The first air traffic control tower in the world was built 100 years ago by the British government in Croydon Aerodrome, in the south of London.
And fascinating archival photos of it – and the planes it guarded – emphasize how much the aviation industry has changed.
The structure, a wooden hut, was commissioned by the British air ministry, which stipulated that it should be placed ’15 feet above ground level’ and with ‘large windows to be placed on all four walls’.
The world’s first air traffic control tower on Croydon Aerodrome, depicted in 1920
This is Croydon Aerodrome depicted in 1925. At the time it was the most important airport in London
An undated photo of Croydon Aerodrome, now with a few more buildings
This building would be called the ‘Aerodrome Control Tower’ and in one fell swoop the ministry coined the term that has remained synonymous with air traffic control over the past 100 years and a design that remains instantly recognizable.
At that time, Croydon Aerodrome, formed from different huts and a grass landing strip, was the main airport in London and this tower started the development of air traffic control.
A century later and Nats, as the UK’s main air traffic control service, manages 2.6 million flights a year with hundreds of millions of passengers.
A new take-off and landing runway guide will be installed on Croydon Aerodrome on 11 February 1930
The concept of air traffic control originated alongside the emergence of the world’s first airline passenger services and the British Ministry of Air commissioned the Croydon tower on 25 February 1920 to safely organize the growing traffic flows.
In the 1920s, Croydon Aerodrome was the busiest airport in the world, with about a dozen flights a day to Paris and Brussels.
Ian Walker, president of Historic Croydon Airport Trust, said: “In 1920 there was no blueprint for what air traffic control or even an airport should look like, so it was up to those early pioneers to develop, test and implement the ideas that made it possible would make air travel to grow safely.
The concept of air traffic control emerged alongside the emergence of the world’s first airline passenger services and the British Ministry of Air instructed the Croydon tower to safely organize the growing traffic flows
The British Air Ministry determined that the control tower should be placed ’15 feet above ground level’ and with ‘large windows to be placed on all four walls’. This photo was taken in 1927
The progress of the approximately 12 daily flights was monitored using basic radio-based navigation and plotted on paper maps and using pins and flags
‘Airports before that had radio offices and’ lighthouses’, but nothing with the explicit intention of providing technical air traffic services to aircraft. The “control tower” was described as an “essential” development and its legacy lives on today. “
The first air traffic controllers – known as Civil Aviation Traffic Officers or CATOs – provided basic information about traffic, location and weather to pilots via the radio, which was itself a relatively new invention. The progress of the approximately 12 daily flights was monitored using basic radio-based navigation and plotted on paper maps and using pins and flags.
Today, 1,700 Nats air traffic controllers process up to 8,000 flights per day in some of the world’s busiest airspace.
This Airco DH-4 operated a service from Croydon Airport to Paris in 1920
The letter from the Ministry of Air commissioned to build the Croydon control tower. ‘Light proof blinds’ and a ‘wind vane’ were among the many advanced functions that were needed
The first air traffic controllers – known as Civil Aviation Traffic Officers or CATOs – provided basic information about traffic, location and weather to pilots via the radio. This photo was taken at Croydon Aerodrome in 1931
Juliet Kennedy, Operational Director of Nats, said: “We have come a long way since the first controllers in terms of the amount of traffic we handle and the tools we use, but the motivation to use the latest technology to make flying safer more efficient and remains the core of what we do. “
In 2019, Nats introduced a real-time satellite tracking system to improve the safety and environmental performance of flights over the North Atlantic, while at Heathrow it is researching the use of artificial intelligence to reduce weather-related delays at airports.
Juliet continues: “We have a £ 1 billion investment program, but technology alone is not the answer if we both keep pace with the growing demand for flying and meet the huge challenge of climate change. Modernizing our airspace is now essential. “
Red Rose, the Avro Avian of the American aviator Captain William Newton Lancaster, also known as Bill Lancaster (1898 – 1933), at Croydon Aerodrome, October 1927
American pilot Charles Lindbergh arrives at Croydon Aerodrome after a flight from Evere Aerodrome in Brussels in his Ryan monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, 29 May 1927
A crowd of about 100,000 turned out to see Lindbergh approaching eight days after completing the first solo transatlantic flight
The Imperial Airways Handley Page 42W, named Hengist, is towed on the Croydon Aerodrome runway before its first departure for Brisbane, Australia, on December 8, 1934
Commander Glen Kidston (1899 – 1931) tested his new aircraft at Croydon Aerodrome in 1931. He made a long-distance record attempt to Cape Town in it
Breathe new life into the fun factor: cars at the Riley Motor Club Rally, Croydon Aerodrome, 25 April 1931
The British network of airways and flight paths was first designed in the 1960s and makes it impossible to take full advantage of the possibilities of modern aircraft, says Nats.
It adds that it “plays a leading role in cross-sectoral plans to modernize the country’s airspace over the next five years, something that allows aircraft to fly higher for longer, get more direct routes and allow for a more continuous descent, something that both reduce fuel consumption and emissions’.
Juliet concludes: ‘The early pioneers of the 1920s laid the foundation for aviation to flourish in the 20th century and enrich the lives of countless people around the world. Now, with more than three million flights predicted by 2030 per year, we have to do the same for the rest of the 21st. ”
Santa arrives at Croydon Aerodrome on November 4, 1930, loaded on an airplane with a load of toys for children during the festive season
An Air Union Wibault 282 aircraft, the ‘Golden Clipper’, on the asphalt at Croydon Airport in 1930
Ian Walker, president of Historic Croydon Airport Trust, said: “In 1920 there was no blueprint for what air traffic control or even an airport should look like, so it was up to those early pioneers to develop, test and implement the ideas that made it possible would make air travel to grow safely. “Here is the airport on June 22, 1946