NOSTALGIA: Daring stunts and parachute races in the Wilmington sky

Wilmington Aerodrome was opened in August 1938 by W P Hildred OBE, the deputy controller of General Civil Aviation
Wilmington Aerodrome was opened in August 1938 by W P Hildred OBE, the deputy controller of General Civil Aviation

On May 23 1936 an Empire Day Rally was held at Wilmington Airfield hosted by Eastbourne Flying Club.

The highlight of the meeting, right on time at 4.30pm, was a flight of Hawker Fury bi-planes from RAF Tangmere.

At more than 200 mph the three aircraft descended on Wilmington with their programme of dives, formation flying and stunts to thrill the audience that Saturday afternoon and evening.

Photographs showed an overall view of the airfield and properties with the Eastbourne Flying Club logo plus RAF Hawker Furies.

The British Empire Air display on Sunday August 15 1936 was presented by Mr T Campbell-Black who had flown to Australia in four days in the 1934 air race.

The weather that afternoon and evening was stated as ideal for the 50 odd aircraft entered and a crowd of around 5,000 people.

The theme of this 1936 display was to demonstrate the reliability of British aircraft and stimulate a wider interest on aviation.

The event consisted of 21 separate items including aerobatics while formation flying, daring stunts and humorous episodes, a parachute race to earth and radio controlled flight.

Additionally, an aspect of the show was exhibition flights of the new insect class – the Drone and novel Flying Flea £100 self-build machine.

Passenger flights were a popular offering, sight-seeing the aerodrome and Downs as most people had not seen them previously.

Three lady fliers were taking part. Dorothy Spicer as the chief ground engineer, Pauline Gower, a versatile airwoman and J A Stanton-Nadine, the only practising professional lady parachutist.

Eastbourne Flying Club now had 55 flying and 97 non-flying members and the club owned a pair of de Havilland Gypsy Moth aircraft.

A popular visitor was a de Havilland DH88 Rapide airline Air Dispatch that was billed as the largest machine present that day.

Building on this buoyancy and success, the 1937 At Home meeting attracted some 72 aircraft and the celebrated aviator Amy Johnson arrived to open the meeting, moved from Saturday August 14 to Saturday September 18.

The cover of the modest programme actually being crudely overprinted with the change of date. Tactile ephemera like this basic letterpress programme by Barleys of Junction Road, Eastbourne, can reveal quite an amount of material for an archivist – although essentially it was a cheap disposable commodity.

Invariably, a colourful facet of these events was the flamboyant Eastbourne photographer Roy Hudson FRPS. His photo coverage of the air displays became a popular aspect of local newspapers in the 1930s. There is available on the Internet a British Pathe film of Amy Johnson arriving at the 1937 meeting.

At this time Captain Douglas Ann was establishing his Drusillas Zoo and Tea Garden nearby at Berwick named after his first wife. At weekends the car park at Drusillas became known as the Motor Show of the South as fashionable visitors patronised the establishment with their exotic cars and limousines.

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