Below is a short history of Airwork, the company my father, Bob Woolley, was working for at the time of his tragic death in 1969.  I also briefly worked for Airwork in 1983/84 - at their Supplies division in Ferndown, Dorset.






Airwork Limited, also referred to during part of its history as Airwork Services Limited, is a wholly owned subsidiary company of VT Group plc.  It has a long and rich history in providing a variety of defence support services to the RAF, Fleet Air Arm and overseas air forces as well as having played an important role in the development of civil aviation - both in the UK and abroad. 




Airwork was founded in 1928 by Sir Nigel Norman and Alan Muntz with the opening of the private Heston Airport in Middlesex.  In the early days Airwork’s chief pilot was Captain Valentine Baker M.C, D.F.C. who later formed the world famous Martin-Baker company with Sir James Martin.  In December 1936 Airwork Limited was registered at Companies House and the newly formed company started its long association with RAF flying training. 


Airwork moved out of Heston in 1935 due to a lack of adequate space and relocated to Gatwick where it continued with a contract to maintain Whitley bombers for the RAF.  During the 1930s Airwork also helped to establish the national airlines of Egypt, India and Rhodesia.  In June 1936 it opened No. 11 RAF Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School (ERFTS) at Perth in Scotland under contract to the Air Ministry. The company developed accommodation and facilities there and provided aircraft in the form of the Tiger Moth.  Further Airwork operated RAF Elementary and Reserve Flying Training Schools followed soon afterwards with  No. 14 ERFTS at Castle Bromwich in July 1937, No. 17 ERFTS at Barton in October 1937 and No. 44 ERFTS at Elmdon in May 1939.


With the outbreak of World War II the word ‘Reserve’ was dropped and the 50 ERFTS establishments were consolidated into 20 Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS).  No 17 ERFTS was disbanded at that time and No. 44 ERFTS at Elmdon was merged with No. 14 ERFTS at Castle Bromwich to form No. 14 EFTS.  One further Airwork run EFTS – No. 21 – was established at Booker in June 1941 with Miles Magisters supplementing the Tiger Moths currently in use there and at all other EFTS.  Through its sites at Gatwick and newer aerodromes at Staverton, Renfrew and Loughborough, Airwork also became a vital part of the Air Ministry’s maintenance operations.  Further aircrew training, for example No. 6 Air Observer navigation School at Staverton using Rapides and Ansons also featured prominently.  Engineering contracts consisted of the manufacture of Lancaster wings and modifications on Bostons as well as the preparation, maintenance and repair of Hurricanes, Whitleys, Corsairs, Hellcats, Liberators and Mustangs.  By the end of the War in 1945 the 6,000 Airwork staff had successfully trained 35,000 first stage pilots, fulfilled a number of modification contracts and repaired in excess of a thousand aircraft.


Post War operations in the UK


Following the War Airwork purchased Perth Aerodrome from the local Council and developed a highly successful flying school for commercial pilots.  In 1947 Airwork relocated its main operation to Langley in Buckinghamshire  and further new sites were also established at Blackbushe Airport (overhaul and sales) and at Lasham (engineering).  By now Airwork had been acquired by the Cowdray family and become part of the British & Commonwealth group of companies.  Airwork continued its flying training role providing elementary, RN grading, Volunteer Reserve (VR) and University Air Squadron (UAS) flying training across its locations initially using Tiger Moths and, from the 1950s, the Chipmunk.  A new Reserve Flying School (13 RFS) was established at Grangemouth in April 1948 and at RAF Usworth (23 RFS) in February 1949.  In April 1951 Airwork also assumed responsibility of No.2 Basic Air Navigation School at Usworth.  Approximately 25 Avro Anson T.21's were used and supported during this time.  In addition there were between 15 and 20 Chipmunks, which were used by the Durham University Air Squadron - mostly at weekends - also maintained by Airwork.  At RAF Digby Airwork was also responsible for running the No 1 Grading Unit during 1952/53.


