Why Do Heathrow's Planes Fly Over Central London?

Andy Thornley
By Andy Thornley Last edited 149 months ago

Last Updated 24 January 2012

Why Do Heathrow's Planes Fly Over Central London?

With talk of 'Boris Island', the proposed airport in the Thames Estuary, being on and then off again in the space of a just a few days, we look at the location of what is currently London’s largest transport hub, and the history that led to ‘Heath Row’ becoming one of the world’s biggest and busiest airports...

If you hop in to your DeLorean, accelerate to 88mph and set the dial back to the early 1940s, you’d find that Heathrow, or Heath Row as it was known back then, was a small hamlet located roughly where Terminal 3 is in the modern day facility.

During wartime Britain, The Conservative MP Harold Balfour, who was Minister for Aviation, wanted to persuade parliament that a new airport was needed in London, which would replace Croydon as the capital’s number one landing strip. As Heath Row already had an existing, albeit small airfield in place, and was within spitting distance of London, the site was earmarked as Balfour’s first choice.

The major hurdle to overcome was the prevailing winds. Planes coming in to land would usually have to approach from the east, taking them directly over central London. This obviously presented both safety risks with planes flying over densely populated areas, as well as what we now call 'noise pollution' for the unfortunate souls living under the flight path. Luckily for Balfour, noise pollution had not been invented yet so this was one less issue for him to tackle. Other obstacles in the way were the potential for protracted planning wrangles and questions over how it would be paid for (does this sound familiar Boris?).

The only way that Balfour could get Parliament to agree to the plan was by convincing them that the airport was needed for military purposes. With the country still in the midst of war, the Air Ministry claimed it was looking for an airfield in which to handle long-range troop-carrying planes, and so it used war-time powers to requisition the land. The location of Heath Row, with its proximity to London, was ideal and so under the guise of creating a military airfield, work on creating 'Heathrow' began in May 1944. The terrain was not ideal, however, and over 100 million gallons of water had to be drained from the boggy land. Despite the fact that works were still not complete by the time the war ended, construction continued on what was obviously now a civilian airport and it seemed that the project had slipped under the radar of both politicians and the public (pun intended).

Commercial flight was still something of a novelty at this time. However, in May 1946, the first passengers departed from Heathrow (or London Airport as it was first known), flying direct to Buenos Aires. The facilities were far from grand — the departure hall consisted of little more than a tent. This flight marked the start of a flight schedule that would eventually see over 480,000 flights a year take off or land from the west London airport.

In his memoirs published in 1973, Harold Balfour admitted deceiving fellow Ministers and Parliamentarians about his intentions for Heathrow, saying:

“Almost the last thing I did at the Air Ministry of any importance was to hijack for Civil Aviation the land on which London [Heathrow] Airport stands under the noses of resistant Ministerial colleagues. If hijack is too strong a term, I plead guilty to the lesser crime of deceiving a Cabinet Committee.”

So next time you're woken up at 5am by an Airbus A380 flying over your house, you'll know who to thank...

Image by Tony Lasagne from the Londonist Flickr pool