The well known figure who can usually be found fuelling up aeroplanes, swigging tea in the cafe or just generally chatting to the occasional millionaire landing at the airport claims to have spent over £5m on building Pembrey Airport in Llanelli.
Winston purchased the airport in 1994 when it was in an almighty mess with tonnes of old tyres dumped everywhere. Within a short period of time Winston had worked wonders and transformed the runway, the buildings and infrastructure into a vibrant and busy facility that offers private, commercial and charter flights.
Winston’s hard work has impacted on the local economy which has led to investment in the area and the creation of jobs in South and West Wales.
For a man who has run and worked as an airline pilot and made his fortune in the aviation industry in the U.S.A. he is an extremely modest and charming man. He is also the author of a number of articles and books. He has appeared on TV when the BBC made a documentary on Llanelli, which went spectacularly wrong for the then leader Meryl Gravell when the town was shown in a relatively negative light.
Winston M Thomas was born in Machynys, Llanelli in 1937. He demonstrated an aptitude for engineering and invention from a young age and went on to balance a family life and a career in aviation with a spell in the army. He worked hard to improve his engineering skills and founded a successful electronics company. An encounter with an American flying student led to him taking his family to Texas where he founded Celtic Engineering Inc., one of the mainstays of telecommunication services in the United States over the past two decades. Celtic serviced telecoms giant MCI Inc and many other companies including Shell Oil, the U.S. Air Force and various U.S. and foreign government agencies during its illustrious career. Winston has been involved in many landmark discoveries including the invention of Email, fibre optic networking, the rewiring of Haiti, helping China to modernise its telecoms systems and returning to his native Wales to develop one of the country’s most respected regional airports at Pembrey in Llanelli.
I met Captain Thomas at Pembrey Airport on a beautiful sunny day under a blue sky, almost as blue as his eyes. He is a modest man given that he holds the lease on one of the most valuable assets in Carmarthenshire. Construction of the airport began for the RAF Flying Training Command in 1937. By May 1940, the three tarmac runways had been completed. During World War 2 Pembrey was an active RAF station and was host to the RAF’s Air Gunnery School. The airfield closed in September 1957. Post 1958 part of former RAF Pembrey airfield was turned over to agriculture and part was used as a motor racing circuit leaving only a small length of unused runway and taxiways. On Thursday 22 August 1997 Pembrey was officially opened as a civil airfield and named Pembrey Airport using a single runway with a declared length of 805 metres.
Captain Winston, Thomas was the driving force behind the reopening of the airport. I asked Captain Thomas how he came to be the leaseholder of the airport and how he had built it up from scratch. He said “My grandfather came down here from Gloucestershire to develop the steel industry. I created the airport because I was sure my grandfather would have liked me to. I have been in the aviation industry most of my life. I had been living in America and I am still a resident of America. When I came here this place was a tip full of thousands of tyres. It was a real mess. Most of the tyres are now on the racing circuit.”
I asked Captain Thomas why there had not been any government investment in the airport. He told me, “I stay out of politics; I have enough on my plate developing the airport. There is a major shortage of qualified people in the aviation industry because nobody is doing apprenticeships. We are the only airport in Wales that has never had a grant. I put 5.5 million pounds into this place and 18 hours a day seven days a week hard work. We did six months of pressure washing on the runways. We have put a number of business plans in to the Welsh Assembly and we have never had a penny from anyone.”
When asked why he had spent so much of his own time and money on the airport. Captain Thomas replied, “I am dedicated to getting this place with the same facilities as the airports in England for the local community. This airport is exceptionally important to the local economy. It is the catalyst to all development. We have people showing interest in the airport from other airports in the U.K. We have 7 miles of beach, horse racing and we are the only airport in the U.K. on a mainline railway apart from Southampton airport.”
Winston has always been optimistic about developing the airport and the importance of the role it may play in the town’s future. He has said: “The only thing I wanted to do after 26 years in America was to come back and do something for Carmarthenshire.”
When asked if he was disappointed that the local council had not invested in the airport he said, “I have to be strong and not let anything get to me with regards to who is getting money from here or there. This airport is a key to investment in West Wales. We have quite a few people working here mainly on a part time basis. We even have an excellent ex bank manager doing our accounts. It may be in the interests of other people to see this airport fall apart. I am getting on now and I would like to finish the job I started here. My daughters may take it forward after me. I have a lease on the land, which runs out in 30 years but I have the option to renew.”
Winston has had his doubters but there is no doubt that this honour is well deserved for the role he has played in developing a rotting mess to a viable local airport and one of the only airports in the U.K. to sit alongside a mainline railway running from Paddington to Pembrokeshire at that.