Cotswold Airport airshow
History

Doorstep History: Cotswold Airport, WW2 And The Red Arrows

The doorstep history series explores the hidden pasts of towns and villages across the UK.

Cotswold Airport airshow

Over the past year, Cotswold Airport has become the temporary home of dozens of civilian aircraft due to the downturn in international travel. You may have seen the facility in the news, rows and rows of unwanted planes in different liveries. Some of the flying machines parked up on the airfield will never return to the skies, at least where carrying paying passengers is concerned. For aviation enthusiast, this sadly includes British Airways' remaining Boeing 747s.

But while Cotswold Airport today looks like a modern aerodrome-come-car park for the skies' disused planes, behind the millions of ponds parked up on the runways lies a hidden military past. This history includes a significant relationship to the Second World War and the Red Arrows.

BFBS spoke with Cotswold Airport's owner and CEO, Suzannah Harvey, to find out more about her site's relationship with Britain's Armed Forces. 

Cotswold Airport with the world's unwanted commercial aircraft on it's airfield. Credit: Cotswold Airport

Suzannah Harvey lives her life in the fast lane, something not exclusively related to powerful cars and engines. Alongside bringing up her twin boys, she also runs a busy private airport in Gloucestershire. At the moment, due to circumstance out of anybody's control, she has millions of dollars worth of aircraft lying around her airfield.

The Cotswold Airport site was formally called RAF Kemble. Before her father Ronan Harvey purchased the facility in 2001, the area was home to the Red Arrows. It was also a US Air Force base during the Cold War. Before that, from 1936, the land was involved in significant logistical-related activities throughout the second world war. The area oozes military heritage.

'Sabres at E site' - the military past of Cotswold Airport is vast. Credit: Cotswold Airport

When asked about her business' close ties to the military, Suzannah says she is "proud" of the association. She said:

"Our military past is incredibly important, and it's the deep-rooted fabric of our facility here at Cotswold Airport. Not only did our ancestors lay down their lives for our freedom, the airport was constructed to facilitate this.

"I'm both incredibly proud (more so of our amazing team) and extremely lucky to have the opportunity to head-up such a wonderful organisation and facility, working alongside some incredible people."

As it was known, RAF Kemble was built in 1936 and became home to what would become the RAF's oldest maintenance unit -No.5 Maintenance Wing. During World War Two, Kemble was responsible for all aircraft deliveries to bases in the UK and, from 1940, those required overseas. In fact, in 1941 alone, the Overseas Aircraft Delivery Flight based at Kemble was responsible for handling 2,300 aircraft.

During the war years, the runway was extended to its current lengths, a size capable of handling the world's largest aircraft. This has served Suzannah's business model well, as right now, she is the custodian of several giant aeroplanes. She describes this tranche of her operations as "diversification" from the site's primary duties of being a private airport.

Suzannah added:

"We've been lucky to be able to make up for lost operational revenue with parked airliners. We're in pretty good shape and are just about to resurface our runway and implement our new GNSS approach this summer."

Spitfire parked up at RAF Kemble. Credit: Cotswold Airport

When WW2 ended, Kemble's vital role of supplying planes for the war effort was reversed. Instead, it became the base for returning RAF equipment. Once back at Kemble, aircraft had to be sorted into what could be reused or sold on … a role that bears a resemblance to Cotswold Airport's duties to the aviation industry today.

A busy aircraft hanger at RAF Kemble during the 1950s. Credit: Cotswold Airport

The jet engine's arrival in the 1950s saw another transformation at the base. All new RAF aircraft were prepped at Kemble ahead of onwards distribution around the service.  

Nearly all the RAF's Hunter aircraft passed through the aerodrome while in service.

Suzannah's link to the military is not solely based on her ownership of the former RAF base. Her father was a service member, and her partner is a British Army veteran of 12 years.

On describing her closeness to the Armed Forces, Suzannah mentioned her plans for the youngest generation of the family:

"I am hopeful my 9-year-old identical twin boys will go on to join the forces when they leave education."

When the men of the Red Arrows arrived in 1967, they remained at the Cotswolds' site for 16 years. The base was officially referred to as the Red Arrows Central Flying School. Still, the place was more affectionately known as the 'Home of the Red Arrows'. To this day, Suzannah says she is "proud to host former members at reunions."

Pilots at "home". RAF Kemble kept the Red Arrows for 16 years. Credit: Cotswold Airport

When the Red Arrows left in 1983, the MOD site was transferred to the United States Air Force's care, responsible for Kemble activities until the early 1990s. The Americans' departure came as a surprise to locals, as significant amounts had been spent on improving the facilities. It then became the British Army's turn to control the base, using the airfield and its hangers to store vehicles returning from Europe following the Cold War's conclusion.

Away from running the airport, Suzannah enjoys letting her hair down in one of her fast cars. In addition to a VW Camper Van and Mercedes Pickup, she is the proud owner of a Porsche Turbo S Cabriolet and a Porsche 356. An excellent fast car collection by anybody's standards.

1993 saw the last RAF aircraft to take off from Kemble. The MOD closed up their operations on the site and began looking for a buyer of the facility. The eventual owner became Suzannah's father, Ronan.

Suzannah Harvey with her children, her 747 and one of her Porsche sports cars. Credit: Suzannah Harvey

Suzannah's previous business affairs included running a busy modelling agency. But when asked to explain if any synergy existed between the two distinct industries, Suzannah did not suggest so …

"Models are a pain in the arse, aircraft are prettier, and they don't answer back.

"Joking aside, I think the key to anything is being able to communicate with people effectively. There is a solution to every problem and as long as you're prepared to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in, you can achieve anything and everything."

Suzannah Harvey, CEO of Cotswold Airport. Credit: SH

In 2009, Suzannah changed the name of the site to Cotswold Airport. Since then, the CAA licensed airport has been named Airport of the Year by Flyer Magazine and is the home to two flying schools.

According to Suzannah, there is also a "fabulous" onsite restaurant. Anyone visiting the area is encouraged to check it out (the restaurant is cleverly called AV8). 

Suzannah also owns a British Airways Boeing 747, which can be used as a cinema and is available for private hire for events like weddings or military reunions. The aircraft has been given a vintage BA livery, something aviation fans will undoubtedly appreciate. 

 

Cotswold Airport is situated off the A429 to the South West of Cirencester.

For more information, www.cotswoldairport.com/

Many of us have turned to walks in our neighbourhoods to keep ourselves fit and in shape during lockdown while keeping to the Government guidelines on daily exercise in our local area. We also know that many of us love the history of our local area that feeds into the fabric of the places where we live – not least the military history that helps keep alive the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Our Doorstep Histories series explores the hidden and not-so-hidden armed forces’ history in towns, villages and cities across the country.

In this series, we have started with a few Doorstep Histories of our own – but we want to hear from you too … what military history is on your doorstep, in your neck of the woods?

It may be a place you wander past on a daily basis, a place where you go to reflect for Remembrance, or it may be part of your favourite walk that includes sites of battles, monuments, statues, memorials, or remnants of operations or defences during the Second World War, or even sites that form today’s armed forces – walks near the dockyards, bases, training grounds that you can see on your local wanders.

Tell us your doorstep histories and we will try to include some of them in our series.

You can email us at [email protected] and let us know some of the military history on your doorstep that captures your imagination on a local walk.