Bronze statue to be unveiled to mark Sumburgh Airport’s 75th anniversary

The 75th anniversary of Sumburgh Airport falls this year and to mark the occasion a special bronze statue is to be unveiled on 3rd June.

The airport was opened on that date in 1936 after plans were laid out by Captain Ernest Edmund Fresson OBE (1891-1963), who also flew the inaugural flight from Aberdeen in a De Havilland Dragon Rapide.

To commemorate the airport and pay tribute to Captain Fresson, a bronze model of a De Havilland Dragon Rapide is to be erected during the anniversary celebrations.

Chairman of the Fresson Trust, HIAL chief executive Grenville Johnston, told a meeting of the Sumburgh Airport Consultative Committee about the plans this week.

As a result, the consultative committee would like to hear from anyone who may have worked at the airport during the time of Capt Fresson or who has any anecdotal stories.

Mr Johnston said: “It’s a great story and a great event and I think we should mark it.”

An important figure in British aviation history, Capt Fresson began his career when he volunteered for World War I after training as an engineer, and in 1918 he began his training with the Royal Flying Corps in Canada.

After the war ended, he returned to his work as an engineer in China, but continued to fly when he could before leaving for Britain in 1927.

During the early 1930s he began flying in the Highlands and Islands, establishing many routes which continue to be used.

He set up an airline, Highland Airways Limited, and, owing to his willingness to fly in almost any weather, soon landed contracts to fly the mail up to Orkney and Shetland.

The routes had a major impact on life in the isles and meant, for example, that islanders could get mail and newspapers on the same day as mainland Britain as well as access to emergency medical treatment.

Capt Fresson continued to fly charters up until his death in 1963. His memoir, Air Road to the Isles, continues to be a popular read for aviation history fans.

Members of the public with any relevant information or stories are welcome to email them to


Add Your Comment
  • Angus Starling

    • March 30th, 2011 23:26

    My father Captain Eric Starling flew the first
    Commercial flight into Sunburgh as confirmed and recorded
    at the 50th anniversary of this event frifteen years ago at Sunburgh with
    representitive from your paper and local council. I was also there. Your
    comments on why this event is now credited to Captain Fresson would
    be interesting.

  • David Morgan

    • June 2nd, 2011 21:02

    The unveiling of the Fresson Trust memorial on June 3 in no way denegrates the commercial flight made by Captain Starling for a rival operator on June 2, 1936. As the Sumburgh Airport plaque makes clear, the memorial erected by the Fresson Trust which was created to promote the great work carried out by Capt Fresson for the advancement of civil aviation in the Highlands and Islands, marks the “first scheduled flight by Captain Ted Fresson to Shetland” which took place on June 3, 1936. That flight also marked the official opening of Shetland’s main airport which is also celebrated by the Fresson Trust’s memorial

    – David Morgan (Fresson Trustee)
    June 2, 2011

  • R.A.Fresson

    • June 4th, 2011 22:48

    I thought it might be useful if I noted some of the facts and thinking as to why this anniversary is so important to Shetland.

    1. In March 1933 Capt Fresson asked the Provost of Lerwick, William Sinclair, if he could find someone on the Island who would help him find a suitable field near Lerwick for an Aerodrome to serve Shetland. The Provost tasked Sherriff Gibb (ex RAF) to help him and they finally came to the conclusion that Sumburgh Links was the only suitable location and got the estate factor W.Laidlaw McDougle to agree.

    2. By February 1936 Sumburgh Esates with Highland Airways and Shetland Islands Council had agreed to develop the liks as the islands airfield to Air Ministry Standards that would allow it to be used for commercial traffic.

    3. At this time Highland Airways stated that an Air Ministry Radio Direction facility would have to be set up to allow continuity of service throughout the year even though this meant having to open the airfield to competitors such as Gander Dower.This latter point satisfied S.I.C. who did not want another monopoly as with the sea route. Because of that the council offered a £100 pound grant and agreed to share running costs initially with Highland Airways and Sumburgh Estates.

    4. The first schedules Aberdeen to Sumburgh service with fare paying passengers started on the 3rd.June, 1936 with the Provost of Aberdeen on board. to officially open the airport. The aircraft used was the new DH 89 known as The Rapide which was to grace Shetland skies for many years to come. Gander Dower landed at Sumburgh on the 2nd., June before the Airport was officially opened with guests as passengers. This was despite him being refused permission as the airport was not officially opened.

    5. Up to this point Shetland was served by two sailings a week by the S.S.St.Magnus. This meant that the islands only got two mail and newspaper deliveries a week, and that business’s only got supplies twice a week. More important was the fact that anybody needing emergency medical treatment at mainland hospitals might have to wait 3 to 4 days before getting to a mainland hospital.

    6. The commencement of the scheduled air service now meant that it was only 4 hours from central Aberdeen to Lerwick. This was with experience reduced to 3.5 hours. This in turn meant national newspapers were delivered daily and urgent medical treatment was available within 24 hours.

    7. The commencement of the air mail service by Allied Airways on the 23rd November, 1937 gave them a daily mail delivery which further integrated the island community into the national infrastructure.

    In summary, on the 3rd.,June 1936, Shetland Islands experienced a social revolution which changed them from a lonely outpost of the United Kingdom into an integral and daily part of UK life. This was largely due to not only Highland Airways Pioneering spirit but to the forsight of Shetland Islands Council and Sumburgh Estates.


  • Angus Starling

    • April 1st, 2013 10:16

    i note Richard Fresson’s comments and also note that the plaque presented to my father on the 60th anniversary of Sunburgh Airport has been removed. This eliminates any reference to Gander Dower and my fathers inaugeral scheduled flight on the 2nd June 1936. This flight was honoured by a civic reception in Shetland. It would be nice to see the 60th plaque reinstated which is a fair record of events giving the respective dates of the first scheduled flights by both Gander Dower (flown by Captain Eric Starling) on the 2nd June 1936 and Captain Fresson’s well recorded flight of 3rd June 1936. This might resolve any confusion by casual visitors to Sunburgh airport as to who flew the first scheduled flight to Sunburgh Airport.

  • Iain Hutchison

    • April 7th, 2013 11:45

    I am saddened to see how aviation commemorations at Sumburgh have taken an unfortunate turn. While David Morgan is correct in stating that the careffully-worded 75th anniversary plaque makes an accurate statement about Fresson’s first scheduled flight to Sumburgh on 3 June 1936, the problem lies in the perception that this was THE first scheduled flight – which it was not. That flight was performed by Eric Starling, chief pilot of Gandar Dower’s Aberdeen Airways, on 2 June 1936. It was not condoned by Fresson as operator of Sumburgh airport, but it was a fact that Fresson himself came to terms with in his ongoing spirited rivalry with Gandar Dower. The sixtieth anniversary plaque, which I gather the Fresson Trust honoured the late Eric Starling by inviting him to perform the unveiling, gave greater clarity to the real course of events. Fresson’s considerable contributions to aviation in the Northern Isles are already writ large. The apparent removal of the Sumburgh 60th anniversary plaque does suggest that history is being re-written in an unfortunate way. The sixtieth anniversary plaque should be re-instated.


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