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The Airport

I went to visit Croydon Airport recently with a family member who flew from Croydon to Guernsey in the 1950s. The tour guide was excellent and was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the history of the airport and the early travel requirements. 

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The Airport

Historic Croydon Airport

Historic Croydon Airport- Why it matters?

London Croydon Airport was once Britain's major and only international gateway airport. As global air travel developed after World War One it played a significant part in early twentieth century British history and shaping global air travel.

Some of the significant historic events and achievements at London Croydon Airport include:-

  • Amy Johnson's record-breaking flights
  • birthplace of Air Traffic Control
  • innovation of "Mayday" international distress call
  • world's first integral airport terminal
  • world's first Air Traffic Control Tower
  • establishment of Britain's national airline, Imperial Airways
  • Britain's first international air routes across Europe, Asia and Australia
  • site of multiple world record- breaking flights

Significantly, the new airport introduced the world to two new types of specialised building:-

  • Airport Terminal
  • Air Traffic Control Tower.

These two types of new building were the first built in Britain, Europe or across the world and are instantly recognisable features of all modern airports. The buildings were of importance as they identified the key functions and processes needed in these transport buildings and were designed around those functions.

  

A Place in History

With the March 1920 closure of the temporary aerodrome at Hounslow Heath, it became operational as London Terminal Aerodrome from 29th March 1920 until 30th September 1959. It began life using the former 1915 World War One airfield with commercial operations commencing when the RAF vacated the aerodrome in March 1920. Britain's first airport expansion Act of Parliament in 1925 led to the 1926 redevelopment of the airport with the completion of the new buildings in 1928.

It was a place of momentous historic events, recording breaking flights, innovations and the creation of Britain's international airline- Imperial Airways. Imperial Airways went on to become British Airways. The first innovations in Air Traffic Control were developed here- the international distress call "Mayday" was created by London Croydon Airport Radio Officer F.S. "Stanley" Mockford in 1923.

The 1920's and 30's saw a host of record breaking flights from London Croydon Airport that made the aviators and aviatrixes global celebrities. Women such as  Amy Johnson became household names with extraordinary daring flights. Alongside the avaitrixes of the day were their male couterparts, competing with them to make record-flights, such as Jim Mollision, Charles Kingsford-Smith and Sir Alan Cobham.

The magnificent terminal building (originally known as the Administration Building) was part of the 1926 airport redevelopment. When opened it was a world first. The world's first airport terminal and the biggest and most advanced airport. It set new standrads for air travel and was designed around the two key airport processes- Departure and Arrival.

Designed, constructed and operated by the Air Ministry the architects produced a wholly new type of airport building. There was no other airport terminals for the Air Ministry architects to study (none had been built at that time) but they produced a truly exceptional design. For the first time they brougt together all key airport functions and processes in one super efficent building, sequencing each step of the airport process through designated zones. 

Located in Greater London, it rapidly developed over four decades and has been known under a variety of names- Royal Flying Corps Station Beddington, Waddon Aerodrome, RAF Station Beddington, Croydon Aerodrome, Air Port of London, London Terminal Aerodrome, RAF Croydon and finally Croydon Airport. With the dawn of air travel at the beginning of the 20th Century, London Croydon Airport was a hotbed for technical innovations and developments. It achieved much global media attention and was the focal point for many world record breaking flights. A journey by air today still uses the innovations created at the Air Port of London, Croydon.

 

World War I- The Beginning 

The airport traces its history back to World War I. In response to Zeppelin bombing raids on London and Croydon, the site was selected as part of the Royal Flying Corps Home Defence in December 1915. The first aircraft, two B.E. 2C’s, arrived at Royal Flying Corps Station Beddington in January 1916.  As the War drew on additional aircraft were stationed at Beddington including Sopwith Camels, Sopwith Pups, Avro 504’s and Bristol Fighters. These aircraft were involved in a number of defensive sorties against Zeppelin and Gotha bombers raids through 1916 and 1917. 

