Croydon Airport was the UK’s first major international airport located in 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. At the dawn of air travel at the beginning of the 20th Century, 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 from 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.
Air Travel- The Revolution
After the War ban on civil aviation was lifted the revolutionary new mode of mass transport began. March 29th 1920 London’s airport was moved from 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.
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 Civilian Aviation Traffic Officers and Radio Officers and invented a number of the first procedures and concepts still used for Air Traffic Control today. 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 MVO, CBE 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. Fred Mockford, Croydon’s Senior Radio Officer, coined the distress phrase “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” in 1923. This became the international standard distress phrase and is still saves lives today.
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 is the forerunner of today’s British Airways.
The First, the Fastest and the Famous
Croydon Aerodrome became the global focus for record breaking flights. There was a desire to go further and faster than anyone had gone before. Here are some of the record breakers who came to Croydon:
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.
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, 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. Some of the Squadrons based at the airfield included No.3, 85, 111, 145, 605, 607 and 615.
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.
In 1943 RAF Transport Command was established at RAF Croydon and over the following years transported thousands of troops in and out of Europe.
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.