History of Aerodrome

Dunsfold Site Timeline

1942Dunsfold Aerdrome established for use by Royal Canadian Air Force.                                      
1943RAF operations as fighter base and latterly a medium bomber base.
1944Runways and major T-2 and Blister Hangars completed.
1945Operation Exodus repatriates 47,000 through Dunsfold.
1948Skyways employ over 1,300 at the Service and Repair Centre.
1950Dunsfold Aerodrome purchased by Hawker Aircraft Ltd.
1951Avro 707 and the prototype Hawker Hunter flies at Dunsfold.
1953Neville Duke breaks the Air Speed Record.
1960First ‘tethered’ flight of the P1127.
1971Harrier AV-8A’s are produced for the US Marine Corps.
1974Hawker Siddeley HS1182 Hawk prototype (XX154) flies at Dunsfold
1977Hawker Siddeley Aviation merge with BAC and become British Aerospace.
1982Dunsfold activity increases with the Falkland Crisis.
1985Harrier II flies for the first time.
1988The first true Sea Harrier (ZA195) flies at Dunsfold
1999With the end of the Harrier Program, British Aerospace announce the closure of Dunsfold.
2002BAE Systems sells the Aerodrome to Royal Bank of Scotland
2018Green light to re-development of airfield to a new Garden Village of 2600+ homes
  • 1913

Dunsfold Airfield was cleared of woodland, farmland and buildings to form the Canadian Air Force airbase in 1942. Units of Canadian troops cleared land requisitioned from the people to form runways, perimeter roads and after little more than one month the first aircraft had landed. The old Brighton Road from Godalming was relocated so that it no longer ran through the site at Pains Hill. The old cast iron milestones were amended by one mile to reflect the additional mileage diversion. Most farm buildings and farm houses were removed with the exception of the Chiddingfold Kennels (now Honey Mead), Primemeads Farmhouse (originally Stillwells Farm) and Broadmeads Cottage (now referred to as Canada House). The latter was moved to the southern perimeter and now stands alongside Benbow Lane.

  • Aerial photograph 1942

1940’s

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 comprising 98, 180 and 320 Squadrons . 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.

ROYAL AIR FORCE: 2ND TACTICAL AIR FORCE, 1943-1945. (CH 20598) North American Mitchell Mark IIs of No. 320 (Dutch) Squadron RAF lined up at Dunsfold, Surrey, during an inspection of No. 139 Wing by the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Force, General Dwight D Eisenhower. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205210861

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.

US President Einsenhower addressing troops in the hangar to the north of the Dunsfold Runway.

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

Skyways operations at Dunsfold

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’.

1950’s

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. 

Avro 707B research aircraft during trials at Dunsfold, landing at the Eastern end of the main runway.

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. 

Neville Duke’s record breaking Hunter

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.’ 

Hunters at Dunsfold

1960’s

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.

P.1127 on tethering pad

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. 

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969 (RAF-T 6800) A Hawker Siddeley P.1127 ‘Kestrel’ after landing vertically on the test pad at Dunsfold. Copyright: � IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205215020

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. 

XM691 Folland Gnat

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. 

Gnat as used by the Red Arrows

1970’s

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.

Sea Harrier first flight Aug 78 Dunsfold
E-421/G-9-443 – Hunter F.51 – ex-Royal Danish Air Force – Dunsfold – 22-Jun-1976
A line of 16 ex-Danish Air Force Hunters purchased by Hawker Siddeley for onward sale or disposal lined up at Dunsfold, headed by E-421. Copyright Phillip Dawe
159367 – AV-8A Harrier – US Marine Corps – Dunsfold – 14-Jun-1975
This aircraft finished service when moved to Davis-Monthan for storage on 21 April 1986 and scrapped. Copyright Phillip Dawe
XX154 – Hawk T.1 – Royal Air Force – Dunsfold – 14-Jun-1975
The prototype Hawk flew for the first time in August 1974 and has only served with the various trials units occupying Boscombe Down. Copyright Phillip Dawe
XW265 – Harrier T.2 – Royal Air Force – Dunsfold – 14-Jun-1975
Subsequently upgraded to T.4A standard before being flown to Cosford for use as an instructional airframe in October 1996. Fuselage later scrapped and the forward section is now resident with an ATC squadron at Leuchars, Fife. Copyright Phillip Dawes

1980’s

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.

