In the past week, Travel Radar has explored the anniversary of a number of events in the development of commercial aviation; we looked at the Boeing’s 747 Jumbo-Jet, the 757, and the incomparable Concorde. But here’s something a little different; this year the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) of the UK celebrates the centenary of the world’s first air traffic control tower.

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An Arrival at Croydon ©NATS

Due to the increase in the number of commercial flights from London-just ten or so daily– the Air Ministry of the UK commissioned the construction of a purpose-built air traffic control tower at the now-closed Croydon airport, on 25th February 1920.

Up to that point, there had been radio offices (and radio was still quite new at the time) and lighthouses as a navigation aid at airfields, but nothing purpose-built. Of course, there was no precedent for how to design or build the facility, so the Air Ministry specified a structure, really no more than a wooden hut, on stilts 15 feet high with a small balcony and large windows on all sides.

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The First Croydon tower-1920 © Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo

The staff at the ‘Aerodrome Control Tower’ were largely ex-military, and couldn’t do much more than give (or deny) take-off clearance, confirm and plot positions of aircraft on paper, and send out basic information on traffic, weather and location—but in a sense much the same kind of information available to pilots today.

From those humble beginnings, the NATS now has 1 700 air traffic controllers, handles up to 8 000 flights a day and is investing £1 billion in new equipment and modernising the airspace over the UK; so spare a thought for those keeping you safe in the air, and a hundred years ago, for the pioneers of today’s air traffic controllers.


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