ACA Woking News by Paul Holden, PRO

15 July 2003


Piers Gardiner
Piers Gardiner
At their well-attended July meeting in the clubhouse at Fairoaks Airport, Woking Branch members of the Aircrew Association were treated to a very amusing talk by Wing Commander Piers Gardiner, RAF retired, about the history of Air Traffic Control in the UK. Or, as some unkindly suggested, the history of the Flying Prevention Branch!

Piers explained that he might have been an aviator himself. He had a Private Pilotís Licence before a driving licence and started training as a naval helicopter pilot, but wasn't successful and migrated to RAF Air Traffic Control (ATC) instead. He traced the history of ATC from the earliest days when Wilbur Wright gave his brother Orville clearance to take off in 1903. As numbers of aircraft in the skies increased, the governing principle was 'see and be seen', which placed responsibility for air safety firmly on the shoulders of the aircrew.

By 1922, civil air traffic from Croydon airport was busy enough to justify a specially trained Air Traffic Officer and a Wireless Operator to help track the position of airliners during their flights. That same year, Belgium, France and the UK agreed on safe separation routes to improve flight safety for aircraft flying to main destinations. These routes were defined by large letters on big buildings and aerodromes en route - but the principle of 'see and be seen' was still paramount.

In the late 1920s, Watch Offices were established at RAF airfields using sick aircrew to monitor the progress of flights. By 1937, the great increase in numbers of aircraft and airfields plus night flying prompted the Air Ministry to ask the Director of Training at the Air Ministry to draw up plans for an RAF Air Traffic Service based on the American model. As a result, Bomber Command established regional control centres across the UK to provide weather information, flight information and control, homing devices and night landing aids. By 1938 the centres were at Abingdon, Boscombe Down, Leuchars, Linton-on-Ouse, Mildenhall, Waddington and Wyton.

The first winter of WWII showed the need for better systems - more like 2000 compared to the 150 available at the time. By 1943 the first Ground Control Approach (GCA) sets arrived from the USA to a UK design. The 1948 Berlin Airlift was another key test for Air Traffic Control and used a combination of direction finding, Eureka, Blind Approach Beacon System (BABS) and GCA to sustain movements at the rate of one every 5 minutes.

Civil aviation grew swiftly after that and the first 10-mile wide airways were established with tops at 11,000 feet. By 1954 the tops had been raised to 25,000 feet to cater for the propjet Viscount airliner. In controlled airspace, 'see and be seen' was supplemented by positive control from the ground. A modified military radar was installed at Northolt in 1958 to control and co-ordinate air traffic in the area around Heathrow. Area radar control centres were established at Sopley, Bishops Court and Hack Green. In the mid-1960s, Orange Yeoman SAM radars were added to the system from Watton, North Luffenham, Lindholme and Boulmer.

The 1961 report by ACM Sir Hubert Patch established the basis of today's air traffic control in the UK and the centralised joint civil/military system administered through the National Air Traffic Services (NATS). The RAF ATC Examining Board at Shawbury was established to ensure that all ATC officers, including ex-aircrew, received proper professional training and assessment.

In 1971 the London Air Traffic Control Centre (LATCC) at West Drayton opened as a cost-effective way of centralising the service using remote feeds from radars around the country and a mix of civilian and military controllers. At the time it used the biggest computer in Europe.

Since then there have been lots of improvements in technology, but the basis for controlling aircraft has not changed very much. For most of the time, Air Traffic is now 'Under Control'.

A fuller history of UK ATC can be found here .

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