During the post-war period Airwork also further expanded its business into civil aviation and an advertisement in an April 1949 edition of the magazine ‘Flight’ (below) proclaimed that Airwork’s Sales Division was “incomparably the biggest sales organisation of its kind in the world”!  The advert goes on to list the available services of Airwork as being: air transport contracting, servicing and maintenance of aircraft, sale and purchase of aircraft, operation and management of flying schools and clubs, contract charter flying, overhaul and modification of aircraft, specialised aerodrome catering, and insurance.  The charter flying element of the business during this period was carried out largely using Handley Page Hermes and Vickers Viking aircraft primarily flying out of Blackbushe Airport.  





Above: an Airwork sales division advertisement from 'Flight' magazine dated 22nd April 1948 (click to enlarge)


A major contract was secured in September 1952 when Airwork was selected by the Royal Navy to operate the Fleet Requirements Unit (FRU) at Hurn Airport, near Bournemouth. The FRU employed civilian pilots using Fleet Air Arm aircraft to provide target aircraft for the training of Royal Navy radar operators. The first type of aircraft, Sea Mosquito, began arriving at Hurn in August 1952 and these were replaced during 1953 by the Sea Hornet. Over the next decade the FRU's duties were expanded to include all aspects of Fleet requirement tasks including target towing for gunnery purposes, eventually covering not just UK based destroyers and frigates but the Mediterranean Fleet as well. A wide variety of aircraft types were used over the years with the Sea Hornet being followed, in chronological order, by the Supermarine Attacker (1955-1957), Sea Fury (1955-1961), Sea Hawk (1956-1969), Westland Dragonfly (1958-1961), Gloster Meteor (1958-1971), Supermarine Scimitar (1965-1970), Hawker Hunter (1969-1972) and English Electric Canberra (1969-1972). The Airwork activity at Hurn provided the enthusiast with a welcome opportunity to witness serviceable aircraft that had in many cases long since completed their primary and front line roles.


Select this link for full details of aircraft used by the FRU between 1952 and 1972


Airwork was also contracted by the Fleet Air Arm in January 1950 to provide aircraft at RNAS Brawdy to exercise the Aircraft Direction School at nearby Kete.  They also undertook a Heavy Twin Conversion Course for FAA pilots using Sea Hornets and Sea Mosquitos.  This Unit moved to St. Davids in September 1951 and operated a jet conversion course with Meteor T.7s.  It returned to Brawdy in October 1958 but continued to use St. Davids as a satellite.  Finally, in January 1961 it relocated to RNAS Yeovilton where it operated as the Air Direction Training Unit (ADTU).  Aircraft used here were the Sea Venom, Sea Vampire, Hunter and Sea Vixen.     


A further contract was won in 1953 when Airwork was appointed to operate RAF Oxfords for the benefit of trainee radar operators at the RAF Sopley radar station situated close to Hurn.  The Oxfords were replaced in June 1957 by fourteen Boulton Paul Balliols which provided a service to the trainee trackers and plotters of the School of fighter Control which had relocated to Sopley from RAF Bolt Head in Devon.  The Balliols remained in service with Airwork until 1960.   



Above: an Airwork advertisement from 'Flight' magazine dated 9th May 1952 (click to enlarge)



In January 1957 Airwork Services Ltd was created to separate the defence support activities from the airline business elements which continued under the original Airwork Ltd name.  During summer 1959 Airwork moved its Head Office from Langley to Hurn.  It’s overhaul facilities were also centralised here.  As a result the operations at Blackbushe, Langley and Lasham were closed.  That year Airwork Ltd took over Freddie Laker’s Air Charter business and a year later merged it with Hunting Clan to form British United Airways.  Both Airwork and Airwork Services Ltd then became part of the British United Group in June 1960.  Numerous airliners were serviced in the civil maintenance hangar at Hurn including Sudan Airways Doves, Dakotas, Skymasters and Vikings.


