Jersey Airport

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TIMELINE
  • 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.
  • 1937: Airmail service to England starts on 1 June
  • 1940: German Occupation starts
  • 1945: Commercial flights recommence but developments to the airport were needed
  • 1952: A 4,200ft tarmac runway was built to replace the grass strips.
  • 1952: Air display on 17 July to celebrate opening of tarmac runway
  • 1953: Air display on 9 July to celebrate coronation
  • 1954: First international air rally
  • 1956: £125,000 expansion of terminal building
  • 1957: States order demolition of 11 houses in safety zone
  • 1965: New departure lounge opened
  • 1965: States approve jet airliners
  • 1976: Extension to the airfield area and a 6,000ft concrete runway built. Size of airport building doubled
  • 1978: Passenger pier opens
  • 1997: The biggest extension of the airport building was opened. The new John le Fondré hall provided more space and better facilities for departing passengers and the rest of the building was also greatly improved.
Six planes lined up on the beach at West Park ready to depart, showing just how busy Jersey's seaside 'airport' became in the mid-1930s

From the beach to St Peter

Air services to Jersey before 1937 consisted of biplane airliners and some seaplanes landing on the beach at Saint Aubin's Bay. Jersey Airway and Imperial Airways were among those who operated to the island before the Second World War, but conditions were difficult as timetables were governed by tides. It was also difficult to prevent members of the public from walking across the landing area, and any aircraft which had mechanical problems had to be dragged up the slipways until the tide receded.

The States decided to build an airport at St Peter, which opened on 10 March 1937 with four grass runways, the longest of 2,940ft with a concrete centreline. Concrete taxiways were added during the Occupation by the Luftwaffe — they also built hangars, one of which is still in existence. A 4,200ft tarmac runway was opened in 1952 and the grass strips were closed. A feature of the airport in the 1950s was the traffic control system — traffic-lights were in place to prevent vehicles using the road from Les Quennevai to the Airport when planes were being moved to or from the hangar used by British European Airways.

History

From Jersey Airport's official website

The first aeroplane to land in Jersey touched down on the beach at West Park, on the Island’s south coast in August 1912. However, it was to be another 25 years before Jersey had an airport on dry land.

Recognising the growing importance and popularity of air travel, the Jersey Chamber of Commerce pushed for a purpose-built airport and, in 1934, the States of Jersey agreed to the purchase of privately-owned fields in St Peter, towards the west of the Island.

Airport opens

The new Jersey Airport was officially opened on 10 March 1937 at a total cost of £127,000. The project used a total of 97 acres, with a 980-yard grass runway. The Airport boasted two hangars and the terminal building included a central tower and two side buildings for arrivals and departures, with a restaurant and terraces on the second floor. Red obstruction lights were placed at the tops of nearby high buildings and warning lights and floodlights were positioned around the boundary.

The official opening ceremony on 10 March 1937

Within a year of opening, an estimated 20,000 visitors had flown to Jersey, many of them holidaying from mainland UK. As well as travel opportunities, Islanders also enjoyed daily deliveries of mail and national newspapers, speedy access to markets for growers and an improved air-sea rescue service, co-ordinated by Air Traffic Control. Jersey Airport was up and running and much appreciated by the local community.

Flying suspended

March 1940 saw an Easter rush of visitors from the UK, which turned out to be their last visit to the Channel Islands for some time. In June 1940 commercial operations into the Channel Islands were suspended and for days the airport was run as a staging post for many of the aircraft getting out of France. In just three days, 400 passengers were evacuated by air before it was revealed that evacuation by boat would be possible.

Enemy forces touched down in Jersey in July 1940 to begin five long years of German occupation during World War Two.

After the Liberation

However, following the liberation of the Island on 9 May 1945, Jersey Airport came to life again. In the years immediately following the end of the War the number of passengers flying to and from Jersey dramatically increased and reached 113,333 in 1947. As a result, money was spent on new telecommunication aids, a new hangar and a longer runway.

