This is the UK’s first international airport for half a century. But just 14 months ago it was a disused RAF nuclear bomber base that people feared might contain unexploded bombs and radioactivity. We checked in at Robin Hood Airport to find out how it was transformed

The UK’s fIrst new international airport for 50 years has just opened for business, giving the residents of Doncaster and other nearby cities a much faster route to the sun. The long schlep down to Birmingham or across the Pennines to Manchester to get on a plane will become a dim and distant memory.

Robin Hood Airport – presumably so-named in a bid to win business from nearby Nottinghamshire – is built on the site of RAF Finningley, which has been through a number of incarnations over the years. Part of Bomber Command during the Second World War, it then became a base for the now redundant Vulcan nuclear bomber from the height of the Cold War in 1957 until the base closed in 1996.

This latter use made the site ideal for redevelopment as an airport because the V-bomber needed a runway 3 km long, which means it is the only airport outside London capable of handling the A380 super-jumbo due to come into service next year.

Turning a dead, 900-acre RAF base into a buzzing international airport is challenging stuff. “This is the first brand new, purpose-built airport in over 50 years, so it was a test of everything,” says Sharon Bennett, marketing and community manager for developer Peel Airports.

The pre-construction process lasted from 1997 to 2003, which included a year-long public inquiry. Peel Airports was understandably keen to get cracking once planning was finally granted, meaning contractor Bovis Lend Lease had just 14 months from turning the first sod to welcoming the first passengers, a fraction of the six years it is taking to build Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

“One of the first things to get to grips with was the size of the site,” says Andy Hopewell, project executive for Bovis. “You roll up one day and you can’t see the other side of your site – that’s quite a challenge. Psychologically it was a case of breaking it down into its constituent parts.”

Bovis has constructed everything a modern airport needs, apart from the existing runway. This includes drains, communication, control and navigations systems and a terminal building. “Virtually every inch of the site has been dug up,” says Hopewell. “Of the £80m budget, roughly £50m is in the ground.”

Over the next three pages we show where the money went to turn RAF Finningley into Robin Hood Airport.

The airfield

The only decent thing left by the RAF was the runway, which had been resurfaced in 1989. The stands for aircraft needed repairing and a further 60,000 m2 of aircraft standing space had to be built. This was constructed from concrete 0.5 m thick. Hopewell is proud of a new machine brought in to lay the concrete. “For people who like toys it was splendid,” he beams. “It could lay 1200 m3 of concrete a day.”

All the grass had to be relaid, too. “Believe it or not there was the wrong kind of grass,” says Hopewell. “We had to replace 1,000,000 m2 with a type of grass the Civil Aviation Authority were happy with.”

This grass discourages nesting birds, which are one of the greatest hazards to planes taking off as they can get sucked into the engines.

The size of the site meant moving vulnerable wildlife was a big job. All the newts and snakes on the site had to be moved, and bats living in the old buildings were rehoused in specially built boxes. Areas of damp, acid grassland had to be moved to the edge of the airfield.

Firefighting practice rig

A new fire station was built because the original was too far away to achieve the response times required by the CAA. A special firefighting practice rig was also constructed nearby. “It’s a particularly good one,” says Hopewell. “It represents both wide-bodied and conventional aircraft and has engines, cockpit and seats.”

The rig can be fed by combinations of liquefied petroleum gas and kerosene to simulate different fires and the rig is available for hire to other airport operators.

Wastewater treatment and drainage

“We’ve put in a completely new drainage system as the old one was leaking like a sieve,” says Hopewell. But this is only part of the story because the airfield sits over the aquifer that supplies Doncaster with its water. “In the old days the RAF didn’t worry about a fuel spillage because of Crown immunity,” says Hopewell.

Two large lagoons have now been built to receive all the water run-off from the airport.

If pollutants are detected, the contaminated water is diverted to a new wastewater treatment plant that also treats foul water from the terminal building.

Air traffic control tower

“One of the most important buildings on the site is the control tower, as without that you can’t do a thing,” says Hopewell. “We’ve refurbished the fabric and put a new cab on top.”

The control tower is the nerve centre of the airport and contains the avionic systems – electronic equipment relating to aviation. The RAF left no avionics behind. Control systems enabling incoming and outgoing aircraft to land safely and dynamic aeronautical lighting systems had to be installed.

There are also meteorological systems linked to a centre in Liverpool, and even systems that automatically switch the kettle and microwave off in the fire station and open its doors if a controller hits the crash alert button.

“All these systems feed back into the cab so there is a tremendous amount of in-ground infrastructure, something like 85 km,” says Hopewell. The control tower was handed over to the client early on so there was plenty of time for training and getting the necessary CAA licence.

The terminal

The orginal plan was to build a terminal in three phases. But then passenger forecasts revealed that 1 million passengers were expected in the first year, so Peel Airports asked Bovis to build the whole terminal in one go.

The RAF cleared all the unexploded ordnance before leaving the site but Bovis carried out a survey of the terminal just to make doubly sure. The contractor was also extremely careful when it came to demolishing ordnance stores as these had contained nuclear bombs. Radioactivity checks were conducted but nothing untoward was found, says Hopewell.

“One of the biggest jobs with the terminal was the concentration of services,” says Hopewell. The building is stuffed with communication, security, information and alarm systems. Each authority – for example, immigration or the airport authorities – has its own system, and the systems need to interface.

“Testing stand-alone systems is relatively straightforward but getting them to interface is more difficult – for example, getting the fire alarm to interface with the public address system,” explains Hopewell.

The flight information systems use very complex software and this has been connected to Doncaster bus station so passengers can check flight information before they board the airport bus.

Baggage handling

The main challenges in building the terminal were the contents, including the baggage handling systems. “It’s very complicated getting this to work,” explains Hopewell. “We looked at the horror stories installing these. You have to make sure the bags stay on the conveyor belts and go round the system the way they should. If one bag jams then the whole system will back up.”

To make sure Robin Hood did not have a baggage handling horror story of its own, several mock flights were run with people acting as passengers checking in their luggage, embarking on a supposed flight then reclaiming their baggage.

Project team

client Peel Airports
architect Leach Rhodes Walker
structural engineer Capita Symonds
airside engineer Scott Wilson
services engineer RW Gregory
management contractor Bovis Lend Lease
car park and highways Hewlett
pavement quality concrete Costain
service infrastructure PN Daley
aerodrome lighting ATG
fencing FCY
landscaping Ashlea