It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression 'as pretty as an airport'.
- Douglas Adams
Although one of the UK's smallest international airports, Southampton Airport in Eastleigh nevertheless has a fine aviation history despite weathering constant local controversy and criticism. In the 1930s and late 1940s, when it was known as Eastleigh Aerodrome, Southampton Airport was one of the five largest airports in Britain outside London, boasting four grass runways and international flights all over the world. Yet since changing its name to Southampton Airport, its importance has dwindled to a fragment of its former glory and now only has one hard runway.
It offers both domestic and some international flights, is exceptionally located for transport links and is easy to get to, and was the birthplace of perhaps the most famous plane of all time - the Spitfire.
An Airport By Any Other Name
The first point of controversy with the airport is its name. Southampton Airport is not in Southampton, but in Eastleigh1, a town halfway between Southampton and Winchester. The people of Eastleigh get very offended when accused of being in Southampton, and maintain their independence strongly. This is a fact they feel isn't fully appreciated by the airport's owners, BAA, an international organisation that owns airports in the UK, Europe and Canada. The inhabitants of Eastleigh believe the airport should have its name of Eastleigh Airport restored, even though few people outside of Hampshire would have heard of the railway town of Eastleigh, and fewer still would have reasons to fly there.
This argument led to a campaign in the local newspaper, The Southern Echo, asking what the airport should be called once and for all. Suggestions included 'Southampton Airport', 'Eastleigh Airport', and 'RJ Mitchell Airport', after the designer of the Spitfire aeroplane. The favourite to win was the compromise suggestion, 'Southampton (Eastleigh) Airport'. In fact, much to the surprise of all at the local paper, and after a fierce Facebook campaign with well over a thousand votes, the winning title was announced as 'Matt Le Tissier International'2. After all, if Belfast's city airport is named after George Best, why can't Southampton's airport be named after a footballer too?
Matt Le Tissier's reaction was to state:
I find it quite bizarre. I have been very honoured in this town. There is a block of flats named after me and, for a little while, a pub. I think the airport might be taking things a little far...
A Southampton Airport spokeswoman stated, unsurprisingly, that there were no plans to rename the airport.
History of the Airport
Eastleigh's Early Aircraft History
The dawning of what was to become Southampton Airport began at least as early as 19103. Pioneer pilot Eric Rowland Moon regularly used what was then North Stoneham Farm's fields to take-off and land his Moonbeam Mk II monoplane until 1912.
He built two aircraft himself, both single-seat monoplanes, and founded the Moonbeam Engineering Company, specialising in world-famous marine engines4.
Moon was a member of local air clubs and recommended the site to other early aviators. When Colonel Seely launched his appeal in early 1914 for farmers and landowners to inform the War Office of suitable fields that could be used as aircraft landing sites, it was natural that Eastleigh would come to the War Office's attention for use as an aerodrome. By the time that war was declared, Eastleigh was earmarked for military use.
The Great War
When America entered the First World War, the United States Navy Air Force's Northern Bombing Group searched for a base from which to attack the German-occupied Flemish coast. Their initial bases in the Pas de Calais were too vulnerable to German bombers, and so the US Navy approached the British Air Ministry for a suitable site within the UK. Eastleigh's aerodrome, still under construction, with its newly constructed large hangars and a direct rail link to London, was chosen as the perfect location.
The Americans continued the building programme begun by the Royal Flying Corps and stationed 4,000 men in huts and tents on the site, outnumbering the Royal Air Force personnel who had a base of operations in nearby Leigh Road.
A repair and assembly department was opened on Eastleigh Aerodrome's site, with aircraft shipped to Eastleigh from within the UK and across the Atlantic, assembled in Eastleigh and flown from there by US Marines to France. Eastleigh Aerodrome was the largest USNAF base in Europe during the Great War and indeed one of the US Navy's largest projects of the war, and after an official inspection in September 1918, was reported as the most successful US Navy station.
On 1 October, 1918, a large Caproni 600 heavy bomber biplane flew from Milan, Italy to Eastleigh. This was the first ever flight from Italy to England.
After Armistice Day most of the buildings and barracks at the aerodrome were auctioned off or demolished. Eastleigh Aerodrome, capable of assembling the most advanced aircraft that Britain and America had yet conceived, was returning to obscurity. In January 1919 the American troops still at Eastleigh boarded a train at the railway line next to it taking them to Liverpool, and then a boat back home.
