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Sky's the limit for 75th anniversary; With its 75th anniversary this summer, Liverpool Airport has plenty to celebrate.

Byline: Peter Elson reports

HARD to believe it today, especially when measured against the might of Manchester Airport, but Liverpool once led northern aviation.

Now with business flourishing again, Liverpool Airport - which started life as Speke Aerodrome and evolved into Liverpool John Lennon Airport - has every reason to celebrate its 75th anniversary on June 29.

To commemorate this important date, aviation historian Phil Butler's book, Liverpool John Lennon Airport, An Illustrated History, has been updated, expanded and reprinted.

"I've always been interested in aviation and a great supporter of Liverpool Airport, having been brought up in south Liverpool," says Phil.

He worked as a metallurgist at Lucas Aerospace, then moved to National Nuclear Corporation at Knutsford, before a further transfer to Gloucestershire. He now lives in Cheltenham.

As always, Liverpool marches to its own drum-beat. Once our airport led the world in its facilities, then nose-dived with the city's crashing fortunes, only to rise again on the budget airline boom with Easyjet and Ryanair.

The original terminal building is one of western Europe's great art deco wonders, and the only airport hard against one of the most impressive half-timbered Tudor mansions, Speke Hall.

The airport site was originally part of the Speke Hall estate, bought from Miss Adelaide Watt by Liverpool Corporation in 1928.

It led the way in the early years of municipal airports and becoming a thriving aerodrome after its opening on July 1, 1933, by the Air Minister, Lord Londonderry.

In fact, Speke Airport's first scheduled flight was in 1930 with a service by Imperial Airways via Barton Airport, Manchester, to Croydon Airport, London.

By the late 1930s, air traffic from Liverpool was boosted by rising demand for Irish Sea crossings.

This created the impetus for building its distinctive passenger terminal, control tower and two large aircraft hangars.

During the Second World War, the airport was taken over by the Royal Air Force and known as RAF Speke. The adjacent Rootes motor car factory switched to aircraft production and built many bombers in a shadow factory here, including Bristol Blenheims and 1,070 Handley Page Halifaxes.

Lockheed Aircraft Corporation assembled many types, including Hudsons and Mustangs, which were shipped in from the US via Liverpool Docks.

RAF Speke was witness to what is considered to be the fastest air-to-air combat "kill" in the Battle of Britain and possibly of all time.

Squadron Leader Denys Gillam took off in his Hawker Hurricane just as a Junkers 88 flew in front of him. As his undercarriage retracted, he shot the Junkers down.

The airfield was also home to the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit and while RAF Speke's contribution to the war effort was priceless, this involvement badly handicapped its post-war development and Manchester grabbed an unsurpassable lead.

"Having been requisitioned by the Air Ministry as RAF Speke, the government policy after war was to run all airports as a nationalised concern," says Phil.

Manchester never allowed its airport to be requisitioned for military use, whereas Liverpool Corporation didn't have that influence.

"Also, in the late 1940s and 1950s, Liverpool Corporation lost their forward vision. There was no entrepreneurial spirit in developing traffic or expanding demand, so the airport just sort of toddled along."

Even so, many readers will remember with affection travelling on, or spectating from the terminal balconies, the Dakotas, Viscounts and Britannias flown by Starways, British Eagle and Cambrian Airways.

However, at least in 1966, the authorities invested in the present main 7,500ft-long runway, which was opened on a new site to the south-east of the existing airfield. It enabled the airport to stay open for 24 hours a day and handle any aircraft.

Control of the airport transferred to Merseyside County Council from Liverpool Corporation in the mid-1970s and, 10 years later, to the five Merseyside councils following the abolition of Merseyside County Council. Later sold to British Aerospace, it in turn sold to current owners Peel Holdings.

The opening of the new modern passenger terminal, adjacent to the runway on the southern airfield site, in 1986, caused the closure of the original 1930s buildings.

"This was inevitable," says Phil, "but has created the climate for the entrepreneurial development that is now thankfully driving the airport forward."

For the public, the barometer of the airport's real success is widely measured in terms of the London air link, a seemingly never-ending saga of more ups and downs in recent decades.

The Daily Post's campaign to reinstate the link in 2003 resulted in VLM restarting services to the capital, which unfortunately were halted last year.

"This is not because of lack of demand for a Liverpool-London service, but because the hub VLM used was London City Airport," says Phil.

"This was fine for business travellers, but no use for the vital leisure passenger market for whom being able to transfer to the widest variety of onward services is crucial."

This is called inter-lining, the system by which travellers can change to international flights at the same airport without having to recheck themselves or their luggage in again.

"A pair of slots at London Heathrow recently changed hands for pounds 30m, and no airline will buy those of for a service that will only show modest profit, such as one to Liverpool.

"The obvious answer is that Peel Holdings should buy the slots to ensure a London terminus, but by law they can't, so it's highly unlikely Liverpool will ever get its London air link back.

