How Leith’s flying boat service to England, once hailed as ‘future of aviation’, was soon sunk
It was hailed as the future of aviation in Scotland, allowing travellers to experience the unique thrills of the country’s only commercially operated flying boat service, which would whisk them between the capital and the south coast of England in just a few hours.
Now, nearly 70 years after it collapsed before it had even taken off, the inglorious history of Leith’s short-lived airport has been captured in a new book.
With Edinburgh long-established as Scotland’s busiest airport, modern air passengers may scoff at the idea that Leith once hosted its own pioneering hub .
But for a short spell in 1950, the former burgh was the focus of a bold new scheduled service using Hythe-class flying boats.
The aircraft took off and landed in the waters of Western Harbour, an area that has since undergone a major regeneration, transforming it into a modern waterfront community.
Back in the postwar era, however, it was seen as the ideal place in which to launch the first service of its kind in Britain, with a fleet of fixed wing seaplanes whisking people between the port and Southampton.
The new book, Secret Leith, by Jack Gillon, notes how the seeds of a marine airport at Leith were first planted as long ago as 1928, when Sir Alan Cobham, the pioneering aviator who became famous for his exploits in the interwar years, landed in his Short Singapore, a British built biplane flying boat which remained in service until the 1940s.
The stop off, part of his tour around the country, drew vast crowds, with thousands of people descending on the harbour, and a flotilla of boats sounding their sirens by way of a welcome.
The celebrity visitor, says Mr Gillon, appeared to spur the beginnings of a grassroots campaign to establish a marine airport in Leith.
Indeed, within the space of a year, it was approved by the Air Ministry as an airport for flying boats. It was, it turns out, a premature endorsement.
“It never took off as a viable project and it was another 20 years before the idea was revived,” explained Mr Gillon, a historian and author.
Come 1950, however, the concept of a regular flying boat service was reignited after Aquila Airways, Britain’s only commercial operator of flying boats, expressed an interest in running flights from Leith.
Things moved quickly, and by 1 June that year, Sir Andrew Murray, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, spearheaded a vast welcoming party as Aquila’s inaugural flight touched down.
A glowing report in The Scotsman the following day noted how his counterpart at Southampton Town Council had given the crew a letter expressing hope that “the airport of Leith will ever be used for the benefit and service of men of good will.”
Barry Aikman, Aquila’s managing director, told the paper: “We started with the utmost faith in the flying boat, which has been encouraged by the successes we have so far achieved.”
Indeed, a series of front page advertisement placed on successive Saturday editions of The Scotsman that month sought to capitalise on the publicity by prominently promoting the “flying boat service.”
The fares were not cheap, with £9 for a single journey and £16 4s for a return.