Between the Wars
On 1 May, 1919, civilian air transport was officially approved, allowing commercial flights to begin in earnest. A government report considered Eastleigh's aerodrome to be known as the major entry to Southampton in a similar way to how Waterloo station is synonymous with London. However, Eastleigh aerodrome faced competition from Southampton Water – a perfect area for flying boats to use. Indeed, within 20 miles of Southampton Water, nine different companies were building flying boats, including two on the Isle of Wight.
In 1921 the site was taken over by shipping companies Cunard and White Star Line. They formed the Atlantic Park Hostel Company, and used the site as a transmigrant centre, providing somewhere for those changing ship at Southampton to stay.
In 19287 the Prince of Wales delivered a speech in which he stated that every major town and city should have a municipal airport, naming Southampton as an example of a town8 without one. In 1929 the Mayor of Southampton negotiated to purchase the site of Eastleigh Aerodrome's runway, although the preferred option would have been a site next to Southampton Water which could be used for both flying boats and conventional aircraft. After considering sites on the Fawley marshes and Calshot, Eastleigh Aerodrome was chosen and the remaining land owned by the Atlantic Park was purchased in 1932. Although the site was now officially renamed the Southampton Municipal Airport, it was more commonly still referred to as Eastleigh Aerodrome. Plans to flood the neighbouring water meadows by damming the River Itchen to make a mile-long lake with two runways suitable for flying boats, though proposed, were considered promising but too expensive to put into practice at the time.
Between 1928 and the mid-1930s Eastleigh Aerodrome was proposed as the UK site for a transatlantic airship service to America. The airships R100, R101, Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg were all seen in Southampton's sky, although the R101 disaster9 ended all plans for further airship development within the UK.
In 1935 the Air Ministry, fearing the outbreak of war, negotiated with the Southampton Corporation which now owned the aerodrome to establish a new RAF Fleet Air Arm base at the airport, RAF Eastleigh, later renamed in August 1936 to RAF Southampton. Naval Aircraft from aircraft carriers based in Portsmouth were serviced at the site. Two fighter prototypes, the first of which was the Vickers Venom, were developed and tested in Eastleigh. The Venom was to prove inferior to the other prototype developed, and it never entered production. In 1936 King Edward VIII himself landed at RAF Eastleigh, and was shown the other secret prototype aircraft at the end of the runway - the very first Spitfire.
In 1936 Supermarine opened a test flight facility at Eastleigh aerodrome. Work commenced on testing an aircraft built to meet the Air Ministry need for a single seat fighter aircraft with eight guns, an enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear. The aircraft was constructed a few miles south in the area of Southampton known as Woolston. RJ Mitchell, Supermarine's chief designer, was determined to design and construct the greatest fighter aircraft in the world, drawing on his impressive Schneider Trophy10 experience.
Mitchell's chief brainwave was the shape of the elliptical wings. The prototype, numbered K5054, powered by a Rolls Royce Merlin engine and piloted by Captain J 'Mutt' Summers, flew for the first time on 5 March, 1936.
The prototype displayed unbelievably superb handling qualities and performance, with a speed of almost 350mph. Impressed, the Air Ministry ordered 310 Mark I Spitfires within three months of the historic first flight on 3 June, 1936. These were merely the first of almost 23,000 Spitfires built during the Second World War, although when the aircraft went in to full production, Supermarine had moved their Spitfire testing and construction facilities. Southampton was too vulnerable to German bombers.
The Spitfire was so advanced that it was used not only by Britain's Royal Air Force, but also in the air forces of Australia, Egypt, France, Greece, Portugal, Canada, New Zealand, the Soviet Union and America. During the Battle of Britain, when on 1 September, 1940, Reichsmarschall Goering asked ace Adolf Galland if there was anything he needed in the Battle of Britain, he famously replied 'A squadron of Spitfires'. Mitchell had achieved his ambition of creating the best fighter aircraft in the world - though he sadly did not live to see it in action, dying on 11 June, 1937, two years before the Second World War began. In 1942 a rather fitting film dedicated to his quest and vision was made, The First of the Few (released as Spitfire in America), telling his life story up to that day in Eastleigh when he saw his vision soar.
The test flight of the Supermarine Spitfire was commemorated in 2004 with the erection of a small sculpture of K5054, the prototype Spitfire, at the roundabout leading to the airport.
