The Journal of the Friends of Sywell Aerodrome
No. 18 Summer 2011
Sywell Aero Club
by Chris Parker
This is the story of the Sywell Aero Club - an organisation founded in the mid-1970s and, at the time of writing, still just operational but needing a new direction to be set and enthusiastic members to give it life.
Before recalling the detailed history of Sywell Aero Club, it will be instructive to review the various threads of Aero Club activity up to the mid-1970s. Sywell's history relates that the original Northamptonshire Aero Club, founded in 1928, served the recreational and sporting flying needs of the Roaring Twenties' generation. Financial difficulties in the early 1930s spawned a remodelled organisation. This new organisation included the creation of Sywell Aerodrome Limited which, itself, included the Brooklands Aviation company from Weybridge as the driver of subsequent aviation developments. The Northamptonshire Aero Club became part of this Brooklands-run enterprise. The aircraft used by members were provided by Brooklands Aviation which ran all the flying aspects at Sywell. Benefits available to club members were well up among the leaders in the UK, and included the purpose-built Art Deco clubhouse (now the Cirrus Room) with full bar and catering facilities, and two adjacent open air tennis courts (on the site now occupied by Hangar One). A step change in scope from 1935 onwards saw the establishment of an Elementary and Reserve flying training school responsible for Air Force training for both new and existing volunteers. Club flying at Sywell and, in fact, across the UK gradually wound down until it ceased altogether in September 1939 upon the outbreak of the Second World War.
Club flying didn't restart to any significant level until the end of the 1940s. The post war situation at Sywell saw a continuance of the Brooklands Aviation-led club operation. During the 1950s the military nature of Sywell's flying operations gradually reduced, and the aerodrome company took over several of the resources, including the Cirrus Room clubhouse, the restaurant and catering and eventually all aviation services such as fuelling and hangarage. The Cirrus Room was created as part of the then titled 'Motel'.
Published material from the early 1930s revealed something of a conflict between Aero Club members learning to fly on club aircraft, and qualified pilots who had gone on to own their own aircraft. At the root of this conflict was the belief that the 'private owners' did not adequately support the tuition operations sufficiently-well financially.
By the mid-1970s, this situation had recurred - at least in the eyes of new proprietors of the Northamptonshire Aero Club - Bishopscourt Securities - who had bought the businesses and assets of Brooklands Aviation in 1974. The owners and operators of the private aircraft based at Sywell found themselves under pressure from Bishopscourt to hire the club aircraft instead of using their own, particularly if the said owners wished to use club facilities.
While desiring to maintain cordial relationships between all operators at Sywell, the feeling spread among many of the private owners that they would be better off providing themselves with club facilities rather than being at the whim of a commercial proprietor. Word quickly spread of this idea, particularly given the fact that Sywell Aerodrome Ltd was supportive of the idea of it giving them an extra resource to offer new customers, and a single channel for two-way communication with the locally-based operators. The aims and objectives of the now titled Sywell Aero Club were established at a couple of open meetings held at the George Row Club in Northampton, and a steering committee established to pursue these objectives. The prime requirement was an independent clubroom, and requests for funding to establish this were launched in the form of pre-paid five and ten year subscriptions to cover the interim period prior to having a functional clubroom.
Sywell Aerodrome kindly provided some temporary accommodation - a large office situated opposite the Tower in the location which today forms Flylights reception and briefing room.
From the start, all members of the Sywell Aero Club were keen on the idea of club-arranged fly-outs and miniature aerial tours. These were extremely popular, and to accommodate all levels of experience and aircraft performance were simple in nature. For example, the opening event for club members and friends was a short tour stopping at Leicester for coffee, Keyston for lunch, and Sibson for tea before returning to Sywell for an evening drink in the Skyline bar. The clubhouse, largely built by members themselves, was christened early in 1977 with a ceremony last enacted in 1930 in the form of a key dropped by a member's aircraft - Bill Grose's Rallye Minerva - to unlock the new premises. These proceedings were overseen by Earl Compton, and accompanied by the bh squadron band. The Sywell Aero Club was beginning to establish a reputation for doing things in style, exactly as had the member-owned Northamptonshire Aero Club back in 1928.
