CHIPPY'S FLYING HISTORY
by David Nickson
Local Chippy resident - pilot, author and aviation enthusiast.
Ever since I was a small child� I have been fascinated by aircraft. My wife would probably say that, although not a professional pilot, I am living proof of an old story. There was an RAF recruiting stand at a town fair and a child went up to it and said, "when I grow up, I want to be a pilot." The recruiting officer said, " that�s a pity, as you�ll have to choose, you can either grow up, or be a pilot!" I promise to continue resisting all attempts at being made to grow up.
So, one of the first things I did when we came to live in Chippy was search out the nearest airfield, this turned out to be Enstone, of which more later. I also discovered that Chipping Norton had actually had its own airfield for about five years during WWII and an association with flying that goes back at least as far as 1913, only ten years after the Wright Brothers started the whole thing off.
One Gustav Hamel brought his aircraft to the Brewery Field in Chipping Norton in February, 1913 where he proceeded to give a flying display. In the same year he also won the Round London Air Race which was flown over a course of 94 miles around London (the M25 didn�t exist then). Based upon pictures in the Chipping Norton museum this aircraft looks to have been a Morane-Saulnier monoplane similar to a Bleriot type XI, the aircraft that Bleriot had used to make the first Channel crossing just four years earlier. He also became Britain's first "flying postman" after carrying 100,000 letters and cards between Hendon and Windsor to mark the Coronation of King George V. Unfortunately his luck did not hold and he was killed in 1914 when trying to cross the English Channel. Aerial navigation was in its early days then and pilots were often known to lose their way. This was particularly true over water and it is thought that Hamel lost his bearings in fog, followed by either a fault in the aircraft or running out of fuel which led him to fall into the Channel and drown.
Another notable air display in Chipping Norton occurred in 1933 when Sir Alan Cobham brought his famous Flying Circus to town. Officially this company was called National Aviation Day (later Display) Limited, in practice this travelling group of aeroplanes, stunt pilots, parachutists and the like was usually called 'Cobham's Flying Circus'. The performance included wing walking, aerobatics, stunts and pleasure flights. This was still the golden age of aviation and there were few, if any restrictions, so Sir Alan Cobham was able to take locals on flights, sometimes including looping the loop. Try getting away with that today! Sir Alan was one of the true pioneers of popular flying and also one of the ones who managed a long life. He started out in aviation at the end of the first World War and continued an active flying career including winning the King�s Cup Air race in 1924, becoming de Havilland's senior pilot, setting up sea plane routes, and travelling widely in the Middle East and Africa. Eventually he retired to the British Virgin Islands, finally returning to England and dying in 1973, aged 79. He was a very rare example of an old, bold pilot who also did much to make commercial flying popular. It being an axiom of flying that, "there are old pilots, and bold pilots, but there are no, old, bold pilots!"
It was not until the Second World War that Chipping Norton got its own airfield in 1940. This was located between the Burford and Charlbury roads and from the air the "peritrack" which goes three quarters of the way round the edge can still be made out. In addition there are many "RAF Brick" structures and the remains of a couple of the old hangars that can be seen from these roads. On the map "D" and "E" indicate the locations of hangars.
This airfield was what is known as a Relief Landing Ground (RLG). Essentially this is an airfield that is used as a satellite of a larger airfield that is too busy to cope with the numbers of landings and take-offs needed to perform its operational role. In the case of Chipping Norton the main airfield was Oxford Kidlington, still in use today as a civilian airfield, but Little Rissington also made use of it as an RLG. An Advanced Training Squadron and various Service Flying Training Schools (SFTS, including numbers 6 and 15) operated from Chipping Norton. It would not have been the most comfortable of billets as for most of the time it relied on its own generators � it was not connected to the Chipping Norton supply, and the majority of the staff occupied tents! Of course, the station commander commandeered Oldner House, roughly a mile North of the airfield and considerably more comfortable.
Quite a variety of aircraft operated from Chippy�s airfield including Tiger Moths, Harvards, Airspeed Oxfords, and the occasional Spitfire and anything that might have got lost on the way somewhere. In WWII there were so many airfields, and they didn�t go out of their way to advertise, that it was not unknown for pilots to land at the wrong one from time to time. This was either because they were "temporarily uncertain of their position" (pilots are never lost) or because of a technical problem. Consequently there would have been quite a variety of aircraft to be seen over Chippy at that time.