This statue caused controversy, especially among the older local residents, when it was revealed that it would be built by a German company – the very nation that the Spitfire had been constructed to combat. Many felt it was a sad indication of the decline of British industry - once, Britain had been able to construct the greatest aircraft in the world, now the country was incapable of even building a statue of it. The position the airport has taken concerning the controversy is believed to be that the German-built Spitfire represents the spirit of international co-operation and peace appropriate to the 21st Century. In any event, it is a striking and poignant symbol for the airport, although many local residences wish it was bigger11.
Two years after the statue's placement, on 5 March, 2006 at 4pm, five Spitfires took off from Southampton Airport to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the first flight of the Spitfire at the precise same time as the first test flight in 1936.
The War Years
On 3 September, 1939, war was declared. In the months preceding the declaration of war, a factory on the site believed to be assembling Lockheed 12A aircraft for British Airways was in fact equipping the planes with spy cameras for the British Secret Service and also the French Deuxieme Bureau for high altitude photography. Aircraft fitted with spy cameras at Eastleigh flew all over Germany, Italy, the Middle East and North Africa in the months leading up to and during the war.
On 1 July, 1939, the Fleet Air Arm base at Eastleigh was renamed HMS Raven and, as a Naval station and according to Naval customs, for the remainder of the war the airport was referred to as a ship, even though it was in fact an aerodrome. The fact that HMS Raven was an aerodrome didn't prevent German propaganda announcing on radio that HMS Raven had been sunk in the English Channel, much to the amusement of those stationed there.
Among the Fleet Air Arm personnel to serve at HMS Raven during the war were Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier, both of whom later pursued acting careers.
Also at the Eastleigh Aerodrome site was the factory belonging to Cunliffe-Owen Aircraft12, known as COAs, which constructed the bizarre-looking 'Flying Wing' aircraft as well as working on equipping the spy planes. They modified aircraft to be able to use the revolutionary air-sea rescue parachutable lifeboat designed by Isle of Wight inventor Uffa Fox and also produced the Naval version of the Spitfire – the Seafire. Over 400 Seafires were constructed at COAs during the war; in addition, the factory was involved in the production of Blenheim, Halifax, Walrus and Otter aircraft components. Also at Eastleigh was the Air Medical School, which developed suits to prevent pilots freezing to death when forced to land in the Atlantic.
During the war, Southampton was the ninth most attacked city in Britain. Eastleigh Aerodrome, just north of the city, was attacked ten times by the Luftwaffe. The first attack took place on 21 August, 1940, when the COA factory was attacked with little damage. The next raid, on 11 September, 1940, severely damaged the COA factory and claimed several casualties. Fortunately little damage was done on the attacks of 8 October, 18, 22 and 23 November, 1940, or indeed on 17 April or 26 June, 1941. On 22 June, 1942, two men were killed and considerable damage was done to the factories on the site; the air raid warnings, however, had prevented further loss of life. The final attack, from flying bombs in June 1944, fortunately missed the airfield and caused no damage or loss of life.
Air Services from Southampton Airport to the Channel Islands, resumed in September 1945. The aerodrome, becoming an airport once more, was officially renamed Southampton Airport on its return to civilian life. In May 1946 the airport was completely de-requisitioned; civilian flying and not just scheduled flights were once again permitted.
The plan to develop the land east of the airport into a flying boat landing lake was again proposed. It was debated in the House of Commons where it was deferred in favour of developing the airport at Heathrow, although it was acknowledged that Southampton Water should be Britain's premier flying boat port.
Southampton Airport retained its grass runways long after its major competitors within the UK had upgraded theirs, and this was a major factor in its relative decline in popularity. In 1961 the airport was privatised, and finally in 1966 a hard concrete runway was constructed. The size of the airport shrank considerably in 1983 when the M27 motorway was built. This divided the airport's south side, separating the former Cunliffe-Owen Factory now owned by Fords from the airport terminal. Much of the former airport land to the south of the central terminal building was developed into a retail park, meaning the airport had shrunk in size as well as importance by the end of the 20th Century.
Saunders-Roe Helicopters at Eastleigh
In 1946 the Cierva Autogiro13 Company, which had been based in Hamble, Southampton, since 1926, opened a factory in Southampton Airport. There they designed and developed the W9 helicopter prototype. In January 1951 the Isle of Wight company Saunders-Roe, who were based in East Cowes, bought the majority stakeholding in Cierva Autogyro with the intention of developing this small company into its helicopter arm. Saunders-Roe were ahead of their time, going on to invent the hovercraft, build the world's largest flying boat, the first jet-powered flying boat and also rockets capable of launching satellites into space.
