The Eastchurch aviation memorial
|Operator||Royal Air Force|
|Elevation AMSL||83 ft / 25 m|
RAF Eastchurch was a Royal Air Force station near Eastchurch village, on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, England. The history of aviation at Eastchurch stretches back to the first decade of the 20th century when it was used as an airfield by members of the Royal Aero Club. The area saw the first flight by a British pilot in Britain.
In 1910 it was offered to the Royal Navy as a training aerodrome and it was known as the Naval Flying School, Eastchurch. It was also in the 1910s the airfield was designated Royal Naval Air Station Eastchurch. With the amalgamation of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps on 1 April 1918, the station was transferred to the newly formed Royal Air Force and was re-designated Royal Air Force Station Eastchurch, or RAF Eastchurch for short.
Early civilian aviation
The members of the Aero Club of Great Britain established their first flying ground near Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey in 1909. One of the Club's members, Francis McClean, acquired Stonepits Farm, on the marshes across from Leysdown, converting the land into an airfield for members of the Aero Club. A club house was established nearby at the Mussell Manor (now known as Muswell Manor). At the same time the Short Brothers established an aircraft factory at Shellbeach on Isle of Sheppey. This was the first aircraft factory in the British Isles and the first factory in the world for the series production of aircraft, these being license-built copies of the Wright A biplane.
It was here that John Moore-Brabazon (later Lord Brabazon of Tara) made a flight of 500 yards in his Voisin biplane The Bird of Passage, officially recognised as the first flight by a British pilot in Britain. Later in 1909, Moore-Brabazon piloted the first live cargo flight by fixed-wing aircraft. In order to disprove the adage that pigs can't fly he attached a waste-paper basket to a wing strut of his aircraft and airlifted one small pig inside the basket. Later Moore-Brabazon, Professor Huntington, Charles Rolls and Cecil Grace all used the flying club's services. In May 1909 the Wright Brothers visited Sheppey and inspected the airfield before moving on to visit the Short Brothers' factory. They then took lunch at Mussell Manor with members of the Aero Club and there was considerable discussion regarding the possibility of establishing a flying school in Sheppey.
In 1910 both the airfield and the aircraft factory were relocated to larger quarters at Eastchurch, about 2.5 miles (4 km) away, where the Short-Dunne 5, designed by John W. Dunne, was built and became the first tailless aircraft to fly. In 1911 Shorts built one of the first successful twin-engine aircraft, the S.39 or Triple Twin. At this time seaplanes had to be taken by barge to Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey to be launched and tested.
In November 1910 the Royal Aero Club, at the instigation of Francis McClean, offered the Royal Navy the use of its airfield at Eastchurch along with two aircraft and the services of its members as instructors in order that Naval officers might be trained as pilots. The Admiralty accepted and on 6 December the Commander-in-Chief at the Nore promulgated the scheme to the officers under his jurisdiction, stipulating that applicants be unmarried and able to pay the membership fees of the Royal Aero Club. Two hundred applications were received, and four were accepted: Lieutenants C.R. Samson, A.M. Longmore and A. Gregory, and Captain E L Gerrard, RMLI. It was originally planned that Cecil Grace would be their instructor but, following his untimely death, George Cockburn took his place, giving his services free of charge. Technical instruction was provided by Horace Short. The airfield later became the Naval Flying School, Eastchurch.
Royal Air Force use
Towards the end of World War I, on 1 April 1918, the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps amalgamated. The station at Eastchurch was transferred to the newly formed Royal Air Force and was re-designated Royal Air Force Station Eastchurch, or RAF Eastchurch for short. During the last few months of the War, No. 204 Training Depot Station, the 64th (Naval) Wing and the 58th (Training) Wing were based at Eastchurch.
RAF Eastchurch remained active during the inter-war years and it was home to No. 266 Squadron during the Battle of Britain. During World War II, Eastchurch was part of Coastal Command. A siding was laid to connect RAF Eastchurch with Eastchurch railway station on the Sheppey Light Railway. RAF Eastchurch closed in 1946.
The site is currently used as HM Prison Standford Hill. While there are a number of new buildings some of the original buildings survive including a number of pillboxes. The main roads in the prison reflect the aviation links; Rolls Avenue and Airfield View, Short's Prospect and Wright's Way. In the entrance to HMP Swaleside are two brass plaques; one records that the prison is built on what was the airstrip of RAF Eastchurch and the other lists the owners of the airstrip from 1909 to the end of the RAF use.
- Hanson, Richard. Borstal: Short Brothers. Access date: 15 January 2007.
- Roskill. The Naval Air Service. I. p. 33.
- Turner, Charles Cyril (1972). The Old Flying Days. Arno Press. p. 19. ISBN 0-405-03783-X.
- Gollin. Impact of Air Power on the British People and the Government. p. 168.
- Keegan, John (1989). Times Atlas of the Second World War.
- Delve, Ken (2005). The Military Airfields of Britain. Southern England: Kent, Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex. Ramsbury: The Crowood Press Ltd. p. 84. ISBN 1-86126-729-0.