James Tytler, a pharmacist with a bit of a history invented his Grand Edinburgh Fire Balloon in 1784. His first flight took place on 25th August 1784 and rose to about 350 feet and travelled almost half a mile. The balloon was damaged beyond repair in July 1785. Next on the scene was an Italian – Vincenzo Lunardi who had already made balloon flights in London. He successfully flew his balloon from the grounds of George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh across the Firth of Forth to Ceres near Cupar in Fife.
William Ewen, the first Scot to gain his Royal Aero Club Certificate carried out a return crossing of the Forth from Portobello in August 1911. He obtained a licence to build Caudron aircraft in Britain and some of these – and copies of them - flew in this area.
Several others were involved in early aircraft building in the Edinburgh area. These included the Gibsons who had a Motor & Cycle works in Leith and Charles Hubbard who was an engineer with the North British Rubber Company.
An airfield was opened at Turnhouse near Edinburgh in 1916 with Royal Flying Corps aircraft tasked with the air defence of Edinburgh. East of Edinburgh lies East Fortune. Now the home of the Museum of Flight a base was established here in 1915 and was home to airships and fighter aircraft. As a Royal Naval Air Station it was one of over 60 RNAS training depots prior to the creation of the RAF. Drem opened as an RAF base in 1918 and was home to an American Squadron. At Penstone Aerodrome, later RAF Macmerry there were fighters for air defence.
Further south in Berwickshire was Winfield – also known as Horndean - was a base for another Home Defence Squadron.
Inter War years
The years between the wars saw continued growth in aviation. While some of the airfields of the First World War were closed some – particularly Turnhouse remained active and it was here that one of the famous Auxiliary Air Force squadrons – 603 - was formed. Oddly, civil aviation didn’t come to Turnhouse until after World War 2.
During WW1 the area had a role in air defence with a number of operational airfields. WW2 brought new challenges. The area was at much greater risk than it had been 20 years before. The naval base at Rosyth was an obvious target for the German Air Force.
The airfields at Turhouse and Drem were home to modern fighters while a number of other airfields were built. All of the airfields that had been in use during WW1 were re-used and a number of other airfields were built to provide facilities such as training. Grangemouth was the site of an RAF base where Spitfires, Blenheims and other types were based. It is now a major oil refinery. An airfield was opened at Charterhall close to the border with Northumberland and operated as a training airfield.
On 16th October 1939, Flt Lt Pat Gifford of 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron was credited with shooting down the first enemy aircraft of WW2 over Britain, the JU88 plunging into the Firth of Forth off Prestonpans. The first enemy aircraft to be brought down onto British soil during the war was a Heinkel He111 brought down on 28th October by an aircraft from 602 City of Glasgow Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force, based at Drem. The aircraft crashed in the Lammermuir Hills in the borders.
As part of the Air Defence Network an Operations Room was established at Barnton Quarry on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Later expanded during the Cold War the site is being fully restored at present.
An airfield was built at Kirknewton to the south of Edinburgh. It was home to a variety of units and a radar station.
Radar was one of the technologies that proved vital in much of the Allied successes through the war. Early Chain Home and Chain Home Low stations were established on the Berwickshire coast at Drone Hill, Lamberton Moor and Cockburnspath.
After the end of the war there was a significant reduction in RAF activity in the area. Most military flying left places like Charterhall, Macmerry and Drem were run down and Turnhouse remained the most active. However other than continuing to be home to 603 Squadron until it was disbanded in 1957 it was no longer home to operational squadrons. Edinburgh University Air Squadron was based at Turnhouse along with Air Cadet aircraft. The Station became home to the Joint Maritime Operational Training Staff who looked after training and exercise planning for RAF and RN Maritime Operations. Support was also provided for RAF Pitreavie castle in Fife. The RAF finally left in the mid 1990’s.
In the early 1960’s the Station become home to a new undergoing headquarters of 24 Group Royal Observer Corps which remained active until 1991.
The 603 Squadron number plate was resurrected in 1999 and the Squadron still operates, now as a Force Protection squadron, from its fine HQ building near the centre of Edinburgh, whilst 602 Squadron was similarly reborn, operating today from a former TA barrack in Glasgow.
Gliding still takes place at Kirknewton.
After the end of WW2 commercial flights were allowed to use Turnhouse and from this developed Edinburgh Airport. Civil Aviation terminal was built to the west of the RAF unit. After the disbandment of 603 Squadron the airfield was transferred to the Ministry of Aviation. Eventually the old airport was unable to handle the increasing demands on it and a significant redevelopment was undertaken during the 1970s.
A new runway was built and a completely new terminal complex was created on the south side of the side adjacent to the main Edinburgh-Glasgow road. Today, the airport is one of the busiest in Scotland handling over 12 million passengers a year.
Other civil flying takes place from a number of small airstrips around the area. One of these is Charterhall which is a former RAF airfield.
The Edinburgh area is not thought of as an industrial area as is Glasgow. However, there has always been a lot of engineering work in the area, albeit on a smaller scale, and that has continued through to the present day. Many companies have been involved in specialist engineering for the aviation industry. For many years Ferranti operated a factory in Edinburgh and also operated a converted Meteor from Turnhouse as a flying testbed for radars and other equipment. Today, after many changes of ownership and name Leonardo operates on the same site and is an internationally renowned aerospace company.
As with every part of Scotland many thousands of people have had a connection with aviation. A native of Leith, Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown RN Ret’d has been recently commemorated at Edinburgh Airport with a statue. His fame lies in the record number of aircraft types that he flew as a Fleet Air Arm pilot – 487 in all.
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