70 years ago today, the former Great West Aerodrome, which had been a small airfield used since 1929 growing at the end of World War II to take large military aircraft bound for the Far East, opened as London Airport. Twenty years later, it officially took the name of the hamlet in which the airfield was based, and hence we can say, Happy 70th birthday Heathrow Airport.
The area has been a centre of transport industry for some time, with one of the canals that cross near the site, the Duke of Northumberland, having been built to improve the flow of water to mills in the area during the reign of Henry VIII. Aviation started in the area when Fairey Aviation started airframe assembly and flight testing at nearby Northolt, and during World War I, the Royal Flying Corps had a base at Hounslow Heath Aerodrome, which became London’s only airfield with a customs presence until Croydon Airport became the capital’s main commercial air base.
In the mid 1920s, a chance incident from World War I fighter ace, Norman Macmillan put Heathrow on the aviation map. Macmillan had flown Sopwith Camels and had nine aerial victories, and received the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty”, and the Air Force Cross. After the war, he became a flying instructor, helping the new Spanish Air Force and seeing more combat action with them in the Rif War in Morocco. He was chief test pilot for Fairey in 1925, and he made an emergency landing on a strip of land used for market gardening that year, remarking on the flatness of the land and its suitability for a landing strip. The land was in a hamlet called Heathrow. The Air Ministry gave Fairey Aviation notice to quit Northolt, and Macmillan recommended a move to the land he had used for his emergency landing. Fairey Aviation started buying up the land in 1929, and the site was in use through the 1930s. The airfield saw some action during the war, with 229 Squadron of Hurricanes arriving there in 1940 to protect it, and it being used as a diversion airport by the RAF. Commercial aircraft started landing from March 1946, with a British South American Airways Avro Lancastrian, Star Light, landing on the 25th March, before the renamed London Airport was officially opened for commercial operations on the 31st May 1946, and a Panair Lockheed 049 Constellation arriving from Rio.
In 1952, Queen Elizabeth II arrived at Heathrow, having left the UK as Princess Elizabeth, on a BOAC Argonaut Atlanta, and the following year, Her Majesty laid the ceremonial first slab of a new runway. The Queen returned again in 1955 to open the first permanent passenger terminal at the airport, the Europa Building, which became Terminal 2 when the terminals were numbered. The Oceanic Terminal (Terminal 3) for long haul flights was added in 1961, and operations started in a new terminal that became Terminal 1 in May 1968, which was formally inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II in May 1969. The 1950s saw BEA run a helicopter shuttle from Heathrow to London’s Southbank, however the extension of the Piccadilly underground line in May 1975 to Hatton Cross, an then to Heathrow Central in 1977 was the route for many more travellers to and from the airport. The Prince and Princess of Wales opened the new Terminal 4 in 1986, home to the recently privatised British Airways, with an extension of the Piccadilly line to serve it.
The next terminal was added in 2008 with the new home for British Airways, Terminal 5, and in 2009 the old Terminal 2 closed, before the new Terminal 2, or Queen’s Terminal was opened by – you’ve guess it – Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 23rd June 2014. The first aircraft to land at the new terminal had been a United Airlines flight from Chicago on 4th June.
The airport is a fantastic place for fans of aviation and I spent several happy years working around it, watching the majestic Concorde take to the skies from Heathrow’s two main runways alongside the various other aircraft that I have spent time in the fantastic Harmondsworth Moor, the parkland right beside the airport, well worth a visit if you are in the area. I remember being near the end of the runway waiting excitedly for the arrival of the first aircraft after airspace had reopened following the Eyjafjallajökull Icelandic volcano dust cloud in 2010, feeling slightly odd that I was eagerly waiting the pleasure of seeing an aircraft land at Heathrow. And I am reminded of the opening scene of the film, Love Actually. If you ever want to see the best in people, the happiness in the world, go and stand at the arrivals area at Heathrow, and watch all those people greeting their loved ones. Happy 70th birthday, Heathrow.