Captain Ernest Edmund (Ted) Fresson, OBE, has gone down in history as one of the great British pilots. Born on September 20th 1891, he was the eldest of four boys and two girls brought up in Surrey and Essex by his father Mitchel, a City of London stockbroker and his mother Marian, a talented pianist from the Robins family, famous as London auctioneers.
After early training as an engineer, he was sent to his firm’s branch in China in 1911, but following his boyhood aspirations to become a pilot he signed on as a volunteer when the Great War began in 1914. He trained as a pilot for the Royal Flying Corps in Canada at the beginning of 1918.
When the war was over he returned to China, keeping his hand in at flying whist working for his old firm again. He rebuilt or assembled some British aircraft for local dignitaries and then built and flew an aircraft of his own design for a Chinese warlord – to place it in production there. A revolution intervened and Ted returned to Britain in 1927 to begin several years of concentrated joy-riding and display flying, firstly with existing aviation companies, then with his own.
Each year saw him carrying thousands of air-minded passengers on five minute joy rides, at fields he chose all over Britain. During this time he took a great deal of liking to Scotland and saw an opportunity to start scheduled services in the Highlands. This started between Inverness, Wick and Kirkwall on May 8th 1933.
Ted formed his airline, Highland Airways Limited, with considerable help from Macrae & Dick, the motor engineers in Inverness, the Scotsman newspaper, Dr Alexander of Dr Grays Hospital in Elgin and other local traders. His regularity in flying in all weathers became a by-word, and so a year later, on May 29th 1934, his airline was given the first UK domestic Airmail contract by the Post Office. This was to fly mail at ordinary rates by air to Orkney and back. He later acquired the airmail contract to Wick and Shetland.
In October 1933, Ted operated the first commercial charter out of Aberdeen, carrying three salesmen to Shetland. On May 7th 1934 he began Aberdeen’s first scheduled service to Wick and Kirkwall. After this, Highland Airways became the trail blazer for many new services throughout the Highlands and Islands, linking up with Inverness and Aberdeen with Shetland and Stornoway, as well as inaugurating the Orkney inter-island flights and services to Perth and Glasgow.
Ted Fresson could land his aircraft in almost any field in Scotland and frequently did so. He knew the terrain so well that he became one of the principal advisors on airfield construction sites to the Air Ministry and the Admiralty during World War II. The booming regional airport at Inverness is still on the site suggested by Ted to the Air Ministry as a wartime airfield and the Admiralty also consulted him prior to laying the first tarmac strip at Hatston, Orkney. The tarmac was actually Ted’s suggestion. The ‘runways’ suggested by at the old Stornoway golf club so as to create least disturbance and inconvenience to the golfers are now acknowledged as the first runways in Britain.
When his airline became part of Lord Cowdray’s pre-war British Airways and was combined with the Renfrew-based Northern and Scottish Airways to form Scottish Airways (as it became), Ted Fresson played a vital part in running the airline throughout the war years. In 1947, however, all domestic air services were nationalised into the British European Airways corporation and Ted Fresson left the corporation in March 1948, dismissed without compensation for the fine airline he had built up. That Ted Fresson and other early pioneers were so treated by the government of the day is still a shameful episode in the history of aviation in Britain.
The fact that almost all his network is still being flown today is a tribute to his foresight, flying enterprise and efforts to bring air travel to everybody living in these remote parts of the United Kingdom.
After a period overseas Ted Fresson returned to the Highlands continued to fly the occasional charter in the Northern skies using his own light aircraft. He died in Inverness on September 25th 1963.