Dunsfold, some 10 miles south of Guildford, was a Canadian wartime airfield constructed over a period of just nine months in 1942.
Originally the site was covered by woodlands which were cleared in record time using both heavy plant machinery and special explosive techniques to fell some of the larger trees.
Numerous military units operated from Dunsfold including 168, 400, 414 and 430 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force, operationally using the Curtis Tomahawk and the North American Mustang. These were later followed by the North-American Mitchell Medium Bomber with the arrival of 139 Wing RAF.
When 139 Wing transferred to the continent in 1944, 83 Group Support arrived with their De Havilland Mosquitos, Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Typhoons and Tempests.
As of December 1944, Dunsfold Aerodrome comprised of 3 runways, all 50 yards (46m) wide: one 2,000 yards (over a mile or 1,830m) and two, each 1,400 yards (1,280m), in the typical “A” shape.
Buildings included 12 Blister hangars, 2 T-2 hangars (all on the north side of the site) with 38 dispersal areas of 100 feet (30m) described as ‘frying pans’ to the south and east sides of the site. ‘Dispersals’ are aircraft parking areas distributed around the airfield to minimise potential damage in the event of an air attack - Some dispersals could accommodate as many as 50 aircraft.
There were a multitude of brick buildings and temporary huts (mostly wooden) to provide accommodation for the 1,241 people employed or ‘billeted’ at Dunsfold.
Earlier in 1944, Allied Supreme Commander General Eisenhower paid a visit to Dunsfold to inspect the assembed Mitchell Bombers, and to boost the morale of their Air Crews who would be acting in support of the D-Day invasion.
At the end of the War, Dunsfold was further used as a destination airfield for returning Prisoners of War as part of 'Operation Exodus' with some 47,000 detainees being flown back into Dunsfold. Once all the repatriation had ceased, the aerodrome was declared inactive once more and from August 1946 it was leased for use as the engineering base of Skyways Ltd.
In their time, Skyways employed over 1,300 people at Dunsfold, mostly resident in the vacated accommodation buildings whilst their 350-strong aircrew either lived, or operated from, the airfield flying civilian Avro Lancastrian and York aircraft among other types.
Skyways provided vital support during the ‘Berlin Airlift’ over the summer of 1948 and it also carried out repairs and refurbishments of Spitfires and Hurricanes for the Portuguese Air Force.
During Skyway’s operations at Dunsfold, the company published a series of advertisements based upon evocative Terence Cuneo sketches. One of the most attractive (from April 1948) was entitled ‘Night Shift at Dunsfold - Skyways Maintenance Organisation at your service’. Others in this series, as if vying for the title of least romantic artwork of all time, were entitled ‘The Sheet Metal Shop at Dunsfold’ and ‘The Hydraulics Shop at Dunsfold’.
Skyways were operating 24 Avro York and 5 Handley Page Halifax aircraft from Dunsfold when they unexpectedly went into liquidation in March 1950. A new company soon emerged however (using the same name) although it gradually transferred all its operations to Stanstead.
Silence fell over this leafy part of Surrey until Hawker Aircraft Ltd acquired the tenancy of Dunsfold in 1950. Their Langley Factory had become increasingly unsuitable with the growing popularity for jet aircraft, especially being constantly overshadowed by the fast growing amount traffic at nearby Heathrow.
New hangarage was erected during 1951 and as part of the Hawker family, the new Avro 707 undertook over 1,000 hours of flight testing at Dunsfold which was ideally placed given its proximity to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough and the National Gas Turbine Establishment (NGTE) next door.
The Dunsfold T2 hangars were also used for the flight test of the initial batch of 35 (Hawker built) Sea Hawk aircraft and these were followed by the new Hawker Hunter.
The first Hawker Hunter had flown in July 1951 at Boscombe Down, with the first production aircraft (WT555) flying from Dunsfold on 16th May 1953.
A Sapphire-powered development aircraft (WB202) flew from Dunsfold in November 1952 and the two-seat Hunter T.7 prototype (XJ615), developed as a private venture at Dunsfold, flying for the first time on 8th July 1955.
