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Gatwick Airport: The first fifty years


The story of Gatwick Airport really began in 1930 when two young men who had met whilst learning to fly at Croydon Airport purchased a plot of land near Gatwick Racecourse in Sussex in order to set up their own airfield and flying club. Their aerodrome was purchased in 1933 by Mr A Jackaman, who formed a new company called Airports Ltd to run the airfields he owned at Gatwick and at Gravesend as commercial airports.

In 1934 Gatwick was re-licenced in the ‘public transport’ category and the first regular passenger services (to Belfast and Paris) from the airport were inaugurated by Hillman Airways. Plans were drawn up for a futuristic new circular terminal building and a concrete parking apron, and on completion the new facilities were officially opened on 6th June 1936. Scheduled services to Hamburg, Paris and Scandinavia began, but the threat of war was looming, and in September 1937 Airports Ltd was awarded a contract to operate flying schools for the RAF, using Tiger Moth and Hawker Hart biplanes. After Britain declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939 Gatwick was used for various military purposes, including the operation of Lysander and Mustang aircraft on army co-operation and ground-attack duties, and the servicing of Wellington and Liberator bombers.

With the ending of hostilities Gatwick’s future hung in the balance until the authorities were persuaded to allow it to remain open as a base for the numerous air-taxi and charter companies that had sprung up in the immediate post-war years. Major airshows staged there by the Daily Express newspaper in 1948 and 1949 helped to raise public awareness of the airport, as did the inauguration of services to Alderney in the Channel Islands by the state airline BEA in 1950. In 1952 it was announced that Gatwick had been selected for development as London’s second airport, with a new terminal building and a concrete runway. In June 1958 HM Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the new airport, the first in the world to combine air transport, mainline rail, and trunk road access facilities under the same roof. Despite its excellent links to London and the south coast, airlines were initially reluctant to transfer their services to Gatwick, and the airport remained quiet until 1960, when Dan-Air moved in from nearby Blackbushe and British United Airways was formed, with its main base there. In 1961 they were joined by Caledonian Airways, which went on to become a major operator of trans-Atlantic and Mediterranean charter flights from Gatwick.

On 1st April 1966 the newly-formed British Airports Authority took over responsibility for the operation of Gatwick and Heathrow airports. New inclusive-tour airlines such as BEA Airtours and Laker Airways set up bases at Gatwick, and in November 1970 Caledonian Airways took over British United Airways, and, as British Caledonian Airways, went on to build up an extensive network of scheduled services from Gatwick to South America, West Africa, the Middle and Far East, and the USA. By 1974 Gatwick was linked to 57 destinations across the world by the scheduled services of 14 airlines. These were joined in September 1977 by the revolutionary Laker Airways ‘Skytrain’ low-fare service to New York. To provide speedy connections between Gatwick and Heathrow, a helicopter link was introduced in 1978. The 15-minute journey was inaugurated on 9th June by HRH the Prince of Wales, who had arrived that day to officially open the airport’s improved and enlarged terminal facilities.

In August 1979 the British Airports Authority agreed not to build a second runway at Gatwick for at least 40 years, in return for being allowed to upgrade the taxiway for temporary use as an emergency landing strip. During the following month the BAA outlined its plans for the future of Gatwick. These included a second terminal building, linked to the existing one by a driverless tracked transit system.

By Charles Woodley

The opening of Gatwick Airport (1936)

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