Aircrafts in Kemble, Cirencester, Gloucestershire

PUBLISHED: 11:48 23 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:40 20 February 2013

last flight

last flight

Just what is an Air India Jumbo jet doing landing in a field between Tetbury and Cirencester? Adam Edwards explains all...

On a patch of flat ground sandwiched between Cirencester and Tetbury is the Cotswolds' very own, albeit temporary, `Angel of the North'. It stands 63-feet high with a wingspan of 196-feet and can be seen clearly from either the A433 or A429.

It is as startling as the real `Angel' that overlooks the A1 and yet unlike the steel guardian of Gateshead our own horizontal aluminium messenger does not brings gasps of admiration or awe, rather it induces a sense of great puzzlement. Why, ask all those who have seen it, is an unmarked Jumbo Jet lying smack in the middle of our gently undulating hills like Gulliver in Lilliput?

And part of the answer lies beneath it. At its wheels is Kemble airfield, a pre-war landing strip now used for microlights and small planes and which occasionally allows a 747 to thunder in like an eagle entering a pigeon coop to squat on a large apron and become a transient monument to the skies.

`The first Jumbos arrived in 1998,' said airport manager David Young who also runs the Kemble Flying Club. `And it is true that when they are parked you can see them from miles away.'

That, to put it mildly, is stating the obvious. What is more of a mystery to locals and tourists alike is why the largest passenger plane in the world should wish to land at a landing strip with no transit lounge, concourse or duty free, a place which wouldn't know a baggage console from a bicycle path?

And the answer is history. Kemble is traditionally where planes have come to die. And in the last decade it has become an elephant's graveyard for Jumbos.

Last month, for example, an Air India Boeing 747 swooped in on its last ever flight. It is currently being dismantled by Air Salvage International and the parts sold off.

`Air frames have a fatigue life and after a while it is not economically viable to keep a plane going,' said David Young as we stood atop of the control tower staring at the Air India beast. `Thousands of military aircraft have been scrapped here and now we crunch up Jumbos. The jet engines are taken off and sold. The plane is stripped and the metal separated. And finally after twelve weeks work a big machine crunches up what's left of the fuselage and drops the scrap onto the back of a lorry.'

The felling of Jumbos is, however, not the sole reason for the airfield's existence. Kemble is home to a successful microlight flying club, various sporting aircraft businesses, offering a number of aviation training courses and the AV8 Restaurant, which is open at lunchtime to the public. And now after a battle royal last year with the Cotswold District Council planning office it has been conceded that general aviation activity is lawful.

Kemble is one of a score of airfields that were created in the Cotswolds in the late thirties designed to be just out of range of the German Luftwaffe. Fighter planes, for example, were stationed at coastal airfields. Bombers were further inland and behind them, sited in north Wiltshire and South Gloucestershire were the aerodromes used by the military for storage and maintenance. They were known as `ferry pools' and the most important was Kemble, which last year celebrated its 70th birthday.

The first unit to arrive at Kemble after the airfield was completed in June 1938 was No 5 Maintenance Unit. It was responsible for the distribution of military aircraft to operational units and would regularly have over 600 aircraft on the airfield. Other Units stationed there included one for training crews and preparing aircraft for long hazardous flights over water and enemy territory and the troop carriers of USAAF 9th Airforce.

After the war Kemble's role was reversed and the airfield received aircraft from disbanding squadrons. The planes were either held in storage pending sale or scrapped on site.

In the fifties Kemble maintained the RAF's Hawker Hunters (and continued to do so until the eighties) and the Red Arrows were based there from 1966 to 1983.

It was then that the RAF handed the airfield over the United States AirForce. The Yanks were there until the end of the Cold War when the USAAF found the airfield redundant to its needs and so the Royal Air Force finally departed Kemble following a ceremony in 1993.

"The re-emergence of Kemble as a civilian aerodrome happened amazing quickly," said David Young who started operating his microlight school on a lease from the MOD from 1995. `We had a fantastic hang gliding and paragliding event in 1996 and also the first Kemble Air Day under civilian control.'

It was in March 2001 that local businessman Ronan Harvey bought the airfield from the MOD with the intention of keeping the site as an airfield. And while he had letters from the local planning authorities at that time stating that planning permission was not needed for the aerodrome unfortunately its previous status as a `ferry pool' led to the Cotswold District Council later stating that it could only legally be used for the storage, maintenance and repair of aircraft. Furthermore a year ago an enforcement notice was issued after local residents complained about the noise.

However last summer the CDC planning committee - against the advice of its planning officers - finally voted in favour of authorising the legal certificate that would allow more general flying. Kemble is no longer an airfield - it is an airport.

`Now we can get on with running our businesses,' said David Young who added that the business jet activity would increase but denied the rumours that the site would now turn into an international airport. `We could not even become a regional airport because the air strip is not wide enough to allow an instrument approach. To achieve that we would have to demolish three of the original hangars, half of Kemble wood and re-route the A429.'

However the runway is wide enough - with good visibility during daylight hours - for an unscheduled visit from a dying Jumbo to drop from the sky like an elderly angel and, as in the hymn `Jerusalem', briefly shine forth upon our clouded hills.

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