort of a deckchair in my back garden in Long Sutton, during one of the practices a week earlier.
The flypast was celebrating the centenary of the Royal Air Force and the county, of course, has a very close connection to the development, particularly, of military aviation. Apart from the many first, second and cold war airbases dotted across the county, over 3,500 aircraft were built in Lincoln between 1914 -1918, with over 6,000 employed in the industry.
Our sleepy corner of Lincolnshire is a distance now by road from the modern operational air bases, but only a few minutes' flying time, so our deckchair slumbers are regularly punctuated by loud bursts of noise. And so it has been for at least 106 years.
The first record of an aircraft landing in Lincolnshire was 1912, when pilots started making appearances at public shows, offering joyrides.
The first recorded landing in Long Sutton was on 18th October 1913, when Lt Leonard Dawes of the Royal Flying Corps’ plane developed ‘engine trouble’ over the town and made a successful landing on Delph Fields.
Perhaps coincidently, his parents lived nearby and he was able to drop in unexpectedly for tea and an overnight stay. The engine seemed fine the following morning and he was able to resume his flight. Dawes was later promoted to captain and was awarded the French Legion D’Honour for conspicuous bravery in 1914.
German long range bombing in WW1 was the preserve of the Zeppelin and a string of home defence airfields were established to interrupt their operations. One of these was at Tydd St Mary, set up by the RFC in 1916, becoming RAF Tydd St Mary on 1st April 1918. It had a short operational life, disbanding in 1919 but saw action against Zeppelin raids in 1917 and 1918.
Local flying operations were then focused on RAF Sutton Bridge, which opened as a training station in 1926 and during the Second World War was responsible for training many of the fighter pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain and was for some years the RAF’s Central Gunnery School.
RAF Holbeach, a few miles away on The Wash marshes, opened the same year, working in conjunction with Sutton Bridge as a gunnery and bombing range. Unlike RAF Sutton Bridge, which closed in the late 1950s, Holbeach is still operational, re-badged as Air Weapons Range Holbeach. No runways, but once a bit of a conundrum apparently, being both the largest and smallest RAF station at the same time – depending on the state of the tide!
The RAF, USAF and other NATO jets still regularly patrolling our skies, training for the unthinkable are an ever present reminder of the close association we have with the history of military aviation and the RAF’s centenary.