World’s first air traffic control tower completes 100 years

25 February 2020 (Last Updated February 26th, 2020 11:51)

The world's first air traffic control tower, which was commissioned in the UK, has completed its 100-year anniversary. 

World’s first air traffic control tower completes 100 years
Croydon from above in 1925. Credit: NATS / Historic Croydon Airport professionally colourised by internationally renowned artist, Marina Amaral.

The world’s first air traffic control tower, which was commissioned in the UK, has completed its 100-year anniversary.

The tower was constructed at the now-decommissioned Croydon Airport, which was London’s main airport at the time.

Today, UK air traffic management company NATS manages around 2.6 million annual flights carrying hundreds of millions of passengers.

The air traffic control concept was first introduced when the first airline passenger services started. In a bid to safely manage air traffic, the UK Air Ministry commissioned the building at Croydon Airport.

The building was constructed 15ft above ground level, with large windows on all four walls. It was named ‘Aerodrome Control Tower’.

Historic Croydon Airport Trust chair Ian Walker 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.”

Civil Aviation Traffic Officers or CATOs were the first controllers for the tower and relayed basic traffic, location and weather information to pilots over radio.

The progress of around 12 daily flights was tracked with the basic radio-based navigation and marked on paper maps with pins and flags.

NATS operations director Juliet Kennedy said: “The early pioneers of the 1920s laid down the foundations that allowed aviation to flourish in the 20th century and enrich the lives of countless people around the world. Now, with over three million flights a year predicted by 2030, we need to do the same for the rest of the 21st.”