Naval aviation began at Lee-on-Solent on 30 July 1917 when the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) opened the Naval Seaplane Training School as an extension to the seaplane training station at nearby Calshot. The school’s first commander was Squadron Commander Douglas Evill. Initially, aircraft had to be transported from their temporary hangars to the top of the nearby cliff, then lowered by crane onto a trolley which ran on rails into the sea. Permanent hangars, workshops, accommodation, and a new double slipway were soon constructed.
Royal Air Force
On 1 April 1918, the RNAS combined with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) to form the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Lee-on-Solent Naval Seaplane Training School became an RAF station. Naval aviation training continued throughout the 1920s under the RAF with both Calshot and Lee-on-Solent providing training in operating seaplanes – initially using the wartime Short Type 184s and, from late 1921, the new Fairey IIID. On 1 April 1924, the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force was formed, encompassing those RAF units that normally embarked on aircraft carriers and fighting ships (including those at shore bases such as Lee-on-Solent). In 1931 the first grass airstrip at Lee was constructed to the west of the town, Lee-on-Solent became HQ RAF Coastal Area, and a major rebuilding programme ensued. On 14 July 1936, an expanded RAF Coastal Area became RAF Coastal Command, with the HQ remaining at Lee-on-Solent.
With the expansion of the RAF during the 1930s, Parliament decided that the Fleet Air Arm should transfer to the Admiralty. As a consequence, on 24 May 1939, HQ RAF Coastal Command moved to Northwood and Lee-on-Solent was commissioned as HMS Daedalus, becoming Headquarters of Flag Officer Air. The onset of the Second World War During the Second World War a number of Naval Air Squadrons were posted or formed at Daedalus. In addition, the airfield saw over ninety units posted to Daedalus at various stages of the war. Daedalus is also marked for special commendation as being the busiest airfield on D-Day!
Post war Solent Airport Daedalus continued to play a significant role, being renamed HMS Ariel on 31 October 1959 to reflect her electrical, radar, and ground training emphasis, and in 1962 the Joint Service Hovercraft Unit was formed with the aim of testing hovercraft in an operational military environment, and soon after the Air Station reverted to the name HMS Daedalus on 5th October 1965. She was then home to the Naval Air Trial Installation Unit (NATIU), formed to install and test new systems in a variety of flying test bed aircraft including a Hawker Hunter and a De Havilland Devon.
Post Royal Navy use (1996–2014)
In March 2006 the site was split, with ownership of the central area including the runways transferred to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) who have continued to use it as a base for their air sea rescue helicopters. Hampshire Constabulary’s fixed wing aircraft also continued to use the airfield. The outlying areas, including the former accommodation and technical area and surrounding land, hangars, and dispersals, were transferred to the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA).
In April 2006, Gosport and Fareham Borough Councils issued a Joint Planning Statement for Daedalus stating that “There should be provision of leisure and community facilities which could complement existing facilities to the benefit of local residents” and “Future development should seek to maximise the benefit of the existing runways for general and private aviation use.”.
In April/May 2006, whilst conducting repairs to the runway, building crews discovered an unexploded pipe bomb, of over 60 feet long, placed underneath the runway by the military, designed to cripple the airfield’s operational capabilities in the event of a German invasion. The bomb (along with 19 others subsequently discovered) was scheduled to be removed in September 2006. The work was completed on 24 October 2006.
During its RN ownership the airfield had been used for a variety of groups, including the Portsmouth Naval Gliding Club (PNGC) The Lee Bees Model Flying Club, The Tigers Children’s Motorcycle Display Team and two flying schools, and a number of privately owned aircraft were based at the airfield. When the RN moved out in 1996, operational management of the airfield was taken over by Hampshire Police Air Support Unit (HPASU). This management continued until October 2010, with HPASU being tenants of the MCA, which is an Executive Agency of the Department for Transport.
In October 2010 Hampshire Police Air Support Unit was closed and its tasks taken over by the newly formed South East Air Support Unit covering Hampshire, Sussex, and Surrey from bases at RAF Odiham and Shoreham Airport. On acquiring their land SEEDA stated “The lack of availability of serviced employment land and new business space has been identified as an important requirement in South Hampshire. Our intention is that development of the site will focus on new aviation and marine related businesses, exploiting access to the existing runways and the Solent. Plans are to create a quality business location that will attract inward investment and provide accommodation for start-up, growing and established businesses”. Aviation-related businesses, including an aircraft maintenance organisation, a microlight aircraft manufacturer, and a flying school, became tenants of SEEDA in 2006, as did the owners of around 50 aircraft based on the site. The aerodrome is strategically important. The growth of commercial air transport at Southampton Airport some years ago left it with no capacity for general aviation (GA) aircraft. This left Lee-on-Solent as the only airfield in southern Hampshire with a hard runway available for general aviation; the nearest alternative in Hampshire being Farnborough Airfield.
From 1 April 2011, the airfield was leased to the British aircraft manufacturer, Britten-Norman under its airfield operations subsidiary, Fly BN. Britten-Norman established corporate offices at the Daedalus Airfield site as well as a manufacturing base for its subsidiary Britten-Norman Aircraft and MRO facilities for two other subsidiaries, BN Defence and BN Aviation. Now managed by Fly BN on behalf of the airfield’s new owner, the Homes and Communities Agency, the airfield was prepared for licensed operations. In August 2011 the government announced that the airfield would host an enterprise zone named the Solent Enterprise Zone.
On 1 April 2015 the airfield owners, Fareham Borough Council, appointed Regional and City Airports Management to manage the airfield. New entrances have been constructed to eliminate the need for runway crossings by vehicles and redevelopment is underway. CEMAST (Centre of Engineering, Manufacturing and Advanced Skills Training), part of Fareham College now provides facilities on previously undeveloped land in the south east corner of the airfield. Wartime Hangar A has been demolished to make way for a new Innovation Centre of business starter units to the south of the South Apron on the east side. With investment the new development at Hangars East includes new roads and infrastructure and hangars for aviation use with runway access.