February 25, 1920: The world’s first air traffic control tower was commissioned by the government 100 years ago today, in a move that helped usher in the age of mass air travel.
The tower was built at Croydon Airport, then London’s main airport, and established many of the principles of air traffic control which are still followed today.
The concept of air traffic control emerged alongside the rise of the world’s first airline passenger services. Finding a way of safely organising growing levels of traffic saw the Air Ministry commission a new building at Croydon Airport, to be “erected 15 feet above ground level” and with “large windows to be placed on all four walls”.
This building was called the “Aerodrome Control Tower” and at a stroke coined both the term that has remained synonymous with air traffic control for the past 100 years and a design that remains instantly recognisable.
Ian Walker, the chair of Historic Croydon Airport Trust, which has done so much to collect and collate historic records of those pioneering days of aviation, 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.
“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,” Walker said in an article published by the National Air Traffic Service, or NATS, website.
The first controllers – known as or 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.
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