Distant and isolated from the early aviation pioneers who were operating near the centres of population, Argyll & Bute and the islands of the Inner Hebrides came into their own during both world wars. In providing coastal airfields they allowed maritime patrol aircraft to reach out into the Atlantic to protect allied shipping from the German U-boat menace. Civil aircraft could also provide a link from the islands and remote peninsulas to the cities in a matter of minutes which could take hours or even days by road and ferry. So commercial passenger flights became an important link as in this area early as the 1920s.
RAF Machrihanish opened in Aug 1918 as part of the panic reaction to the German U-boat offensive. It operated airships and was a landing site for DH6 aircraft based at Luce Bay just over the Clyde estuary.
RAF Port Ellen on Islay opened in 1935 and was used throughout the war to train ferry crews who would move aircraft around the world. Apart from the Ferry Training Unit it had no permanently based units in its 5 year existence. Remote from other airfields it was also used extensively as a diversion and damaged or lost aircraft returning from the maritime battles in the Atlantic were often glad to see it. There is also a radar site on Islay at Kilchiaran which was part of Chain Home Low, a long line of radar sites round the coast of the UK to give early warning of approaching aircraft. This site became operational in 1941 and closed in 1945 and is on the west coast of the island.
Tiree provided another RAF station from 1940 ideally situated for operations in the Atlantic and was a Coastal Command base for most of the war with Hudsons, Liberators and Wellingtons. It also operated Halifaxes in the meteorological observation role. They flew thousands of hours on long-range sorties gathering Atlantic weather information to provide the meteorological data on which wartime planners based key decisions including the date of D-Day. Air-sea rescue missions were also carried out from here later in the war using Warwicks and when they ceased in Oct 1945 the RAF moved out and the base closed in 1946.
In 1940 Machrihanish was reactivated and in 1941 reopened as HMS Landrail with a capacity of up to 85 aircraft serving as a base for disembarked Fleet Air Arm units. Various types such as Swordfish, Seafire and Barracuda used the base during this period. The local bombing ranges at Skipness on the east coast and Balure on the west coast of the Kintyre peninsula were often used by aircraft from Landrail.
The sound between Oban and Kerrera Island provided an ideal place for a flying boat station and RAF Oban was active throughout the war from 1939 to 1945 conducting maritime patrol operations. Initially with Stranraers and Lerwicks these were soon replaced with Sunderlands and then Catalinas. The Station HQ and the Sergeants’ Mess are now hotels in the town.
RAF Connel opened in 1943 originally envisaged as landing ground for fighters to protect the important flying boat base at Oban a few miles to the south. The fighters never materialised but it had a useful wartime life as an ammunition storage and an emergency landing ground till 1945 when it went out of service.
After a period of care and maintenance Machrihanish reopened briefly as HMS Landrail in Dec 1951, part of the Korean War effort but closed again in Sep 1952. Later in the 1950’s it was selected as a NATO reinforcement base for forces from the USA and underwent a major building programme resulting in a 10,000 ft runway one of the longest in the UK. Being on the coastal fringe meant that this western part of Scotland was ideal for early warning radar and as part of the UK’s ROTOR programme during the Cold War many radar sites were built or reactivated in the 1950s. RAF Kilchiaran on Islay was brought back into service until 1958 when it closed for good. There was also an RAF radar site at Scarinish on Tiree, built in 1953 it stayed in service till the 1960s.
The first flight into Islay took place in 1928 when the Glasgow-Campbeltown service was extended to the island. This service landed on the north of the island, where a temporary airstrip was created on the beach but a better home was secured when the airfield moved to Port Ellen (Glenegadale) and operated services till the war. After the war Port Ellen was handed back for civilian use and has operated various scheduled services over the years primarily by Loganair including the air ambulance service so critical to the island communities of Scotland. The airfield is now operated by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) who also own Machrihanish and Tiree.
Loganair have operated from Machrihanish since 1977 when it was still under military control but in 2009 it became Campbeltown Airport when HIAL took over operating commercial services to Scottish destinations particularly Glasgow. There has been an airfield on Tiree since 1934 and in 1937 Scottish Airways started a service to Glasgow which ran till the airfield was taken over by the RAF during WW2. Following the war it was handed back for civilian use and commercial flights recommenced in 1947. Loganair have operated the service since 1975 with HIAL as owners and operators since 1978.
Loganair started a scheduled service from Connel in 1967 but it was not a success and the airfield was left for General Aviation (GA). After investment from Argyll & Bute Council it now operates as Oban airport with services to the western islands. Argyll & Bute Council also operate Coll and Colonsay airports. Colonsay has been operating since 1974 and Coll a year later in 1975 with flights provided by Hebridean Air Services. There are also minor airfields on Gigha, at Glenforsa on Mull and a grass airstrip on Jura frequented by GA and used by the air ambulance.
There are several crash sites dotted across this coastal area but the greatest concentration is on the Isle of Arran with 8 sites recorded amongst the high ground to the north. In Brodick there is a memorial plaque in memory of the US and Allied aircrews who lost their lives over the island during WW2. There are many charming memorials scattered throughout this region to commemorate individuals or crews who lost their lives crashing in this region of land and water which gives access to the Atlantic ocean. The Coastal Command memorial in Oban in memory of all air and ground personnel of 18 Group who served at RAF Oban during WW2 conducting maritime patrol operations, is a reminder of why military aviation came to this part of Scotland in such numbers during both world wars.
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