The 3 Type T1 hangars were constructed in 1953 and Dunsfold became the base for some important speed tests. In January of that year, the speed of sound was achieved and on 7th September, a Hunter (piloted by Squadron Leader Neville Duke) broke the World Air Speed Record off Littlehampton, achieving 727.6 m.p.h.
Later the same month, the 100km world record (709.2 mph) was established from Dunsfold, again by Neville Duke.
A total of 1,985 Hunter aircraft were built (some sources claim 1,972) including some 460 built overseas and under licence. Several ex-RAF aircraft were also converted for export at Dunsfold including some aircraft for Peru in 1956. A number of RAF aircraft were also modified to later specifications such as from F.6 to the new FGA.9 and GA.11 specification.
In March 1958, Hawker were advertising vacancies for machinists, toolmakers, inspectors, pre-production staff and process and planning engineers with the following strap-line: ‘HAWKER HUNTER – THE WORLD’S MOST SUCCESSFUL AIRCRAFT. Big Export Orders – Many Good Jobs.’
Probably the most exciting development carried out by Hawker at Dunsfold was the pioneering of the first British vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft in the form of the P.1127 and subsequently the Kestrel.
The first ‘tethered hover’ by the prototype Hawker P.1127 (XP831) was achieved on 21st October 1960 whilst the first ‘free hover’ was on 19th November 1960, just less than one month later.
A unique set of Vertical Take-off Pads were constructed, adjacent to the end of the main runway in an area now more famously known as the ‘Hammerhead’ in the BBC Top Gear programmes.
This was to be followed by 'conventional' take-off and landings on 13th March 1961 at RAE Bedford with ‘full transitions’ (Vertical take-off followed by forward flight) on 12th September 1961.
The six P.1127 prototypes were later joined by nine Kestrel FGA.1 for Tripartite evaluation. The first (XS688) was first flown at Dunsfold on 7th March 1964 with the Tripartite Squadron becoming operational from 15th October 1964 to 30th November 1965.
Under Hawker Siddeley Aviation Ltd, Dunsfold was mainly used as the Flight Test Centre for the Harrier and the Hawk although Folland Aircraft also utilised their expertise for the testing the Folland Gnat T.1. after they closed their operations at Chilbolton Airfield.
Folland would be later absorbed into the Hawker Group and whilst the Gnat was produced at The Hamble Works, it was transported by lorry to Dunsfold for final assembly and flight test before onward delivery. It was during this period that Dunsfold forged strong links with the famous RAF Display Team ‘The Red Arrows’ who formed in 1964 using the Gnat before subsequently transferring to Dunsfold built Hawks 15-years later.
The latter part of the 1960s saw Dunsfold fully committed to the development of the Harrier and it was the famous Jump Jet that made export history when 112 (AV-8A) aircraft were sold to the US Marine Corps in 1971. this was the first time the USA had bought a foreign military aircraft since WW1. They had to be air freighted to the US which meant the arrival of large cargo carriers which made quite a sight as they landed over the countryside at Dunsfold.
Hawker Siddeley Aviation merged with British Aircraft Corporation in 1977 to form British Aerospace and the workload at Dunsfold increased dramatically as it joined forces with other military aircraft facilities around the UK such as Warton, Brough and Woodford.
In 1980, a new Control Tower was erected whilst in 1982, Dunsfold Aerodrome went on to a war footing with the outbreak of the Falklands Crisis.
The three Harriers that were based at Dunsfold for flight trials were immediately commandeered and one of these was clearly seen to be aboard HMS Hermes as she sailed out from Portsmouth.
Dunsfold moved onto double-shift working to modify existing RAF Harriers and Sea Harriers ready for air combat and ground attack roles in the South Atlantic. Dunsfold played a crucial role in ensuring that the Royal Navy would be able to send a second Sea Harrier-equipped aircraft carrier to the Falklands although in the event the conflict ended before this was actually necessary.