On the 1st April 1918, the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service were merged to form the Royal Air Force. Training duties at Croydon were taken on by No.29 Training Squadron, Royal Air Force. In 1919, HRH Prince Albert, later King George VI, and HRH Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, received flying training at Croydon with No.29 Training Squadron. 

Adjacent to the RAF airfield was National Aircraft Factory No.1. Rapidly constructed in 1918, it was the first of three National Aircraft Factories built to mass produce aircraft for the war effort. It consisted of 58 buildings and covered an enormous 650,000 square feet. The war brought much social change and gave women new opportunities for work. Women were extensively employed at National Aircraft Factory No.1.  Associated with the factory was the aircraft testing airfield of Waddon Aerodrome. 

At the end of World War One, the fledgling RAF service established No.1 Group Headquarters at the aerodrome along with the Air Council Inspection Squadron. Both units vacated the premisies in 1920 before the aerodrome was handed over to civilian commercial operations.

 

Air Travel- The Revolution 

After the World War One ban on civil aviation was lifted on 25th August 1919 and the revolutionary new mode of mass transport began. March 29th 1920 London’s airport was moved from the temporary aerodrome at Hounslow Heath to the much larger and better equipped airfield of Croydon Aerodrome. Croydon Aerodrome was an amalgamation of RAF Station Beddington and Waddon Aerodrome.  It was here that Britain’s fledging airlines sought to establish regular intercontinental passenger services. Aircraft Transport and Travel (AT &T) Ltd and Instone Airlines promptly moved in followed by Handley Page Ltd in 1921. These fledgling airlines predominately used converted World War I bombers. Pilots flew in open cockpits and had to endure the extremes of weather that Mother Nature would throw at them. For passengers the journey was little better. Although the passenger cabins were enclosed, they were cold and noisy being constructed of wood and canvas featuring no heating or sound insulation. 

Winston Churchill, in his book “Thoughts and Adventures”, gives an account of his flying lessons at Croydon Aerodrome. Churchill gives a vivid recollection of one of his final flying lessons that resulted in a brutal crash. Fortunately for Britain, it was a crash he survived.

Passenger numbers grew significantly from when the airport was opened in 1920. The first year of operations saw 2,000 passengers use the airport rising to 26,000 a year when the new terminal building was opened in 1928. The early 1930’s saw a sharp jump in passenger numbers:- 

1931- 44,944 passengers 

1932- 70,162 passengers 

1933- 87,115 passengers 

1935- 120,390 passengers 

These figures demonstrate, for the time period in question, that this was the busiest airport in the UK and one of the busiest in the world. 

1935 is the first year that the Air Ministry published detailed figures that included all the new municipal aerodromes around the UK, that had gradually become operational as the 1930's progressed. Of the eighteen operational airports in the UK, the figures show that London Croydon Airport handled 84% of all the UK’s air cargo (3894.4 tons), 49% (120,390) of all UK passengers and 62% of all the UK’s air mail (596.1 tons). The average load factor per passenger flight was the highest of all UK airports at around 66% with the significant majority of all international passengers using the airport. The next busiest UK airport was Portsmouth with 25,000 passengers.  

In 1920 the airport employed 49 Air Ministry staff. By 1934 there were 1146 employees at the airport. 

The new airport terminal, opened in 1928, was built with a roof top viewing gallery which was a very popular tourist attraction- so much so that the Air Ministry need to employ fulltime Tour Guides at the airport to meet demand. It was the UK’s most visited airport. 

The airport had become a popular tourist attraction. The Air Ministry made records of all the visitors to the airport:- 

1930- 28454 visitors to the building/ 93750 visitors to public enclosure 

1932- 58583 visitors to the building 

1934- 94867 visitors to the building 

1936- 107059 visitors to the building 

The above figures exclude visitors for special events such as the return of Amy Johnson after her historic record-breaking flights. Amy's flights would attract over 100,000 visitors to the airport and a million to line the streets of South London to view her cavalcade.

