The members of Oxford Model Flying Club (which celebrated its half-century in 2019) consider Port Meadow to be one of their most important and highly prized gathering places. These aren’t people playing with annoying drones. They are cognoscenti, devoted to lovingly crafted replicas of the real thing. Their club meets monthly and abides by clear protocols. Flying – including model aircraft flying – is a serious business.

They share in a rich aeronautical heritage. Oxford, although not, mercifully, under any major flight path, is near enough to Heathrow and RAF Brize Norton to feel their presence. And in the 1970s Oxford airport (seven miles beyond the city centre, and close to the home of a young entrepreneur called Richard Branson) recorded the second highest number of UK flights: 175,000. For this was the hub of British Executive Air Services, an air taxi and charter flying company. It is the current base for Oxford Aviation, one of the country’s leading pilot training schools.

flying over wolvercote content - Flying Over WolvercoteBut it is closer to home and further back in time that we wish to touch down. The remains of a track across part of Port Meadow tell of an age when it served as a military airfield, from which planes set off for service in the Great War. At the north-west periphery are two plaques commemorating this history.

One is unmissably affixed to what looks like a trig point close to the corner section of Lower Wolvercote car park.  Beneath the motto of the RAF, Per Ardua ad Astra (Through Adversity to the Stars), it records the poignantly brief lives of seventeen young trainee airmen (average age 23). The other plaque is more subtly displayed on the bridge across Godstow Road. It is much finer, made of polished grey granite, and bears a carving of an old two-seater monoplane. Everyone who sees it reads it, and everyone who has read it remembers it. It salutes the memory of two airmen from the Royal Flying Corps, Lieutenant C.A. Bettington and 2nd Lieutenant E. Hotchkiss, who were killed in an accident while training nearby. The year was 1912.

Air travel has come a long way in a few short lifetimes; but it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the courage and heroism of these magnificent young men in their flying machines who first criss-crossed the skies above Oxford over a century ago.

Special thanks to Kevin Clarke, citizen of Wolvercote, for his aerodynamic camera skills, and to Nick Allen, James Harrison and Peter Smith for the Bristol Scout.

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I chaired the Wolvercote WW1 Aerodrome Memorial project group that created the stone memorial to the 17 airmen unveiled in May 2018. If your readers are interested the Facebook page for it is: https://www.facebook.com/wolvercoteww1memorial/ . Tim Metcalfe a local Wolvercote resident and former editor, has pulled together a short book on the aerodrome, focusing on the WW1 period. It uses articles I did for John Chipperfield’s Oxford Mail ‘Memory Lane’ feature between 2014 and 2019 plus a few extras. It’s available from the Post Box shop in Lower Wolvercote or West Oxford Community Centre office. All proceeds to the RAF Benevolent Fund. – Peter Smith

I was chatting to a neighbour on Monday and discovered a couple of things. He designed the memorial but retired from the stonemasons before it was constructed. And he told me what the concrete box in the middle of the meadow was used for: the pilots used bags of flour for bombing practice and the spotters sheltered in the concrete box! – Kevin Clarke

I may have mentioned this before: I normally manage to squeeze it into a conversation. At the outbreak of war, the Royal Flying Corps had 48 planes. By the end of the war they numbered … 21,500!! They were making over 400 a week. ‘Brave’ doesn’t come close. – Nigel Jowett

Interesting fact: about 40% of all the De Havilland Tiger Moths ever produced were made between 1941 and 1945 by the Morris factory in Cowley. This was the plane almost all WW2 pilots first learned to fly. – Jack Holland

There’s a little known side-story to the poignant plaque on Godstow Bridge. Our thanks to Clara Dibden for bringing it to light.

Jean Warr’s Oxford Plaque Guide (2011) is full of interest. She points out that one of the airmen who lost his life, Lt Bettington, was engaged to be married very shortly, while the body of the other, Lt Hotchkiss, was found strapped to the wreckage of the plane when it crashed. Notwithstanding these details, she goes on to say that the people of Wolvercote, who were naturally extremely shocked by the crash, contributed generously towards a granite plaque in memory of the two young men. Two days after the unveiling ceremony, however, it was discovered that the finely polished plaque had been deliberately chipped. A card nearby bore the words ‘Votes for Women’. The year was 1913. The damage was hastily repaired; and, as we now know, women eventually secured the vote a mere fifteen years later. – CD

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