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Manston's air history dates back to the First World War. At the outset of the war, nearby St Mildred's Bay in Westgate-on-Sea was used as a landing strip for aircraft. In the winter of 1915-16, aircraft started to use the open farmland of Manston as a site for emergency landings. Soon the Admiralty established an aerodrome at the site.
As well as operational flights, the Handley Page bomber training school was established at the aerodrome. With its geographical advantage being near the English Channel, Manston was integral in providing air defence, continuing with the formation of the Royal Flying Corps in 1917.
From September 1939 and the outbreak of the Second World War, Manston was firmly on the front line. In that month No. 3 Squadron, under the command of No. 11 Group Fighter Command, flew Hawker Hurricanes from the airfield. In 1940 during the Battle of Britain, Manston was heavily bombed, requiring the dispersal of personnel and resources to nearby safer locations.
Hawker Typhoon attack aircraft were based at Manston later in the war, and also the first Meteor jet squadron of the RAF.
As well as the Battle of Britain, Manston is part of Second World War history, being the airfield in 1942 where six Fairey Swordfish departed on a suicidal attack against the German battle cruiser Prinz Eugen and battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau; an operation known as The Channel Dash. Two years later, Manston was one of the departure points for the unsuccessful Operation Market Garden.
Being so close to the Channel, Manston was useds as an emergency landing field for returning bombers suffering from low fuel or problems to their hydraulic systems. The airfield became something of a "graveyard" for heavy bombers.
During the Cold War of the 1950's the US Airforce used Manston as a Strategic Air Command base for its fighter and fighter-bomber units. From 1960, it was back under RAF control. Thanks to the long runway built during the Second World War, it was designated one of the country's MEDAs (Master Emergency Diversion Airfield) for both military and civilian flights.
The RAF ended their flying operations in 1999, turning it over to exclusively civilian air traffic. As Kent International Airport, Manston still sees regular cargo and passenger flights, as well as regular small aircraft traffic.
In 2013 an airshow returned to Manston for the first time in over twenty years. Throughout the summer season the Red Arrows RAF Display Team are frequent visitors to Manston, staging between displays.