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Unhinged: Farewell Filton Airfield

Simon Charlesworth December 21, 2012 10 Comments on Unhinged: Farewell Filton Airfield

The traffic’s tyres roar. Buses and cars occasionally hoot their horns. Surprisingly there aren’t many here on the pavement, but most are packing an assortment of binoculars, cameras and radios.

Filton airfield's final flight

The weather should have been terrible, more of the soggy same from yesterday but instead, the icy blue Filton sky is full of sunshine, mares’ tails and unwelcome expectation. As time this morning, tainted with mourning, ticks onward toward midday for the end of aviation is nearly here.

This isn’t the prophesised end of the world, but it is certainly the end of a little piece of it. Another victim of the villain ‘progress’ and its No.1 henchman ‘not economically viable’. The owners have made their decision and the land has been sold to a London property developer. They claimed the airfield needs considerable investment – including resurfacing the runway – but there are still so many possibilities for this valuable piece of infrastructure that Bristol’s mayor has called for an independent review. Airbus, GKN and Rolls-Royce say they don’t need it, but it’s such a very unpopular decision by BAe Systems that it’s regarded with utter disgust. Walking up and down the chain-link perimeter fence next to the WW2 air-raid shelters, overhearing snippets of conversation, one word is repeatedly uttered – ‘shame’.

Last flight from Filton airfield

The South Gloucestershire’s Labour councillors lay a wreath. The media shuffles into action. Requests are made to do it again for the cameras. Blokes in their finest bib and tucker. Black ties. TV cameras. Photographs posed. Questions asked.

Last flight from Filton airfield

To me, this borders on the mawkish, like people being snapped with a dying man who is still, but only just, clinging to life. Amid the kerfuffle, did anyone – I ponder – notice the sunlight? In a piece of coincidental staging worthy of Hollywood, as the last of the small light aircraft trundle toward Filton’s vast runway for take-off, Concorde 216 is caught in the sun. The great white bird gleams like a guest of honour caught in the spotlight.

Last flight from Filton airfield

As the motley collection of light aircraft fly away, it’s all a bit anti-climactic and numbing. I have no idea what they are, just as I have no interest in spotting which bicycle a cyclist is riding. Suffice to say that it’s all too quiet. As someone who was born and raised just down the road from here, who relished the immense roar of engine test beds which made it sound like the sky was being shredded to pieces. Fettling Concordes, Vulcans and F111s. I think of all the family, friends and people who worked at this cradle of British aviation; birthplace to so many noteworthy machines from the biggest (Type 167 Brabazon) to the fastest (Type 223 Concorde).

Last flight from Filton airfield

Then suddenly and without fanfare or showmanship, the last aircraft – a twin-engined business jet – taxies, lines up, powers up and climbs away to what will shortly be an extinct soundtrack.

Last flight from Filton airfield

Initially people don’t move. Lost in thought and staring at the horizon. The lumbering northbound cloud comes and Concorde 216’s sentence in the overcast purgatorial gloom and elements resumes.

Last flight from Filton airfield

That can’t be it, can it? The end of over 100 years of aviation – a move Sir George White, whose family founded BAC, described as “sheer madness” – marked by such a modest hurrah… Yet it is and people start to pack up and move off. They only pause when, from behind, the business jet returns, making a low pass. Engines roaring it salutes the former Filton airfield with a waggle of its wings before it disappears for good.

Emotional? Good grief no – it was just a lump in my throat and something in my eye. Angry? Yes, very.

Last flight from Filton airfield

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