At the very edge of the sea, in the mouth of the Solent and facing the Isle of Wight is one of the most significant airfields in the UK.

It began operation in 1917 and there is an interview with a young Naval officer about his learning to fly seaplanes here, recorded in 2001 when he was 102. He recalls Short biplanes on floats being housed in hangars on the grass above the cliffs. Each morning they were trolleyed to the edge and lowered down the cliffs by crane to the pebble beach below. Once pulled to the water, each aircraft had a naval rating posted to it to see that it stayed put. He also remembers that RNAS pilots had to be careful to avoid the pier when taking off and landing. A little later in the Great War, the Royal Navy flying school at Lee-on-Solent was one of the first establishments to adopt Major Robert Smith-Barry’s teaching method, which is essentially the one used today. Smith-Barry developed it at Gosport (and also the Gosport tube for inter-cockpit communication) a few miles down the coast.

Today the airfield has a gliding and microlight club – both offering flying lessons – two Group A flying schools and a helicopter charter company, and is base for a variety of privately owned aircraft ranging from a Travelair Biplane and DH.60 Moth to a Cirrus SR-22 and Beech Baron twin. It also hosts a busy radio-control aircraft club, a Coastguard Search-and-Rescue station and a Britten-Norman maintenance and manufacturing facility.

Pilot’s Editor Philip Whiteman is joining me for my visit and we’re driving down. The security man at the entrance barrier directs us to the control tower. On the way there we pass a WWII hangar with ‘Overlord’ painted on it and wonder if this is a relic from the D-Day landings, in which Lee-on-Solent played a major role.

Waiting to greet us are Peter Dalby, the Airport Manager, and his deputy, James Tott, who is also a part-time instructor on the airfield. They are both employees of Fly BN Ltd, a subsidiary of Britten-Norman, which is currently operating the airfield. We climb the stairs to the WWII-style control room and meet Chloe Adams, who is one of the three operators of the ground-to-air radio service. She joined just eighteen months ago. “We get around 8,000 movements a year, and probably around twenty visitors a day on a sunny weekend,” she says. “PPR is not required. Visitors need to be aware that we’re in the Fleetlands Heliport ATZ, but if you stay this side of the disused Fareham-Gosport railway line, there’s no need to call them. It can occasionally cause problems for pilots on very long finals, though. Overhead and dead-side joins are out because we winch-launch gliders here, so you should join downwind or on base leg, giving way to traffic already in the circuit. And there are two locals who complain if you overfly their houses, so do visit the Lee Flying Association website for the visitors’ guide before flying in.” Landing fees are £15 for a PA-28, half that for microlights. Grass strips on both sides of the only currently active hard runway of the three (05/23) are primarily for glider use, but taildragger pilots are usually granted permission to use them.

From the Tower, we can see some helicopters out on the airfield, including, parked below, the Westland Scout belonging to Maurice Hynett, Deputy Chairman of Britten-Norman. Lee-on-Solent is the headquarters for Atlas Helicopters, a leading helicopter charter company that also has bases at several other airfields. The helicopter connection continues with the Coastguard Search-and-Rescue facility on the site. At present there is no helicopter flying school, although Peter says there is an open invitation for someone to set one up.

We leave the tower and head for Lee Flying Association’s HQ, a Portakabin next to the hangar it operates for members’ use. The Chairman, Jon Butts greets us and introduces Geoffrey Pell MBE, who was commanding officer of the airfield during its final days as a Royal Navy base. As Geoffrey is also a writer and historian, I ask him to fill me in on what happened to the airfield after the Great War. “With the formation of the RAF in 1918, it became an RAF station, although still providing naval training,” he says. “In 1924 it was awarded the title ‘Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force’. In 1931 HQ Coastal Area re-located to Lee from London, adopting the more familiar title of Coastal Command in 1936. A grass runway was established in 1934. Lee became the host base for ships’ catapult flights during the 1930s. The transfer of naval aviation responsibilities to the Navy resulted in the base being commissioned as HMS Daedalus on 24 May 1939.

“Most of the multitude of small hangars you can see dispersed around the site date from WWII, when the airfield was a base for fighters, reconnaissance and carrier-borne aircraft. It played a major role on D-Day, when it was the busiest airfield on the South Coast. RAF and Canadian Typhoons and Mustangs flew from here as did the only US Navy squadron, VCS-7, to fly Spitfires.

