Grangemouth Airport –memories of what might have been

The opening day at Grangemouth airport
The opening day at Grangemouth airport

It is over three years since the Grangemouth Air Cadets inspired the creation of the fantastic Spitfire Memorial on the Bo’ness Road near the site of the old airfield.

It is a fitting tribute to those daring young pilots who died during the war and lie buried in Grandsable Cemetery and it is right that we remember them whenever the subject of the ‘drome’ is mentioned. But it is not the only story.

Although the threat of war played a significant part in the planning there was a real belief among the aviation entrepreneurs of the 1930s that Grangemouth could become Scotland’s biggest civilian airport eclipsing both Turnhouse in Edinburgh and Abbotsinch in Glasgow.

The plans which had been around for quite a few years were unveiled in February 1939 when Scottish Aviation Limited announced that they had purchased 500 acres of farm land and had secured a government contract to train pilots in preparation for the war that everyone expected.

They announced that they would develop a commercial airport serving both Glasgow and Edinburgh and, amazingly, within two months of starting work new grass runways were in use for a commercial flight on the Shetland to London route.

The first ticket was sold to Provost Robert Peddie for £9 10 shillings and he flew south in a six- seater de Havilland Dragon Rapide.

By June the airport was almost ready with 2000 feet of runway, a fine terminal building and control tower and two large hangers. It cost £160,000 and was officially opened by Air Marshall Viscount Trenchard, the ‘Father of the RAF’ on July 1.

Things didn’t go exactly to plan on the day. A fly past was included as part of the official opening with planes waiting on the perimeter for the smoke signal to tell them to take off and fly past the control tower where the guests were watching.

By way of a signal Lord Trenchard turned the propeller of a model spitfire which released a blanket of smoke from canisters on the ground below the terminal. It was so thick that by the time it cleared the planes had been and gone. Heard but not seen!

The main attraction on the day was the presence of a Douglas DC3 of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines which arrived with the company chairman Albert Plessman who had plans to establish a passenger link from Grangemouth to Amsterdam.

It was the most advanced passenger aircraft in the world at the time and its delights were sampled on the day by an intrepid reporter from the Herald who joined guests in a quick spin up and over the Forth Bridge. “Sensational” was his breathless verdict in the next edition.

John Walker told me the tale of another visitor by the name of Captain Spiller, an air attaché at the German Embassy in London, who amazingly was given permission in the late summer to fly round Scottish airports as part of his summer vacation. As John said, his “holiday snaps were no doubt very useful to Luftwaffe intelligence”.

Three months after the opening ceremony, war was declared and the airport was taken into military control where it remained until 1955. It was offered back to Scottish Aviation but the years of war had changed their plans and expansion at Prestwick meant that Grangemouth was no longer required.

Today only the two hangers survive and the sharp-eyed might spot odd bits of the runways here and there.

By the 1960s the airfield gradually disappeared under streets, houses and factories leaving only memories of what might have been.