In 1960 Airwork acquired the Aeronautical Engineering College in Hamble and relocated it to its existing training operation at Perth Aerodrome where the revised enterprise became known as Airwork Services Training.  Pilot training at Perth ceased in 1996 but a successful engineering training college continues to this day under new ownership as Air Service Training (AST).


Throughout the 1960's Airwork continued elementary and University Air Squadron flying training including training pilots of the Army Air Corps at Middle Wallop in DHC Chipmunks and Hillier UH-12s.  Airwork was also responsible for overhauling these aircraft.  It also provided a complete flying grading service for the Royal Navy's Britannia Flight at Roborough, near Plymouth – something it continues to do today.  The 1970's saw the introduction of the Bulldog, which gradually replaced the popular Chipmunk.  The Baron training aircraft of the College of Air Training arrived at Hurn in February 1971 and Airwork assumed responsibility for their maintenance.  At the end of 1978 Scottish Aviation Bulldogs of the Southampton University Air Squadron and DHC Chipmunks of No. 2 AEF relocated to Hurn and Airwork became responsible for their storage and maintenance.  The Bulldogs were used for initial training by potential RAF pilots whilst the Chipmunks were used by local Air Cadets.            


In November 1972 the Fleet Requirements Unit was relocated from Hurn to RNAS Yeovilton and amalgamated with the Air Direction Training Unit to form the Fleet Requirements & Air Direction Training Unit (FRADTU).  The word ‘Training’ was later dropped from the Unit’s name to form the more familiar FRADU.  The new Unit continued to use the Hunters, Canberras and, in the early days, Sea Vixens that had previously been used by the FRU and ADTU.  In 1983 the FRADU contract was put out to competitive tender and was subsequently awarded to FR Aviation.


Airwork quickly put this setback behind it and in 1984 was awarded a contract for the operation of No.1 Flying Training School RAF Linton-on-Ouse.  It was then equipped with the Bulldog and Jet Provost with the Jet Provost being replaced by the Shorts Tucano in 1989.  The Company also managed to regain an element of the FRADU business when in 1988 it obtained a contract to overhaul FRADU Hunters at Hurn.   


Whilst the airline group of the business had merged into the British United Group as long ago as 1960 it was only in January 1980 that Airwork Services reverted back to its original name of Airwork Ltd.  At this time Airwork also supplied air traffic control services at Exeter Airport and operated Unst and Scatsta airfields in the Shetlands.  Airwork Services Training also continued to thrive at Perth Airport in Scotland.  In 1991 the Britavia (formerly Aviation Traders) design office moved from Southend to the Airwork offices at Hurn.       


Overseas activity


Following the creation of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman Air Force (SMOAF) in March 1959, Airwork was appointed to provide maintenance and technical support.  The new air force initially consisted of Scottish Aviation Pioneer CC1, Hunting Provost T.Mk.52 and DHC-2 Beaver aircraft.  Growing problems with civil unrest and insurgency, primarily in the Dhofar region, during the late 1960s led to the expansion of the SMOAF.  Initially this was through the formation of a squadron of BAC 167 Strikemaster T.Mk.82 aircraft and also through acquisitions of the C-47 Dakota, DHC-4 Caribou, Shorts Skyvan, BN-2A-21 Defender, Vickers Viscounts , BAC 1-11 and VC-10 types of aircraft. 


The conditions in which Airwork staff had to work were some of the most challenging in the world with shade temperatures of over 40°C commonplace and cockpit temperatures on the ground often exceeding an unbearable 80°C.  Existing working practices had to be radically amended accordingly.  Airwork’s support role in Oman was further cemented in the late 1970s by the arrival of over thirty Hawker Hunters.  Two squadrons of SEPECAT Jaguars followed further expanding the capability of the Sultanate of Oman Air Force (SOAF), the name of which had been adopted in 1970.  During the early 1980s three C-130H Hercules transport aircraft were ordered.  In 1990 the SOAF was renamed to become the Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO).  Four new British Aerospace (BAe) Hawk 103s and twelve Hawk 203s were delivered in 1993. 


