Flight Over North Kent
This is a summary of the talk given by Jim Preston to the Society on Friday 8th February. Most of this will
relate to the various air fields in Kent but to try to include the numerous aircraft that were mentioned will be
The talk concerned itself with North Kent airfields some of which I am sure brought back memories to some
members while others were either not remembered or known other than by the name of the town or village.
Just before, and shortly afterwards pleasure flights and air shows took place at the field to the rear of The
Star Inn at the bottom of Darland Avenue, Gillingham.
Early flights were hazardous for the pilots and with steering very much in its infancy the only way to steer a
plane was to lean heavily in the direction you wanted to go. Pilots rarely had seat belts and when leaning to
direct the plane a number fell out with fatal consequences. Even taking off could be hazardous as many of
the early airfields were nothing more than farmers fields.
There was the story of John Moisant, a Franco American, who was the first man to fly the Channel with a
passenger. Taking part in a competition to fly from Paris to London, it took him some twenty three day.
Having crossed the Channel he crashed or had to take emergency landings on a number of occasions
including at Sittingbourne, Rainham and Twydall, these being the local ones.
Another of those early aviators was James McCudden VC who had been in the Royal Engineers but changed
to the Royal Flying Corp during WWI. He died during an air battle and was honoured by both sides because
of his bravery.
Leysdown has the distinction of having the first airfield in Britain. This was to become the early home of
Shorts Brothers. Many of the early flights occurred here, some successful but others not so. As Shorts
developed larger premises had to be found. Initially these were at Rochester Airport but as they developed
their Flying Boat range they moved to an additional site on the Rochester Esplanade. All that remains of
this site today is the slipway used by the Rochester Rowing Club.
Short Brothers were developing various flying boats, mainly for the delivery of post to India and South
Africa, via Egypt. Some passengers were eventually taken by the newly established Imperial Airways but
these were for a small, affluent cliental, certainly the accommodation was luxurious, individual attention for
each client. Mail was also taken on these flights.
Gravesend Airport had ideas of grandeur with the aim of being the site of the New London Airport. They
felt that with the railway, only forty five minutes from the capital it would be the ideal site. Croydon was
also expanding at this time and they eventually won the race.
Rochester likewise thought they had a good site and although a few flights did run initially from there the
plans never ‘got off the ground’. The main difference between Rochester and Gravesend was trains running
into different London Stations.
It was during WWII that a bombing raid by the German Luftwaffe destroyed the aircraft production line at
the Rochester Airport and although limited production continued, together with the design offices the main
aircraft production was moved to the Austin factory in Coventry. After the war production returned to
Rochester but the need for flying boats was decreasing and the factory was moved to Belfast where it is still
producing small aircraft today.
Among other airfields mentioned were the Kingsnorth Airship works. Today all that remains of the site is
one hanger that is still used by a farmer to store his farm machinery in. Of the Grain Naval Aircraft Base
nothing remains today and little is known about it because of ‘red tape’.
West Malling Airfield was originally set up as a local flying club for people in the Maidstone area. This was
subsequently taken over by the Royal Air Force and became a strategic airfield in the war before eventually
becoming an American base on their entry into WWII. Today it has been built upon but there is still an