Gravesend Airfield was constructed in 1932 at Thong Lane as Gravesend - London Airport East, officially opening on 26 August 1932. After service as an RAF Fighter Command airfield during the Second World War, the site was progressively covered by a large housing estate constructed from the late 1950s.
Picture of a Curlew Plane
Picture of a Curlew Plane

CLW Aviation Co. Ltd (whose name was derived from the initials of its founders’ surnames, they being Messrs. S. Wilding Cole, A. Levell & F.S. Welman) was formed on 12 January 1935, becoming CLW Aviation (1936) Ltd on 30 April 1936. The company built one aircraft, the CLW Curlew, G-ADYU, which was constructed at Bexleyheath and first flew at Gravesendin September 1936, and was scrapped in 1948. The Curlew was a most attractive all metal two seat open cockpit low wing monoplane. The crew were seated in tandem in a slim full monocoque fuselage, and the aircraft had a well-proportioned tapered monospar wing of original structural design and high torsional stiffness. Power was provided by a 90 hp Pobjoy Niagara III engine. When shown publicly on 20 September 1936, the type had only flown for a single hour, the first flight being on 3 September. Despite its attractive appearance, the Curlew did not enter production and only the single prototype was built.

Essex Aero Ltd who advertised as ‘designers and constructors in Magnesium Alloy’ were not manufacturers as such, but are famous for the preparation of racing and record breaking aircraft - in particular, Alex Henshaw’s Mew Gull and A.E. Clouston’s DH88 Comet. The company was founded by Jack Cross, initially at Stapleford Tawney - this explaining the name ‘Essex Aero’, despite its main operating base being in Kent. Jack Cross had been Chief Engineer of Hillman Airways before founding Essex Aero Ltd in 1935.

Essex Aero contemplated entry into the light aircraft market with a two seat project known as the Essex Aero Sprite, intended to be powered by a Nuffield horizontally opposed engine. A model of the project featured a low wing monoplane configuration with side-by-side seating under a cockpit canopy resembling that of the Provost. The aircraft also had a retractable undercarriage and butterfly tail.

Essex Aero worked on self-sealing fuel tanks during the war, subsequently constructing the fuselage fuel tanks for the Supermarine E.10/44, and the fuel tanks for the Miles Merchantman. Essex Aero went into liquidation in 1956.

The Percival Aircraft Co. Ltd was registered in 1933, and established their works at Gravesendin 1934, the company name being changed to Percival Aircraft Ltd in the August of that year. Twenty-two Percival Gull, a number of Mew Gull aircraft and the prototype Vega Gull were built at Gravesend, the company moving to a new site at Lutonin October 1936.

The prototype Gull, G-ABUR was built by the British Aircraft Company at Maidstone, following which initial production of the type was undertaken by Parnall at Yate. After the construction of twenty-four aircraft at Yate, production was transferred to Gravesend. The change of production location coincided with the introduction of the Gull Six, with a 200 hp Gipsy Six engine replacing the 130 hp Gipsy Major of the Parnall-built aircraft. One relatively little known Gull aircraft built at Gravesend was the special Gull Six with two open cockpits in tandem, which was built for the Maharajah of Jodhpur. The Gull was a popular touring aircraft and the type was advertised in glowing terms, thus:

A LUXURY AIRCRAFT The Percival Gull has introduced this year a new standard of merit to aviation. It is the fastest and shapliest three-seater ever produced. The Gull in fact is the last word in flying luxury for it combines speed and beauty of line with comfort and safe flying qualities as they have never been combined in one aircraft before. Own a Percival Gull and you own the finest light aeroplane in the world today.’

The first Mew Gull G-ACND flew at Gravesendin March 1934, the type being specifically designed for racing and long distance touring. The most famous of the Mew Gull aircraft is G-AEXF, which was raced by Alex Henshaw and still survives today (albeit after multiple rebuilds and much bad luck). In racing trim the aircraft achieved a speed of 247 mph and excelled at long distance record breaking. In an extraordinary flight in 1938, Henshaw smashed the record for a flight from Londonto Cape Townand back. The round trip was completed in only 4 days and 10 hours. The outbound leg covered the 6,377 miles in 30 hours 28 minutes flying time, with an elapsed time of only 39 hours 23 minutes. The return was almost equally fast, with 30 hours 51 minutes flying in 39 hours 36 minutes elapsed time.

The Vega Gull differed from the Gull in having a four-seat configuration and increased wing span. The prototype G-AEAB was flown at Gravesendin November 1935. Both the Gull and Vega Gull achieved notable successes in racing and long distance flights, the Vega Gull prototype winning the King’s Cup Air Race in 1936. Jean Batten used Gull Six G-ADPR for many of her long-distance flights. Production of the Vega Gull amounted to ninety aircraft and was undertaken in the new Percival factory at Luton.

The Perman Parasol G-ADZX was first flown at Gravesendby A.E. Clouston on 23 May 1936, and it (and the later Broughton-Blayney Brawney) are referred to, in Mr Clouston’s autobiography, as the Clouston Midget. The aircraft was later (October 1936) referred to as the Perman Grasshopper.

Short Brothers (Rochester& Bedford) Ltd: The ShortScion G-ACJI made its first flight at Gravesend, on 18 August 1933.

Article extracted with permission from British Built Aircraft- written by Dr RV Smith.