'Hangar Rat' Peter Binks, and how the long gone Sunderland Airport changed his life
It’s now almost 40 years since Sunderland had an airport, but happy memories of the place are undimmed.
Sunderland Airport was not a commercial airport; something that is always better situated on someone else’s doorstep. It was, to the casual observer, little more than a landing strip and a hangar. But it had a history which went way beyond that.
It had been around in some form or other since 1916 and played a significant role in the World War Two, not least during the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Sunderland’s legendary shipbuilding capabilities also saw the then-town targeted from the air during World War One, when war in the air was in its infancy.
Around 20 bombs were dropped from German Zeppelins on April 1, 1916. The Echo reported 22 deaths. A plane crashed into the Co-op building in Southwick, now the post office, killing five. Incredibly the pilot survived.
Aviation, as a matter of urgency, was being taken more seriously having previously been considered as something of a pastime for the rich. In October 1916 a flight station called Hylton was established for ‘B’ Flight of the No. 36 Flying Squadron, which had been a few months earlier.
The squadron was part of the Royal Flying Corps, which in 1918 merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force which it remains today.
Sunderland Corporation bought the airfield, formerly RAF Usworth, for £27,000 in 1962. It reopened as Sunderland Airport and the Sunderland Flying Club was formed. Its first airshow was held in 1966.
All this proved irresistible to certain youngsters with romantic notions of flying.
The Hangar Rats – Peter Binks
The arrival of Nissan meant the end for the airport, but its last few years provided huge excitement and led to a lifelong obsession for one particular young local aviation buff and his friends, who referred to themselves as The Hangar Rats.
Peter Binks is now 57 and lives in Lincolnshire with his wife Catherine and son Aidan, 13. But as a teenager he caught the aviation bug. He was a pupil at Bede School but cycled over to the airfield with his mates, hoping to put a foot in the door by offering to do odd jobs.
Few people are ever asked: “Can I clean your aeroplane mister?” But Peter asked the question as a youth and was given just that job and many others besides. He regularly swept the hangar and would be in the club bar most Saturday evenings, flipping burgers and washing glasses.
Peter said: “It was the late 70s when we joined the Air Cadets, the 111 Squadron in Sunderland. We were based near the old police station.
“Me and my friends decided one day to bike over to the airport and asked if people there wanted their car washed, their plane washed, whatever; and it went from there really. It would never happen now.”
At first the Hangar Rats would only be on one flight a year at RAF Leeming. But Peter got more flying time as he got older. His eventual first solo flight was in Kent in a Cessna.
He continued: “We made the most of it and absolutely loved it. We got so much flying in and I travelled all over Britain. My first trip abroad was to Bergen (in a Piper Aztec) where we got three hours flying. I was 14, 15 years old and we were taxiing aircraft; operating the radio patrolling aircraft.
“We did parachute jumping, for free, although only the once. That was enough.
“It was a great time but the airport shut in 1984 when Nissan took it over. Yet it gave me and my mates a lifelong love of aviation.”
The airfield changed his life and Peter meets a Goon
Aged just 24 Peter gained his pilot’s licence, which he still holds. He became increasingly interested in vintage planes. He has completed hundreds of hours of flying and today flies de Havilland Tiger Moths, Chipmunks and old 1930s biplanes.
All this stems from Sunderland Airport.
Peter left Bede and spent four years at the art college in Ashburne House in Backhouse Park. He has a degree in art and portraiture and combines that interest with his passion for aviation. He is an artist specialising in aviation portraiture.
He is currently creating pilot portraits of the Red Arrows with the Royal Air force Benevolent Fund. The portraits are to be handed over in March 2023.
Peter has previously painted display pilots from the Sunderland Airshow. He is saddened that the airshows are no more.
When the arrival of Nissan forced the closure of Sunderland Airport, he was in his late teens and had acquired other interests. However, his time at the airfield had seen him attain a modest level of fame.
He said: “It had served its purpose and given me responsibility. It was a totally different world to the one being occupied by my friends, who were hanging about in parks or whatever. It was a fantastic opportunity at such a young age to be involved in what we did.
“We even appeared in the Sunderland Echo in 1979; and also on the Tyne Tees Television show Madabout, which was a half-hour programme featuring something that people were ‘mad about’ and we were obviously mad about flying.
“Michael Bentine from The Goons was the presenter. I asked for his autograph and he drew me a picture of one of the Potty Men in a flying helmet.”
(Younger Readers may need to conduct some research on the highly educational programme from the 1970s; Michael Bentine’s Potty Time – if indeed it isn’t already part of the GCSE syllabus.)
Peter was also an RAF reservist officer for 20 years and involved with the Air Cadets, organising various training. He owes much to the time he spent at Sunderland Airport as a teenager.
It was anything but a misspent youth.