Dunsfold Test Pilot Taylor Scott volunteered to return to the Royal Navy to help form and train an additional Sea Harrier Squadron (809) and in total 42 Harriers and Sea Harriers were deployed during the crisis.
The first United Kingdom Harrier II - GR Mk 5 (ZD318) flew from Dunsfold on 30th April 1985 and most GR Mk5 aircraft were later brought up to GR Mk7 standard, this version being first flown on 29th November 1989.
The highly successful Hawker Siddeley HS.1182 Hawk Trainer was first flown (XX154) at Dunsfold on 21st August 1974, piloted by the late Duncan Simpson. A single seat version (The Hawk 200) was built as a private venture by BAe with the first example (XG200) flying at Dunsfold on 19th May 1986.
In the early 1990’s, the Kingston site was being run down and Harrier II fuselage production and final assembly of all United Kingdom aircraft (including Sea Harrier new build and conversions to FA.2 standard) was transferred to Dunsfold.
The first navalised Harrier FRS.1 (XZ450) had flown at Dunsfold on 20th August 1978 whilst the first Sea Harrier FRS.2 development aircraft (ZA195) flew on 19th September 1988.
As the only western military V/STOL combat aircraft to reach production status (thus far), the Harrier was an extraordinary success and in a programme that ran for over 40 years, nearly 900 aircraft were built.
In addition to Harrier production work, Dunsfold was contracted to carry out the refurbishment and 2,000-hour major service on 12 Hawk Mk 64 aircraft for the Kuwait Air Force with the first refurbished aircraft being handed over in October 1998.
Dunsfold also conducted extensive refurbishment of the Royal Navy Historic Flight Fairey Firefly (WB271) and Sea Hawk WV856.
On 24 June 1999, British Aerospace announced that with the completion of the Harrier production programme, it would be closing the Dunsfold site by the end of the year 2000 with its current incarnation (BAE Systems) concentrating military aircraft production at sites at Brough, Samlesbury and Warton.
Remaining support for Harrier variants worldwide are based in Frimley with a small team operating alongside remaining operators whilst support for the Hawk is carried out at Brough and Warton.
Dunsfold Site Timeline
|1942||Dunsfold Aerdrome established for use by Royal Canadian Air Force.|
Runways and major T-2 and Blister Hangars completed.
|1945||Operation Exodus repatriates 47,000 through Dunsfold.|
|1948||Skyways employ over 1,300 at the Service and Repair Centre.|
|1950||Dunsfold Aerodrome purchased by Hawker Aircraft Ltd.|
|1951||Avro 707 and the prototype Hawker Hunter flies at Dunsfold.|
|1953||Neville Duke breaks the Air Speed Record.|
|1960||First 'tethered' flight of the P1127.|
|1971||Harrier AV-8A's are produced for the US Marine Corps.|
|1974||Hawker Siddeley HS1182 Hawk prototype (XX154) flies at Dunsfold|
|1977||Hawker Siddeley Aviation merge with BAC and become British Aerospace.|
|1982||Dunsfold activity increases with the Falkland Crisis.|
|1985||Harrier II flies for the first time.|
|1988||The first true Sea Harrier (ZA195) flies at Dunsfold|
|1999||With the end of the Harrier Program, British Aerospace announce the closure of Dunsfold.|
|2002||BAE Systems sells the Aerodrome to Royal Bank of Scotland|
In 1938, Hawker Aircraft Company were fast out-growing their facilities at Brooklands and desperately needed larger assembly and flight test facilities within easy reach of their factories at Kingston.
In 1937 and as the war clouds gathered over Europe, The Hawker Board of Directors financed the purchase of Parlaunt Farm, near Langley . They urgently constructed major factory buildings and flight sheds on the land and the factory opened in 1939, predominantly for the manufacture of the Hawker Hurricane.
By 1941, Langley had taken over all of the manufacturing and flight test activities previously carried out at Brooklands including the first flights of the Hawker Tornado (1939) Hawker Typhoon (1940) Hawker Tempest (1942) Hawker Fury (1944) and the Hawker Sea Fury (1945).
