Member Profile: Derby Aero Club & Airfield

Mike Ashton hears about the battles Martin & Margaret Jones have had to keep their business alive after their business was ripped apart by compulsory purchase. 

Derby Airfield

 

Land & Business magazine has often highlighted the threats to members of the compulsory purchase of land that could end up in commercial schemes rather than projects for the public good.

That is exactly what happened to CLA members Martin and Margaret Jones over 25 years ago. It was an experience they have never fully recovered from, nor will ever forget.

Despite this, they consider themselves luckier than others whose homes and businesses were taken to make way for an automotive plant outside Derby. The compulsory acquisition of freehold and tenanted land and properties included two farms, six houses and 12 businesses including  a haulage firm and a care home.  The enforced change saw some go out of business completely, some losing their health, and relationships breaking under the worry and stress,  that went on for years.

Martin with the Dh88 Comet Racer Black Magic

By 1989, the Jones had built up Burnaston Airfield into a thriving business providing flying training, servicing light aircraft, providing a transport hub and teaching specialist engineering skills. The site had a proud history, as an RAF base where 14,000 pilots learned to fly, and the birthplace of British Midland Airways.

Rumours that Toyota was looking for a suitable site for a UK manufacturing centre became reality when Martin turned up at the airfield one morning to find police and security everywhere, guarding a deputation of politicians and automotive executives – almost causing an immediate closure of the airfield and blowing any plans for secrecy had the incursion been immediately published.

This was the first in a long series of battles for the Joneses and the other families, which led agonisingly to two public inquiries, after which permission for the new plant was eventually granted.

Meanwhile, the Joneses had to contend with meetings, paperwork, campaigning, legal fees, and ultimately the realisation that business would not be able to continue in its present form. It was taking its toll on everyone involved.

Relocating an airfield is not easy. To maintain an existing client base and transport links, it had to be close  to the existing site, but airfields have specific needs, such as clear approaches, well drained, flat land, and infrastructure. Since WWII only a handful of consents have been granted for new airfields, so the scale of the task should not be underestimated.

Battered but not beaten, and despite the odds, they purchased a site at Egginton, less than two miles away as the crow flies from the old airfield.  

Martin says it was one of the most complicated transactions their solicitors had ever done. “We had a contemporaneous cessation of the lease, a transfer of ownership to the farmer and then to us, and further delays because of milk quotas.”

Another battle followed.  Despite planners being ‘minded to approve’ their application,  the airfield was considered of national importance, so it was “called in” for  public inquiry and the inevitable traffic and noise assessments, tree and environmental surveys and aviation industry standards to meet.

The thought of a new ‘airport’ worried many locals, and organised objections started to come in and the delay in pursuing  the public  inquiry caused further hardship.  As part of a Section 106 agreement a consultative committee was set up with residents, as was a clear complaints procedure, which had the effect of reassuring nearby residents that any issues would be dealt with, and also had the effect of drastically reducing complaints overall.

 The Inquiry was not heard until September 1991, and it was only after the general election in April 1992 that they heard they had been granted permission. During this time the money was only flowing one way. They were, as Martin says “losing money just to keep people together. We were taking aircraft daily to Leicester as you can’t train out of an unlicensed  airfield. It was a very, very difficult time.”  Margaret adds that “The money we spent on getting the planning permission would have built us a clubhouse.”

 Martin calls protracted negotiations over small amounts of money an example of the ‘British Death Wish’. “In the time it took to get Terminal 5 at Heathrow operational, Germany built five high speed rail lines and three airports from scratch. On the continent, they come along, you name your price. Then out comes the chequebook and work can start. Over here we argue over fivepence.”

Forward to the present day (notwithstanding the sight of a 1935 Tiger Moth landing behind the Jones as we speak) and the airfield has all the atmosphere of a well-organised, healthy  business. It is the only Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) licensed airfield in the county and plays an important role, receiving dignitaries, VIPs and royals from across the world.

Derby Aero Club and Flying School offers all forms of flying training, aircraft hire and trial lessons, and has a strong social club, with Martin  explaining  that “most of our customers become friends.”

The Derby Dogfight experience

Being outside controlled airspace, it can offer unrestricted access to flying with no delays caused by priority given to airliners or other traffic such as gliding or parachuting. As a mark of recognition, the Club won the top national award, the Lennox-Boyd Trophy, for efficiency and contributions to flying training.

Martin’s other passion is engineering, particularly passing on skills to a new generation. He believes that a skilled aircraft engineer will never be out of work and set up his company, Airspeed Aviation,  in 1982 after giving up a well paid job in industry to turn his hobby into a business. 

But separating hobby from business has not been completely successful as he is also driving two philanthropic restoration projects, one of which is  restoring a 1959 Druine Turbulent , the only single seat aircraft ever flown by a member of the Royal Family – HRH the Duke of Edinburgh.  But the project that will grab headlines is Martin’s determination to restore the de Havilland DH88 Comet Racer once owned  by Amy Johnson, the first female pilot to fly solo from Britain to Australia, and an A list celebrity before her untimely death in 1941.

Black Magic painting by Frank MungerMartin examines his Amy Johnson Archive

Amy flew in record time from Britain to India in 1934 in this aircraft, "Black Magic".  Found languishing on a Portuguese farm, it was brought home to the UK and passed through a number of owners before Martin stepped in. Black Magic now resides in her own workshop, cared for by a host of volunteers keen to see her take to the skies again. A fascinating website documents the history and restoration of this iconic aircraft and helps raise the necessary funds and materials  to bring her next flight closer.

It’s not been easy, and Martin still believes that the business is not as advanced as it would have been without past events. His advice for anyone about to face compulsory purchase is stark. “Trust no-one, and certainly don’t expect any support. Just when you think you’ve reached some kind of watershed, you’ll find that something else has happened. You can never relax. You need to fight, fight and fight again.”

Running an airfield may seem like a niche business, but in many ways it is similar to farming. Acres of land that need to be kept in good condition, stock that needs to be maintained, access and environmental issues, health, safety and employment considerations.  And, of course, planning. 

But like many farms, it is the family that keeps it going for the benefit of future generations.

For further information about Derby Aero Club, and Derby Airfield, see www.derbyaeroclub.com or call 01283 733803

Find out more about the Comet Racer Project at www.cometracer.co.uk

First published in CLA Land & Business Magazine July 2016