The development of passenger and freight-carrying air services is another notable aspect of local aviation history. In 1924, at Upper Malone in south Belfast, the first municipally-owned civil airport in the United Kingdom was established by Belfast Corporation. Sadly, despite prodigious efforts by famous pilots such as Alan (later Sir Alan) Cobham and R H McIntosh and the short-lived company Northern Airlines which had been established to help develop air services from and to Northern Ireland, Malone Aerodrome proved to be ahead of its time and it was abandoned in 1925.
It wasn't until 1934 that a purpose-designed civil airport was successfully created, on 50 acres of land made available at Comber Road, Newtownards by Lord Londonderry (the 7th Marquess) and named Ards Airport. In 1936, it was the second-busiest in the UK in terms of air freight handled, after London (Croydon).
Lord Londonderry, who was Secretary of State for Air at Westminster from 1931-1935, learned to fly during his term of office. He and for that matter members of his family were avid aviation enthusiasts who did much to promote the development of aviation throughout the UK and farther afield. One of his daughters, Lady Bury, was President of the Ulster Flying Club at Newtownards until her death in 2009.
Also during the ‘thirties, Belfast Harbour Commissioners created a large expanse of new land composed of material dredged from the harbour and its approaches, upon which a further airport was officially established in 1938 which has developed continuously and been of immense benefit to Short Brothers and Belfast.
The three airfields have become, respectively, Belfast International Airport, the main centre of private flying in Northern Ireland and George Best Belfast City Airport.
Military flying has been an important aspect of local aviation history since 1915. In that year an airship mooring-out station was established for the Royal Naval Air Service at Bentra, near Whitehead, County Antrim. It was the first military air base in Ireland, to and from which airships occasionally complemented by fixed-wing aircraft patrolled the waters between Ireland and Scotland to help combat German U-boats and protect the Larne-Stranraer ferry.
In 1918, a further air station was commissioned near Muff in County Donegal from which flying boats of the United States Naval Air Service carried out anti U-boat patrols in the north-western approaches.
With the closure of these air stations and 16 AAP during 1918-20, there was a brief period of activity occasioned by civil unrest associated with the formation of Northern Ireland, followed by a short lull before military flying locally was resumed in 1925 and came to be concentrated at Aldergrove (see Coastal Command NI WW2, 502 (Ulster) Sqn RAuxAF and Met Flights) under the auspices of the RAF which had been formed in 1918.
In the mid-thirties, as visionary planners struggled to prepare the RAF for war, its structure began to be reorganised, an indirect manifestation of which was the establishment of Temporary Armament Training Camp, Aldergrove in 1936. During the period up to July 1940, this organization was redesignated, successively, 2 Armament Training Camp, 2 Armament Training Station, 3 Air Observers School and 3 Bombing & Gunnery School.
In November 1941, 15 Group Armament Practice Camp was formed but was quickly redesignated 1 Armament Training Camp and remained so until September 1945. As a result of the collective effort of all these units, Lough Neagh by the end of the Second World War had become the first bombing range in the UK where RAF, RN and USAAF aircrew were able to carry out low-level bombing at night, using radar homing and Leigh Light techniques and receive an accurate assessment of their errors.
RNAS Bentra, near Whitehead, Northern Irelands first military air base. An S.S. class airship is pictured.
A large airship hangar is on the left.
by Ernie Cromie
(Above) Lord Londonderry with his wife and youngest daughter, pictured at Mount Stewart, Co. Down.