In addition to providing aircraft maintenance and airfield communications support services to SOAF\RAFO, Airwork was also involved in providing radio and radar support to the Oman Navy and ground radio for the Oman Army.  Spares provisioning and personal recruitment were provided from Airwork’s UK headquarters at Hurn and the nearby Supplies Division in Ferndown.


The success of the Omani partnership led to Airwork securing similar support contracts in other countries.  In Saudi Arabia Airwork was contracted between 1966 and 1973 to provide servicing and training for the Saudi’s English-Electric Lightnings, Hunters, BAC Strikemasters and Cessna 172s.  Airwork also provided a similar service in Aden (later South Yemen) and to the Kuwaiti and Jordanian air forces.  In Africa, Airwork developed a support presence in Nigeria, Sudan and Zimbabwe with aircraft from these countries also being overhauled at Hurn. 


During the 1960s Airwork carried out delivery flights of a number of Fairey Gannets to Indonesia.  A large number of aircraft were also handled at Hurn during this time prior to delivery for the Abu Dhabi Air Force (Caribou and Islander), Ghana (Short’s Skyvan), Qatar Police (Gazelle helicopter), the Singapore Air Force (BAC Strikemaster), South Arabian Air Force (Bell 47G and Dakotas) and the Sudan Air Force (Jet Provost).  The supply of spares and equipment from Hurn was central to activities with Britannia, CL-44 and Douglas DC-6 freighter aircraft being frequently used.         


Takeover and current status


Following a management buy-out in 1988 Airwork became part of the Bricom Group of companies.  In 1992 a contract with the RAF at St. Athan to modify a number of Tornado F3 aircraft was to have far reaching consequences for the company.  Serious damage was caused to the centre fuselage of 16 aircraft during the removal of rivets.  When the extent of the damage became clear the Ministry of Defence cancelled the contract with Airwork and pursued compensation from Bricom.  Questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament and the reputation of Airwork, at least in the UK, was dealt a grievous blow.  A multi million pound compensation settlement was eventually agreed out of court and the F3 aircraft involved were repaired by new contractors replacing the damaged centre fuselages with those from surplus F2 aircraft which had been earmarked for disposal.


Short Brothers of Belfast, which had itself been bought by the Canadian company Bombardier in 1989, acquired Airwork as a wholly owned subsidiary in November 1993 and the company became known as Bombardier Defence Services Limited.  The VT Group subsequently took over the business – renaming it VT Defence - in a £30m deal in June 2000.  Whilst in the UK the former Airwork element of the business now trades under the name VT Aerospace, the name and brand of Airwork is still used prominently in Oman as ‘Airwork Technical Services and Partners LLC’ where a new five year contract to support the Royal Air Force of Oman commenced in January 2005.  




Official website:   VT Aerospace official website



Other internet links and sources:  Airwork Services article on Wikipedia (i.e. written by myself!)  ‘VT Aerospace – a history of military flying training’ by Adrian Thomson CEng MBA BSc MRAeS MIEE, Business Development and Marketing Manager, VT Defence    Ministry of Information Sultanate of Oman   Dutch Aviation Society page on Royal Air Force of Oman      and    Air Combat Information Group - Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf Database  Air Service Training (Engineering) Limited (previously Airwork Services Training).    Scottish Aero Club – Perth airport history  - Elementary Flying Training Schools summary 1920-1945    House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 10 June 1993  House of Commons Hansard Debates for 28 Feb 1995    House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 14 May 1996 (pt 5)    House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 11 March 1997    Lord Hansard text for 22 May 1997



Sources – books: 


‘The Squadrons Of The Fleet Air Arm’ by Ray Sturtivant and Theo Ballance – (Air Britain) ISBN 0-85130-223-8


‘Bournemouth’s Airports – a History’ by Mike Phipp (Tempus Publishing Ltd) ISBN 0-7524-3923-5




Mark Woolley

27th December 2006





Go to 'Remembering Bob Woolley' - Part 3


Go to summary of Bob Woolley's Naval flying career

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