SOUTHEND Airport's future is a hot topic at present, but it is worth remembering that, unlike other airports, it has a long past, dating back to the dawn of aviation.

Heathrow was just an undeveloped bog until 1946 (how little some things change) but Southend airport's history stretches back almost a century.

The airport started life as a base for the RAF, which this year celebrates its 90th birthday. But its first recorded contact with an aircraft occurred even earlier, in the first decade of aviation.

In 1909, two Leigh men, Victor Forbes and Arthur Arnold, used fields at Westbarrow Hall Farm to test out their home-made monoplane, largely made from bamboo poles. It was the First World War, however, that turned a few flat buttercup meadows into an official aerodrome.

No photographs of the Rochford base during the 1914-1918 war were known to have survived, until Southend Museum curator Ken Crow began the research for the current exhibition Zeppelins Over Southend.

At the RAF Museum in Hendon Ken came across a stash of photographs donated by the family of an aircraftman who had served with the Royal Flying Corps, and carried a camera with him.

They include the photographs of Rochford Airport during the First World War, published today for the first time locally, 90 years after they were taken.

The aerodrome site was acquired for military purpose in 1914, very shortly after the outbreak of war. Flat and well drained, close to the mouth of the Thames, the site had clearly been designated by God to be an airport.

The farmland already had one link to pioneering technology. A telephone line to London, the first direct phone connection between the capital and a provincial town, marched across the land.

At first the new airfield was used for training purposes only, but after the first Zeppelin bombardment of London it rapidly transformed into a frontline station. Although the glory of shooting down the first two Zeppelins went to pilots operating from Hornchurch, patrols from Rochford airport were credited with deterring many raids.

Ironically, the one enemy aircraft claimed was a Gotha, which crash landed on Rochford golf course, next to the aerodrome. It had been making for the runway after being hit by anti-aircraft fire.

By the end of the war, Rochford aerodrome was the largest in Essex and it had a reputation for being the most comfortable billet in the RAF. Cecil Lewis, the last surviving British air ace from the first World War, and author of the classic account of aerial warfare Sagittarius Rising, was stationed there in transit to the Western Front.

He was struck by the scale and modernity of Rochford Aerodrome, and the way it represented the growth of air power. He recalled it as "a magnificent aerodrome almost a mile square in extent."

Within a year the war was over, the military operations were run down, and Rochford aerodrome had reverted to farmland.

That might have been the end of Southend Airport, had it not been for the far-sightedness and drive of one Southend councillor, GE Weber.

Weber saw a future when every town would need a municipal airport to ensure its prosperity. The old First World War runways still lay beneath the crops.

Weber persuaded his fellow councillors that the airport could be revived. In 1933 it was purchased and reactivated by the council. The aerodrome that started life as a fighting base had shown an ability to survive against the odds, something that has not deserted it today.

THE transformation of a wartime military base into one of Britain's first municipal airports was hailed in glowing terms by the Southend Standard, the Echo's predecessor.

The airport had been acquired by the council in 1933, and finally gained a public operations licence two years later.

On the day of the official opening, September 19, 1935, the local newspaper welcomed what it called "perhaps the most significant and vivid page in the history of modern Southend".

It was certainly a colourful event, with some bizarre touches.

Soon after sunrise, a crowd of several hundred people had formed at the airport. The day began with formation flying by members of Southend Flying Club and the arrival of the special guest, aviator C Scott, winner of the London to Melbourne air race.

Another guest was former air ace F Garland, a Billericay farmer.

More than 30 aircraft from all parts of Britain had arrived for the occasion and were lined up alongside the podium.

They included one of the first autogyros (a prototype of the helicopter).

Its pilot, the cheesily named Mr Brie, had recently made history by landing the craft within a 30ft diameter circle on the decks of a battleship at sea.

While the crowd inspected the aircraft, they were serenaded in a novel way by Jan Gadowsky's Astoria Grand Orchestra.

The boys circled the aerodrome in an airliner, broadcasting their music-making via short wave radio.

Bang on time, as if to prove a point about the reliability of air transport, the Under Secretary of State for Air arrived out of the sky.

Sir Philip Sassoon was aboard his very own de Havilland Leopard. This wasn't an early case of an MP abusing his expense account.

Sir Philip was one of the richest men and most lavish hosts in Europe, the Leopard was his private property, and he also probably paid for the escort of four Hawker Hart light bombers that accompanied him.

In his opening speech, the mayor of Southend, AT Edwards, said: "It seems not many years ago that railways were in their infancy. Fifty years ago motor cars were unknown.

"Can anyone here possibly say what will have happened in transport within the next fifty or one hundred years? We look forward to the time when, for any big and busy town, an aerodrome will be almost as necessary as a railway station.

"That means that the towns that, like Southend, are first in the field are going to score." After the speech, Sir Philip Sassoon cut the ribbon, and declared the airport open for business.

The moment was greeted, not with a the usual trumpet fanfare from local bands, but something rather more imaginative. Engines from the assembled aircraft roared into life to greet the new airport.

THE Air Ministry requisitioned Southend airport in 1939 and renamed it RAF Rochford.

It became a satellite base for RAF Hornchurch and was home to fighter squadrons of Super-marine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricane fighters, as well as a Bristol Blenheim fighter-bomber.

Flying a Hurricane out of Rochford, Flight Lieutenant "Sailor" Malan downed two Heinkel bombers, the first enemy aircraft shot down at night by a fighter aircraft Many of the 50 pillboxes that were built to protected the airport from German troops still survive in surrounding fields, as does the underground defence control room, which is hidden near the Southend Flying Club.

l Southend Airport features in one of the most loved of the James Bond movies, Goldfinger. 007's Aston Martin DB5, complete with ejector seat, is shown being loaded aboard one of the Carvair aircraft based at Southend, en route to the evil Goldfinger's lair in the Swiss mountains. Sean Connery spent a day filming on the tarmac. Although he did not talk to the local press or members of the public, he could be glimpsed in the distance through binoculars or a telephoto lens.

l The airport's most successful period as a passenger operation occurred between 1961 and 1970, with the use of the Carvairs - converted Douglas Dakotas that could carry 25 holidaymakers and five cars. The era ended with the liquidation of Channel Airways in 1972. Passenger numbers rapidly dropped below the 250,000 per year mark.

l Freddie Laker, pioneer of cheap, no-frills airlines, started in the aircraft business with a number of Second World War surplus planes that he acquired for a song at Southend Airport. His exploits formed the basis for the 1982 series Airline, starring Roy Marsden as a roughneck former pilot trying to set up his own passenger operation. In 1999 Roy Marsden returned to Southend, as artistic director of the Palace Theatre.