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Helliwells aircraft component factory at Walsall airport

By dan shaw  |  Posted: November 25, 2010

Helliwells advert showing its two hangars at Walsall Airport

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TO THE south-west of Aldridge, bordered by the A454 Walsall Road and Bosty Lane, lies an area of land known as Aldridge Airport Open Space. This area has been in council ownership since the late 1920s. Originally it was the Aldridge Lodge estate but for 21 years, from 1935 to 1956, it was Walsall Municipal Airport. That this small, sloping field, surrounded by trees and unsuitable for large aircraft survived for as long as it did as a working airfield is due to it being the home of Helliwells Limited, an engineering firm that made aircraft components as well as assembling and servicing completed aeroplanes.

In the 1920s civic pride led a number of local authorities across the country to open small municipal airports and in 1929 Walsall Council bought the Aldridge Lodge estate and some surrounding land, totalling 220 acres, for its municipal airport. The site was not prepossessing as it sloped, with damp clay soil and was surrounded by trees and hedges. Some of these were cleared but it was always a difficult place for pilots to take off and land, and only smaller planes could use it safely.

Work Work began on the site in June 1930 and it was announced that Walsall Council was in negotiations with neighbours Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Sutton Coldfield to co-operate in establishing a regional West Midlands airport. These talks came to nothing as civic pride prevented the councils agreeing on a location. Walsall proceeded with its own plans and the Walsall Aero Club was formed by local pilots to fly from the new airfield. However, the club struggled with only limited flying possible as work on the airport progressed and in 1935 it was reformed under a new name, the South Staffordshire Flying Club.

Walsall Municipal Airport was officially opened on 4th July, 1935, with an air display. Around this time a Black Country engineering firm began to look to diversify into the aero industry.

Helliwells Limited was founded in Dudley in 1889, to manufacture metal fire fenders, kerbs and sheet-metal work, at a site in Fountain Street. The company was relatively successful, expanding to offices and larger works on the opposite side of the street and then to even larger premises in Oakeywell Street.

In 1933 27-year-old Eric Sanders joined the firm as managing director. He had come from Auster Limited, the Birmingham makers of axles, windscreens and other auto components and it was into making car windscreens that he immediately diverted Helliwells’ efforts.

As the 1930s progressed the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe and while successive governments made every effort to maintain peace it was clear that Britain would have to rearm. In 1936 Sanders read the signs and saw that rearmament would lead to a massive expansion in Britain’s aero industry as she sought to build the planes that would defend her from Nazi aggression.

Sanders took the bold step to completely sell out of the car windscreen business and reequip for aircraft component construction. He won contracts with Hawker, A.V. Roe and Armstrong-Whitworth to make, unsurprisingly, windscreens and cabin-tops for their aircraft.

At that point the aircraft boom started as rearmament got fully underway. Helliwells found that their Dudley factories were not large enough so the company looked to build a new, bigger works. Eric Sanders approached Walsall council about building a works at their municipal airport.

Agreement was made and Helliwells constructed two hangar-type workshops, one with a span of 160ft and the other 90ft, designed by Noel Proctor and Co of Wolverhampton and completed in 1938.

The company now enjoyed great success. At their Oakeywell Street, Dudley, works they produced fuel tanks for the likes of Vickers and Gloster, while at Walsall Airport they made windscreens, windows, panels, nacelle covers, bulkhead frames, door ladders, doors and gunners’ seats for a variety of aircraft.

1938 also saw the celebrated pilot Amy Johnson visit Walsall Municipal Airport, when she gave a glider display for the South Staffordshire Flying Club and Midland Gliding Club. 6,000 came to watch her fly and perform stunts but as she came in to land after her third flight a wingtip clipped a hedge and her glider turned over, proving that even the best had difficulty at Walsall Airport. She was taken to hospital but was not badly injured.

The Second World War saw increased activity at the airport.

Helliwells made bomb beams for the Vickers Wellington bomber and carried out repairs for the Hawker Hurricane, Avro Anson and Supermarine Seafire. They also had the contract for the North American Harvard trainer and the Douglas Boston/Havoc light bomber.

These were imported from the USA under the Lend/Lease agreement and Helliwells uncrated and assembled them and carried out any modifications and repairs.

Post-war After the war Helliwells held its contract to overhaul and maintain the Harvard training aircraft, manufacturing replacement parts in-house.

This work was carried out at Walsall while much of Helliwells subcontracted work producing components for other manufacturers was transferred to a new works at Treforest in South Wales. In the early 1950s Helliwells was absorbed into the Tube Investments group and in 1956 their contract for the Harvard came to an end. The company then took the decision to close its Walsall Airport works and relocate to Elmdon Airport.

The departure of Helliwells was the death-knell for Walsall Municipal Airport and it closed to flying the same year.

Almost nothing of Walsall Municipal Airport survives today. The Helliwells hangars and clubhouse have gone and all that is left is the “top hangar”. However, flying still takes place there as Aldridge Airport Open Space, as it is now known, is home to the Greenacres Model Aero Club (www.greenacresmac.co.uk).

In 1939, to mark its 50th anniversary, Helliwells produced a range of distinctive adverts, rather risque for the time, which appeared in trade publications such as Flight magazine. These featured a naked woman, pointing into the distance or staring at the far horizon, with the slogan “They who look ahead” (see Bugle 942). We reproduce two of the adverts; one shows the Helliwells hangars at Walsall while another shows a drill operator seemingly impervious to the nymph behind him.

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