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Why does London have so many airports? (Unfinished London ep3)

Why does London have so many airports? (Unfinished London ep3)

London has more airports than any other city in the world – six. Why? Most big cities have one huge airport. How did London end up with so many little ones and why are they in such inconvenient places? The answer is… a fiddly and complicated one. Come with me now through the mists of time back in time to a time ten minutes before Britain’s aviation story started, when our story starts. (♫ ♫ ♫) In 1903 the Wright brothers invented the aeroplane. Five years later an engineer with an enormous moustache called Claude Grahame White set up Britain’s first aerodrome in Hendon in north London. All you needed for an aerodrome was a large field with enough room for taking off and landing, somewhere to store the planes when you weren’t flying them and a clubhouse that wouldn’t let you in unless you had a bushy enough moustache. So far, flying was just a leisure pursuit for the fabulously wealthy who already had their own planes. ‘I say chaps last one to arrive in Manchester has to telephone the Queen and a blow raspberry’ (laughing) But little did Claude Grahame White know that his expensive hobby things were soon to become a major military importance. In the First World War, aeroplanes were used for taking photos of and then dropping bombs on the enemy. The newly formed Royal Flying Corps took over Hendon and started building new aerodromes all over the South East. Britain was in a grip of plane mania or ‘plania’ if you will. – Booo.
– Shut up! It was clear after the war that planes were going to play a huge role in the country’s future. But predicting and sensibly preparing for this future was harder than you might think. Some experts thought the plane would go the same way as the car – smaller and more affordable and that everyone would be flying their own private planes around just like Biggles. Hehe. Biggles. These serious plans from the 1920s and 30s showed just how wrong it was possible to be. This is my favorite one. In 1931 there was a genuine plan to build an aerodrome right here in the middle of London on the rooftop of Kings Cross Station. It would have had six runways facing in all directions with planes taxiing round the outside like an enormous bicycle wheel. The idea was people could commute to central London by plane. It seems ludicrous now, but thirty years prior to that the idea of flying at all was pretty insane so this wasn’t much of a stretch. What actually happened was planes were getting bigger and could travel much longer distances. Civil aviation was about to take off! In 1920 Wadden Aerodrome transformed itself into Croydon airport – London’s first terminal for passengers. Suddenly you didn’t need your own plane to fly. All you needed was sh** loads of money. Croydon Airport had a terminal building, a solid Tarmac runway, a control tower and a hotel. It was the jewel of South London, the gateway to the Empire. Claude Grahame-White got jealous and wanted to cash in and he transformed Hendon into a proper airport too. Then all the other aerodrones joined in the fun such as Heston, Northolt and Biggin Hill. London had an exciting new industry. but things were about to speed up and get serious all over again for World War round two. The Royal Flying Corps which by now had the much catchier name Royal Air Force needed to build even more air bases to defend Britain from the Nazis. Once again it was war that sped up progress and changed the map of Britain forever. Thanks to the war, even more people would now be able to fly as planes were bigger, faster and cheaper. They’d stop sounding like this: (PROPELLOR) and started sounding like this: (JET ENGINE) and that was a problem. Croydon’s runways were too short and too close to people’s houses for the new noisy planes. So, Croydon Airport was forced to close in 1959. It was the same problem for all of London’s airports. Heston closed in 1947 Northolt in 1954 Biggin Hill in 199… really?… 1994 and good old Hendon in 1957. So what’s happened to all those airports that disappeared? Northolt and Biggin Hill have been demoted back to mere RAF bases. You always know you’re nearby Northolt when the street lamps are ducking out of the way of planes. Croydon Airport has now become a park, housing and industrial estate and in case anyone forgets, this plane has been kept here ever since. (MUFFLED SCREAMS) Heston has been turned into Heston’s service station on the M4 and a golf course called Air Links and there’s one tiny hangar still there. Aww. And finally, Claude Grahame White’s Hendon has turned into a really dodgy housing estate appropriately named Grahame Park. The street names here acknowledge the area’s aviation heritage such as Aviation Drive and Heritage Avenue. Most appropriately of all, Grahame Park includes the RAF museum… who wouldn’t let us in for filming. New generation of airports would have to be much bigger and much further away from built-up areas. So, in 1945 the government converted an airbase to the west of London that they thought was far away enough. We know it today as the airport that rules the roost. You know the one I mean… it’s this one… the one we all know… this is what it is… I’m going