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Today we celebrate the 70th anniversary of Heathrow Airport, officially opened for commercial air travel on 31 May 1946. Initially, it was rather prosaically named London Airport, only becoming officially Heathrow sometime later, to many of us simply LHR. London Airport took over the role as London’s main airport from Croydon Aerodrome which had operated in that capacity since 1920.

But the origins of Heathrow as an airport go back to the early days of aviation. West London had been the base for military aircraft manufacturers such as Sopwith (later Hawker) in Kingston and Fairey in Hayes. Such was the craze for aviation in the early decades of the 20th Century that airstrips were common in London suburbia in places like Hendon, Croydon, Northolt … and a hamlet near Hounslow Heath called Heathrow. That now lost village existed from medieval times roughly where Terminal 3 is today.

Fairey Aviation, led by Sir Richard Fairey, having been evicted from Northolt by the Air Ministry in the late 1920s, bought land and developed a three runway aerodrome in the Heathrow area during the 1930s. It was variously known as Harmondsworth Aerodrome, Great West Aerodrome and Heathrow Aerodrome. But in 1944, under emergency powers, the government once again evicted Fairey from their home – without compensation. Hard to credit their grim luck. Not knowing what to do with it after the war, the aerodrome was turned over to civilian use. Result: London Airport.

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Aerial image of LHR in the mid-1950s.

The following 10 years, the airport became very busy indeed, and yet it took until the mid-1950s for permanent terminals to be built: Terminal 1 Britannic (later Terminal 2, recently demolished and rebuilt); and Terminal 2 Oceanic (later Terminal 3 we still know, albeit re-developed). Terminal 1 was added in 1969, and that’s the way things stayed until Terminal 4 was opened in 1986 on the South Perimeter, the first passenger Terminal outside the central terminal complex. Terminal 5 opened near the West Perimeter in 2008. Terminal 1 is now awaiting demolition while the development of a modern expanded Terminal 2 continues. In addition to all of this there has been a long-term cargo area on the South Perimeter.

Concorde at LHR in the 1980s.

Concorde at LHR in the 1980s.

The stars of any airport, of course, are the aircraft. Today the skies and runways are dominated by the giants birds of Boeing and Airbus. But we look back, perhaps ruefully, to the days when Britain played a more active role with our Viscounts, BAC 1-11s, Comets, VC10s. Best, fastest and most beautiful of all of course was much-loved and much missed Concorde, lost to us forever at the turn of this century. Most of all, LHR was her home. And while British Airways is such in name only a member of this or that “alliance”, some of us rue the passing of BEA, BOAC, British Midland, British Caledonian and so on. Especially those, like me, who worked at LHR years ago and today still live under her flight path. From where I’m writing this I look out the window where aircraft fly by every minute all day long: I love them all.

Happy birthday, Heathrow!


Excellent Crown Film Unit footage of the construction of early Heathrow.
Heathrow Airport history timeline on Wikipedia.

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concordeThe other day Demos announced the results of a poll of what symbols made us proud to be British. Shakespeare came out top, followed by stuff like the Pound, the Beatles, the Union Jack, our armed forces etc. Missing from the list, some eight years after her demise, was Concorde, a symbol which – had she still been flying – would otherwise have figured in the top 10, surely. I am reminded of a friend who, some thirty years ago almost, said: “We only have two things to be proud of in this country: Concorde and David Bowie”.

I am writing this now, only because today is the anniversary of Concorde’s inaugural service from London to New York, in 1977. A time when the economy, like today, was in very poor shape. Not quite the same as the early 2000s, when the Air France disaster happened. Millions were invested in modifications to make both fleets of Concorde safer, yet Air France and British Airways scrapped them in 2003.  British Airways at that time was run by Australian Rod Eddington. An accountant.

I was one of the relatively fortunate few who flew on Concorde, not through wealth, I must emphasise, but rather as an occasional document courier. But like most people who live within 30 miles of Heathrow, I was a fan. You could set your watch by Speedbird’s take-off and landings and you never, ever didn’t look up as she roared past high above you. I’ll never forget driving on Heathrow’s western perimiter road as she took off a few hundred feet overhead. The van rocked, the goosebumps instantaneous. Ahhh, how we miss her.

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1983. The day I flew Concorde.

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April 2004. Heartbreaking. The carcass of Concorde on a barge on the Thames in Isleworth

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