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Royal Air Force Kemble was constructed out of the third phase of the RAF’s ‘expansion plan’, which concentrated on training and maintenance bases. Work started in August 1936 when contractors began clearing the site in preparation to receive aircraft the following year for storage.
The first unit to arrive at Kemble was No.5 Maintenance Unit, which formed at Kemble on the 22nd of June 1938 and was to be the unit associated with Kemble for nearly all of its service life, eventually becoming the RAF's oldest MU. At the end of 1939 there were already well over 600 aircraft on the airfield. A year later No4 Service Ferry Pool arrived from Cardiff to help with the distribution of aircraft from manufacturers to Kemble and then to deliver them on again after modification by 5MU to their respective operational units. Kemble became the Head Quarters for all the RAF Service Ferry Pools, co-ordinating this task with the civilian Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) by distributing aircraft all over the country.
Other units were also based at Kemble and the Overseas Aircraft Delivery Flight (OADF) was formed on September 9th 1940 under the command of 44 Group. It was responsible for the training of crews and preparing of Maryland, Wellington and Hudson aircraft for long hazardous flights over water and occupied territory to Africa and the Middle East. This unit later became the OAPU (Overseas Aircraft Preparation Unit) and dealt with increasing numbers of aircraft. RAF Kemble as a whole turned out 2,300 aircraft of 41 different types throughout 1941 including 1300 Hurricanes and 200 Beauforts, that representing 191.6 aircraft per month.
During 1942 the main runway was constructed and late in 1943 it was extended to its present length and the short cross-field runway was added. Taxiways then had to be laid down and extended to connect up all the dispersals, some of which were nearly 2 miles away. For the rest of the war years Kemble’s work continued apace with varying types of aircraft arriving as new from the factory to be readied for use by the RAF or returned from operational units to be refurbished for another vital role. At the end of 1944 several Troop Carrier Groups from the USAAF 9th Air Force used Kemble extensively with masses of Dakota aircraft for vital re-supply missions to the allied troops in the recently liberated parts of Europe. The Gloster Aircraft Company had set up a satellite production facility at Kemble and was turning out Hawker Typhoons, which they built under license.
Kemble’s role completely reversed after the war, aircraft were now being received back from the disbanding squadrons and were either held in storage pending sale or scrapped on site. The airfield was full of rows upon rows of all types of aircraft including some that had very little flying time before they became victim to the scrapmans torch.
The 1950’s arrived and Kemble was now receiving the new jet-engined aircraft and preparing them for issue to squadrons. The first to appear in any quantity were North American Sabre’s that arrived on the airfield in batches of 30 direct from Canadair, all were prepared and sent out to the RAF in Germany. From 1954 the new Hawker Hunters began to arrive and were to be the mainstay of Kembles’ work right through to the 1980’s and Kemble gained the unofficial name of the "Hunter MU". Nearly every single RAF and RN Hunter ever produced has passed through Kemble at some time in their operational career, some returning time after time for major servicing, storage and repainting. Another feather in Kembles’ cap was the Surface Finish Section (SFS) that prided itself on the pristine condition that aircraft were turned out in after their treatment. Some very special jobs were allocated to the SFS, including having all the Queens Flight aircraft painted there.
The scarlet Gnats of the Red Arrows came along with the Central Flying School (CFS) during the 60’s and operated from ‘G’ site for 16 years. Kemble is often referred to as the home of the Red Arrows; they were very popular residents and are still sorely missed by the local community. It was always a treat to see them practicing 3 or sometimes 4 times a day, and the lay-by alongside the A429 at the end of the Runway was always packed with passers by enthralled by their aerial activities. Regular Red Arrow reunions are still held at Kemble and the team are always given a big welcome back at the annual airshow.
With the threat of closure, it was a time of change and the RAF handed over the base to the United States Air Force in 1983. They used Kemble mainly for rectification work on A-10 Thunderbolts, that had been suffering corrosion problems. Although the RAF still maintained a task in one Hanger for work to continue on Hunters and Jetstreams. Other exotic aircraft soon followed as the USAFE realised the quality of the workforce they had taken on, and F5 Tigers, F15 Eagles, C130 Hercules and KC135’s all got the Kemble treatment.
After spending a lot of time and money upgrading the station the Americans surprisingly left in the early 1990’s at the end of the Cold War and the airfield was returned to the ministry of defence. It was then the turn of the Army to use Kemble as a Sub-Depot for the storage of large quantities of surplus vehicles returning to the UK with the disbandment of units in Europe.
The Royal Air Force Kemble finally closed with a ceremony that involved the Red Arrows returning to their old base on a very cold and wet day. In the hangars on Main Site only a few aircraft remained. All military flying ceased at Kemble airfield in March 1993 and the MOD realised that it could raise some much-needed cash by leasing some of buildings to private tenants.
To cut another long story short, local businessman Ronan Harvey who had moved his company into buildings at Kemble, eventually purchased the airfield from the MOD in March 2001. His intention was to keep the site as an airfield – an unusual stance at a time when most airfields are being turned into industrial parks. Kemble Airport is now enjoying a new era as a CAA licensed airfield with two established flying clubs and other operators. AV8 restaurant has opened on the site of the old Fire Section and Kemble Airport has just been awarded the title of "Airport of the Year" by Flyer magazine. All this is testament to the hard work of the many volunteers who have worked tirelessly since 1995 in making Kemble a centre of excellence for all types of aviation activities.
1st September 2009 Kemble changes its name to Cotswold Airport to reflect its ever expanding facility, services and position in the European market.