to say it now… here it comes… Yes, it’s the one you think it is… you’ve guessed it… the jewel of west London, here it comes… this is what it is… it’s this… everyone’s favourite airport… You know the one… It’s what you’ve all been waiting for… Here it comes now… A small west London hamlet called Heath Row, two words, was the site of the Great West Aerodrome which was turned into the new London Airport. Later, Heathrow Airport. In those days the terminals were very basic, especially this one. But it stood the test of time and today Heathrow is still London’s number one airport. In a rare act of extreme forward planning, the government knew they would need a backup airport to support Heathrow. So in 1958, RAF Gatwick became Gatwick Airport. a smaller version of Heathrow with just one runway. It was London’s number two airport – a title it still holds to this day. Unfortunately, the government didn’t plan forward quite far enough. The 1960s brought about a huge change that they couldn’t possibly have seen coming. The 1960s package holiday boom was the first time flying became really popular. Brits of all classes were jetting off to all sorts of exciting destinations – mostly in Spain. Women with unconvincing fixed smiles used to catch beach balls while old men adjusted their glasses. Soon Heathrow and Gatwick couldn’t cope on their own. The race was now on to build London’s 3rd airport, but where to put it? By now, planes have become so noisy that choosing the location for a new airport had become extremely complicated and controversial. Not just any place possessed the appropriate properties to be propelled into a proper popular passenger port for people. London’s third airport would need to meet strict criteria. It needed to have room for expansion. It needed to have good transport links. It needed to be near to where people live, but not too near to where people live. The man commissioned to find this impossibly perfect place was the hilariously named… …and he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. As if asking for trouble, Roskill suggested sites with such fairytale names as Thurleigh, Cublington and Nuthampstead for the third airport. Naturally the no-nonsense, no-noise, nimby, naysaying neighbours said no. So Roskill then considered putting it here: on the Thames… ow… on the Thames Estuary. The government said that’s a stupid idea. Building an expensive airport in the middle of the Thames Estuary in the middle of a recession? Ha! Ludicrous. But Roskill would not be deterred.
– “I will not be deterred.” In 1977 he noticed that the solution was right under his nose all along. The South East was still littered with RAF bases from both wars. Why not simply do the same as they’d always done and convert another airbase into London’s third airport? Why didn’t he just come up with that simple idea in the first place? The air base he chose to convert was RAF Stansted in Essex. London finally got its third airport. but its title “London’s Third Airport” is misleading. When Stansted was chosen, RAF Luton had already been turned into a proper airport back in 1938 but it didn’t count as London’s third airport because it was meant to serve the Home Counties of Beds, Herts and Bucks and not London. Confusingly, Stansted was further away from London than Luton was and even more confusingly, Luton changed its name in 1990 to “London Luton Airport”, one year before Stansted finally got its very long overdue grand opening in 1991, which technically means that London’s fourth airport came first and London’s third airport came second. Luton’s sneaky rebranding trick has been tried by lots of other airports. including London Oxford, which is 61 miles away from London… nice try! There’s a London Manston, London Cambridge, the worst offender has to be London Ashford which is closer to France than London and some 20 miles from Ashford. The only other airport apart from Luton that’s managed this rebranding trick successfully is Southend in 2012. With a bit of spit and polish and a new train station London Southend airport has found its way onto the official list which brings our total to five. The sixth and final one on the list, London City Airport, is the odd one out. because instead of being built on a former RAF base like all the others it was built from scratch in 1987 at the same time as Canary Wharf on an old dock that by happy coincidence was runway-shaped already. To this day, it’s only used by wankers. So that in a nutshell brings us to the present day with all six of London’s airports. But what’s happened to them since? How are they used today? And what’s going to happen to them in the future? Subscribe for part two…

Reader Comments

  1. I live just outside of Toronto and for over 40 years they've been debating for what was supposed to be the second, then third, now Toronto's FOURTH airport. Some say they should expand the third one, Hamilton. Which makes the most sense because it has a lot of room to expand. Toronto's second airport, Bishop(City) can't have jets due to noise laws and short runways and can only have regional propeller planes like Q400s. The main airport Pearson, like Heathrow can't expand because of highways,houses and industries but could add a third large terminal. What would you do. Build the fourth or expand Hamilton?

