Old Sarum Airfield - situated two miles to the North-East of Salisbury, Wiltshire, off the A345 on the road to Winterbourne Gunner, and in continuous use since 1917 - is one of the oldest operational airfields in the United Kingdom1.
Old Sarum maintains one of the few grass airfields in the country, some half-a-mile in length. Since its foundation, the airfield has been used successively by the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Air Force, the British Army and most recently by the Old Sarum Flying Club.
The airfield has three Grade II listed former World War I hangars, a Grade II listed World War I workshop and a Grade II listed World War I station headquarters. The 'Thematic Survey of Military Aviation Sites and Structures' published in 2000 by English Heritage mentions the airfield, putting it among the most important military airfields in the country. Indeed, because the airfield retains much of its historic fabric, and because it is a rare, almost complete, surviving example of a World War I airfield, Salisbury District Council currently (2006) has Old Sarum under appraisal as a potential designated 'Conservation Area'2. Such status would help to protect it from development and ensure the survival of its many listed buildings. Also on site is a post-war control tower and a WWI machine gun range, whilst close by is a FW/3 Type 22 pillbox dating from WWII - shown in the bottom picture of the 'Control Tower' link, but unlabelled.
Old Sarum's aviation history dates back to 1917 when the War Department requisitioned the land from Ford's Farm, for use by fighter and training aircraft. Therefore, the airfield, at this time, went by the name of Ford's Farm.
Two rows of two large hangars were built using a construction method known as the 'Belfast Truss' , which although cheap derives its strength from the criss-cross pattern of the roof supports. Reputedly the builders employed German prisoners of war as labourers to complete the construction.
The first squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps moved to Ford's Farm towards the end of 1917, these being Day Bomber Squadrons training prior to moving to France. At the end of WWI, the site became RAF Old Sarum3, with almost exclusive use in pilot training.
In 1920, Old Sarum became home to the RAF's School of Army Co-operation, started to develop RAF and Army skills in airborne artillery spotting and tactical reconnaissance. By 1924, the school received an attachment of three Squadrons, and it was during this period that the full potential of the Air Observation Post (AOP) was appreciated.
World War II
At the outbreak of WWII, Old Sarum provided a home to No 1 and No 2 Schools of Army Cooperation4, and by 1940 a squadron of Lysanders from the Royal Canadian Air Force joined them. During the invasion scares of that year aircraft from these units completed anti-invasion patrols along the South Coast.
As the war progressed, the No.1 School became 41 Operational Training Unit using aircraft as diverse as Tomahawks, Harvards and Magisters, and also provided target towing facilities. By 1943, there were also nine AOP Squadrons based at Old Sarum, each being taught the lessons learnt here during the 1920s. Auster Mk 1s, 3s and 4s made up the bulk of these squadrons; some of these aircraft having replaced the Tiger Moths that had initially equipped a number of AOP units. An Auster Mk3 from a squadron which had been based at Old Sarum was the first Allied aircraft to land in France after the D-Day landings. By the end of 1944 all the AOP Squadrons had moved to mainland Europe to assist the advance of the Allied forces toward Germany.
Post War Period
At the end of WWII the School of Army Cooperation was renamed the School of Air Support, which involved all three services. Old Sarum had now lost its flying training role and aircraft were only used for demonstration work. On 1st May 1947, the School of Air Support was re-named the School of Land/Air Warfare, and on 31 March, 1963, this was amalgamated with the Amphibious Warfare School at Poole in Dorset and retitled the Joint Warfare Establishment (JWE).
The Joint Helicopter Tactical Development Unit also operated from Old Sarum and worked in liaison with the JWE, operating the last Whirlwind HAR7 in service.
Post WWII flying concentrated on Avro Ansons, De Havilland Dominie and Chipmunks. In addition, in 1963, No 622 (Volunteer) Gliding School5 of the Air Training Corps moved from Christchurch to Old Sarum.
Salisbury conferred the Freedom of the City upon RAF Old Sarum on 26 June, 1956, and on 5th November 1962 the city granted the station a signal honour, which allowed it to incorporate part of the Coat of Arms into the Station Badge.
In addition to the aircraft types already mentioned the Bristol, Armstrong Whitworth Atlas, Hawker Audax, Westland Lysander and more recently Hercules, Andovers, Harriers and Whirlwind, Wessex and Puma helicopters have also operated from Old Sarum.
The Royal Air Force station closed in 1971, but general aviation aircraft continued to fly from the airfield, alongside Army Flying which resumed a presence there.
The End of Old Sarum's Military Role
In 1971 the RAF handed Old Sarum over to the Army and by 1979 the station had been closed as a military base. However, the Department of the Environment continued to use many of the buildings, which prevented the airfield from falling into disrepair.
Many privately owned aircraft based at the site continued to fly from Old Sarum. In 1981, Edgley Aircraft Ltd. leased the site and sought planning permission to 'Change of use to light industry restricted to light aircraft manufacture and related aviation uses'6. At this time, the company began the construction and development of the Optica Observation/Spotter aircraft. This production moved to Hurn Airport7 after a disastrous fire in January, 1987, which destroyed several aircraft including the unique Lockspeiser LDA. Successor companies in light aircraft manufacture at the Old Sarum site included Brooklands Aerospace PLC and then FLS Aerospace. However, by 1986, when Wiltshire Flying Club took over the lease, both of these companies had terminated their activities at the airfield.
In 1992, Old Sarum was granted a licence to resume flying training, 75 years after it had originally opened for this very purpose. Old Sarum Flying Club formed in 1992 and undertook the operation of the airfield, together with the maintenance of some of the historic buildings.
Today the airfield is a lively centre for many types of general aviation, including light aircraft and microlights. It is also the home of the charity, Aviation for Paraplegics and Tetraplegics Trust (APT), and the Shadow Flight Centre, a CAA Approved Flying School.
Old Sarum Flying Club welcomes visitors and has a fully licensed bar and restaurant which serves homemade food. The restaurant opens seven days a week, providing good views of flying activities.