Please Note: This page was published in February 2020
Throughout this year and beyond, alongside other industry groups such as Historic Croydon Airport, CANSO, IFATCA, GATCO and Prospect ATCOs' and ATSS branches, we are going to celebrate birth of Air Traffic Control as part of ATC100.
We hope you'll join us in recognising the remarkable and often unsung role Air Traffic Control has played in the making of the modern world, helping to connect us to places and people in a way that was never thought possible.
That’s the story that we’ll be exploring. Putting a spotlight on the past, the technology and people that made it all possible, while looking to the future and the transformation of Air Traffic Control that’s underway, the challenges we face and the opportunities.
We hope you enjoy the content and stories we'll share and join with us in celebrating 100 years of keeping the skies safe.
What's the greatest innovation in the history of Air Traffic Control?
We're searching for the single greatest engineering innovation in the history of Air Traffic Control - radio, radar, Flight Data Processing, real-time satellite surveillance or digital towers.
We’ll profile each of these technologies, with experts from across NATS and beyond making the case for why their chosen innovation deserves to be crowned the greatest.
The birth of ATC
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? In truth, it’s not entirely clear.
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.
We know major developments occurred between 1920 and 1922, and so think of this period as its inception point. Find out more our feature article here.
100 years of ATC History
Explore the past 100 years of air traffic control in our digital timeline. From Croydon to Concorde and COVID, we look at the highs and lows that have helped make air traffic control a vital part of every journey.
Historic Croydon Airport
London Croydon Airport was the birthplace of Air Traffic Control in the UK. Not only was it the site of the first Control Tower, it was also the place where many of the early innovations like Wireless Position Fixing and 'MAYDAY' were developed.
Ian Walker, Chair of Historic Croydon Airport Trust explains the origins of Air Traffic Control, while Juliet Kennedy, NATS Operations Director, looks at the legacy of those early pioneers 100 years on.
ATC in the 1920s
Air traffic control in the 1920s was very different to how we do it today. Separate Radio and Civil Aviation Traffic Officers had to work together to help pilots get to their destinations safely.
What is Wireless Position Fixing?
The earliest air traffic controllers didn't have radar or satellite tracking to help manage aircraft, so how did they do it?
The team at Croydon Airport invented the phrase 'MAYDAY' to help pilots in distress. Listen to a reconstruction of a MAYDAY call to Croydon Airport in the 1920s.
Bringing colour to the past
As part of ATC100 we want to bring the people, places and technology of the past to life. We’ve worked with the Historic Croydon Airport Trust to select a handful of the best photos that help tell that story and had them professionally colourised by internationally renowned artist, Marina Amaral. Enjoy the photos below and read more about it on our blog.
Where it all began; the world's first Air Traffic Control tower, built at Croydon in 1920.
Croydon from above in 1925. Largely made up of reused WW1 buildings, Croydon was the world's busiest international 'air port' at the time.
The Father of Air Traffic Control - James 'Jimmy' Jeffs helped develop many of the early procedures that made the growth of civil aviation possible.
The Airco DH-4 was one of the first airliners and operated a service from London Croydon Airport to Paris in 1920.
As the demand to fly grew, so did Croydon Airport. The new tower, built in 1928, was the most advanced anywhere in the world. Here you can see Radio Officers passing information to pilots.
The role of the first controllers was split between 'Radio Officers' who relayed messages to pilots, and the 'Civil Aviation Traffic Officers' who plotted their progress using paper maps and pins.
A visual space to celebrate 100 years of ATC
We've created a scrapbook to share photos of interest as we come across them. We'll add more to the collection over the forthcoming year. If you have something of interest you'd like to share - please get in touch.
We'd like to say a really big thank you to the Historic Croydon Airport Trust for their amazing support and expert knowledge in helping us to mark and celebrate a century of Air Traffic Control.
If you haven't already, do check out their website and twitter account and perhaps book yourself on a visit to see the first commercial airport and air traffic control tower in the world!