In total some 6,912 Hurricanes were built at Langley as well as 1,400 examples of the faster version, the Hawker Tempest.
In September 1944, the final Hurricane (PZ865) departed from Langley, piloted by PWS ‘George’ Bulman who had flown the type on its first flight some 9-years earlier. Ironically, Bulman retired shortly after and surrendered his pilots’ licence, opting for a non-aviation career. The aircraft remains airworthy and appears as ‘The Last of the Many’ as part of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
In addition, various non-Hawker aircraft were test flown at Langley such as the General Aircraft Hamilcar X (a tank-carrying powered glider) built in 1945.
The airfield consisted of three hardened grass runways, two main production buildings, a small control tower, office and administration block, various supporting out buildings, four large flight sheds, large concrete apron, football pitch and five repair hangars that were later used as storage facilities for the USAAF. The hangers were also used to store items for auction after the 1951 Festival of Great Britain. The airfield had its own Barrage Balloon Squadron and was also used by the RAF 1st Film Unit based out of the nearby Pinewood Studios.
The post war years saw a number of proposals for the further development of the aerodrome and factory although they all fell foul of the restrictions prohibiting the laying of a concrete runway due to its proximity to the fast-expanding Heathrow.
Despite this, Hawkers’ first jet aircraft prototype (P1040) was assembled at Langley during 1947 and it was there that they carried out the initial ground testing. The aircraft was eventually transferred by road to Boscombe Down in Wiltshire for its first flight followed by flight development testing with the Hawker Team at RAE Farnborough.
With the advent of the jet era, and the almost essential need for longer, sealed surface runways, Hawker were left with little option but to consolidate operations in favour of Dunsfold. They had been carrying out various manufacturing activities on the Hawker Hunter at Langley and it was the government cancellation of an order for over 100 aircraft that was the final blow.
The aerodrome was also used by Airwork Services and British South American Airways for aircraft maintenance work, alongside part assembly and manufacture of Hawker Hunter early prototypes.
Finally, all production staff were transferred to the flight test airfield at Dunsfold Aerodrome and the parent Hawker factory in Kingston-on-Thames. The Hawker factory closed in 1958 and little of the remains today although the area's aviation past is still remembered in street-names such as Spitfire Close and Hurricane Way.
Although the airfield effectively ceased all operations in late 1958, it was not the end of its association with the Hawker Company as in 1959 Hawker Siddeley Nuclear Power Company took over the four large flight sheds and installed a complete nuclear submarine reactor test facility, which was eventually relocated, to Greenwich in 1961.
Other major factory buildings were taken over by the Ford Motor Company who had first opened a commercial vehicle component factory back in 1949. When Hawker departed it bought the entire site and eventually all of the former aircraft factory buildings were re-used for commercial vehicle manufacturing which included early models of the Ford Transit (later transferred to Ford's Southampton plant at Southampton).
Langley became the ‘Home the Cargo’ and the factory became part of Ford's Iveco Division in 1986.
However, Ford finally closed their operations in September 1997 and entire site was demolished just a year later.
Now redeveloped with new housing, offices and warehousing (including a Royal Mail International Mail Centre which services nearby Heathrow Airport) no clues remain of what stood before other than a playground, field and open recreational space in the area once occupied by the runways. The Test Pilots’ Mess is now a residential property whilst the original Repair Shed access road is now weed covered and now lies in the grounds of the golf course.
Langley Site Timeline
|1937||Land at Parlaunt Farm purchased|
|1939||Langley Factory opened|
|1941||Hawker hurricane manufacturing transferred from Brooklands|
|1944||The final Hurricane ('last of the many') is produced at Langley|
|1947||Development work commences on the P1040 Sea Hawk|
|1951||Production of prototype Hawker Hunter components|
|1958||All production ceases and Hawker Aircraft transfers the site to Hawker Nuclear Power Co.|
|1959||The aerodrome and buildings are sold to Ford who create a Commercial Vehicle Factory|
|1997||Ford closes the factories and the whole site is redeveloped.|
The Hawker Association (www.hawkerassociation.org.uk)