Croydon Airport was once the centre of the universe, or the UK at least. Here are 11 things you might not know about it.
1. It was created to defend London from zeppelins
The seed that would become Croydon Airport was Beddington Aerodrome. This opened in 1915 as a base from which planes attempted to attack German zeppelins. Attempted is the key word; flight was rudimentary then and it could take Croydon's boys up to an hour to find the zeppelin. Even then they were only armed with the likes of pistols and grappling hooks (they thought they could pull zeppelins out of the sky — they couldn't of course). It wasn't until the incendiary bullet was invented that Croydon had any luck bringing a zeppelin down.
2. It was the UK's first international airport
Air travel advanced apace over the course of the first world war. By the end of it, civilians fancied having a go. In March 1920 London’s airport was moved from Hounslow Heath to Croydon, and soon cross-channel flights were being made by the likes of Handley Page and Imperial Airways (later BOAC and later still, British Airways). For nearly everyone flying overseas from the UK, their voyage proper began in Croydon.
3. It has the world's oldest air traffic control tower
The 1928 control tower crowning what's now known as Airport House (see main image) was the first in the world. Well, sort of. There were two control towers at the airport before this one — both essentially glorified wooden huts. Along with this new-fangled air traffic control, Croydon came up with big advances; radio telephony (speech transmissions) was used here for the first time instead of Morse Code. And in 1923 when senior radio officer Fred Mockford was asked to come up with a distress call, he proposed "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday", because (as most of the flights were from Croydon to Paris) it could be understood by his French counterparts, as it sounded like "M'aidez", 'help me'.
4. It boasts lots of other firsts
Croydon had the first customs in the UK (passengers were weighed individually with their baggage and if they were over a certain weight, they had to pay extra — this has been an inspiration for budget airlines since). It had the first charter flight. It had the first departure board (essentially a wall of clocks, which quickly became confusing and was ditched after about two years). It also had the first airport hotel in the world, now the Hallmark Hotel Croydon Aerodrome. And it was the spiritual home of Amy Johnson — the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia (she took off from Croydon in May 1930).
On a darker note, Croydon was the first airport to have a major civilian crash, when an Imperial Airways de Havilland DH.34 came down in Purley on Christmas Eve 1924, killing eight. A stranger, but equally dark, event occurred on 4 July 1928, when wealthy businessman Alfred Loewenstein left Croydon, bound for Brussels, but then stepped out of the plane while it was over the Channel. Whether this was the first suicide by plane, or a tragic accident, isn't known.
5. Flying from Croydon was the height of luxury
Forget Jennifer Aniston going on about Emirates; real luxury air travel could be experienced at Croydon during the 1920s and 30s. On Imperial Airways' Silver Wings service to France you'd be chauffeured from central London courtesy of the airline, treated to three-course meals with bespoke cocktails, and afternoon tea with Parisian pastries. Planes flew far lower back then, meaning you could do a bit of sightseeing on the way. One slight worry: some early planes flying from Croydon had frames made from balsa wood, and wicker chairs that weren't fastened to the cabin floor. Spare a thought for the pilots too; in earlier models they flew to France in an open cockpit.
6. The airport didn't just fly planes, it made them
National Aircraft Factory No.1 — a manufactory consisting of 58 buildings and 5m bricks — was making planes here by January 1918, the first aircraft completed, a de Havilland DH9. The airport was the perfect place to make them after all, they didn't have to go far for testing.
7. Winston Churchill almost died here
Churchill always had a derring-do attitude, so it's little surprise he took flying lessons at Croydon. In July 1919, the man who would later become an honorary air commodore, stalled his plane mid-air and it tumbled out of the sky. Somehow, on impact, the plane didn't catch fire, and Churchill and his tutor AJL Scott escaped with little else but cuts and bruises. From that moment, Churchill jacked in his career in the cockpit, and never got his pilot's licence.
8. Nazi planes landed and took off from here all the time
Flights between Croydon and Germany were still operating in the late 1930s, by which point the swastika was Germany's national flag, and was used on the tail of Lufthansa planes (see image below). As tensions grew between England and Germany, the German pilots coming in and out of Croydon started taking slight detours; it turned out they were mapping out of the lay of the land for... future use.
9. It made Croydon the place for celebrities to be seen
Croydon was once the centre of the universe. Air travel wasn't a massive thing in America until after the second world war, but before then, film stars wanted to be seen doing the 'in' thing of flying. Among those snapped at Croydon Airport in its heyday were Charlie Chaplin (he messed about in the cockpit), Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Babe Ruth, John F Kennedy, Gracie Fields and Rita Hayworth. In 1927 legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh came here with his famous plane Spirit of St Louis, to soak up the adulation for having just flown non-stop from New York to Paris. Agatha Christie's 1935 thriller Death in the Clouds is set on a Croydon-bound flight from Paris.
10. It was the English version of Cape Canaveral
Croydon Airport may never have never launched a space shuttle, but it was a top tourist destination. Air travel, after all, was the space travel of its day. In 1936 an astonishing 107,059 visitors came here to climb up the viewing tower and watch the take-offs and landings.
11. One of the biggest heists of the 20th century happened here
Before the Great Train Robbery, there was the Great Plane Robbery. Well, airport robbery anyway. On 6 May 1935, five men strolled into Croydon Airport (it only had one guard then, and he was busy elsewhere). The thieves broke into a safe and took £21,000 of gold bullion (£12m in today's money). The gold was never found and only one suspect was ever jailed. The safe door is still there now, though there's no gold bullion, just cleaners' products.
Images courtesy of Croydon Airport Society. The airport and museum are open for public tours the first Sunday of each month. For more information visit the website.