On the first Sunday of every month the Croydon Airport Visitor Centre opens its doors to the general public, it’s free to visit and gives a fascinating glimpse of the early days of air travel.
Originally known as Royal Flying Corps Beddington Aerodrome, Croydon Airport began life during World War I when it was rapidly constructed in 1915 as one of the airfields to defend London from German airship and bomber attack. In 1918 Beddington Aerodrome became an RAF flying training establishment with the National Aircraft Factory No.1 and Waddon Aerodrome being built next door.
After the war the two airfields were merged to create Croydon Aerodrome. On the 29th March 1920 all of London’s commercial air traffic was moved to the larger airport. Britain’s first national airline, Imperial Airways, was formed at Croydon in 1924. Imperial Airways was the forerunner to today’s British Airways.
Approaching the old terminal building you get a real sense of what air travel must have been like in those early days. This terminal building was opened in 1928 and set new standards for air travel. At the time it was the world’s biggest and most advanced airport although by today’s standards it’s tiny.
As you enter the terminal building you walk straight into what would have been the booking hall, these days it’s an office building so there’s not really much left see.
There are lots of old posters and photographs hung around the walls and there’s a beautiful domed glass ceiling in the middle that fills the room with light. We waited in this area for our guide and the tour to begin.
Our guide joined us and explained a little about the booking hall and how the check in process worked. We were then taken through a corridor following the same route the passengers would have taken to reach their aircraft.
There were many photo’s on the walls some showing Amy Johnson who started her record breaking solo flight to Australia from Croydon in 1930. In 1929 Charles Kingsford-Smith set a record flying time from Australia to the UK landing at Croydon after 12 days and 14 hours. Sydney’s International Airport is named after him.
Today the old entrance out to where people would have boarded their planes is long gone but you can still see an original set of wooden steps that would have been used to board the aircraft.
Upstairs there were a couple of rooms filled with all different types of historical items. Old wooden propellers, pilots uniforms, weighing scales for luggage, onboard crockery and even some old aircraft passenger seats.
One more flight of stairs and we entered the old Air Traffic Control Tower. In those early days Croydon had a high level of airliner traffic and to ensure the safety of operations a more robust system was needed. At the time with the help of new radio technology Croydon became the first airport in the world to use Air Traffic Control. The techniques first used here were later adopted by other international airports around the world and even today still underpin the safety of global air travel.
The control tower was fascinating with displays set up to show how aircraft were monitored and moved around the airfield. Our guide explained how it all worked and pointed out different areas of the airfield and where things like the runways were as a lot of the area has now been built on.
Our time was nearly up and like Croydon we had to move on to make room for others. Croydon remained the UK’s international gateway until the outbreak of World War II when it became RAF Croydon. It returned to civilian use in 1946, some international airlines returned although by this time Heathrow had been designated London’s international airport. Croydon closed with the last flight leaving on 30th September 1959.