Lulsgate - Bristol Airport

For a detailed diary of Bristol International Airport's recent growth, read the "history" section of the airport website . For a full account of the RAF days, find a copy of "The Story of RAF Lulsgate Bottom" by Ian James, Redcliffe Press 1989. (You can borrow it from Bristol Central Library) The following is a resume of events at Lulsgate since 1940:

In September 1940 No 10 Elementary Fying Training School at Weston super Mare established a Relief Landing Ground on 14 acres at Broadfield Down by the hamlet of Lulsgate Bottom, which had good road access but a bad weather record. This latter was not regarded as a disadvantage. With a runway level of 600 feet the chief problem is bad visibility due to low cloud in warm front conditions, when the alternates such as Filton are usually unaffected. Conversely when low-lying airfields are obscured by radiation fog in calm weather, Lulsgate is usually clear. In any case, on 10th March 1941 the strip was cleared for "solos".

Meanwhile Fighter Command considered the site for a Fighter Experimental unit, and a layout was designed with the three 150ft wide tarmac runways which survive, though the main runway was initially 3900 ft long. Land was requisitioned from several farms, No 10 EFTS stopped flying, and Geo. Wimpey & Co began work on 11th June 1941.

To everyone's surprise the first aircraft landed on the new airfield at 06.20 on 24th July 1941. This was a Junkers 88A returning from a raid, which had apparently been confused by RAF electronic countermeasures - specifically a beacon at Lympsham which was re-radiating the signal from a Luftwaffe homing beacon at Brest. The Ju88 was arrested and then flown to RAE Farnborough where it operated in RAF colours.

The airfield was declared operational on 15th January 1942 and No. 286 (Ack-ack Cooperation) Squadron flying Masters, Oxfords and Hurricanes began to move in. Their role was to provide realistic exercises to ground anti-aircraft defences. Some basic airfield facilities were unfinished, so in May the Squadron moved to Zeals, and the station was handed back to Flying Training Command. No. 3 Flying Instructor School took up residence and operated Masters and Oxfords. One of the tasks undertaken was re-training ex-operational bomber crews to teach at Operational Training Units. Aircraft of 3 FIS visited Whitchurch regularly, and in early 1944 there was a run of three accidents to 3 FIS' aircraft at Whitchurch, one fatal.

After the war, on April 14th 1946, flying training ceased, and Lulsgate Bottom was abandoned by the RAF in October. The airfield was used by Bristol Gliding Club during the next ten years, but the accommodation became a refugee camp for Poles, whose children went to Catholic schools in Bristol. In 1948 and 1949 motor race meetings were organised by the Bristol Motor Cycle and Light Car Club using a circuit of about 2 miles round the runways and taxiways, but owing to "difficulties" in getting permission to use it again,the club moved to another airfield which was to become known as the Castle Combe racetrack.

Lulsgate was sold to Bristol Corporation in 1955 for 55,000 and work began on airport terminal facilities. The gliding club moved to Nympsfield, and Bristol (Lulsgate) Airport was opened in 1957 by the Duchess of Kent. In its first year of operation 33,000 passengers were carried. The Bristol and Wessex Aeroplane Club moved to Lulsgate, together with the Whitchurch airline operations.

Work was begun to lengthen the main runway to the west to a total of about 7500 feet and this was completed in 1963. Only basic omni-directional radio beacons were available as navigation aids but a range of charter and scheduled services was operated using jet aircraft, notably the BAC 1-11s of Court Line. They also included e.g. Boeing 707s which transported communications satellites built at Filton for the Hughes Company in the USA, and on one occasion another 707 which had been impounded against debts left at dead of night on three engines and went straight to "somewhere in Africa", smashing an aerial on its (shallow!) climb-out. It was not until 1984 that a basic instrument landing system was installed with DME and localiser aerials.

In 1987 Bristol City Council, then reduced to the status of a District within the County of Avon, bowed to pressure from the Thatcher government and set up a company called Bristol Airport plc with slightly under 20 million share capital. This was the only way then available to raise capital for terminal building enlargement, needed to cope with summer traffic near 100,000 passengers a month. The new concourse was opened by Princess Anne in 1988, and the following year a 4 million runway resurfacing was also completed.

In 1992 passengers reached 1 million a year with the ever-widening variety of holiday and business destinations. Planning began for a completely new terminal, blind-landing system and new control tower, and approval was given following an appeal in 1994. Tragically in 1995 Les Wilson the energetic airport director, was killed in a car accident before work on these new developments had begun.

In 1997 with a cost estimate for the expansion of 27 million the City Council sold 51% of its shares in the Airport to First Group, the successful Weston-based bus operator. The name was changed to Bristol International Airport and the new terminal buiding was opened, again by Princess Anne, in 2000. Annual passengers reached 2 million.

At the end of 2000 the Airport changed hands, being acquired for 198 million by the Spanish-based CINTRA international transport group, backed by the Australian Macquarie Bank. Completion of the new control tower and the Category 3 landing system (which required diversion of the A38 main road) followed in 2001. In 2002, 3 million passengers were moved, with increasing use of the airport by "low-cost" airlines including Ryanair, Easy Jet and Go. Despite regular agitation to lengthen the runway (which was not long enough for Concorde excursion flights) the growth in traffic seemed to have proved that it was unnecessary.

Nevertheless at the end of 2003 in a White Paper on national airport policy, Bristol International Airport was "invited to bring forward as soon as possible a long-term master plan setting out these proposals to be accompanied by a voluntary purchase scheme for any properties that would be adversely affected" By "these proposals" the White Paper meant a runway extension towards Felton Common and a second terminal on the south side of the runway, i.e. the opposite side to the existing terminal, to cater for 12m passengers a year in 2030, compared to 4m in 2003.

In May 2005 Continental Airlines began a daily service to Newark NJ with Boeing 757s. Around this time a bungalow extension to the terminal building opened, to give additional check-outs. In October 2005 the airport announced an 80 million 5-year plan to further extend the terminal, build a new fire-station and fuel store, multi-storey car-parks, a hotel and more aircraft stands, but again with no significant runway extension, to cater for 9 million passengers in 2015. This scheme would demolish the old terminal, tower and fire station near the A38. However the banking emergency of 2009/10 led to a period of lower traffic growth and the direct Newark flights were discontinued, though Ryanair, Easyjet and others still flourished