Turbulent times for city aviation

RAF Norton, Sheffield, preparing for an "At Home" day.  The two aircraft shown are a Vampire (nearest camera) and a Meteor - 14th September 1955
RAF Norton, Sheffield, preparing for an "At Home" day. The two aircraft shown are a Vampire (nearest camera) and a Meteor - 14th September 1955
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When it comes to aviation, it’s fair to say Sheffield has never been a high-flyer.

Plans to open an international airport here have either never taken off or crash-landed before they got going.

Today, we are thought to be the largest city in Europe without such a facility. The closure of Sheffield City Airport in 2008, just 11 years after opening, means we are the only place in the UK where an airport has shut in the 21st century.

But this situation, it seems, was not always inevitable. Ever since 1914 when a World War One airfield was built at Coal Aston, there have been calls for a permanent aviation base in - or near - the city.

Now, after plans were last week revealed to transform part of the Sheffield City Airport site into a new university campus, Midweek Retro looks at what might have been. And what might have been, campaigners reckon, might actually have been great.

“Sheffield’s topography - its hills - means building an airport has always proved challenging,” says Stewart Dalston, a retired history tutor who has researched Sheffield’s (lack of) airports for 20 years. “But those were challenges that could have been overcome. There have been several plans which could have really put us on the aviation map.”

Arguably the most ambitious would have been the airport at Todwick proposed in 1966 - a vast facility situated close to the M1 and M18 for passengers and freight.

The £1 million hub, funded by an alliance of local councils, would have included a terminal capable of handling more than 5,000 passengers a day and a runway which could have catered for the world’s biggest planes.

“If it had gone ahead it could today have been one of the biggest regional airports in the country,” says 70-year-old Stewart, who released a book, The Airport Wilderness, charting his findings. “East Midlands is now the UK’s second busiest freight airport. That could easily have been Todwick.”

In the end, a lack of political will put paid to the project. The land would have been subject to mining subsidence and, in Rotherham, it was felt it could be better used for housing.

It wasn’t the first - or last - time such ambitions came to nothing.

As early as 1928, Sheffield Corporation - the forerunner of the city council - had been in talks with government officials about creating an airport at Coal Aston. This site had been a military airfield during World War One and had become a depot where occasional air shows, such as Sheffield Flying Week in the early 1920s, were held.

Officials proposed that it could be turned into a small civilian airport at relatively little cost. Land at a second possible site, in Jordanthorpe, was also bought.

“There was a feeling that every city needed a small airport,” explains Stewart. “But once the land was bought nothing happened. By 1939 when the Second World War broke out, the idea was forgotten. By the Fifties, the land at Jordanthorpe was used for a new housing estate instead.”

Other plans came and went. In 1950, the council proposed a site at Redmires, just four miles south-west of the city centre. Nothing happened.

In 1968, the Chamber of Commerce helped draw up proposals for a major international hub at Thorne Waste. Nothing happened.

It meant by 1980 the closest thing the city had to an aviation presence was still the old Norton Aerodrome, a disused World War Two barrage balloon station.

And as East Midlands Airport - opened to passengers in 1965 - grew, a new Sheffield facility became increasingly less feasible.

Nevertheless, among the business community, there remained a desire for an air facility. It was, thus, in 1986 plans were first mooted for a small airport on former industrial land at Tinsley Park.

It took 11 years but, in 1997, Sheffield City Airport opened. The £6 million base included a 4,000 ft runway, terminal and 40 acre business park. Flights to Brussels and Amsterdam were so popular that Dutch airline KLM said its routes were the most successful start-up service it had ever run. At one point, there were 43 flights every single day.

Yet within five years, the airport would be closed to commercial flights. Five years after that, business aviation would cease too. In 2008, it shut for good.

Some claim there was a lack of will from new owners The Peel Group which also had a stake in Doncaster Sheffield Robin Hood Airport. Others say that when both KLM and British Airways ceased serving the airport because of internal restructures, it caused an irreversiblwe decline.

For now, however, perhaps the key to the skies lies in the road.

A new highway to Robin Hood will cut journey times from Sheffield city centre down to just 20 minutes.

“It’s a step in the right direction but, even so, we still need our own airport,” says Stewart, of Mosborough.

“Being the largest city in Europe without one is a title that shames us.”