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Royal Flying Corps Flight Station Penston

Royal Flying Corps Flight Station Penston was inaugurated when a designated Landing Ground at nearby Hoprig Mains was given up by the Turnhouse based 77 Home Defence Squadron. From December 1916 Penston was simply a place to which the squadron’s aircraft could divert to land. But by February 1917 ‘A Flight’ – 6 to 8 aircraft – were headquartered there the better to undertake their patrolling duties.

From August 1917 Penston was upgraded to a fully fledged Home Defence Flight Station and the other elements of 77 Squadron migrated there from their original dispersed deployments. The station they came to had, by that stage, two 130 by 60 foot hangers – a standard ‘Home Defence’ type – and a growing range of workshops, offices and accommodation. The landing ground itself was simply the open field. Beyond the removal of some hedges and a strip of woodland the levelled grassland was sufficient for the technology of the day.

Unidentified aircraft wreck

Unidentified aircraft wreck, ‘somewhere in East Lothian’

The squadron suffered a number of fatalities during the war but it would appear that none of them were from enemy action. Instead, the attrition of training, patrolling and routine movements in often unreliable aircraft and unpredictable conditions had an inevitable effect. The Squadron’s first commander, Major W Milne MC, was lost with a companion on 13 April 1917 when his BE2c crashed. Two of the incidents listed in the Police Casualty Record Books can be firmly placed with 77 Squadron aircraft. The first is noted on 26 July 1917 when a ‘plane came down at Hodges Farm, Pencaitland (just south of the airfield perimeter). From other sources, this was the BE2e (number A8671) of Sgt. George Ellis. Another BE2e was lost on 17 March 1918. Lt Arthur Ball died at Tranent en-route to hospital, the police account recording the cause as falling with an aeroplane 200 or 300 feet. Lt. Ball’s ‘plane came down on Nairn’s Mains, just a mile east of the airfield.

Major Milne was replaced by Major Kenneth van der Spuy, a pioneering South African aviator (van der Spuy continued to fly after the war and well after retirement as a major-general; he died in 1991 at the age of 99!) and Major A Somervail was in command when the Squadron was wound up on 13 June 1919. These men saw the squadron make the transition from BE2s, Be12s and BE12bs to adapted Avro 504ks. With the latter aircraft the Squadron’s night flying and night fighting training role came to the fore and it was as a training squadron that it ended the war. They had already considerable expertise in this role and the Avro aircraft proved to be ideal for training before deployment overseas. When the Squadron was disbanded, Penston was put into mothballs. The landing strip was ploughed and returned to cropping even before the War Department relinquished its final interest in the site during 1920.

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