90 Years Of Operations: The Story Of Leeds Bradford Airport

Leeds and Bradford are the largest and third-largest cities by population in England’s Yorkshire and the Humber region. Between them lies Leeds Bradford Airport, situated 7 miles (11 km) from Leeds and 9 miles (14 km) from Bradford. This facility will celebrate 90 years of operations in October, and these nine decades have seen a diverse range of visitors.

Leeds Bradford Terminal
The airport opened officially in October 1931. Photo: David Benbennick via Wikimedia Commons

In the beginning

Leeds Bradford Airport (LBA) opened during the interwar period, on October 17th, 1931. At this time, the facility was not known by this name, but rather as Leeds and Bradford Municipal Aerodrome. It also became known by the shorter designation of Yeadon Aerodrome, in reference to the nearest town to the facility.

In the site’s early years, its primary function was as a general aviation airport. However, by April 1935, scheduled commercial services had also commenced. These came about after the aerodrome was the subject of a 35 acre (140,000 square meters) expansion.

North Eastern Airways was the first carrier to have a presence on a scheduled basis. It added Leeds Bradford as a stop on a service from London’s Heston Aerodrome to Cramlington, near Newcastle. It later extended this route to serve Edinburgh. A year later, this thrice-weekly service was also stopping in Doncaster, and had been extended to Aberdeen.

Leeds Bradford Map
As its name suggests, LBA is roughly equidistant between Leeds and Bradford. Image: Google Maps

In June 1935, Blackpool and West Coast Air Services also began serving the airport. The carrier flew scheduled services from Yeadon Aerodrome, as it was known then, to the Isle of Man. Work began on a new passenger terminal building, but, with war looming (the airport was even the subject of espionage by the German Hindenburg airship), this was soon halted.

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The Second World War

As was the case with various UK airports in the late 1930s, Leeds Bradford was repurposed for the war effort in 1939. Civil operations stopped, and manufacturer Avro set up a factory on the site, which opened with a camouflaged roof in 1941. According to the Yorkshire Post, the Avro factory was, at the time, the largest free-standing structure in Europe.

Avro Lancaster Bomber
695 examples of the iconic Lancaster bomber were produced at Leeds Bradford’s Avro factory during the course of the Second World War. Photo: Airwolfhound via Flickr

In addition to the Avro factory, various other aspects were added to the site to support its role in the war effort. A second runway and extra hangars and taxiways saw the site become a key testing facility. Yorkshire Magazine reports that more than 5,500 military aircraft were built there, including 4,500 Avro Ansons, and nearly 700 Lancaster bombers.

Following the end of the Second World War, the airport initially remained under the jurisdiction of the military. However, the conflict’s conclusion caused demand for military aircraft to drop, rendering the facility surplus to requirements. On January 1st, 1947, the airport was given back to the Ministry of Civil Aviation, allowing civilian use to recommence.

Post-war rebuilding

The post-war era got off to a promising start for the airport. In 1953, a company named Yeadon Aviation Ltd was established to manage and operate the facility, as well as its Aero Club. Within two years, the airport boasted an impressive range of European (Düsseldorf, Ostend) and regional (Belfast, Isle of Wight, Jersey, Southend) destinations.

The Beatles Leeds Bradford
The Beatles at Leeds Bradford Airport in November 1963. Photo: Getty Images

By 1960, services to the British and Irish capitals of London and Dublin had also been added. However, disaster struck in 1965, when the airport’s terminal building burned down as a result of an accidental fire. Nonetheless, the next few years represented a strong rebuilding period, with a new runway and terminal operational by 1968.

A new terminal and a commercial boom

The opening of the new runway and terminal in the mid to late-1960s heralded something of a commercial boom for the airport. Within 10 years, Britannia Airways had operated the first holiday charter service from Leeds Bradford, amid the surge in package holiday bookings among British tourists. Britannia became Thomsonfly in 2005.

Wardair Boeing 747
Wardair’s 747s graced the airport for five years in the 1980s. Photo: Rob Hodgkins via Flickr

With such traffic continuing to grow, the airport realized that its status could be enhanced with a runway extension. This was a challenging project, as it also necessitated work on the roads surrounding the airport. This culminated in the construction of a tunnel below the site to allow the A658 road to continue directly from Bradford to Harrogate.

The construction of the extended runway finally came to an end in 1984, and it opened on November 4th that year. Presently designated as runway 14/32, this concrete strip is now 2,250 meters long. Its opening was marked by the arrival of a Wardair Boeing 747. Wardair flew its jumbos from Toronto to Leeds Bradford until it ceased operations in 1989.

British Airways Concorde Leeds Bradford
A British Airways Concorde at Leeds Bradford in 1987. Photo: Ian Gratton via Wikimedia Commons

Wardair was far from the only transatlantic airline to serve Leeds Bradford. Indeed, the likes of Air Transat, Caledonian Airways and Nationair, to name just a few, operated such flights into the 1990s using Boeing 757s and Lockheed L-1011 TriStars. However, the most famous visitor was Concorde, which operated sporadic charters from Leeds Bradford until 2000.

The 21st century and beyond

Since the mid-1990s, Leeds Bradford has become popular with low-cost and leisure charter airlines. This is because, in 1994, it commenced 24-hour operations, allowing such carriers to thrive by using their aircraft more intensely at all times of the day. Since 2005, the former runway 09/27 has been serving instead as an extra taxiway.

Leeds Bradford New Terminal
The government has temporarily blocked the proposed new terminal. Image: Leeds Bradford Airport

In 2017, with the airport continuing to grow, it put forward its plans to redevelop and expand its present terminal building. As well as offering a better experience for passengers, the project would also supplement the local economy with jobs. The airport states:

LBA estimates that as a result of the development, it will support 12,650 permanent jobs across the Leeds City Region, as well as creating 850 construction-related jobs over the period of the build.”

According to the BBC, the development plans were approved in February 2021. However, amid strong opposition on environmental grounds, the decision was taken to refer the approval to the government. For now, it has temporarily blocked the project, in order to allow for ‘proper consideration.’ It will be interesting to see what the outcome of this will be.

What are your memories of flying to or from Leeds Bradford? What do you think the future holds for the airport? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.