THE FALKLANDS CONFLICT, APRIL – JUNE 1982 (FKD 680) A Harrier of No 1 Squadron RAF is prepared for a sortie on the flight deck of HMS HERMES. Copyright: � IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205190492

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. 

Hangar crane credit BAe Ron Lawson

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. 

ZD318 in construction at Dunsfold

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.

Hawk lineup in preparation Farnborough Week 1976 Credit BAe Ron Lawson
British Aerospace Dunsfold 1989
Technical Areas in 1989 Credit: BAe
Dunsfold viewed from the North East. Credit BAe Andy Lawson

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.

Hawk 200 in Engine Running Pen (1980s) (courtesy Brooklands Museum archive)

1990’s

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.

T2A
FRS.2

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.

2000’s

 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.

Research and Sources: British Aerospace

12 Replies to “History of Aerodrome”

  1. The 1970’s section states that “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”. However, English Electric had sold the Canberra to the US in the early 1950’s (although most of the airframes were built in the US under licence as the B57 in many variants).

  2. Hi Roger,

    Yes. Well spotted. The source of those paragraphs is British Aerospace so I am guessing they quietly ignored the slightly inconvenient Canberra history spoiling a great marketing quote!

  3. I suspect the 1937 and 1942 maps of the pre-aerodrome area are transposed, since the ‘1937’ map seems to indicate the later re-routed road (labeled as A281), while the ‘1942’ map still has the earlier road shown in red as evidently still a main route – just a thought.

  4. The 1960s’ IWM photo (RAF T8600) of a ‘Kestrel’ – in truth one of the six P1127 prototypes – is not, as captioned by IWM, on the ‘test pad’ (although it might well have just landed vertically) but, rather, at the east end of the main runway, albeit a concrete area similar to the test pad a mile to the west.
    Pictured Folland Gnat XS111 was the last of the RAF’s batch of 105 examples and was the ‘mount’ of 1975-76 Red Arrows team-leader Sqn Ldr (later Air Cdre) Richard ‘Dickie’ Duckett; he was awarded the Air Force Cross (I think) for keeping control of said XS111 following a brakeless landing at Kemble, although the aircraft was written off.

    1. Yes I was curious as to the caption from IWM. I didn’t alter it from as provided. The tethering pad is not in view, although maybe it was a common caption for a sequence of photos? Is it correct to say that the only P1127 that was a Kestrel was the last prototype as that had a revised wing and tail plus the bigger engine?

    2. Yes I was curious as to the caption from IWM. I didn’t alter it from as provided. The tethering pad is not in view, although maybe it was a common caption for a sequence of photos? Is it correct to say that the only P1127 that was a Kestrel was the last prototype as that had a revised wing and tail plus the bigger engine?

    3. The Gnat may also be mis captioned as I believe there is a replica Gnat still flying and it has the same serial XS111 and in Red Arrows colours.

      1. In fact, the Gnat caption – as used by the Red Arrows – may be correct, as is your note here: not a replica in the sense that it is a true original Gnat, but wearing XS111’s uniform and, to boot, smoke-equipped. If the source image doesn’t say, we’d need to compare different shots; this is an early (original?) uniform from before the application of, for example, the white stripe along the nose.

    4. Looking at the previous shot of the rear view of a P.1127 it is clear to see the tailplanes are horizontal, whereas the IWM image has the later anhedral tailplane. So the question is when did the P1127 actually become more Kestrel than P1127?

      1. I think maybe the aircraft that were built especially for evaluation in the Tripartite Squadron were the first all-Kestrels. The nose camera differentiated them from the P.1127 that had been uprated with Kestrel-like design features.

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