The world’s first air traffic control tower was built by the UK government 100 years ago at Croydon Aerodrome, south London.
And fascinating archive pictures of it – and the planes it monitored – highlight just how much the aviation industry has changed.
The structure, a wooden hut, was built on the orders of the UK Air Ministry, which stipulated that it should be ‘erected 15 feet above ground level’ and with ‘large windows to be placed on all four walls’.
The world’s first air traffic control tower at Croydon Aerodrome, pictured in 1920
This is Croydon Aerodrome pictured in 1925. At the time it was London’s main airport
An undated photograph of Croydon Aerodrome, now with a few more buildings
This building was to be called the ‘Aerodrome Control Tower’ and at a stroke, the ministry coined both the term that has remained synonymous with air traffic control for the past 100 years and a design that remains instantly recognisable.
At the time Croydon Aerodrome, formed of several huts and a grass runway, was London’s main airport and this tower kick-started the development of air traffic control.
A century later and Nats, as the UK’s main air traffic control service, manages 2.6million flights a year carrying hundreds of millions of passengers.
A new runway night guide being installed at Croydon Aerodrome on February 11, 1930
The concept of air traffic control emerged alongside the rise of the world’s first airline passenger services and the UK Air Ministry commissioned the Croydon tower on February 25, 1920, to help safely organise growing levels of traffic.
In the 1920s Croydon Aerodrome was the busiest airport in the world, with around a dozen flights a day to Paris and Brussels.
Ian Walker, Chair 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 fell to those early pioneers to develop, test and implement the ideas that would enable air travel to grow safely.
The concept of air traffic control emerged alongside the rise of the world’s first airline passenger services and the UK Air Ministry commissioned the Croydon tower to help safely organise growing levels of traffic
The UK Air Ministry stipulated that the control tower should be ‘erected 15 feet above ground level’ and with ‘large windows to be placed on all four walls’. This picture was taken in 1927
The progress of the dozen or so daily flights was tracked using basic radio-based navigation and plotted on paper maps and using pins and flags
‘Airfields before this had radio offices and “aerial lighthouses”, but nothing with the explicit intent of providing technical air traffic services to aircraft. The “control tower” was described as an “essential” development and its legacy lives on with us today.’
The first controllers – known as Civil Aviation Traffic Officers or CATOs – provided basic traffic, location and weather information to pilots over the radio, which itself was still a relatively new invention. The progress of the dozen or so daily flights was tracked using basic radio-based navigation and plotted on paper maps and using pins and flags.
Today, Nats’ 1,700 air traffic controllers handle up to 8,000 flights a day in some of the world’s busiest airspace.
This Airco DH-4 operated a service from Croydon Airport to Paris in 1920
The Air Ministry letter ordering the building of the Croydon control tower. ‘Light proof blinds’ and a ‘wind-vane’ were among the many cutting edge features required
The first controllers – known as Civil Aviation Traffic Officers or CATOs – provided basic traffic, location and weather information to pilots over the radio. This image was taken at Croydon Aerodrome in 1931
Juliet Kennedy, Nats operations director, said: ‘We’ve 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 harness the latest technology to help make flying safer and more efficient remains at the absolute heart of what we do.’
In 2019 Nats introduced real-time satellite tracking 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 cut weather-related delays at airports.
Juliet continues: ‘We have a £1bn investment programme, but technology alone is not the answer if we’re going to both keep pace with the growing demand to fly and meet the huge challenge of climate change. Modernising our airspace is now essential.’
Red Rose, the Avro Avian belonging to American aviator Captain William Newton Lancaster, aka Bill Lancaster (1898 – 1933), at Croydon Aerodrome, October 1927
American aviator Charles Lindbergh arrives at Croydon Aerodrome after a flight from Evere Aerodrome in Brussels in his Ryan monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, May 29, 1927
A crowd of around 100,000 turned out to see Lindbergh arrive, eight days after his completion of the first solo transatlantic flight
The Imperial Airways Handley Page 42W, named Hengist, is towed onto the Croydon Aerodrome runway for its first departure towards Brisbane, Australia, on December 8, 1934
Commander Glen Kidston (1899 – 1931) testing his new plane at Croydon Aerodrome in 1931. He made a long-distance record attempt to Cape Town in it
Revving up the fun factor: Cars at the Riley Motor Club Rally, Croydon Aerodrome, April 25, 1931
The UK’s network of airways and flight paths were first designed in the 1960s and make it impossible to take full advantage of the capabilities of modern aircraft, says Nats.
It adds that it is ‘playing a leading role in cross-industry plans to modernise the country’s airspace over the next five years, something that will allow aircraft to fly higher for longer, get more direct routings and enable more continuous descent approaches, something that both reduces fuel burn and emissions’.
Juliet concludes: ‘The early pioneers of the 1920s laid down the foundations that allowed aviation to flourish in the 20th century and enrich the lives of countless people around the world. Now, with over three million flights a year predicted by 2030, we need to do the same for the rest of the 21st.’
Father Christmas arrives at Croydon Aerodrome on November 4, 1930, on a plane laden with a cargo of toys for children during the festive season
An Air Union Wibault 282 aircraft, the ‘Golden Clipper’, on the tarmac at Croydon Airport in 1930
Ian Walker, Chair 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 fell to those early pioneers to develop, test and implement the ideas that would enable air travel to grow safely.’ Here’s the airport on June 22, 1946