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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.

LHR55

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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Guest Post. On the 10th anniversary of Concorde’s final commercial flight, David Long muses on the magic of our magnificent, lost Speedbird.

Concorde“I’ve flown Concorde.” Actually I’ve flown in a Spitfire – a rare two-seater, which is much more unusual – but somehow people relate more to the Concorde experience and even now, 10 years after this shimmering white exemplar of Anglo-French cooperation was canned, those few brief words will still bring a conversation to a sudden green-eyed halt.

For years, right until the very end, its unmistakable profile coming into Heathrow still made people look up – not just tourists, but Londoners too who must have seen it nearly every day – and as a child I remember the conductor at an outdoor concert at Kenwood or maybe Crystal Palace stopping the performance mid-symphony and gesturing for the orchestra to stand and applaud as the magnificent creation passed over.

Generally speaking most of us very quickly get used to anything new, but Concorde was always different. For nearly 30 years it really was one of the sights of London, and it belonged to London in a way that no other aircraft could possibly have done. (On the contrary: who in West London doesn’t literally hate the Boeings and Airbuses crashing into their consciousness at 6am every morning?)

Even people with no interest in aircraft loved Concorde, and in the face of the dreadful disaster in Paris, the far-reaching effects of 9/11, and a growing environmental awareness, most wanted it to continue flying even though for the overwhelming majority the chance of ever climbing aboard was never more than zero.

Concorde

Admittedly our passion for it sometimes blinds us to the fact that when it all started Concorde wasn’t alone in racing for the stars. The Soviets actually entered service a few months earlier with the similar-looking (and slightly faster) Tupolev Tu-144. But rushed into production for propaganda purposes the shine very quickly came off ‘Concordski’ when one crashed at an airshow (also in Paris as it happens). The Americans took a run at it too, with the much larger Boeing SST – intended to upstage Concorde, it was designed to fly at three times the speed of sound instead of just the two – but the Senate refused to back Nixon as the price spiralled out of control and eventually the one completed fuselage was auctioned off for a mere $31,000

That left only Concorde. Not that it ever made much sense either, financially, although mentioning this now seems vulgar and in decidedly poor taste. Some things, we like to think, are simply above price although there’s no escaping the reality that the original budget of £150 million reached something like two billion of public money before the ‘planes were sold to what is now BA for a mere £1 apiece.

But then there are so many ways in which Concorde made little sense. That graceful, slim shape, for example, meant it was far more cramped than even the cheapest charter. (And this despite the fact that, in flight, it stretched by nearly 10 inches as its surface temperature rises to 100°C+) It was also a good deal noisier than conventional aircraft. Inside, I mean. From outside it was in a whole new league altogether with a signature sonic boom that would have shattered windows more than 60 miles away had it ever broken the sound barrier over land.

And as for the fuel consumption of its four gigantic Rolls-Royce Olympus 593 engines, famously the most powerful jet engines in commercial service? Well, let’s just say that given that they were already slurping 5,638 gallons an hour in the early 1970s – when OPEC started holding the world to ransom with increased prices for crude oil – the ability to fly at twice the speed of sound wasn’t the only miraculous thing about Concorde’s continued existence.

But balancing all of this, and flying at an apparently effortless 1,340mph, few then or now could deny that Concorde was beautiful. Really, really breathtakingly beautiful. It was also, inarguably, such a technological tour de force – the result of more than five million test-flight miles, much of it at Mach speeds – that it quickly came to symbolise European technical achievement and pride in a way which today – post-Dome, post-Eurotunnel, and in the midst of Crossrail – is impossible to imagine. The authorities weren’t blind to its symbolic value either, and when the US finally cleared Concorde to land in America two were sent over, carefully timed to land simultaneously and to taxi up to the terminal in a perfectly orchestrated delta-winged ballet of elegant, nose-drooping, synchronous showing-off.

Concorde

From then on passengers on both sides of the Atlantic welcomed the chance to slice hours off their journeys: London to New York took less than three and a half hours, roughly half the normal time and surprisingly only 20 minutes more than if Boeing’s rival SST had made it to Mach 3. But, while not quite just a rich man’s toy, the example of Concorde certainly demonstrated that supersonic travel was never going to be for the masses – or at least not any time soon.

By the mid-1980s the hundred passengers on each flight had to cough up £2,200 apiece for a cheap-day return to New York and eventually you could more or less treble this for a fare which made First Class look a snip. The flights were therefore mostly full of corporate grandes fromages, show-biz types and the odd professional sportsmen. (Some of the former did it on a regular basis, like the oil exec. who according to BA was clocking up an average of three supersonic flights a week until the bitter end.)

To such people the time saved was clearly worth the money: the five-hour time difference between the UK and US meant in effect they arrived before they had taken off. But to those down on the ground it is, even now, much harder to say quite what Concorde represented or why 10 years on its loss is still keenly felt. But perhaps some things are never meant fully to be understood, and the truth might just be that Concorde really was that special.

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London HIstorians member David Long is a journalist and author of many books, mostly relating to London and its history. His latest – Bizarre London – has just been published.

On this blog, see also.

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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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