Up, up and away to the opening of the Belfast Harbour Airport in 1938

Trains and boats and planes seduced Roamer when he was a child and seven decades later nothing has changed!

Friday, 30th July 2021, 6:00 am
Railway Air Services de Havilland D.H.86. Opening day of Belfast Harbour Airport. March 1938. Photo by Guy Warner, Northern Ireland Public Record Office
Railway Air Services de Havilland D.H.86. Opening day of Belfast Harbour Airport. March 1938. Photo by Guy Warner, Northern Ireland Public Record Office

So the recent arrival in my mailbox of an original printed programme for the 1938 official opening of Belfast Harbour Airport caused more than a little excitement.

“I think it’s rather fun,” wrote sender and regular Roamer - contributor Robin Masefield, adding: “I got it from my Helen’s Bay friend Chris McFerran - a little bit of history that is ripe for sharing.”

And it’s getting a test flight here today, with a further sortie next week!

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Photograph of Harbour Airport ‘as it will be’ in opening programme

Roamer has no idea how (or if!) it was permitted, but back in the mid-1960s the keen plane-spotter father of a school-friend drove us both, in his family car, unauthorised and unchallenged, onto the runaway at Sydenham and casually parked beneath the wing of an iconic Short Brothers Belfast C.1. Heavy-Lift Turboprop freighter.

Far ahead of its competitors, the sturdily sleek Belfast-built plane was the British military’s largest aircraft, and was the first to come fitted with full ‘blind landing’ automatic system equipment. I stood in absolute awe in the shadow of its 50 metre wingspan gazing up at four, immensely powerful four-bladed Rolls-Royce turboprop engines. This was aviation history close-up and it was a privilege to be there, with or without permission.

The Belfast Harbour Airport, now called the George Best Belfast City Airport, was officially opened by Mrs Chamberlain, wife of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, on Wednesday March 16 1938. The 12-page printed programme is bound front and back, stamped with the distinctive seal of Airport owners - The Belfast Harbour Commissioners - and tied with a ribbon. Along with photographs, maps and a detailed description, with specifications, of the new Airport, the programme includes a timetable of speeches and opening events, along with the full list of VIPs and Harbour Commissioners attending.

An series of air shows and fly pasts punctuated the historic occasion, with refreshments “served in the hanger” throughout the proceedings and all the Airport buildings “open for inspection by guests attending the ceremony.”

Harbour Airport main map in opening programme

Unlike teenager Roamer three decades later, the guests were “kindly requested not to encroach on the landing area” - a stark warning heavily underlined in the programme. It also stressed therein that the ceremonials began “not later than 2.20 pm when guests attending the Opening Ceremony will arrive at the Airport and take their places in the hanger in which the ceremony will be held.”

And there was plenty of room for everyone, specified on page six of the programme.

“The designs of the hanger, which measures 215 feet by 100 feet, and of the future permanent Airport buildings, are the work of Mr Stavers H Tiltman, FRIBA, Brighton. The Hanger was erected by Messrs. Harland and Wolff Ltd., Belfast.”

Tiltman was an architect who became much hailed as designer of the 1930s Art Deco terminal building at Brighton City Airport, also known as Shoreham Airport. He was also architect and engineer to Brighton’s famous Rock Brewery, now defunct.

According to the printed programme, the VIPs entered Mr Tiltman’s hanger at 2.40 pm: “Their Graces the Governor and the Duchess of Abercorn, Mrs Neville Chamberlain, the Rt. Hon. the Viscount Craigavon (Prime Minister of Northern Ireland), The Viscountess Craigavon, and other distinguished guests, accompanied by the Belfast Harbour Commissioners will arrive at the Airport and will proceed to the platform in the hanger.”

Five minutes later at 2.45 pm, “when Their Graces, Mrs Chamberlain and Party have taken their places on the platform, the assembled company will join in singing the National Anthem.”

The rest of the formalities were broadcast live on local BBC radio, beginning with the Chairman of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, Sir Ernest Herdman, D.L., who introduced Mrs Chamberlain to the assembled guests and asked her “kindly to open the Airport.”

The programme states “Mrs Chamberlain will there upon declare the Airport open.”

Sir Ernest expressed thanks to Mrs Chamberlain, presented her with “a gift of Ulster linen” on behalf of the Harbour Commissioners and the formal proceedings ended with the singing of the first verse of the National Anthem. Appropriately, the Herdman Channel, opened on the Lagan in 1933, was named after Sir Ernest and the five million tons of earth and silt dredged from the river to construct it had helped re-form the river banks on the airport’s foreshore.

After the National Anthem, various fly pasts began that must have thrilled (and deafened) the guests - and most of East Belfast! The series of air exciting performances will be outlined here next week, starring six RAF Bristol Blenheims from No. 139 Squadron, six Fairey Battles from No 52 Squadron No. 502 (Ulster) (Bomber) Squadron and a De Haviland four-engined, 10-seater aircraft (DH.86 type) by courtesy of Railway Air Services, Ltd. The historic air show took place over a new airport which, according to page five of the programme “has been established by the Belfast Harbour Commissioners on their reclaimed land on the Eastern (County Down) side of Belfast Harbour.” It consisted of 365 acres “of which over 100 acres are prepared for landing.”

Along with proposed extensions “the Airport will be one of the finest in the UK” the programme proudly boasted.

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