  

Airport Terminal and Air Traffic Control Tower- two new buildings for the 20th Century 

In 1926, work began on creating a special structure to house all airport functions in one building and construct a building to support Air Traffic Control functions. Work was completed in 1928 when the new airport terminal was opened to the public on the 2nd May and became full operational. This was the first modern airport terminal to integrate all aiport functions in one preplanned structure designed to support airport processs. Key to it's success was to identify and plan around the movement of people and goods through the building- departures and arrivals. 

 The new terminal building was part of the redevelopment of the London Croydon Airport as enacted by the Act of Parliament- the Croydon Aerodrome Extension Act 1925.The redevelopment saw the site experience a tenfold increase in size of the flying field and the new buildings cover thirty four acres. When opened in 1928 it was the world's biggest airport. 

The terminal building was known as the Administration Building and was re-located alongside the Purley Way (one of the UK’s first road bye-passes built in 1925) to improve rapid distribution of goods and traffic arriving by air. The building was designed by unknown architects of the Air Ministry- Department of Buildings and Works and constructed by Wilson Lovatt and Son Ltd. at a cost of £267,000. It was constructed using a steel frame allowing for easy extension for future airport expansion and walled with 50,000 concrete blocks. The concrete blocks were finished in a special aggregate mix to give the appearance of Portland Stone. 

Central to the Administration Building was the Check-in area known as the Booking Hall, the central area for administration and passenger processing functions, enveloped by the two cargo wings. An innovative design that is now a standard airport design, it featured six check-in desks and administration facilities for the international airlines. The Booking Hall featured a large two storey atrium surrounded by a first floor balustrade with geometric patterned railings. Atop the atrium sits a magnificent steel framed glass dome, flooding the area with light. The Booking Hall was the first passenger check-in area designed and constructed with designated independent check-in facilities for international airlines. 

The Booking Hall lead through to Immigration, Security and Customs checks before exiting through the world’s first Departure gate to the south side of the Control Tower. The Arrivals gate was on the norths ide of the Control Tower.  

The building featured a high speed pneumatic vacuum tube communication system connecting the Air Traffic Controllers in the Control Tower to the Meteorological Office and Commandant’s Office.  

Air Traffic Control Tower 

The Control Tower is an outstanding, bold and distinctive design. Instantly recognisable for its square shape, unusual for an ATC Tower that are generally circular, it is striking in its restrained classical design that ingeniously houses many technical and operational functions that are not obvious to the onlooker. In sheer scale it is impressive. As well as the world’s first designed ATC Tower, it was the also largest, constructed over four floors with three floors dedicated to supporting Air Traffic Control functions. Many Control Towers built after this did not surpass it in design complexity for many years. 

The descriptive term “Control Tower” itself originated to describe the timber structure at the first London Croydon Airport and its use can be traced back to 1920. The 1928 building was a step change improvement on the timber structure it replaced on the site and designed around the operational experience gained by the first Air Traffic Controllers (originally known as Civil Aviation Traffic Officers- C.A.T.O.). Of interest is that Control Towers only became compulsory in 1944. 

The innovation of the London Airport Control Tower was to utilise height and a vertical construction and to give each level a clear function. The vertical nature and height of the Control Tower provided three technical advantages for the ATC functions:- 

•             Clear 360 degree visibility of airborne air traffic, improved visual range and commanding view of airfield movements 

•             Increased operational range of radio installations mounted on the Control Tower’s roof 

•             Reduced topographic air mass interference to the meteorological equipment installed atop the radio mast  

The Air Traffic Control Tower was built around the need to incorporate technical equipment into the design of the building and to provide effective working areas for each function employed in the Tower. The Control Tower was a world first and when built the world’s tallest and largest Control Tower. In addition to the operational advantages the Control Tower brought, each level and part of the structure served a specific function designed to facilitate improved Air Traffic Control. There was continuous innovation and experimentation regarding the equipment and procedures used in Air Traffic Control.

 The tall central mast on the Tower ingeniously provided a dual purpose. It incorporated a wind anemometer feeding data down through the centre of the building to Dines anemograph machine located on the first floor Meteorological Office of the Control Tower and also provided two way communications between the Radio Officers, Air Traffic Controllers and aircraft.   