“Post-war there was a transition to military jets. Helicopters came here in the late 1950s and one of the last operational flights from the site under Royal Navy control was, in fact, by helicopter – a Wessex on a Search-and-Rescue mission, a role then transferred to Bristows, operating Sikorsky S-61s.

“When the Navy left in the mid-Nineties, there were several civilian tenants: the Hampshire Police Authority Air Support Unit, the Portsmouth Naval Gliding Club, the Coastguard Search-and-Rescue and owners of some twenty private aircraft. At that stage, Hampshire Constabulary became the airfield operator.”

Jon Butts takes up the story. “The MoD asked Defence Estates to dispose of the site,” he says. “Hangars vacated by the Navy were welded shut. There were proposals to turn Daedalus into a housing estate, a gravel pit, a racecourse and even an Immigration and Detention Centre – none of which were viable or acceptable locally. With disposal of the airfield proving difficult, Defence Estates decided to re-open the hangars and at least earn some income. Despite longer-term uncertainty, two general aviation maintenance companies moved in and the resident aircraft fleet grew, including at one time a Cessna Citation. Two flying schools moved in from Southampton.

“In 2006, the site was split, with ownership of the central area, including the runways, transferred to the Department of Transport for its Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Everything else, including the taxiways and hangars went to the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA). A fence with motorised gates at taxiways was erected around the runway perimeter. Citing safety concerns, in October 2007 SEEDA and the MCA-led Hampshire Constabulary gave all private sector aviation users 28 days’ notice to quit. From that point the taxiway gates could only be opened for remaining aircraft to depart to a new airfield.

“Lee Flying Association, a non-profit organisation previously created by aviation users and airfield supporters, found itself trying to reverse this. Within the 28 days, LFA raised funds and mounted a legal challenge, which brought a six month delay. We then presented to the Chief Constable our proposal for an improved airfield operating regime at no cost to the police. This was accepted. Even so, some aviation businesses did have to relocate or close, costing local people jobs.”

Jon introduces me to Councillor Sean Woodward. “Sean was a great help in all this,” Jon says. “He is Executive Leader of Fareham Borough Council and a hundred-hour pilot.”

“I was a member of the Police Authority as well as a councillor, and that helped,” says Sean. “When the coalition government shut down SEEDA with the other regional development agencies, we were able to set up a Local Enterprise Partnership. This place now belongs to the community. The security fence is due to come down soon and I expect the airfield to be licensed before long. The airfield management, currently by Britten-Norman, will shortly be going out to tender.

“We have negotiated that any marine, aerospace or aviation business that sets up here will be free of business rates for five years and for 25 years after that, its rates will come to us to invest in the site. Our first priority will be to resurface the runway and put in new runway lighting. We also have funded plans to set up an Aviation, Marine and Aerospace College here within the next two years. We plan to create 3,500 jobs on the site. We even plan to re-open the slipway built in the Great War for seaplanes and make this a seaplane base as well as landplane.”

We say goodbye to the Lee Flying Association, which is continuing to do a great job, not only in defending airfield users but also in promoting aviation at Lee-on-Solent to the various authorities and public at large. It’s typical of Jon Butts that he not only gathered the right people for me to interview, but also laid on sandwiches and hot drinks for everyone – especially welcome on this cold November morning.

Our next meeting is with a recent arrival on the airfield, Sapphire Aviation. The MD, Steve Ford explains, “We’re the FBO, collect landing fees, hangarage, provide tie-downs and look after aircraft handling and management, including washing them down. Handling by us is free, so don’t worry about any charges. We see our role as meeting and greeting and generally helping out visiting pilots. Last weekend we drove a pilot and his passengers down to the beach so they could go for a walk and buy some fish and chips. This is a great destination for a day or a weekend away. And there’s a fabulous hovercraft museum here, next to the slipway.” Sapphire Aviation has three full-time employees and they seem like an exceptionally friendly bunch. Before leaving I ask about fees for aircraft based at Lee-on-Solent. Currently they are £100 a month for outside parking and £300 a month for residence in a hangar. Landing fees are extra, being payable to FlyBN, and most residents pay £100 a month for a landing card.

Next, we are introduced to Steve Cockshott, CFI and Director of Phoenix Aviation, Lee-on-Solent’s main flying school with six PA-28s and an Ikarus C42 for microlight training. Steve says, “We rose from the ashes of a previous school – thus the name – in 2009 with twelve members and one aircraft. Now we have 140 members and seven aeroplanes. Every time ‘the Phoenix five’ – the directors – have our monthly meeting, we look at our sales graph and so far it’s always moving upwards. This is a great venue in a great catchment area. It’s only fifty minutes’ flying time to Cherbourg. We haven’t needed to advertise; all our business comes by word of mouth. Besides, we’re careful not to outgrow ourselves. When the bookings get too busy, we add another aeroplane.”

