Europe's longest runway is just outside York. But what is to be done with it? CHRIS TITLEY tries to find out.

THE expansion of Elvington airfield would affect a lot of people. High flying business types envisage trade dropping into York via its own airport. That would create jobs and wealth, they say. Aviation enthusiasts would also like to see Europe's longest runway used more extensively.

Many Elvington residents, meanwhile, fear for the future. Development of the airfield could create more noise, road traffic and disruption. Already there is talk of villagers struggling to sell their homes.

It is clear a lot hinges on how the airfield could change. There is a need for an open and honest debate. Unhappily it seems the only straightforward thing about this issue is the 3,000m-long runway itself.

The company that owns the airfield, Elvington Park Limited, says it has no firm plans for its future. Yet it is in talks with City of York Council about a planning application to build six hangars on the site, one of which would be 200m long. This could service an air taxi service for business folk, although Elvington Park insists this is just one possible use.

Last month council officers recommended that the hangars application be thrown out, partly because they had too little information to make a proper assessment. Under pressure from business leaders, councillors chose to defer the decision.

Now no one seems sure what will happen next.

Elvington airfield celebrated its 62nd birthday yesterday. According to Patrick Otter's book Yorkshire Airfields In The Second World War, the area was selected as a bomber base soon after the war began, and it was completed on October 8, 1941.

From here, 77 Squadron flew in Halifaxes on sorties over Germany. Later the Free French Air Force moved in.

Airmen were based at what is now the Yorkshire Air Museum, next door to the modern airfield. The long runway was only constructed in the 1950s, for the use of the US air forces at the height of the Cold War. They left in 1958.

For many years the Ministry of Defence used it for RAF training. But official flying from the airstrip stopped in 1995. Three years later the MoD put it up for sale, and it was bought by Elvington Park Ltd in 2000.

So what is Elvington Park Ltd? And what precisely does it want to do with the airfield?

Company secretary Chris Hudson said its parent company, Misaun, is based in Lichtenstein. At present Elvington Park Ltd hires out the airfield to local groups for such things as land yachting and model aircraft flying. Regular land speed record attempts are also held here.

After obtaining prior permission, pilots can still land private planes at Elvington. But the airfield is not licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), although an application for a licence was lodged by Elvington Park Ltd some time ago.

"If the site is licensed it is then open to things like air taxis coming in for commercial purposes," said Mr Hudson. "You can get fare paying passengers in once it's licensed."

But a CAA licence application is "a very long-winded process. You have got to meet certain stringent rules and regulations before it can actually get licensed".

He wasn't sure what those regulations were, but new hangars would be "all part and parcel of it", as modern planes cannot be left out in the open for long. The hangars would constitute green belt development. Mr Hudson does not see that as a problem. "It's what you define as green belt," he said. "Manchester Airport is in a green belt area."

So how would Elvington Park Ltd like the airfield to develop in the next few years? "We have got no master plan set down on paper," he said.

Can it carry on much as it is now? "It's tenable. That's the way we're going at the moment."

But it would be a waste to let this impressive runway be barely used by aircraft. "There are many different uses it could be put to. At this moment in time we have no definite ideas as to what."

Maintaining the runway is an expensive business, Mr Hudson confessed. "The more use that's made of it, the more revenue there is to keep it in that condition. That's why it needs more aircraft activities."

At present about five aircraft land per day at Elvington in summer. Wouldn't any increase in that number be a major noise nuisance? "Modern planes are very quiet. When I have been at the airfield working, I have looked around and there's suddenly a plane behind me."

Mike Usherwood, of Huntington, York, wants to see major expansion at Elvington. He is a member of Yorkshire Air Museum but wrote in a personal capacity to the Evening Press to register his dismay at the lack of progress at Elvington airfield.

"This airfield has the only runway in Yorkshire (except Finningley) which is capable of taking truly international, ie transatlantic, traffic," he wrote.

As well as passenger traffic, he believes air freight operators and the "executive jet" market would be pleased to use Elvington.

"An airport would create many and different types of full-time jobs both skilled and unskilled, and in turn the money from these jobs would find its way into the local economy."

Could 400-acre Elvington become York International Airport? "That's going a little bit too far," said Mr Hudson, citing the attempt to turn Finningley airfield into an airport, which has been bogged down in planning wrangles for years.

The lack of a clear blueprint for Elvington airfield is causing anxiety among residents. They will have a chance to discuss the situation at a special parish council meeting later this month.

One resident, who asked not to be named, said that getting answers from Elvington Park Ltd about the airfield development had proved all but impossible. Trust in the firm had been damaged when, this person claimed, the company flouted York council's brief on its use, with many more weekend events and non-sports activities.

"There's total suspicion about what's going on. There's almost no communication between the owners, whoever they are, and the locals."

The council has been asked to investigate whether Elvington Park Ltd even has planning permission to operate the site as an airfield. Some have suggested that this right disappeared when the MoD sold the site.

But the real worry is not about its present role but its future development.

"What are they going to do with this airfield?" the resident asked. "Is it going to become a taxi service for people to fly into York from London, one or two planes every day?

"Or is it going to become another EasyJet or Ryan Air base?"

If anyone knows the answer to these questions, they are not saying.

Updated: 10:58 Thursday, October 09, 2003