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.
But 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.