For over half a century Bicester Airfield has been one of the best known gliding sites in the UK, and the site from which the first ever record breaking 1000km+ glider flight in the UK took place.
“retaining better than any other military airbase in Britain, the layout and fabric relating to pre-1930s military aviation….. it comprises the best preserved bomber airfield dating from the period up to 1945 ….. It also comprises the best preserved and most strongly representative of the bomber stations built as part of Sir Hugh Trenchard’s 1920s Home Defence Expansion Scheme”
But how did it all begin?
The earliest known landing at what is now Bicester Airfield, was made in August of 1911 by one Lt H.R.P Reynolds in a Bristol Box kite biplane.
Flying was first organised at Bicester in 1916. In 1917, shortly before the end of WW1, Bicester aerodrome was setup as training station in the southern Army Command and covered a total area of 180 acres. Temporary canvas 'Bessonnau' type hangars were constructed but were quickly replaced by more general-purpose aeroplane sheds.
The first occupants of Bicester Aerodrome were 118 Night Bomber Squadron who took up residence in August 1918 but were disbanded later the same year with the cessation of hostilities. Following the return to peace, Bicester Aerodrome remained open for a short while as a clearing centre for repatriated soldiers but was closed in 1920 and the buildings demolished.
Bicester Aerodrome was reborn when it was earmarked as a bomber squadron airfield in 1925. In 1926 work began reconstructing new hangars and the site became operational again in 1927.
Bicester has been home to many squadrons since its conception in 1917 and has an impressive history both in aviation and architecture. Some of the aircraft that were stationed at Bicester included the Blenheim bomber (two squadrons arriving in 1937 and 1938), the Beaufighter, Mosquitos and even the Supermarine Spitfire.
Below left, Virginia VII J8330/S, No.8 Squadron RAF Bicester, 1932. A mainstay of the interwar RAF heavy night-bombing force.
Later in 1939 the first Handley Page Halifax was assembled at Bicester , (see image above right) and the type made its maiden flight at the field on October 25 that year, flying to Boscombe Down. This was the first four-engined bomber to make raids on Germany, on 10 March 1941. A major training and maintenance site for the duration of WW2, RAF Bicester has been home to many different squadrons and served several purposes.
More recent history though, recalls occupation by the University Air Squadron, the RAF Gliding and Soaring Association and the Windrushers Gliding Club from 1956.
Bicester airfield is located on the north east edge of Bicester - a prosperous and expanding Oxfordshire commuter town. It is a remarkable grass-surfaced airfield - one of the largest remaining in Europe, which bears testament to the military history of the twentieth century with well preserved 1920s and 1930s hangars, a unique 'Fort' type control tower and a pre-World War Two bomb store - all English Heritage listed buildings. It is generally regarded as one of the the finest examples of a pre-WW2 RAF station, still almost completely in existance.
As the largest open space in Bicester, it is home to a variety of wildlife and bird species including Skylarks, Buzzards and, first spotted in September 2006, Red Kites (once extinct in England). Pilots soaring over the airfield frequently has the pleasure of soaring with the Red Kites and Buzzards. The Red Kites are particularly spectacular, and soar over the airfield throughout the summer in increasing numbers. The airfield was also designated a conservation area by Cherwell District Council in 2002.
Gliding in Bicester began over 50 years ago in 1956 when the Windrushers Gliding Club moved from Little Rissington. They were joined in 1963 by the RAF Gliding and Soaring Association, which subsequently merged with the Windrushers Gliding Club and became the operational centre of recreational gliding in the RAF. The RAFGSA Centre provided recreational flying to personnel of HM Forces and their dependants, and they also ran 'Gliding Adventurous Training Courses' for servicemen. In the mid 70s, Oxford University Gliding Club moved to RAF Bicester as well.
In 1961 the British Pathe news agency made a film about gliding at Bicester entitled 'Gliders do a Farnborough', copies of which have been republished and made generally available online along with many other old film clips.
In an attempt to reduce costs, the MOD decided to move the RAFGSA Centre to RAF Halton and in June 2004 the move finally took place. It was decided to continue the long tradition of gliding at Bicester, the Windrushers Gliding Club, eventually becoming Bicester Gliding Centre, was reformed by several RAFGSA and civilian members before the final departure of the RAF, and the club was officially re-opened on July 1st 2004 at Bicester Airfield. Oxford University Gliding Club continues to be co-located at Bicester.