Aviation in Jersey

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TIMELINE
  • 1912: Jean Benoist landed his Sanchez-Besa biplane in St Aubin's Bay as part of a four aircraft race organised between St Malo and Jersey
  • 1920s: Imperial Airways provided regular flying boat services between the UK, France and the Channel Islands
  • 1933: Jersey Airways established and the beach at West Park used as an airfield. As flights and aircraft size increased a purpose built airfield was commissioned.
  • 1937: New airport opened at St Peter on 10 March 1937, with four grass runways, the longest at 980 yards. The airport complex included a central tower and two side buildings for departures and arrivals, designed with future expansion in mind.
This is both a new and a historical photograph. New, because it was taken on 18 November 2012; historical, because it shows a view from Jersey Airport's air traffic control tower of the main airport building, which earlier that year lost most of the ugly extensions added over the years to the original 1937 structure. It may not be quite the airport it was when it first opened 75 years ago, but it is undeniably much more attractive than it appeared for most of the last 40
The beach at West Park became busier and busier in the 1930s as demand for air travel grew
A new airport in 1937
Jersey's Bailiff Alexander Countanche meets arriving German troops at Jersey Airport in July 1940

Seaplane lands

The first aircraft to land was the Sanchez Besa seaplane piloted by Jean Benoist, which touched down in the water off West Park on 26 August 1912. Such was the commotion when a large crowded gathered round the flying machine such as none of them had ever seen, that Benoist's return flight to Saint Malo was delayed and he slipped to third place in the race in which he was competing. The pilot feared for the safety of his flimsy machine as islanders scratched their names in the wings. American Charles Weymann had the fortune to land further down the beach at Beaumont, where he stayed 30 minutes, refuelled and hurried back to St Malo to claim first prize in the race.

The first passenger flight in the island is recorded as having taken place 147 years earlier when a schoolmaster called Granger made several flights over the island in a balloon.

The First World War intervened and it was not until 1921 that aviation really got going with seaplanes landing outside the harbour and venturing inside to collect passengers. As the decade progressed Imperial Airways began to provide regular seaplane services. But the one-way fare from Southampton was a massive £3 18s, which was more than a return boat trip, plus accommodation, and the services decreased in frequency.

Seaplanes

Before the beach at West Park became established as an airfield, a number of operators had used seaplanes to provide services from Jersey to the French coast and the UK mainland, although none was particularly successful. However, contemporary reports reveal that the aircraft manufactured by Saunders Roe at Southampton were among the best suited to the cross-Channel route.

Daily services

But when the terminal switched from the sea to the beach at West Park demand grew, particularly on bank holiday weekends, and by 1936 Jersey Airways operated return flights to the island from London and Southampton. The latter service took an hour and a quarter, and passengers from London could leave Victoria for Heston and land in Jersey less than three hours later. Departure times varied significantly according to the tides.

Cloud of Iona

One of the most popular aircraft to fly between the Channel Islands and England was the Cloud of Iona, a true amphibian which could land on the beach or in the water. Sadly this was to become the first aircraft in local service to crash, with the loss of all of those on board, in July 1936. By this time pressure to build a permanent airport had increased, the driving force being the island's Chamber of Commerce.

Airport opens

Eventually a reluctant States agreed with plans for an airport at St Peter, although fears had been expressed that it would become a burden on the taxpayer.

The States need not have worried. In 1938, just a year after it opened, Jersey Airport was the second busiest in the British Isles, the 34,559 passengers carried that year being second only to Croydon and some 10,000 more than had used the beach aerodrome at West Park three years earlier.

Second World War

The Germans took over Jersey Airport and the rest of the island for five years from 1 July 1940. The first encounter between the occupying forces and the insular authorities took place at the Airport, to which Bailiff Sir Alexander Coutanche was summoned to meet senior officers. Surrender terms were agreed and more troops started arriving by air.

Plans to turn the Airport into a major military base were abandoned, along with Hitler's intentions to invade England, and the Airport was initially used more for reconnaissance flights than aggressive missions, and as the war continued, the Airport was extended but became little used by the Luftwaffe.

Post-war

Commercial flights soon restarted after the war and helped tourism become the island's main industry until the 1990s.

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