Today we celebrate International Civil Aviation Day and the founding of the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, which brings together 192 member states who agree the standards, practices and policies to make flying safe, efficient, secure, economically sustainable and environmentally responsible. Civil Aviation today connects the world, broadens horizons and enables international trading. It is an opportunity to reflect on the hard work and vision of the early pioneers of aviation who have made flying what it is today.
Heading back to a very special place in aviation history
But how did it all start? To find out we travelled a short distance up the road from our West Sussex offices, but a long way back in time, to the formative years of civil aviation. Croydon Airport played a massive part in the story of civil aviation, and by delivering a huge number of firsts and innovations has cemented its place in history. Situated on an industrial estate on the edge of Croydon, south of London, the gorgeous Grade II listed terminal building now house offices. But once a month it still opens as a museum, so we went along to join one of the guided tours and listen to its remarkable story.
Croydon really developed as a passenger airport after World War One when a surplus of bomber aircraft were converted to help develop the fledgeling civil aviation industry. Biplanes with two or four engines were fitted with a few wicker chairs to become the first ever multi-crew, multi-engined passenger aircraft.
The post-war era was an age of great progress and emerging technologies, and it was here, at Croydon Airport, that Air Traffic Control was invented.
Technologies developed at Croydon during this period meant for the first time pilots could talk on radios instead of using Morse code. It was also the first time ‘source of beam’ radio navigation was used, allowing controllers to plot aircraft positions – technologies that are still in use today. The control tower that you can still see at the museum was the world’s first. Built in 1920, it marked the introduction of the term ‘control tower’ into aviation jargon. Around this time the Air Ministry was also working on definitions of airspace and overflight rights, all of which were precursors of the current ICAO. Fred Mockford, a senior radio operator at Croydon Airport, coined the word ‘Mayday’ when the old Morse distress call ‘SOS’ proved difficult to understand in the new world. And in 1922, Croydon Civilian Air Traffic Officer G.J.H “Jimmy” Jeffs was issued with Air Traffic Control Licence No.1.
Defining moments in the history of Croydon Airport
The 1922 Picardie mid-air collision
Following an accident when two aircraft collided in poor weather in France in 1922, the first-ever rules of the air were developed in a meeting at Croydon Airport. The pilots had both been following railway lines, the normal way of navigating at the time (some railway stations even had their names painted on their roofs to help the pilots). But in the poor weather, they saw each other too late. As a result, all future flights agreed to the first rule of the air: to keep the railway line on the left of the aircraft.
In 1924, Daimler, Instone and Handley Page airlines were being merged into Imperial Airways. Possibly the world’s first airline monopoly! They started flying from Croydon to India in 1929, to South Africa in 1930, and Australia in 1934; a journey that would take 19 days, which was super fast for the time.
Croydon was the UK’s only international airport when the terminal building was opened in 1928. At the time there was very little demand for domestic travel (trains were still faster than aircraft back then), and this was the world’s first purpose-built air terminal, incorporating departure and arrival areas, customs, immigration and cargo channels. And Special Branch had offices there too, in what was the start of aviation security, It was a revolution and incorporated many of the features still seen today in the most modern terminal buildings (including the first airport shop!). However, when you checked in for your flight from Croydon, it was required that you were weighed as well as your luggage – thankfully not something we need to do today.
Royalty, celebrity and a lucky escape
If it was an age of innovation, it was also an age when royalty, the rich and the famous were regular visitors to the airport. The Queen’s father George VI learned to fly at Croydon, as did Winston Churchill, but with less success. He narrowly escaped with his life, in fact, after stalling his aircraft and crashing. Unsurprisingly, he gave up flying and took up politics soon afterwards. Among the passengers flying out of Croydon Airport were Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Babe Ruth, John F Kennedy, Gracie Fields and Rita Hayworth. Because of this reputation, the airport became a huge tourist attraction, with more spectators than passengers.
Croydon is also associated with many aviation legends and record breakers. Most famously, Amy Johnson left from Croydon to become the first woman to fly solo from the UK to Australia in 1930. And in 1927, legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh dropped by in the Spirit of St Louis after his record-breaking flight from New York to Paris.
The last passenger flight out of Croydon Airport was a Morton Air Services Heron aircraft G-AOXL on 30 September 1959. A replica of the aircraft stands outside the terminal building today. Nearby is a memorial to all the airmen from Croydon Airport who died in the 20th century’s world wars. As the airport now lies silent, surrounded by industrial units and shopping malls, it’s important to remember the contribution the pioneers and early innovators of Croydon Airport made to today’s aviation. It’s on the shoulders of these giants that today’s ICAO stands and it is thanks to them that civil aviation has come to be at the service of all humanity.
On International Civil Aviation Day we thank and salute those early trailblazers and every single person who makes it happen today.
You can visit Croydon Airport on the first Sunday of every month for a tour of the museum, booking hall and control tower. Full details can be found on the Croydon Airport website. Thanks to Ian Walker for the tour.
All photos copyright Croydon Airport Museum