East Lothian skies are fairly peaceful, except for the occasional scream of a low flying jet or the steady throb of a light aircraft puttering out of Turnhouse, on the other side of the capital city. However, at one time the skies were heavy with aircraft noise and before that, with great airships rising from East Fortune airfield.
This strategically situated airfield was commissioned as Royal Naval Air Station, East Fortune in the late summer of 1916, after being used as a substation for coastal patrol Avro 504s from Dundee.
These aircraft were hangared in a huge marquee before an aircraft shed could be provided, but high winds made this refuge unsafe and the aircraft were moved behind a large house, which doubled as the officers’ quarters. Therefore, in order to accommodate airships, the base was expanded and vast hangers were built.
The commissioning of R.N.A.S. East Fortune coincided with the arrival of the first two non-rigid airships from Kingsnorth in Kent but were doomed to be lost at sea. The first C.16 suffered engine failure and crashed: the second, C.15 came down during towing trials in company with H.M.S. Phaeton in July 1917.
Then the great North Sea Class blimps appeared to replace them and Scotland’s north-east coast continued to be patrolled. These patrols escorted warships as they moved out of Rosyth and down the Firth of Forth.
The blimps, as they were affectionately known, were supplemented by flying boats which patrolled the North Sea until April 1918, when East Fortune was decommissioned and taken over by the R.A.F.
Eventually, a crash programme in torpedo bomber training was introduced: No 201 Squadron trained with Cuckoos and, on October 19, 1918, No 185 Squadron was formed: also with Cuckoos for service in H.M.S. Argus, the idea being to attack the German fleet in its bases. This was forestalled by the Armistice of November 11, 1918 and, when the German fleet did put to sea, it was only to rendezvous with the Royal Navy to surrender.
By the end of the 1914-18 war, East Fortune had been expanded, with new landing areas, a new rigid airship shed and two blimp hangars. Three more hangars were built for fixed-wing aircraft.
The two blimp hangars measured 320 feet by 120 feet by 80 feet and the rigid airship shed came to a colossal 700 feet by 180 feet by 110 feet. The fixed-wing aircraft hangars were supplemented by eight 66 feet square Bessoneaux. Air complement was one rigid (R.29) two North Seas, three Coastal Stars, one Coastal and three Sea Scout Zeros, making East Fortune the most important operational airship base in the country. In addition, the Cuckoos of 185 and 201 training squadrons were supplemented by other training tyoes.
When the R.34 arrived at East Fortune form Inchinan on May 30th 1919, excitement increased. Several secret training flight were undertaken on June 15-16 and on June 17, the R34 left for a clandestine 56 hour flight to the Baltic.
Soon afterwards, in the early hours of July 2, East Fortune’s place in aviation history was secured when the R34 was walked out of its shed by a party consisting of 400 personnel. On that dismal morning of low cloud and showers, the R34 gently lifted off at 1.42 a.m. The airship, crewed by 28 and carrying 2 passengers, flew up the Firth of Forth and changed course towards Glasgow, before heading out over the Atlantic Ocean. There was also one stowaway and his cat.
After a hazardous 108 hour crossing, the R34 landed at Hazlehurst Field, Mineola, New York. She had completed the first ever east-west Atlantic crossing and the first non-stop flight between Britain and the United States.
On July 9, the R34 left Hazlehurst Field bound for East Fortune but was diverted to Pulham in Norfolk, where she was greeted by some servicemen and two Air Ministry scientists. The date was July 13 but she was kept under wraps until August 1 and only then allowed to return to East Fortune.
On February 4, 1920, the R34 was walked out of its great hangar for the last time as she prepared to leave for Pulham. The N.S.7 lifted off for Howden and next day, East Fortune was closed as an operational base. The airfield had seen the arrival and departure of more than 20 airships: others arrived only to be deflated and stored. Many more were wrecked in accidents or lost at sea.
The crew’s quarters were turned into a sanitorium until the outbreak of the 1939-45 War and then East Fortune was annexed by nearby Drem and turned into a satellite airfield. The OTU was disbanded on May 15 1946 and the empty airfield was transferred to Fighter Command on September 30, the same year. In February 1960, the Air Ministry disposed of the base. Once more, it was turned into a sanitorium for people suffering from tuberculosis.
However, at the onset of the ‘cold war’ in the early fifties, East Fortune was identified as a potential U.S. Air Force base but this never materialised and the aerodrome lay dormant until 1961. It was temporarily given a new lease of life as a civilian airfield while Edinburgh Turnhouse was being refurbished.
It is now the home to the Aeronautical collection of the Royal Scottish Museum and known as the Museum of Flight.