Jersey’s unique position as a holiday island, close to France but English speaking, with duty-free goods and carefully graded hotels and guesthouses, made it a tourist paradise. In 1955 over 383,000 passengers used Jersey Airport, revealing for the first time that air travel had become more popular than sea as a means of getting to the Island.

During the 1950s a tarmac runway was built and as the airport grew so did the strict legislation controlling civil aviation tighten up, with any house or outbuilding on the main runway approach classified as potential hazards. This time also saw the construction of a new road from the airport to Beaumont – known commonly as the Airport Approach Road.

By the end of the 1950s it was revealed that Jersey Airport contributed more than £5 million a year to the Island’s economy.

Air arrivals continued to increase during the 'sixties, with visitors now arriving from further afield. Freight services were also improved, with Jersey cattle flown out of the Island to establish new herds overseas, and produce, including flowers, sent direct to market in huge quantities.

Jersey Airport continued to develop and expand throughout the decade and, following an extension of the runway, by 1965 jets were now able to land. Two new wings were built onto the existing administration block in 1968, providing, amongst other facilities, a new 175-seater restaurant and bar.

The Jersey Aero Club continued to prosper and by 1964 more than 40 local pilots had obtained their licences.

The original ground survey from 1935

Sixth busiest in Europe

By the 1970s Jersey Airport had become the sixth busiest airport in Europe. The look of the airport was also changing, with new building work, which included the opening of a new air traffic control radar room and control tower, as well as a meteorological station. Passengers also had access to a shop on the ground floor.

Following a £1m safety plan presented to the States of Jersey, the airport had a 6,000ft runway with a 500ft safety area at the western area by early 1976. The number of passengers using Jersey Airport in August 1975 was 104,085 and by 1978 a mini-price war raged with cut-price fares encouraging people to come to Jersey. Improvements continued with plans to build a new passenger pier.

In the 1980s the problem of noisy jet aircraft was tempered by new developments in aircraft technology. Jet aircraft did not need to be noisy.

In 1986 it was announced that the Channel Islands should have a special position at the Civil Aviation Authority when they considered new air services for Island routes. On 21 December 1988 the Lockerbie disaster brought the issue of airport security to the fore.

Enlargement plans

Plans to build an up-to-date and larger airport to accommodate the increasingly growing number of arriving passengers, continued to dominate the 'nineties. In 1994 figures revealed that between £15m and £17m was needed to redevelop the airport site. The requirement for new security measurements following the Lockerbie disaster as well as passengers having to wait in a large marquee when planes were delayed by fog supported the argument for new enlarged facilities.

A modern extension to complement the original 1937 main building was opened in 1997, providing more space and better facilities for departing passengers. Among the airlines that made use of the new facilities was British Airways, who have been long associated with flights to and from the Island. In the '90s, as well as serving both Gatwick and Heathrow, BA was also able to offer passengers direct flights to other UK cities; as well as introducing a Jersey to Paris service in 1994. Air UK was flying to the south coast as well as to other airports further north, and Jersey European (later to become Flybe) were offering direct flights between Jersey and Ireland.

Wartime crashes
Despite having the freedom of the skies the Germans' flying record was not good, as this diary of a 2½-month period shows:
  • 1 Nov 1940 - Training flight crashes at La Rocco, four killed
  • 3 Nov 1940 - Plane overturns, two killed
  • 5 Nov 1940 - Scouting plane crashes at Rozel, two killed
  • 7 Nov 1940 - Troop carrier crashes, 20 returning pilots killed
  • 20 Dec 1940 - Plane crashes and burns out
  • 16 Jan 1941 - Troop plane crashes in sea off St Catherine, all lost

Occupation

At the end of 1939 civil aviation was suspended in Britain and planes, pilots and ground staff moved to England as Jersey Airport was requisitioned by the military. But passenger services resumed for a time during the 'phoney war' of early 1940 and there was a last-minute rush to take holidays in Jersey at Easter.