However there were two main types that would have been seen the most. The first being the Harvard, an intermediate trainer that fighter pilots learned on before moving on to Spitfires, Hurricanes and the rest. Because the Harvard has a relatively small propeller but a powerful engine the propeller has to rotate very quickly in order to deliver all the available thrust. Indeed, it rotates so quickly that the tips of the propeller are moving at supersonic speed. Anyone who has ever heard a Harvard will recognise this "buzz saw" like sound. I suspect that Chipping Norton residents who were around at the time did not like this aircraft very much for this reason. Are there any readers of chippingnorton.net who remember this
The second type was the Airspeed Oxford, a two engine trainer used for introducing would be bomber and transport pilots to the delights of multi-engined flying. This aircraft was designed as a trainer and served with the RAF from 1937 and then, with National Service units until as late as 1954. It was nicknamed the "Ox-Box" and was considered reasonably tricky to fly, so it made a good trainer for the bombers of the day. Aircraft were not as well sorted as they are today and service aircraft could have some interesting tricks up their sleeves for the unwary. Despite having two engines it would have been much quieter than the raucous Harvard.
Chipping Norton Airfield had a fairly calm service life and it only managed to get bombed twice. Once in October and once in November of 1940. On both occasions little damage was done and on the second attempt the Luftwaffe missed the airfield by about a mile to the East. The airfield closed in 1945 and largely returned to agricultural use when released in 1950. However, near the northern boundary (bordered by the road between to Charlbury) radio controlled aircraft can still be seen from time to time, so there is still some aviation being practised there.
Within a year or so of arriving in Chipping Norton I was told of a photograph of a Westland Lysander being shipped across the road near where the mini-roundabouts are by the Hospital. I made some enquiries and it was suggested that it was being transported between what was Folland�s (where the telephone exchange is) and the engineering business that was then in the premises that is now Wheeler�s garage. I have made further enquiries both at the museum and the various flying clubs to no avail. It would be nice to think that Chipping Norton had a link, however tenuous, to the Lysander which was used extensively to smuggle resistance workers and SOE operatives in and out of occupied France. If anyone can shed any light on this, please email Chipping Norton net and the results will be published on this site, as and when there is something new to tell.
So, Chipping Norton has quite a few links with aviation, in particular during WWII. A more intriguing speculation concerns Enstone Airfield. Local farmer Gordon Markham, supplied this picture� for use in "Oxfordshire Airfields in The Second World War". It shows a gloss black Lancaster Bomber without any identification markings � something very unusual. Although the story has never been completely authenticated, there is a consensus that these aircraft were used for training crews to deliver the British nuclear bomb. Fortunately the war in Europe came to an end before this option was considered. If not, then Enstone airfield may have had a rather higher profile in history than it does today.
Finally, if you get the time, walk down the lane from The Chequers to the Church and you will find a plaque commemorating Chipping Norton�s only (to my knowledge) air crash which happened during a night flying exercise. This occurred when a Wellington from Enstone collided with another RAF aircraft, also on a night flying exercise. In those days there was little in the way of air traffic control, and radar was largely for coastal early warning use (then in its infancy). The aircraft would usually operate without navigation lights � night flying was much more hazardous than it is today.
Chipping Norton net would be happy to hear from anyone who has first hand accounts of any of this history.
The following sources have been used in compiling this article, and are recommended for further reading/information.
IWM � Imperial War Museum
Oxfordshire Airfields in the Second World War, Robin J. Brooks, ISBN 1--708-3,
Action Stations, Volume 6 Cotswolds and the Central Midlands, Michael J.F. Bowyer, ISBN 1--372-0, Patrick Stephens Ltd.
The Royal Air Force of World War Two In Colour, Roger A. Freeman, ISBN 1--185-9, Arms and Armour Press.
Around Chipping Norton in Old Photographs, Chipping Norton Local History Society, ISBN 0--457-8, Alan Sutton Publishing.
Around Chipping Norton in Old Photographs, A Second Selection, Chipping Norton Local History Society, ISBN 0--657-0, Alan Sutton Publishing.
Britain�s Military Training Aircraft, Ray Sturtivant, ISBN 0--579-8, Haynes
� David Nickson 2003
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