Saunders-Roe employed former Polish Air Force officer Tadeus Ciastula as chief designer, expanded the factory and built a rotor testing building on the eastern side of the airfield. They continued to develop Cierva's W14 helicopter, which was in early stages of production, modifying it to become the Skeeter. This was an advanced, early two-man helicopter, capable of staying airborne for three hours, travelling at 80mph. 88 were constructed at Eastleigh: 68 were bought by the Army Air Corps, six by the Federal German Army, four by the Federal German Navy, and the others were used as air ambulances and training craft.
The next helicopter built at Eastleigh was the Sprite. This small, five-man helicopter, came in two variants – for Navy use it was known as the Wasp, where it was the first small-ship aircraft, and the Army variant was the Scout. 283 were produced between 1958 and 1972: 96 Wasps, 148 Scouts and 35 exported abroad, although sadly only the prototype and initial aircraft were produced at Eastleigh. The maiden flight took place on 20 July, 1958.
In 1959 Britain's aviation industry was radically restructured and absorbed into one company. Saunders-Roe Helicopter Division, as well as the Helicopter divisions of the Bristol Aircraft Company and Fairey Aviation, were merged with Westland Aircraft to form one company, Westland Helicopters. In 1960 the Saunders-Roe Helicopter Division factory in Eastleigh was run down while design and production transferred to Hayes, Middlesex. Although later helicopters, such as the Whirlwind and Wessex, continued to be constructed by the company up until the late 1990s, the Eastleigh factories were empty. Eastleigh airport, which had given the world the Spitfire, was no longer at the cutting edge of aircraft design.
The Airport Today
Today the airport handles just under 2 million passengers per year and has flights to several destinations both within the UK and abroad. Flights within the UK include to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. European destinations include Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Holland. There are more flights to popular tourist destinations in the summer.
One of the most common sights at Southampton Airport is the regular and frequent Aurigny Air Service to the Channel Islands. These use Britten-Norman Trislanders, built at Bembridge, Isle of Wight, between 1971 and 1984. The Trislander is a distinctive three-piston-engined aircraft capable of carrying 17 passengers. Its innovative and advanced design won it a Queen's Award to Industry. Over the town centre of Eastleigh it is a charming sight, a comforting relief from the noisy jets that other airlines use.
Terminal: Given the Last Flights?
By 2020 over 90% of flights to Southampton Airport were operated by Flybe, with the runway considered too short to handle the 190-seater aircraft operated by many other airlines. Flights to the Channel Islands are the largest other service. Plans to expand the runway by 165m or 540 feet to allow for larger 190-seater aircraft and allow the airport to offer a greater range of flights have met with stiff local resistance. In March 2020 airline Flybe collapsed overnight as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak. This resulted in fears that the airport would close, although at time of writing (March 2020) it is expected that half of Flybe's routes will be picked up and operated by other airlines.
During the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic there was only one flight a day from the airport per day, the Channel Islands flight. In mid-April 2020 it was announced by Hampshire County Council that the airport would be used as a temporary mortuary during the outbreak to serve Hampshire, Portsmouth and Southampton in an area known as the Grayson Site in a specially adapted and policed location with local faith leaders consulted to ensure the observation of customs and practices. It was emphasised that the mortuary is completely separate from the passenger terminal. It was announced in June as the morgue was being dismantled that the number of local deaths had been lower than prepared for and the airport had not been used as a morgue after all.
Getting to the Airport
The airport is very well connected. It is off Junction 5 of the M27 and is also easily accessible from both Junctions 12 and 13 of the M3.
Southampton Airport Parkway Station
The airport also has its own train station, Southampton Airport Parkway, which opened in 1986. This is a main station; every train travelling north from Southampton stops at Southampton Airport Parkway. During the day there is a train every 15 minutes to destinations such as London Waterloo, Winchester, Basingstoke, Poole, Bournemouth and Weymouth. There are also regular services to such locations as Salisbury, Reading, Oxford, Coventry, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, York, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and even as far away as Edinburgh and other Scottish stations. Yet despite this, the station consists only of two platforms14 – trains on Platform 1 head north and trains on Platform 2 head south.
Despite opening in 1986, it was only at the end of 2009, at a cost of over £2 million and financed by the airport, that a proper footbridge containing lifts enabled people in wheelchairs or with prams to get from Platform 1 to 2. Platform 1 has an indoor waiting area, small shop and café. Shelter and seating on the Platform 2 side of the station, though, still consists of merely a small bus shelter. If it rains on a busy day, passengers travelling south waiting on Platform 2 have no choice but to get wet.