I ask James Tott, who works for Fly BN Ltd and for Phoenix as an instructor to comment. “It’s a fantastic place to instruct,” he says, “because you’ve such a big runway, and because it’s usually fairly quiet. The noise abatement restrictions are very little trouble.” It’s always encouraging to see youngsters like James at airfields – he’s 26, and started flying when he was eighteen. Now with 800 hours, he averages twelve hours’ instruction a month. Phoenix has just added Flying Instructor, CRI and Night courses and plans to add Tailwheel.

The next stop in our tour of the airfield is at a hangar filled with all of Philip’s and my favourite aircraft: Tiger Moths, DH 60s, Chipmunks, Austers and various other classics – a dazzling array. There we meet Paul Groves, engineer extraordinaire. “I’ve been based here for thirty years, working as an independent engineer,” he tells us. “My dad Les started here in the late 1960s looking after the gliders. I began as an apprentice with Plessey, but when they didn’t offer me a job, I joined Dad. I began flying with the gliding club here, then got my power licence. These days I fly fifty hours a year in my own aircraft – an Auster and Moth – and another hundred tugging for the glider club and the rest of the time working on old aeroplanes.”

I ask him what it was like here in the old days when it was a Navy base. “There was buckets of enthusiasm for flying,” he says. “Rank got left at the gates. Then later on lots of ideas came and went, firms arrived and didn’t last, and the politics got heavier. I’m glad everything’s on an even keel at last. One thing I do miss, though is the airshows the Navy put on.”

“So do you maintain the club aeroplanes, then?” I ask. “I might help out,” he says, “but I’m really an aircraft restorer, and nearly all of the maintenance I do is for the owners of the aeroplanes that I’ve rebuilt.” Phoenix’s aeroplanes are currently maintained at Henstridge, but it’s expected that a maintenance company will set up here soon.

At this point we meet one of the resident pilots, Jonathan Le Bon (brother of Simon of Duran Duran fame). Jonathan has a Beech Baron in the next hangar to Paul Groves’s, where it lives alongside a Travelair biplane among other aircraft. He recently flew the Baron to the USA, so he’s an adventurous type. “I’ve been based here nine years,” he says, “Four with the Baron and before that with a Cherokee Six. My wife’s French, her family live on an island in the Bay of Biscay and we fly down every weekend.”

Steve Cockshott has been readying one of the club PA-28s for me to fly a quick circuit with him and take some overhead photos, and arrives to suggest that now would be a good moment. The flight I have with him is less than twenty minutes chock-to-chock, but that’s long enough for me to fall in love with Lee-on-Solent. There’s nothing like an airfield right on the coast, and this one has the Isle of Wight facing it and a big bay and estuary on the other side. The view is spectacular.

Steve used to instruct at Southampton and says the contrast couldn’t be more marked. “It’s great being at an airfield where you can fly nine circuits an hour like this one, rather than having constant delays for commercial traffic,” he says.

After taxiing in I see a family gathered around another PA-28 and go over to find out what’s going on. Mike Jarman has just taken his brother-in-law Vernon for a flight. The aeroplane belongs to the locally-based Fleetlands Flying Group, which has ten members. “I took him round the Solent, the Needles and up to Stoney Cross,” says Mike. This must be a great place to give family members joyrides.

Our next visit is to The Hampshire Aeroplane Club where we meet proprietor John Davies, 8,000 hour pilot. “I first flew here as a Cadet in 1969. And I flew an Optica for the Police here in the late Eighties,” he says. “I bought this club from its previous owners a while back, but was too busy flying Islanders and Trislanders and instructing to do more than keep it ticking over. Now that I can devote more time, I plan to grow it. At present, it provides training and hire and has just two aircraft, a Cessna 172 and a Robin DR400, plus use of a CAP 10 and a Tomahawk, but I want to help pilots learn new skills. So we’ll have Cross Channel training, and tailwheel and aerobatics.” The club has around fifty members and their connections enabled it to have its last annual dinner on the lower gun deck of HMS Victory, no less.

