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Historic photos of Heathrow as we celebrate 75 years of commercial flights

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New Year’s Day marked 75 years since Heathrow saw its first flight as a commercial airport.

Unsurprisingly, the airport has not done anything to celebrate or publicise the event.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t do something ourselves!

Old photos of Heathrow Airport

Heathrow originated in 1929 as a small airfield, Great West Aerodrome, on land south-east of the hamlet of Heath Row from which the airport takes its name.

Old photos of Heathrow Airport

Development of Heathrow began in 1944 as a long-distance military aircraft base for the Royal Air Force, used by aircraft heading for the Far East.  By the time the airfield was completed, World War II had ended and the airport was no longer required as a defence base.

Old photos of Heathrow Airport

The government continued to develop Heathrow as a civil airport, opening as London Airport in 1946 and renamed as Heathrow Airport in 1966.

Old photos of Heathrow Airport

The first civilian aircraft to take off from Heathrow on 1st January 1946 was a converted Lancaster bomber called Starlight that flew to Buenos Aires.

It was operated by British South American Airways, captained by former Air Vice Marshal Don Bennett, chief executive of the airline.

First flight from Heathrow 1946

There was no terminal at this time.  Passengers departed from ex-military marquees which sat in a row alongside Bath Road.  Each departure was allocated its own marquee where passengers would sit on armchairs and sofas.  When it was time to depart, they would walk over wooden planks to where their plane was parked up.

Old photos of Heathrow Airport

63,000 passengers used the airport in that first year.  Within five years it had exceeded 750,000 and plans were in place to build the first permanent buildings on the site.  We’ve come a long way since then.

Comments (12)

  • Dave Tilley says:

    My first flight from London Heathrow was in the summer of 1966 .
    it was a VC10 to Lusaka Zambia , i remember the captain waking us up just as the sun was rising and telling us to look out at mount Kilimanjaro and a short while later we came into land at our second stop Nairobi , there was also a third stop at Ndola before we eventually arrived at Lusaka ,while on board they gave us postcards of the VC10 which we could post home , those were the days .

  • Wilfred says:

    What impelled the Air Vice Marshal and those intrepid, hatted pax to pick Buenos Aires as the first destination – in a Lancaster? (I wouldn’t fancy it!) Historically, the Argentine railway network and many utilities were British-owned (some out of Moorgate, where my father worked from the mid-1930s at the River Plate Trust). And they had a large British staff, who would have welcomed these flights. But the writing was on the wall: significant assets were nationalised by the Perón government by the end of that decade. Where would a first-off flight be headed, today?

  • mark2 says:

    Those sheds remind me of the first time that we flew into Pisa in 1988. We flew on Air2000 from Gatwick after a five hour delay in the terminal. Pisa airport was actually still an Italian Air Force base and there were lots of black Hercules aircraft parked around the perimeter.
    We walked across to a large shed and our luggage appeared on an open lorry shortly afterwards. There were no immigration or customs checks and we picked up our luggage and boarded the coach.

  • pedro says:

    Great article. Was intrigued by the two photos of OO-TIP. A Google search reveals it was a Fairey Tipsy S-2 (‘S’ for Sport) originally built in Belgium in 1935 and kept in the UK during WWII. It was repatriated back to Belgium in 1949.

  • 1ATL says:

    This article inspired me to look up some old pathé newsreels earlier of Heathrow back in the day. One of the newsreels from the mid 1950’s linked in with an article you ran last year about the BEA West London Air Terminal. It showed off the brand new terminal and queens building and finished off showing a BEA helicopter ‘airbus’ link to the then Waterloo Air Terminal. I did a bit more fact finding and it turns out this was the Cromwell Road facility’s predecessor. It was situated on South Bank adjacent to the Royal Festival Hall just across York Road from Waterloo Station and offered check in facilities to BEA and BEA handled airline passengers. It would roughly be where Jubilee Gardens and the London Eye are situated today and was housednin temporary buildings left over from the festival of Britain. You could take a bus to Heathrow or for an additional supplement take the helicopter instead which hugged the route of the Thames in order not to overfly populated London. I had no idea about the existence of the South Bank Air Terminal until today. The site was always set to be redeveloped after the Festival of Britain and in 1958 BEA moved to their brand new purpose built West London Air Terminal in Cromwell Road which cut the bus transfer time from ‘Central London’ to Heathrow considerably. As a result and due to low uptake, the short lived helicopter service terminated permanently. Having worked in/around Waterloo for the last 20yrs or so, I found that aspect of social history quite interesting from an av-geek perspective and thought it would be good to share.

  • David says:

    I seem to remember Heathrow had a helicopter link with Gatwick and remember seeing them fly in the 70’s as a child.

  • Steve says:

    The LHR construction offices are named after the converted Lancaster….which is quite interesting.

  • Bagoly says:

    It looks as though the seating on the initial civilian flight was 9 along:

    • Guernsey Globetrotter says:

      Yes – but look how much leg room there was! No climbing over people even if you were 9 seats away from the aisle…

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