DALLAS – Today in Aviation, the world’s first air traffic control (ATC) tower opened in 1920. The new facility was located at London’s then main airport, Croydon.
The now decommissioned airfield was then the only international airport in the UK in the interwar years. As civilian air travel began to grow after the First World War, the UK’s Air Ministry wanted to find a way of safely organizing the growing number of flights.
An “Essential” Development
Previously, airports had limited radio offices and ‘aerial lighthouses’ on-site to assist with aircraft movements. Pilots, meanwhile, utilized visual aids to guide them safely to the airport.
Described as an “essential” development, the ‘Aerodrome Control Tower’, as it was then known, was commissioned on February 25. The Air Ministry stated that the wooden tower had to be “erected 15 feet above ground level.” It needed to have “large windows placed on all four walls, with a wind-vane to be fitted to the roof of the hut with a geared-down indicator placed inside, enabling the control officer to read changes of wind.”
Basic air traffic, weather, and local information for flight crews were provided by Civil Aviation Traffic Officers, or CATOs.
Flights would be tracked with radio navigation and then marked onto paper maps using pins and flags. Radio-telephony had developed during the First World War and lent itself well to the support of commercial air services.
As aviation developed during World War Two, numerous new technologies were introduced, many of which remain today. These include radio localization, two-way radio communication, and paper flight progress strips to track an aircraft’s movement at the airport and in the air.
By 1944, ATC towers became compulsory at airports. Croydon’s tower would become the blueprint for all future examples.
Croydon’s tower became the blueprint of all future ATC towers including Liverpool John Lennon Airport’s tower. (Photo: calflier001, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)