But soon the war came much closer. On the night of 11 and 12 June 1940 36 Royal Air Force Armstrong Whitley Whitworth bombers landed in Jersey to refuel on their way to raid the Fiat factory in Turin. Only 11 of them returned.

Three days later civilian flights stopped and the evacuation of Jersey was ordered. The airport played a small part in the evacuation, but most people left the island by boat. The island did become a staging point for aircraft leaving France as the German forces increased their stranglehold on the country. One of these was carrying General Charles de Gaulle.

Within days all aircraft had flown out to Heston, taking with them what spares and equipment could be carried, and anything left behind was destroyed. On 1 July 1940 a Dornier Do17 was the first aircraft to land, commanded by 25-year-old Oberleutnant Richard Kern. He summoned the Bailiff, Mr Alexander Coutanche for the official surrender. Ten troop transport planes soon followed the first Dornier.

First year

The first year of Occupation was a busy time at the airport. The germans set about extending the runways, creating concrete taxiways and improving facilities. Eight wooden hangars were built on the south-east boundary. Seven of them were taken to France in 1944 and the eighth remained to be used by a hire car company after the war.

The airport became an exclusion zone and islanders living close by were moved out of their homes. There was some operational flying during 1941 but, despite rumours that the airport was to become a major Luftwaffe base, the war had moved away and Jersey Airport was of no great importance.

Tide turns

As the war momentum turned in favour of the allies, there was more activity at the airport. The Germans knew they were beaten and planes and equipment were flown out, mines laid and the runways strewn with logs. The Airport was found in a poor state after the Liberation.

Nationalisation

The Airport under German control

The Airport had hardly been opened in 1937 and Jersey Airways, the main scheduled service operator, was pressing for the lengthening of its runway and improvement of passenger handling facilities as their business boomed.

The Germans took care of the runway extension during the Occupation, but after the Liberation the Airport terminal was found to be in a poor state of repair, potholes littered the main runway, and it was clear that the States were going to have to spend money to put things right.

Minor extensions were made to either end of the airside frontage of the terminal building by 1947, but that year brought matters to a head when the British Government announced that they were going to nationalise Jersey Airways, along with all independent UK airlines, and take over the airport, along with major UK airports.

This brought the UK Government and the States into head-on conflict, but all requests and demands to leave Jersey Airways along were ignored - if they were not nationalised to become part of British European Airways they would not be allowed to operate to UK Airports. The States finally managed to persuade the UK Government that they should be allowed to retain ownership of their airport, but only if it was updated to meet the required standards. And that means spending £300,000 on lengthening the runway again and installing radar and an instrument landing system.

The States voted half the money requested, followed by a further £105,000 the next year.

1950s

The growth enjoyed in the immediate pre-war and post-war years by Jersey Airways was continued with British European Airways, and despite rising fares, traffic soared in summer months, although it dropped back dramatically outside the holiday season. The airline saw that the only answer was to use larger aicraft on island routes, and that meant that the original grass runways were no longer adequate.

On 3 April 1951 the States voted £47,000 for a 4,200 ft tarmac runway, which was completed the following year. A spectacular air display was held in the summer to celebrate, and another one in 1953 - Coronation year.

By 1955 the runway was being further extended, allowing the airport to welcome the new generation of BEA Elizabethan and Viscount aircraft. The following year brought the first major extension to the terminal building, with a second floor added to the full length of the airside frontage.

Accidents

Although there have been a number of fatal accidents over the years, most notably in 1938 and 1965, flying in Jersey has been remarkably safe. Millions of passengers have been carried to and from the island and the total death toll remains under 100.

Mike Lanyon, director of Jersey Airport until his retirement in 2006

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Aerial photographs of the site earmarked for the Airport in 1933

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