We have lift off - remembering the dawn of air travel from Norfolk

Joint managing directors of Air Anglia Wilbur Wright (left) and Jim Crampton, c.1982. Picture: Archa

Joint managing directors of Air Anglia Wilbur Wright (left) and Jim Crampton, c.1982. Picture: Archant Library/Publicity Plus - Credit: Archant Library/Publicity Plus

Commentators on the UK in the 1960s rated Norfolk county pretty low – “on the way to nowhere but the North Sea,” was a frequently used description by some cynical Londoners. While others rated the county’s holiday potential, including particularly the coast and Broadland, the only significant recognised national business names were the Norwich Union insurance company and some shoe-makers
I had fallen for the county because of boats and the Norfolk Broads and seaside, plus the fact my parents had retired there from London, where I was a journalist working in Fleet Street. Then I took the decision to set up a publicity company in Norwich and look for clients who wanted to be better known, even nationally, and subsequently we got some of them globally recognized.
So Publicity Plus Ltd had been born in 1967, our first significant clients in a year or two a city hairdressers, a travel agency and a Broads holiday hire boats operator. Not only were we at PPL new and growing but so too were several of our clients. My early days helping the Travel Centre, by Norwich castle, run by Barbara, wife of wartime pilot and hero Jim Crampton, led me into talks about Jim’s then tiny charter plane operator.
At this time the public certainly could not fly anywhere from Norwich! Jim was running, from a room in the then very basic Norwich airfield office, Norfolk Airways, with a small Cessna five seater aircraft he would charter for organisations to fly their executives around the UK. 

Opening of Norwich Airport, 30 May 1970. Photo: Archant Library

Opening of Norwich Airport, 30 May 1970. Photo: Archant Library - Credit: Archant Library

The most significant of these was the Norwich Union – and I could see with Jim how this business could grow still more if we publicised the way Norwich Union’s top team got around the UK. But how about the general public if they wanted to fly from Norwich? Until now, if you wanted to fly anywhere you had to drive to Heathrow airport. 
A small, limited Stansted was just opening.
I helped this paper and particularly Anglia Television pick up good coverage of Norfolk Airways – and Norwich airfield began to make more progress too with engineering services and others hiring hangar offices for business.
Not only was Norwich waking up to aviation – over at Caister airfield near Yarmouth where I had been chief sub-editor of the Yarmouth Mercury weekly newspaper, a Leslie Gordon Wright, known as Wilbur, had started Anglian Air Charter, in competition with Jim’s Norfolk Airways which we were by now publicising with editorial – and also advertising. (Remarkable coincidence - College Park Airport in Maryland, US, is the world’s oldest airport and established in 1909 by a world-famous Wilbur Wright from the US Army).
By now the cynical “nowhere but the North Sea” had changed – with the discovery of a huge plus – gas and oil fields and a future in supplying energy opportunities too. Life for East Anglia was changing, growing, even booming. It became evident that aviation could be an important future – and it was time Jim in Norwich and the Caister Wilbur started working together rather than competing. I suggested it. In a short time, with a little help from PPL, this happened – with the creation of Rig Air and specialist flights for energy market workers.
But a future for a proper, albeit small business and even public user airline, emerged too. Jim, Wilbur and I as PPL in 1970, dreamed up a title, an identity and simple advertising – which produced the title and airline Air Anglia with ambitions to fly regular services with an old Dakota DC3 twin-prop engined aircraft carrying up to 32 people at a time.

Jim and Barbara Crampton with the Air Anglia F28 - the height of their success

Jim and Barbara Crampton with the Air Anglia F28 - the height of their success. Photo: Archant Library - Credit: Paul Thomas

Norwich Union and other potential users targeted the gasfields scene which was happening up in Scotland, from Aberdeen by now and Air Anglia approached the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for services from Norwich to Aberdeen and Edinburgh – and then Leeds/Bradford – with an eventual target of Amsterdam across the North Sea.
Air Anglia took off literally… with PPL very much part of it. For Air Anglia PPL was spending big money on PR – but also advertising in these new target areas for sales. But priorities in AA’s growth financially took over – with a subsequent big threat – running out of money!
The aircraft they needed to lease or buy, new offices in various airports, more staff – this all brought funding difficulties and suddenly – with yet another big step ahead, Jim and Wilbur almost ran out of money, even with Norwich Union help. Looking for success, even survival – they owed PPL, some of it months’ old. They came to me apologizing – they had reached a stage where only yet more investment would aid their survival, success.
So PPL agreed to support them, move on with the debt – and very soon Air Anglia won new support, partly thanks to good PR reassuring the outside world, this was a great story and future for a Norfolk business. PPL’s support, our fingers crossed for good luck, had helped create what became a key to the future. Luck again? Perhaps but guided by good judgment.
Our trust paid off too – the PPL business for Air Anglia grew and grew. And their business was booming, fast. Over the years to come AA grew, spent more and more, PR and advertising – and led us into winning PR for what was a growing Norwich Airport, owned then by Norfolk County and Norwich City Councils with local business interests.
By now, Phil Chapman was commercial manager of AA, is still with us today. His memories: Funniest moment just after we went computerized we had a rain storm which flooded our whole area. Staff continued with welly boots or in bare feet.

Fokker F27 Friendship

Fokker F27 Friendship - Credit: Paul Thomas

Best day was delivery of our F28 jet. After the publicity was over I went home but could not resist going back to see the aircraft which by then was in the hangar. It was illuminated by the hangar lights, no staff around and I went up to the flight deck. Amazing, a brand new aircraft!
Air Anglia had started services between Amsterdam’s Schipol airport and Norwich. These linked with world destinations and aided Publicity Plus progress into other international business. Including Fokker aircraft – AA flew their turbo-prop F27s and then the F28 jet. Subsequently, thanks to that gamble and luck that had paid off, PPL went on to win KLM Royal Dutch Airlines UK PR, also their engineering division which set up in Norwich airport. In 1980 Air Anglia was taken over by British and Commonwealth Co and merged with three regional airlines to form Air UK. In the mid 1990s Air UK was renamed KLM uk.
In the meantime PPL had also helped create Norwich International Airport. In years to come, it changed hands to a private owner and then in the 21st century helicopter services to offshore fields boomed – and there are flights over my home today reminding me of those early days. Plus the occasional opportunity to fly direct from Norwich to worldwide destinations – and holidays.
PPL did Amsterdam Schiphol airport PR among new wins resulting from Norwich activities. And as we grew a London office subsequently, Trans International Airlines and other travel business over coming years. Jim, a great friend, died in 1987 but Barbara is still with us at their original Oxnead home. Their lovely daughter Rachel took over Travel Centre in 1992 and ran it for 16 years. One new piece of PPL business, years on from our Air Anglia success, was another small firm that was to become a global giant… Marriott Hotels. In future Weekend features I will write about more memories of that and other exciting stories that followed our early days with those great gentlemen – flyers Jim Crampton and Wilbur Wright.

Paul’s biography, My Life, My Way, telling much of Norfolk business growth over two thirds of a century, is available from £10.75 including post and packing from: paul@paulgwynthomas.co.uk

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