02.04.20 Past Master Martin Payne

The only constant is change


To maintain safety in the air worldwide, air traffic control (ATC) plays a significant role. Modern ATC systems use satellite tracking; but 100 years ago, it all began at Croydon Airport, writes Past Master Martin Payne.

In the November 2004 edition of ‘Coachmaker’ you may recall an article about Frederick Stanley Mockford. ‘Stan’, as he was known to his friends, was the originator of the phonetic alphabet and the MAYDAY call sign. Stan was an important radio operator attached to the newly formed 141 Squadron at Biggin Hill, developing the first two way radio telephone system. In 1919, having spent time in Dublin, Stan was the first to hear that a Vickers Vimy had crashed in Southern Ireland; he rushed to the scene where he met Alcock and Brown who had just completed the first transatlantic crossing by air.
In 1920, Stan was moved from Hounslow Heath (now Heathrow), to become Wireless Superintendent at Croydon Airport, and it was here that he developed his most important work. There have been plenty of major aviation anniversaries in recent years with many airlines celebrating their origins, but what about the birth of air traffic control?

Unlike the first powered flight, or landing on the Moon, there is no single definitive moment to point to. But as civil aviation emerged after the First World War, a need to safely support growing levels of traffic became paramount and from that emerged the role of the air traffic controller we recognise today.

Major developments in early air traffic control occurred between 1920 and 1922, such that we think of this period as its inception point. Of course it didn’t emerge fully formed, but the intent to aid the safety and efficiency of aircraft was clearly there among those early pioneers. Air traffic control has played a vital role in making the modern aviation world safe. Aviation has connected us to places and people in a way that was never thought possible and air traffic control has made, and continues to make, a major contribution to that.

We’ve come a long way in the past 100 years. From a dozen flights a day in 1920, now 2.6 million aircraft are controlled every year by National Air Traffic Services (NATS) as the UK’s main air navigation service provider. But equally, the blueprint laid down in places such as Croydon Airport in the 1920s – where the first control tower was built – is still remarkably recognisable. It is only now, 100 years later that things such as digital towers and satellite surveillance are re-writing that blueprint and ushering in a new era.

In recognition of Croydon’s pioneering aviation days attached you will find some images of aircraft that flew from Croydon as the major airport in the UK. If you can name all the aircraft I shall be mightily impressed.