Three clocks located on the airfield sides of the balcony were visible to the pilots to ensure that the aircraft’s clock were synchronised to the correct time. The Towers’ three clocks were linked into the Administration buildings’ electronic master clock system and accurate to a minimum of two seconds per week. Time is a key element required for navigation and safe in-flight aircraft separation.

 The Top Floor of the Control Tower was accessed by a spiral staircase which lead into a room divided into two sections- the Control Room and the Radio Room. These were for the working positions of the Civil Aviation Traffic Officers (C.A.T.O.), Traffic Assistants and the Radio Officers- each had a specific task. The Radio Officers were licensed to operate and communicate with the airliners by radio-telephony (speech) and wireless telegraphy (Morse code) with custom-built equipment built by Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company. Marconi’s equipment was itself important in the facilitating of Air Traffic Control. The C.A.T.O.’s, supported by the Traffic Assistants, managed the departing and arrival air traffic to and from the UK. The area of coverage extended across the English Channel to the French Coast to the South and the Dutch coast to the North. 

Part of the advanced design of the Control Tower was the facility to remote control airfield facilities and the remotely-located radio transmitting station. The radio transmitting station located three miles from the airport (for safety reasons) was equipped by Marconi’s with four 3 kilo watt custom built transmitters and featured four 103 foot tall steel radio masts. Marconi’s had an office and a large presence at the airport.  

Some aspects are of a highly technical nature relating to the specialist area of commercial air transport e.g. Air Traffic Control and the Control Tower. Additionally, the airfield facilities that could be remotely controlled from the Control Tower such as inset runway lighting. Inset runway lighting was an important step as it helped pilots’ land and take-off safely in poor visibility. Specialised runway markings (the chalk line) aided pilots during take-off and landing as it helped pilots maintain orientation and thus prevent loss of control of the aircraft, especially in conditions of poor visibility. These features have been further developed and are standard features in runway design today. 

Air Traffic Control and its associated structures are worthy of consideration on its own merits.  Air Traffic Control Towers are an instantly recognisable architectural feature that is synonymous with air travel. Speech radio transmissions were the new cutting edge technology of the 1920’s that were essential for the development of Air Traffic Control. Air Traffic Control is a critical part of the global air transport network and was an essential development that wholly stemmed from the necessity to manage the safety of airliners. 

As a European reference to a different approach to the above design, Germany developed a low rise “Radio Room” building at the first Tempelhof c.1925. This approach was later abandoned in later German airport buildings for the now standard Control Tower format. The format designed and constructed at London Croydon Airport is now the standard design of all Air Traffic Control Towers. 

 

Air Traffic Control- The Need to Make Flying Safer 

It was a difficult and complex task to establish reliable air schedules. An important new and essential development was Air Traffic Control (ATC). Croydon was the major innovator in this area. It employed Civili Aviation Traffic Officers and Radio Officers and invented a number of the first procedures and concepts still used for Air Traffic Control today. 

On the 25th February 1920 the Air Ministry detailed the specification and construction of the world's first technical building to control air traffic, the "Aerodrome Control Tower", to be installed at Croydon Aerodrome. This was also the first time that the "Control Tower" terminology was used. The Air Ministry specification stated that the "platform of the tower to be 15 feet above ground level", have "have large windows placed in all four walls", with a "wind-vane to be fitted to the roof of the hut with a geared- down indicator placed inside","enabling the control officer to read changes of wind". The world's first Air Traffic Control Tower was born. 

Radio Position Fixing was a Croydon based procedure approved by the Air Ministry in 1922. This was a new system using aircraft radio transmissions to fix an aircraft’s position- an essential first step in establishing a radio based global air navigation network. 

G.J.H “Jimmy” Jeffs, Croydon Civilian Air Traffic Officer, was one of the great innovators in developing the new discipline. Issued with Air Traffic Control Licence No.1 in 1922, Jeffs developed many of the systems and procedures that were approved by the Air Ministry. Having established over twenty-five ATC Units in the UK, it was the United States who asked that Jeffs lead the establishment of the North Atlantic Airspace. Jeffs had a distinguished career in civil and military Air Traffic Control, culminating in the award of the CVO, OBE and the US Legion of Merit. 

