Flying from Malone: Belfast’s First Civil Aerodrome, by Guy Warner

Second paragraph of third section:

This had been the case in June 1921, when Alan Cobham had arrived initially “in a field near Balmoral where an aeroplane had once landed”, off-loaded a quantity of The Times and had then flown to join the other three aircraft at Aldergrove for re-fuelling. Noel Smith was taken to inspect a possible landing ground at Balmoral and had commented that the ground had seemed a bit soft, especially for heavy aeroplanes. He added that the maximum dimensions of an airfield need be no more than 800 yards square and that pilots overflying the city had been instructed by the Air ministry to keep their eyes open for likely sites.

This is a very short book on the brief moment in 1922-23 when Belfast had the first municipal airfield in the UK, on the land that is now the Taughmonagh housing estate at the top of the Malone Road. (Oddly enough, I attended Taughmonagh school for a couple of years when I was very little.) The money to make it operational was invested by the city council (then known as the Corporation) and there were regular flights to Liverpool and then to Glasgow.

It was opened with much fanfare, the Lord Mayor of Belfast making the inaugural flight to Liverpool and back. But this was not the easy “hop into the air, point in the right direction, land safely” routine that we’re used to now. This map gives a sense of how pilots had to navigate by landmarks, which meant of course that they needed to stay below cloud level.

The idea was to cut the Belfast to Liverpool journey to an hour and a half from the all-day or overnight boat journey, shipping mail, newspapers and the occasional brave person to England and then to Scotland. But the market was not strong, and facilities at the Liverpool end notably poor – although the planes took off from Aintree racecourse, they then had to land again at Southport beach for mail and newspapers.

The Malone airfield lasted for just a year. The Taughmonagh ground was soggy and muddy, and the weather was terrible. There were no catastrophic accidents, but the small planes of the day got tossed around by the wind when they landed. Warner does not put it in these terms, but I suspect the pilots hated it and didn’t want to fly there. The Aldergrove airfield, now Belfast International Airport, was much better, and there were already plans to create reclaimed land on the shore of Belfast Lough for the site where what is now Belfast City Airport (aka George Best) was eventually built in the 1930s.

Again, Warner doesn’t put it in these terms, but this was obviously a prestige project set up by the municipal government and in particular by the new Lord Mayor, William Turner, immediately after Partition and the creation of the Irish Free State, to tie Belfast and Northern Ireland more tightly to the UK and to escape Dublin. For most of the twelve months that the airfield operated, the Civil War was raging on the other side of the Border. Turner got a knighthood out of it in 1924.

This is a nice wee book, lavishly illustrated with contemporary photographs and newspaper clippings, and not too difficult to get second hand, especially from sellers who have signed up for EU VAT…