Chris Makin is in the process of transforming a former RAF base in North Yorkshire into a commercial aviation hub which will support 100 new jobs once up and running. RAF Church Fenton was one of the country’s most important airfields during the Second World War, thanks to its position near the industrial heartlands of Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield.
Makin aims to make the new site, now known as Leeds East Airport, a thriving transport hub and a home to a mix of businesses. Its locality is today made all the more attractive to aviators by the two major train lines snaking within a few miles of its borders.
Its eastern reaches are flanked by the East Coast Mainline, linking London and Scotland via Leeds and Newcastle. To the west is the Manchester Airport line, providing a direct link across to Hull.
“No other airfield in the UK has such good connections,” says Makin. “In journey time, we are closer to Leeds city centre on a train than Leeds Bradford Airport is by coach. But it’s also fantastic from an aviation point of view in that it is 29 feet above sea-level, with four approaches on two runways, and also there are very few houses around it.”
The height of the airfield will play an important factor in its success as a commercial entity,
says Makin. The site is offering aircraft, with up to around a 20-seat capacity, an alternative to Leeds Bradford Airport (LBA). While Leeds East is relatively low lying at 29 ft above sea level, LBA is the highest airport in England at an elevation of 681ft. This makes it more vulnerable to closure due to adverse weather conditions. And, says Makin, landing a smaller aircraft at Leeds East is far more appealing from a safety point of view than at its significantly larger neighbour.
There is certainly evidence to suggest an appetite for a new, publicly accessible airfield in West Yorkshire. A recent open day at Leeds East saw 250 aircraft land there in four hours, when only 50 had been expected.
The site comprises 450 acres with two paved runways (1,800m long and 46m wide) and 200,000 sq ft of buildings. The Ministry of Defence decommissioned it in December 2013 as part of cost-cutting measures.
Makin’s other plans for the site include opening a training school for fixed wing and helicopter training catering for private and commercial pilots. Work is currently underway to transform the main hangar into a glass-fronted terminal akin to what the clientele the site may attract are likely to expect at a commercial airfield.
Alongside Leeds East, Makin runs a diversified family business that includes farming and fresh food production and which supplies millions of punnets of strawberries a year to Morrisons and Aldi supermarkets.
Getting the airfield project to a profitable and sustainable position, however, is now his main remit: “I’m passionate about aviation and keen to return this historic site to its full operational glory. We’ve received overwhelming support from the community and had incredible interest from people wanting to base their planes in hangars at Church Fenton.
This airfield has unlimited potential for growth and suited developments, from commercial storage to business aviation. With fantastic rail links and sound geographical placement we will soon offer an outstanding gateway to visitors to the region.”
As well as interest from aviators, Makin has been in discussions with universities, including Leeds Beckett, with a view to potentially setting up a base in one of its hangars.
There has also been interest from the motors industry – which might capitalise on the vastness of the airfield to put vehicles through their paces. The movie industry is also potentially interested in getting involved, according to dealmaker David Aspland of national property consultancy Carter Jonas.
Aspland, who acted for Makin Enterprises in the purchase of the site from the RAF, says positive discussions have taken place with the regional film agency Screen Yorkshire. And he believes the commercial potential of the site generally is significant.
He says: “There is a burgeoning film industry here and we’d be keen to add to that with this fantastic location. Together with Makin Enterprises, we will work with the local community and planners to fully embrace the site’s flying history, while developing additional uses to ensure its healthy future.”
The deal with the RAF came amid tough competition from other parties.
The official handover of the site was marked on Sunday 4 January with a ‘fly-in’ that brought 800 visitors to the airfield near Tadcaster. Carter Jonas continues to market the site and correspondence from interested parties is welcomed.
In the meantime, Makin and his team are busy “tidying up” after the RAF vacated and expect to announce further developments at the site soon.