The step from the use of radio telegraphy (Morse code) to radio telephony (speech transmissions) saw the need for a new way to use language to ensure clearly understood messages. F.S. "Stanley" Mockford, Croydon’s Senior Radio Officer, conceived the distress phrase “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” in 1923. The British Government embodied the Mayday distress call as part of the required radio procedures to be used in an emegency, promulgating it's use in The Air Pilot: Great Britain, published in 1924. Adopted by the International Radiotelegraph Convention of Washington in 1927, "Mayday" became the international standard distress phrase. It still saves lives today. 

The re-development of the airport between 1926- 1928 saw the construction of two new technical buildings for air transport- the airport terminal and the air traffic control tower. The construction of the Air Traffic Control Tower was a seminal moment in building design. Constructed around the object of delivering effective Air Traffic Control, each level of the 1928 London Croydon Airport Tower povided a dedicated air traffic control support function that has become the standard design for all control towers.

 

Imperial Airways- The launch of Britain's National Airline 

London, Croydon to Paris, Le Bourget quickly became the world’s busiest air route. Competition was fierce and British airlines found it very difficult to compete against the heavily subsidised continental airlines. AT & T Limited was the first casualty from the subsidised competition and went into liquidation in 1921. The assets were bought up and Daimler Airway Limited emerged as a new British airline. 

To better compete against the continental competition the British Government looked to merge the British airlines into a single commercial entity. On the 1st April 1924 Imperial Airways was born and the London Terminal Aerodrome, Croydon was its home base. Until the outbreak of World War II halted commercial flying, Imperial Airways would be at the forefront of driving innovation and the development of intercontinental air travel. It worked closely with aircraft manufactures to develop safe, reliable and comfortable airliners. The Handley Page HP42, in service from 1931, was the result of specification from Imperial Airways for a four-engine, long range, luxury passenger airliner. The world’s largest bi-plane airliner ever built, it was also one of the safest having an untarnished safety record in commercial service. 

Imperial Airways was the government's "chosen instrument" to connect Britain with it's extensive overseas interests. Privately owned but government sponsored, Imperial Airways grew an extensive network of international routes across the globe that orignated from the London Croydon Airport. The routes grew steadily year by year reaching through Europe, India, Africa, the Middle East and onto the Far East and finally Australia. In 1934 Imperial Airways established the world's longest air route from London Croydon to Brisbane Australia. The international air routes developed from the London Airport are some of the world's longest established air routes- with some now over ninety years old. 

Government policy at the time was to fund only one national airline and give it the monoploy over developing international air routes. Britain's international airline was based at Britain's only major international airport at Croydon. This saw the vast majority of government resources to develop commercial air transport pour into this one airport. This quirk of former government policy has left a multitude of historic events in one place and is now a significant part of Britain's heritage. 

Imperial Airways is the forerunner of today’s British Airways. 

 

The First, the Fastest and the Famous

London Croydon Airport became the global focus for record breaking flights. There was a desire to go further and faster than anyone had gone before. Here are just a few of the record breakers that flew at London Croydon Airport: 

1926, March 13th- Alan Cobham’s return flight to Cape Town in 15 days which earned him his knighthood. Cobham later innovated air to air refuelling.

1927, May 29th- Charles Lindbergh arrives in the Spirit of St. Louis after completing his trans-Atlantic flight. Mobbed by a 100,000 strong crowd- the largest crowd to assemble at an airport until The Beatles arrive at Heathrow in 1963.

1928, 7th February- Bert Hinkler departs for Darwin, Australia and sets a record solo flight time of 15 ½ days.

1928, 17th May- Lady Heath arrives at London Croydon Airport after a record-breaking solo flight from Pretoria, South Africa. Lady Heath was the first woman to hold a Commercial Pilots Licence.

