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The History of Heathrow Airport

By Mark Farrell


Antique photo of Heathrow AirportThis page is about the fascinationg history of Heathrow Airport. Visiting Heathrow Airport today, it's hard to imagine its humble origins.

There is little indication that what is arguably the world's busiest International airport once consisted of nothing more than a tented village on a grass airfield.

Yet that is how Heathrow began in the early 20th century. It has since grown to accommodate and serve some 68 million passengers each year. The site of today's Heathrow Airport was first used as a military airport and training area for the British Flying Corps during World War I. Its earliest years of operation as Hounslow Aerodrome were from 1914 until 1919. The site was abandoned in 1920 due to bumpy landscape, boggy conditions and fog, which set in each autumn through winter. At that time there was another airport that became to be the world's very first commercial airport and that had a few other important world records: Croydon Airport. But by 1930, Heathrow was once again operational.

old picture concorde lineup at heathrow airportFairey Aviation operated present-day Heathrow as the Great Western Aerodrome, although it was also know as the Harmondsworth Aerodrome and the Heath Row Aerodrome. Fairey Aviation primarily used the airfield for aircraft testing.

In the year 1944, the Air Ministry requisitioned the area where Heathrow is located as a Royal Air Force base. Although at the time the government claimed to need the airfield for World War II long haul flights, it was ultimately always intended to serve as a civil airport. In fact, the RAF only used the airbase on two occasions.

When the war ended prior to the completion of the airport's expansion, it was officially transformed from a military operation to a civil aviation facility.

P26 Brabazon at Heathrow AirportIn 1946 the Heathrow site was taken over by the Ministry of Civil Aviation. The East-West runway had been completed at Heathrow, and a tented terminal was used to serve passengers traveling to and from London by air.

The airport was aggressively developed in anticipation of the expansion in civil aviation. Heathrow was opened for commercial flights in early 1946.

Three runways were completed at Heathrow by 1947, and a permanent structure replaced the tented village which had served as a terminal in the early years. What is today Terminal 2 was the location of the airport's first permanent structure, the Europa Building, opened in the spring of 1955. Transportation to Heathrow was facilitated by the completion of an underground tunnel. Domestic flights were served by an area of the airport known as the Britannic Building.

Heathrow expanded very rapidly in its early years as a civil aviation airport. By the year 1951, nearly 800,000 passengers were traveling through Heathrow annually. By the end of 1953, this number grew to 1 million. In its first year of operation, Heathrow facilitated 9,000 flights. In 1953, the number swelled to 62,000 flights.

Old aeroplane picture at Heathrow airportHeathrow underwent another major expansion with the construction of The Oceanic Building in 1961.

This was at the site of present-day terminal 3, and it was used solely for long haul flight departures.

The Europa Building and the Oceanic Building were designated as Terminals 2 and 3 respectively after a short haul terminal was opened in 1968 - Terminal 1.

Terminal 3 evolved to serve arriving as well as departing flights in 1970, and moving pedestrian walkways were added to Heathrow. Terminal 4 was opened in 1986, and the three earlier terminals were subsequently upgraded. A massive pier building was added to Terminal 3 in 2006. The most impressive terminal of all, Terminal 5 was opened at Heathrow in March of 2008.

A history of expansion and development has culminated in the present-day Heathrow Airport. It is considered by to be the most impressive airport in the world, and any traveler will appreciate its facilities and services. An understanding of its humble origins makes the scale of Heathrow and its architectural innovations even more impressive.





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