  2. I like how I just found this guy
    I'm guessing these videos take ages to make
    I just binged all of them
    Keep it up Mr Foreman

  3. Wow! The time and effort put into this video is immense. Well done. I will have to reconsider my own video making technique – which is to drone on in a monotone voice until the viewer surrenders.

  4. I was raised on Grahame Park (GP) and I like that fact you filmed the new builds and not actually on the estate it self . Fun fact : all the buildings on the estate are named after aeroplanes and are alphabetically ordered with aeroplanes staring with A at south end of Lanacre Avenue ( now Bristol Avenue due to all of GP being demolished due to the bad crime there)

  5. I usually land at London-Singapore airport and take the 14 ‘minute’ ride to Central London by ‘bus’

  6. This series and this episode specificly heavily remind me of Bob Hale bits from Horrible Histories. You even look kinda like him!

    I love it!

  7. …..I sometimes wonder If Texas Just does it on purpose, like they look around at the world and go, Neat airport you got there….I'm a make one 3 times larger, seriously I wouldn't be surprised if right now somewhere in the lone starts absurdly large budget they are saving up to build "Huston Space station 1" Wich will be 10 or 20 times larger than the ISS.

    Seriously do you guy's just like to Fu*k with the rest of the world or is there some overarching reason why you would build one of the world's largest airports in what is by Texan standards a relatively small City?

  8. London city used to be great, it was by far the best deal on price to travel from Dublin to London return but since aer lingus took over the route from city jet it’s far more wankery

  9. This video has a very pythonesque feeling. I've never thought I'd be watching videos about the placement of airports in London and it will be terribly entertaining!

  10. It's 10 Aug 2019 and YouTube put this video in recommendations because they think I'll like it. Algorithm got this one right. I like it and love YOU. Fascinating stuff here. Can't wait to binge all your videos just as soon as I finish securing the future for western civilization. 🐱‍🏍

  11. Just to give you a heads up, these automatically translated titles don't do your videos service. And it looks like it says "unfinished London episode", so I thought this was gonna be a shoddy vid or something.

  12. Love the use of the Thunderbirds theme. Great video, partly so I can explain the references to my European friends!

  13. 'just how wrong it was possible to be' 'a rare act of forward planning' 'that would be ludicrous' if jay would care to become prime minister i would support that

  14. The best London airport is City Airport, and the only one you will feel managed as a person. The others are too far away from the city and you´l be managed as cows in the land, especially in Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted (formally knows as "Ryanair" London Airport) airports. In City Airport you just go in, pass security check and take your plane. When arriving to London, there is no security check at the exit. Just walk out your plane and head directly to the exit which is connected with underground. Fast and easy! Try to do the same in any other of the London airports, it will easily take you more than an hour if you're lucky. Sometimes security checks queues are long enough to keep you waiting there close to one hour. After going outside the airport, take another transportation that will take easily another hour to get into the city center. I only use City airport when flight to London and try to avoid any connection flight there because it just takes too much time to pass through.

  15. Funny fact about personal aircrafts: there is a pilot project in Germany testing flying taxis. At least it is/was planned. Didnt inform me enough to say more
    Edit: forgot the dash

  16. All the "London" airports that aren't in London remind me of the "Hollywood Burbank Airport" near me in Los Angeles. It is not in Hollywood, it's in Burbank. And of course, the "Los Angeles Ducks of Anaheim" hockey team that is not in Los Angeles, but rather in Anaheim. The hockey team in Los Angeles is the Kings. Tricky marketing names are annoying!

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