1929, July 10th- Charles Kingsford-Smith arrives from Australia in Southern Cross in a record-breaking 12 days, 14 hours and 18 minutes

1930, 5th May- Amy Johnson departs for Darwin, Australia and becomes the fastest women to Australia arriving 19 days later. Amy would go on to set many other aviation records during the 1930’s and became one of the most famous celebrities on the planet. Her de Havilland Gypsy Moth aeroplane, “Jason”, resides in the Science Museum, London.

 

World War II- More War

The run up to the Second World War saw a massive increase in passenger numbers as British holidaymakers rushed to return from Europe. In the final days of August 1939 before the outbreak of war, Croydon saw passenger numbers increase 3 fold to 1500 a day. On the 30th August, Croydon reverted back to its original role of defending Britain from aerial attack. The civil airlines moved out and London Airport was now known as RAF Croydon, a fully operational frontline fighter airfield, forming part of 11 Group, Fighter Command. 

Over the next months, many aircraft and squadrons now arrived or transited through RAF Croydon. The airfield saw the arrival of Gloster Gladiators, Hawker Hurricane Mk1’s, Vickers Supermarine Spitfire Mk1’s and a host of other aircraft.

Battle of Britain Fighter Squadrons based at Croydon include No.3, No.17, No.72, No.85, No.111, No.401, No.501, No.605 and No.615 to name but some.  

The above Squadrons were led by much decorated Pilots such as Sqdn Ldr J.M. Thompson, DFC; Sqdn Ldr E A McNabb, DFC; Sqdn Ldr P W Townsend, DFC; Sqdn Ldr W. Churchill DSO, DFC; Sqdn Ldr G.R Edge, DFC;  Flt Lt A A McKellar DSO,DFC and Bar. 

The 15th August 1940 saw a massive Luftwaffe attack on Britain. RAF Croydon was a prime target and the attack involved multiple hits on the surrounding factories, airfield, airport terminal and a direct hit of the armoury. The factories around the airfield were heavily targeted with much destruction and loss of life. 62 people lost their lives and over 200 were injured. 

From 1941 significant buiding works took place to complete the conversion to a fully operational RAF airfield with starter extensions built for the grass runways, air raid sleeping quarters and a Standby Set Building. The Standby Set contained diesel generators to supply emergency electrical power to the airport incase the main supply was knocked out during an aerial bombardment. 

In 1943 RAF Transport Command was established at RAF Croydon and over the following years transported thousands of troops in and out of Europe.  Thousands of personnel from all over Europe including wounded military personnel, prisoners of war and high ranking German Officers who were flown, in 1945, to Nuremberg for trial using a captured Ju 352. Users of the airport peaked in 1943 at just over 230,000 people.

 

Return of Peace  

In 1946 Croydon returned to its civil use but the role of London’s international airport now passed to Heathrow. Croydon with its grass runways and lack of room for expansion was not suitable for the new generation of large airliners. Croydon continued as a major regional airport for a number of years but the new airports around London offered better facilities.  After 44 years of serving Britain, the airport finally closed on the 30th September 1959. The final service was a de Havilland DH114 Heron flight to Rotterdam Captained by Geoffrey Last.

 

Listed Building 

The London Croydon Airport Administration Building was the "first of the first" wave of airport buildings built around the world. It is exceptionally rare as it's contemporaries of the time have now either been demolished, destroyed or replaced. In 1978, the Terminal Building and Gate Lodge were Grade II listed and today are an active Business Centre and micro museum, the Croydon Airport Visitor Centre.

The terminal building and Control Tower are now known as Airport House. In recognition of the building's importance, Historic England have raised the building's protected statutory Listing to Grade II* (two star), the second highest protection afforded to significant historic sites in the UK. Only 5.8% of Listed buildings are afforded Grade II* status.

historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1188970

 

London Croydon Airport remains a place of great historical significance and interest. It has featured in television programmes for the BBC, National Geographic and independent media. Our extensive archive is also a treasure trove of fascinating information and a real snapshot of the growth of the formative years of commercial air travel. To find out more about our archive, read our new blog Croydon Airport Calling.