Next in line for us to visit is the Portsmouth Naval Gliding Centre, which is in some ways the beating heart of Lee-on-Solent. It certainly provides an element of continuity, having been in operation since the 1950s. We pass a hangar full of gliders and self-launching motorgliders with a Supermunk tug-plane parked outside and join Gerry Holden and Kevin Hills in the club bus. This is fitted out at one end with a kitchen and Kevin’s partner, the club member on kitchen duty, Pauline Wise, makes us tea. At present there’s no restaurant at Lee-on-Solent, though lots of people will offer visitors a hot drink. Should you fly in at weekends you might find the gliding bus is the best place to get a sandwich and coffee… although that trip to the beach for fish and chips sounds tempting. The locals recommend nearby pubs The Wyvern (aviation themed) and The Bun Penny. The gliding club also has a licensed bar, which I dash out to later and photograph, meeting club members Dave Hurst and Jenna Freeborn who are on the club rota to get it ready for a party scheduled for that night.

Gerry and Kevin fill us in on the gliding club. It has 300 members, 26 instructors, five two-seat and three single-seat gliders, and two Supermunk tugs. The three motorgliders are privately owned but the club will arrange SLMG instruction – rarely offered nowadays, but still probably the cheapest route to a pilot’s licence.

Lee-on-Solent, I say, is the last place I’d expect to find a gliding club. “It isn’t the best site for generating thermals, true,” they say, “Although people have flown 750-kilometre glides from here.” What about the Navy connection? “There’s always been a tradition of flying without power in the Navy, perhaps because it is a bit like sailing. At one point the club was under threat, but the Navy conducted a survey of its fast jet pilots and found that most of them had gliding backgrounds, so it decided to keep the club going.”

The club has an interesting fee structure. Membership is £150 for the first year and £310 after that. However, members get a lot of this back if they volunteer for club chores. An aerotow costs £25 and a winch launch, £8. The club’s charter restricts civilian membership to less than half the total, but most of the instructors and active pilots are civilians. The club has flying training scholarships with twenty winners this year, sponsored by the Fleet Air Arm Officers Flying Association.

The club maintains a duty instructor on the ground, partly to ensure that there is no safety conflict with powered aircraft. All the instructors have an air-to-ground radio licence. There are around 8,000 launches a year and fifty launches is not untypical on a day with good flying weather.

Airfield Manager Peter, who has been with us throughout, says, “It looks like you’re going to miss the newest arrival on the airfield, Brian Cook. I keep seeing him but he’s always on the move. His company is Bournemouth Avionics. Brian received his training in the Fleet Air Arm and his company provides support for most avionic systems but specialises in Radio Nav, Radio Radar, Instruments and Fixed Wing Autopilots”.

Our final visit is to the Solent Microlight Group. Paul Coppin, who is the Group’s Chairman, explains that it is part of the Hampshire Microlight Flying Club, which has bases at a dozen different sites across Hampshire and Sussex. Twelve members are based at Lee-on-Solent and their aircraft, which he shows me inside the Group’s hangar, are equally divided between flexwing and fixed-wing microlights. They all look in very good condition – in fact, most look new to me. The flexwings seem to be mostly the more expensive QuikR variety. Curious about how much they are flown, I ask Paul. “I know that the Group averages fewer than three landings per aeroplane per month,” he says, “Since we just worked it out when negotiating a group landing card.”

Philip and I have fond memories of crossing the Channel by hovercraft, so we can’t resist a final stop, to see the Hovercraft Museum, which is next to the slipway. The slipway, I notice, is crossed by a busy road, so getting it re-opened isn’t going to be straightforward.

The Hovercraft Museum Trust began in 1988 and has around sixty hovercraft on display. Philip and I find many of them housed inside the car decks of Princess Anne and Princess Margaret, Mk III SR.N4s. I well remember the thrilling, if nausea-inducing, 35-minute ride on these between Dover and Boulogne. The volunteer who is allowing us to explore says he’ll look the other way if we care to climb the stairs to the flight deck. The cockpit is much as I imagined it, painted matt black with two control columns and yaw pedals and a bewildering multiplicity of dials and switches. For the third occupant, sitting behind the pilot and co-pilot, there is a massive and, I imagine, vital radar screen. The cockpit is high above the hovercraft giving the lofty view I always pictured, but never thought I would get to see.

It’s a fitting thrill to end a packed day out. Lee-on-Solent has ambitious, even surprising, plans for its future. The splendid site with its prosperous south coast catchment area has a lot going for it. Now that the airfield is under unified stewardship dedicated to benefitting the community at large, those plans certainly ought to be achievable.

Words Nick Pictures Philip Whiteman And Nick Bloom

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