Man of substance

Man of substance

Is it time a visual and permanent reminder of an outstanding North East entrepreneur and sportsman was created, Brian Nicholls asks as Newcastle International Airport celebrates its 80th anniversary?

See how statues paying tribute to some of our most revered sports stars have become fashionable in the North East? Sunderland AFC has its representation of Bob Stokoe, a visual reminder of how he managed the club to an FA Cup win in 1973. Newcastle United has its effigies of Sir Bobby Robson, Jackie Milburn and, soon, Alan Shearer.

So, on the 80th anniversary of Newcastle International Airport, what about a statue now of James Denyer - no footballer he, but a flyer whose two victories in the King’s Cup air race not only made North East history but also put Newcastle Airport on the aviation map?

Such a tribute would not only mark Denyer’s 1956 and 1958 successes in the famous cross-country air chase but also mark his immense achievement in pioneering the prestigious and successful business which Newcastle International Airport is today.

Everything Denyer did, he did for that airport. “His enthusiasm inspired everyone who came in contact with him” – the words of Joe Hattam, a late alderman of Gateshead who, as chairman of the then airport board, worked closely with the former wartime fighter pilot who, in turn, became by sheer chance the airport’s most inspiring figure for 37 years.

When Denyer was given responsibility of running the airport in 1952 it had, in his words, “a few huts, a couple of hangars and a bit of grass.” When he retired as the airport’s managing director in 1989, 30 airlines were carrying 1.5m passengers to more than 40 destinations. Today 25 scheduled, charter and low cost airlines carry 4.6m passengers to 80 destinations directly, with further access to elsewhere from New York, London, Dubai, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Dublin.

Nowadays the airport company is a public/ private partnership of seven local authorities (LA7) and AMP Capital, a Sydney based global investment house. The airport, employing 3,200 people on site, also supports 4,600 more jobs in the region and benefits the regional economy by perhaps £646m. Exports flown out on behalf of North East industry and commerce make up almost half that figure at £300m. And revenues now run at £58.6m.

Newcastle International Airport

David Laws, the airport’s chief executive for eight years come this November, highlights two special stepping stones in this auspicious year: the launch of the North East’s first ever transatlantic service to the USA, and the opening of a new departure lounge marking £14m of recent investment in the airport. The transatlantic route that started in May, running till September at least, enables United Airlines to offer from Newcastle more than 300 other destinations besides.

While many managements over the years have contributed to the good of this, the UK’s 10th largest airport, Denyer deserves tangible tribute for having laid the very foundations of its business success.

How humbly it all began. A Kentish man, Denyer had served his country boldly during World War Two, flying in 11 Group Command Beaufighters and Mosquitos in night raids over Germany, before moving to Transport Command and taking part in the Berlin airlift of 1949 that defeated Russia’s blockade of the city.

Based later at RAF Ouston near Stamfordham, he then returned to the region in 1951, calleing in at Newcastle Aero Club where he asked if he could have lessons. This club, founded in 1925 with the establishment of an airfield in Cramlington, was reputedly the oldest flying club in the country and had relocated to Woolsington 10 years later when Newcastle Airport officially opened.

There was little the club could teach Denyer, of course. So he was made chief flying instructor there instead. The following year, his true abilities realised, he was invited to build the airport into a commercial enterprise, an offer he couldn’t refuse. He was appointed airport commandant, then manager.

Newcastle Airport, officially opened in 1935 at a cost of £35,000, comprised a grass runway, clubhouse, hangar, workshops and a garage, and so was little changed over the near two decades before Denyer’s arrival. The first scheduled service calling linked England with Scotland through an eight-seat Airspeed Envoy aircraft operated between Croydon and Perth, by North Eastern Airways.

In the war subsequently, the airport had been requisitioned as an auxiliary RAF base. When handed back in 1946, one of its few new assets was an air traffic control tower – but built of wood on stilts, and supported by sections of railway lines.

Would it continue to operate there? As early as 1929 it had been suggested an airport for the North East region should be built at White Mare Pool between Gateshead and South Shields. In 1929, three alternative sites were considered – all south of the Tyne at Portobello and Picktree, near Chester le Street, and at Houghton Gate. White Mare remained a consideration until 1955, when Denyer finally nailed Woolsington’s claim.

He’d already secured new air services to give the existing site a buzz. He networked with local businesses and local authorities, massaging support throughout. The King’s Cup, which he entered on taking up air racing, had been inaugurated by King George V in 1922 to encourage the development of light aircraft and engine design. Denyer saw it more as an opportunity to raise Newcastle Airport’s image.

He oversaw every stage of the airport’s early development to speed progress. He tackled anything necessary, even operating the radar and sprucing the place up with a paint pot. As new routes came in modern radar was installed, and other facilities all within his vision. By 1960, around 100,000 passengers used the airport.

From 1963, his negotiating skills honed, he got Whitehall to accept development plans, and a North East Regional Airport Committee was formed, comprising representatives of the local authorities for Newcastle, Gateshead, South Shields, Northumberland and County Durham.

Coincidental with instilling team spirit and a sense of pride among committee members, and supervising still every stage of development, he spent a lot of time deep in negotiation with the full local authorities and central government. Matching an ex-fighter pilot’s concept of speed with that of Whitehall and local authorities could be frustrating. At one point, so much dodgeball had been played among various public bodies that by the time a new runway was finally agreed Denyer had already got it completed. Could that happen today?

Consider the charade that Heathrow is caught up in, and which has now cost it its claim to be the world’s busiest airport. Denyer, then, knew without a runway fit to take the growing size of commercial aircraft, airlines would ignore Newcastle. Continually in his tenure he worked to upgrade other facilities too.

He was only 69 when he died in 1993, remembered affectionately as Mr Newcastle Airport. He would, without doubt, have been proud to see how his legacy has come on with millions of investment since: hotels springing up around it, the airport business park now under way, potentially to deliver more than 7,000 jobs, and a regional gross value added of more than £300m.

Phase one, comprising 175,000 sq ft of office space, will accommodate up to 1,000 people. At the airport itself, even with recent recession, passenger numbers have grown by 2.2% over the past year - and for the daily Emirates flight to Dubai the growth is actually 8%. Air France and KLM have shown rises of 7% and 4% respectively.

David Rees at AMP Capital says his company is proud to work with such an important regional asset. Councillor Iain Malcolm, leader of South Tyneside Council and chairman of LA7, declares: “The importance of air travel to the North East cannot be understated, and Newcastle International Airport is a key gateway.”

We have suggested a statue for James Denyer. But even a bust somewhere prominently in the airport would be suitable. James Denyer, after all, was never one to push his own image.