"Budget airlines have come to the rescue of Liverpool and this success in itself attracts other scheduled services. This may be a long, slow business, but I'm they'll get there in the end and Liverpool will accumulate a wide array of services.

"Liverpool airport is a longestablished enterprise that has gone through many ups and downs. For a long time, it felt like I was trying to support an underdog, but no longer.

"I believe that Peel has been the saving of the airport, and with it going from great strength to strength under its management we've every reason to celebrate the 75th anniversary."

Phil has one final plea to readers.

He says: "I'd like to find a photograph of the RAF's 611 auxiliary squadron, with Spitfires lined up.

"There was a special parade for the Lord Mayor in June, 1939, in a Daily Post supplement, records of which were lost when the newspaper building was bombed in the Blitz of 1941."

England's most important building

Aerodrome's original 1938 terminal (now the Liverpool Marriott Hotel South) was by far Britain's pre-eminent municipal airport building before the war.

It was influenced by Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel Airport, in Germany, which among other terminals, including Amsterdam, was inspected by a Liverpool Corporation team in 1935.

Built to handle passengers from small biplanes, as commemorated by the replica De Havilland Rapide at the entrance, it was coping with Boeing 747 jumbo jets on closure in 1986.

Although listed by English Heritage because of its historical and architectural importance, it fell into dereliction.

After taking a decade to establish new users and finance, the result is spectacular and a tribute to Speke Garston Development Co and Neptune Developments. Some pounds 53m of investment allowed the creation of the Marriott Hotel, plus conversion of No 1 Hangar into the David Lloyd Leisure Centre and No 2 Hangar into Skyways House, for the Littlewoods organisation.

The regeneration and sensitive restoration of the buildings' original appearance is aided by the dynamic Jetstream Club restoring vintage planes for display on the former apron.

Already a Jetstream airliner is in place and a former British Eagle Airline's Bristol Britannia is being rebuilt outside its former home, No 1 Hangar.

Growing fast

OVER recent years LJL Airport has become one of Europe's fastest-growing airports, having increased its annual passenger numbers from 875,000 in 1998 to 5.47m in 2007. The growth rate was 10.2% in 2007.

For the first time ever, more than 500,000 passengers were handled in one month, during May, 2007.

Reconstruction of Liverpool's main runway began in September, 2006. The runway was opened by HRH Duke of Edinburgh in 1966, and this is the first time the runway has been reconstructed (as opposed to resurfaced).

Also, the 40-year-old airfield group lighting is being upgraded with a new system and the taxiways have been strengthened and resurfaced.

The airport's ownership was privatised in 1990, with British Aerospace taking a 76% shareholding, who then sold out to Peel Holdings Ltd. Peel also owns Mersey Docks & Harbour Co, Manchester Ship Canal, Salford Quays and Trafford Centre.

The present pounds 42.5m passenger terminal began in 2000, which tripled its size and passenger capacity and this was completed in 2002, although further extensions have been added.

A big change to the airport's public image also came in 2002, with its renaming in honour of John Lennon, some 22 years after the Beatle's death. Tom Murphy's seven-foot tall bronze statue of the musician portrays him striding across a balcony overlooking the check-in hall.

On the roof is painted the airport's motto, which is a line taken from Lennon's song, Imagine: "Above us, only sky".

In 2005, the Yellow Submarine, a large steel artwork originally built for the Liverpool Garden Festival, was installed at the terminal entrance.

Celebrations

THE 75th anniversary of Liverpool Airport's opening on July 1, 1933, will be celebrated by a special event on Sunday, June 29.

Organised by the Friends of Liverpool Airport (FoLA) and The Jetstream Club it will centre on the original Liverpool Speke Airport Terminal, now the Liverpool Marriott Hotel South, which, with Liverpool John Lennon Airport, is supporting the event.

This occasion incorporates the successful annual Aviation Fair at the old terminal apron. There will also be special displays at Liverpool John Lennon Airport, plus opportunities to fly in vintage passenger aircraft, possibly both the De Havilland Rapide (the type that flew the first passenger service in 1933) and the Douglas DC3 Dakota.

A special "period" bus service will link the old and new terminal sites during the day. There may also be some display flying.

Anyone wishing to be involved in this event should contact Jetstream chairman Roy Coates on 07721 638 311; or email: roy@jetstream-club.org

LIVERPOOL John Lennon Airport, An Illustrated History, by Phil Butler, Tempus Books, pounds 16.99

peter.elson@dailypost.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

The public viewing platform at the former Speke Airport; A new, updated version of Phil Butler's illustrated history has been published; The first party to leave Speke Airport on the Liverpool- Amsterdam service, inaugurated on June 1, 1934; The BKS car ferry to Dublin, in May, 1961; De Havilland Dove on the Bristol flight, April, 1960; Stelios Haji-Ioannou at the launch of the Easyjet service to Luton, in Januar 2007; Youngsters watch a Cambrian Airways Viscount at Speke, in the 1960s
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 29, 2008
Words:1805
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