PICTURES: Sunderland from above – now and then

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ONE man’s dream of taking to the skies as a photographer has left a legacy of bird’s eye views documenting the changing face of Sunderland over the decades.

Commercial director Roy Gibson took early retirement in 1980 to set up AirFotos – with the aim of combining his love of photography and flying to produce aerial postcards.

A more recent aerial shot of the River Wear and Wearmouth Bridge.

A more recent aerial shot of the River Wear and Wearmouth Bridge.

“He found out very quickly, however, that there was a commercial need for aerial photos – as well as a local company which specialised in them,” said Roy’s son-in-law Mel Clark.

“Things just went from strength to strength after that, with local shipyards, councils, the Coal Board and Tyne and Wear Development Corporation all becoming regular clients.”

Among Roy’s first jobs was photographing the Vishva Pallav for Sunderland Shipbuilders in August 1980.  

He went on to snap several more in the same series over the next few months.

Deptford Yard in April 1981.

Deptford Yard in April 1981.

Shoots for Austin and Pickersgill, as well as the Port of Tyne, soon followed, as well as the documentation of Sunderland Port and many of the Wear-built vessels undergoing sea trials. “My father-in-law used to fly from Sunderland Airfield in the early 1980s. Once work on Nissan started, he moved to Newcastle Airport – but still covered Wearside,” said Mel.

“At first Roy chartered Cessna-type aircraft for work but, in 1992, he bought his first plane. It gave him much more freedom to fly when he wanted – and when the weather was right.”

Mel, an engineer by trade, joined his father-in-law’s firm in 1989. Several years later, when Roy stepped down, Mel took over the role of manager – helping AirFotos to flourish.

“I’d always loved flying, but didn’t get the chance to get my commercial licence as the business became so successful. The list of clients just kept growing and growing,” he said.

“Having our own plane really opened up the business too, as we were able to get into the air within minutes. This put us ahead of everyone doing aerial photography at the time.”

Indeed, the flexibility to become airborne whenever needed landed AirFotos jobs across the North East – including work on the MetroCentre, Nissan and Herrington Country Park.

“I’d like to think that, over the years, we have become a bench mark for aerial photography,” said Mel. “Our firm has captured many, many major milestones on camera – from the air.”

Today, AirFotos is part of Nal jets and continues to flourish. Indeed, at 67, Mel has no intention of retiring – and still loves every minute of his job.

“We’ve photographed virtually every part of Sunderland, from the shipyards to the Stadium of Light – as well as Doxford Park, Rainton Bridge and Ryhope by-pass,” said Mel.

“I feel passionately about Sunderland, and have helped documented its past, present and future. I see no reason why Sunderland and AirFotos can’t continue into the future together.”

•To find out more about AirFotos, or to view more of the firm’s archive photos of Sunderland, visit