With its clubhouse fully operational, and a great desire among the members for events which allowed them to use their aeroplanes for greater enjoyment, SAC, as it was generally known, went from strength to strength. To its regular programme of fly-outs was added a series of Sywell open days to which were invited many local flying clubs and groups as well as the owners of vintage car, motorbikes and commercial vehicles. All this activity provided a synergy with the other Sywell organisations - revenue for Sywell Aerodrome Ltd and new recruits to learning to fly stimulated by visits to Sywell in, for example, a vintage car.
From 1978 onwards, an SAC tradition for Christmas and New Year was established. Although the airfield was in those years, completely closed at that time of year, SAC was trusted to operate the aerodrome on December 26th and January 1st. These days often turned out to be the busiest of the year, with members bringing along friends and family to join in the fun -food and drink a'plenty and some flying, weather permitting - and not forgetting the aerial arrival of Santa himself.
The Club's visitors' book holds some interesting entries including Wing Commander Ginger Lacey - well known Hurricane pilot who downed the German bomber which attacked Buckingham Palace, members of the Red Arrows, several of the BBC crew filming the docudrama 'Amy' and a familiar face to so many of us, Wim Beelen who cycled from Holland each year to attend the PFA Rally. SAC benefited greatly from the experience and resolve of its presidents. At the beginning we were very fortunate in having Jack Linnell in this role. Jack and his brother Geoff were, in 1928, the moving force behind the creation of Sywell in the first place. In addition, the energy and involvement of some leading local businessmen, including the late Frank Arran, Andre Baldet and Bill Grose - the latter becoming club Chairman in due course - helped considerably. Subsequent Chairmen included the late Kenny Plummer and then yours truly. Following on from Jack Linnell as President was the late Norman Spiller, who had greater experience of Sywell than any other aircraft operator having kept his Miles Messenger G-AKIN at Sywell since 1952.
Gradually from the late 1980s through the 1990s, many of the original proponents withdrew from aviation, and the club's lifeblood of committed and enthusiastic members began to dry up. The committee found it increasingly difficult to come up with a properly resourced programme of events and focussed on the provision of the club premises as its prime objective. This shrinkage of the small pool of enthusiasts has continued, until the current situation had been reached in which SAC will have no option but to cease operations unless a new generation of enthusiastic supporting fliers who wish to enjoy each others company and some mutual flying events emerges. Having invested approaching 40 years of personal effort into SAC, Mavis and I would be disappointed to see the end of what was at one time one of the jewels in the crown of Sywell.
I think it reasonable to claim that the SAC's activities supported Sywell through a difficult period in the Aerodrome's history when it was on the cards to shrink the aviation operations substantially, Sywell becoming primarily agricultural and commercial land with two strips only available to aircraft. SAC had become well respected by the aerodrome company and arguments put forward for long-term investment in general aviation were taken on board and acted upon.
Looking back with satisfaction and some pride, we can recall splendid club outings to such locations as Blakeney (using Langham and Little Snoring), White Waltham, Denham and Abbeville to select just four Then a memorable feature of one of the Sunday outings to Blakeney was the presence as hosts at the Blakeney Hotel of the Deterding family, who had both built the hotel and in the very early days of financial crisis at Sywell, made the necessary investments to keep the aerodrome running. And how much we all enjoyed the many barbecue/fly-ins hosted by our President Norman Spiller at his beautiful Keyston airstrip.
Equally fondly remembered was the series of Wings and Wheels days which are still, some 25 years on, commented on positively by the attendees who we occasionally meet at other aeroplane and vehicle shows. We recall some of the many nationally known speakers who gave us memorable talks - Ken Wallis who was still captivating his audience approaching midnight, the test pilot of Airship Industries' Skyship airship at Cardington, aviation author Don Middleton, and Miles Aircraft's Technical Director Don Brown.
And who could fail to be moved by the joy and pleasure expressed by the children from Hinwick Hall who were all taken flying in an array of club aircraft in 1979. So, what should be done? If you are based at Sywell, and believe that you could benefit by a closer association with other locally-based owners and pilots, and would enjoy some simple co-operative flying outings, then register your interest in being part of a revitalised SAC with Paul Reading on 01604 696370 or email and Steve Wilch by email.
Happy SAC landings.