It is 1932, and nearly fourteen years have passed since Royal Flying Corps aeroplanes last took off from the grass runways of Raploch Aerodrome at Falleninch Farm.
At the outset of the First War in 1914, the tactical potential of flight was quickly realised. Efforts were made, not only to develop the aeroplane, but produce it in large numbers. The Barnwell Brothers, who, four years earlier, had built and flown a plane in Stirling, were much at the forefront of the burgeoning aircraft industry. Frank had gone to the Bristol Aeroplane Company, whilst Harold was a test pilot with Vickers.
Their work, with others, proved to be of vital importance to the nation’s survival. In July 1917, German Gotha bombers mounted terrifying air raids over London. In response, the industry developed better fighter aircraft to counter the threat.
It is here that Alan Cobham, later Sir Alan Cobham, joins the narrative. A city-dwelling youth rarely harbours an ambition of farming, but this was his fervent aim. Fortunately, a farmer uncle agreed to take him as a farm hand. Cobham developed a love of Shire Horses, at that time, used for ploughing. When war broke out, he joined the Army Veterinary Corps and tended gun horses at the Western Front. Seeing aeroplanes patrolling the trenches, Cobham realised the days of the horse would soon be numbered and with it his hope of becoming an equine vet. Cobham therefore, applied to join the Royal Flying Corps. He proved to be a very capable pilot.
However, it proved to be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. With the cessation of hostilities, official interest in flying and aeroplanes ceased abruptly. The Royal Air Force, successor to the Royal Flying Corps, had no further use for the majority of pilot officers, Cobham included. Hundreds of planes barely flown were stood on end in hangers awaiting scrappage. Many of their parts were sold to civilians to make handcarts and perambulators.
Cobham did not merely love flying; he was a self-styled evangelist of the aviation industry. In 1921, Cobham made a 5,000-mile air tour of Europe, visiting 17 cities in three weeks. In 1926, he set off on a flight to Australia and, on his return, was knighted by King George V.
How though, could Cobham pass his zeal to the man in the street, who then had barely ever seen an aeroplane? The answer was his ‘Flying Circus’. This was a collection of aeroplanes that performed over pre-arranged locations across the United Kingdom. In 1932, the Circus visited 168 towns and on Wednesday 14th September, came to Stirling. Almost certainly, the former Raploch Aerodrome was pressed into service. In advance of the Circus, programmes were printed, posters distributed, and banners strung across main thoroughfares. Arrow-shaped signs proclaiming ‘To the Air Display’ were affixed to lamp posts. The landing strip was prepared, a loudspeaker system provided, along with car parking and toilet facilities. There was the general feeling of a great occasion, as indeed it was. To whet the appetite of the crowd, proceedings started with a fly-past of both large and small aircraft to a cacophony of sound. Then came a flying display, where civic dignitaries were invited to be passengers on the largest aircraft. Then, according to the programme, there followed inverted flying, ‘crazy flying’, wing walking, aerobatics, and parachute descents. No doubt a risk assessment was drawn-up beforehand! The crowning moment was kept until last. For the cost of five shillings, (a not inconsiderable sum in those days), a child could experience a flight. Cobham later reckoned that three quarters of the boys who later applied to join the RAF did so because of his five-shilling flights.
Another purpose of the Air Displays was to persuade civic authorities to set aside land as airports. Cobham’s ambition was to inaugurate a passenger service across Britain. Six days after Stirling the circus moved to Perth. There, Cobham’s blandishments to the Council must have been more successful, because in 1936 an airport was opened at Scone and a number of scheduled airline services operated from Perth to various domestic locations until the outbreak of war. Happily, Falleninch Farm, for whatever reason escaped despoilment, but Stirling never gained an airport.