A familiar and sometimes iconic site at airports across the globe, the air traffic control tower, celebrated its 100th birthday on February 28th. The world’s first air traffic control tower was commissioned by the UK government at London’s Croydon Airport in a move that helped usher in the age of mass air travel.
At the time, Croydon was London’s main airport and the new addition kick-started the development of air traffic control. Croydon airport is also believed to the former home of the world’s first airport hotel, the Aerodrome Hotel which dates back to 1928 and counted silent movie star, Charlie Chaplin, among its first guests.
A century later and NATS, as the UK’s main air traffic control service, manages 2.6 million flights a year carrying hundreds of millions of passengers. The concept of air traffic control emerged alongside the rise of the world’s first airline passenger services.
This building was to be 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 recognizable.
Ian Walker, chair of Historic Croydon Airport Trust, 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.”
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.
Juliet Kennedy, NATS operations director, said: “We’ve come a long way since the first controllers in terms of the amount of traffic we handle and the tools we use, but the motivation to harness the latest technology to help make flying safer and more efficient remains at the absolute heart of what we do.”
In 2019 NATS introduced real-time satellite tracking to improve the safety and environmental performance of flights over the North Atlantic, while at Heathrow it is researching the use of Artificial Intelligence to cut weather-related delays at airports.
NATS is playing a leading role in cross-industry plans to modernize the country’s airspace over the next five years, something that will allow aircraft to fly higher for longer, get more direct routings and enable more continuous descent approaches, something that both reduces fuel burn and emissions.
The celebration for the 100th anniversary was muted in the United States by the current medical crisis and the fact that our own first tower was built in 1930 as noted in FAA Magazine. “The first airport traffic control tower, regulating arrivals, departures and surface movement of aircraft at a specific airport, opened in Cleveland in 1930. Approach/departure control facilities were created after adoption of radar in the 1950s to monitor and control the busy airspace around larger airports.”