London City Airport Consultative Committee

Origins and Early History

Article on the origins and early history of London City Airport

 

 

 

Home >  About the Airport >  Airport History >  Origins and Early History Site Map (Alt+1>Enter)
 
 

 

On this Page:

Origins
Demonstration Flights
Planning Inquiry
Construction and Opening
Early Services and Problems
Runway Extension
New Management
Into the Future

See also:
* the LDDC's Press Releases about the Airport;
* London City Airport - The Early Years - 2008 article by Malcolm Ginsberg (.pdf 31kb)
* The early airlines

 

More History Pages:
About the Airport - Home Page (Alt+2)
History Home Page (Alt+3)
Before the Airport (Alt+4)
1982 Airport Feasibility Study (Alt+6)
Public Opinion Surveys 1982/83 (Alt+7)
1983 Inquiry Report (Alt+8)
Constructing the Airport (Alt+9)
1990 Airport Inquiry Report (Alt+0) 
From the Archives (Alt+5)

 
 

The video clips on this page are extracts from the Airport's 2001 Delivering the Vision presentation.  They are .wmv files and require a Windows Media Player

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Origins

The London City project first emerged as a serious proposal following discussions in the autumn of 1981 about the re-development of the Royal Docks.  The discussions involved:-

Reg Ward, then Chief Executive of the London Docklands Development Corporation which at that time had been in existence only a few months. The Corporation was charged with the regeneration of the Docklands area and at the time Reg saw saw the Royals as a transport interchange - the area already had rail access for the docks (by then largely dormant) and it was supposed to get the bridge over the Thames at Beckton linking the north and south circular roads - the East London River Crossing. At dinner one evening at the L'Opera restaurant near Covent Garden Sir Philip Beck said that a modern transport interchange needed to include an airport. Reg latached on to the idea and  said knew the exact place it could go!

Philip (now Sir Philip) Beck, Chairman of John Mowlem & Co PLC who, as maintenance contractors to the PLA, had been involved in the Docklands for very many years. They were looking for opportunities for new investment in the Docklands. Philip Beck was also an aviator and following the dinner with Reg Ward at L'Opera at he took the idea of an airport to Bill Bryce, an expert in Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) operations.

Bill Bryce, then running Brymon Airways, a regional commuter airline in the south-west operating from Plymouth City Airport. The site of Plymouth City Airport is very tightly constrained - even more so than that at London City and Brymon therefore had an unrivalled experience in using STOL aircraft from the De Havilland stable. They were about to take delivery of their first DASH-7's to use on their Plymouth-Heathrow Newquay route. [** More about Bill Bryce]

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Royal Docks 1949 Royal Docks early 1970's Airport under construction
Three views of the Royal Docks: Left: In 1949 the the bustling Royals could claim to be the the most modern cargo handling docks in he world. On the left is the Royal Albert Dock and on the right the King George V Dock. Between them is the "central road". Note the dry dock at the near end of the King George V dock. Centre: By the late 1970s the docks are nearing the end of their life as a busy port. Right: In 1986/87, work has begun on constructing the airport - note the work in progress on roofing in the dry dock and the warehouses on the central road have been demolished in preparation for the construction of the runway.
 

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Before Christmas 1981 there emerged the proposal to build a STOLport on the disused quay between the Royal Albert and King George V Docks in south Newham. Apart from being just the right size for an operation of this kind, the alignment of the quay is east-west and traffic using the new STOLport would, therefore, be operating in the same direction as traffic using Heathrow, Gatwick and Luton.

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Demonstration Flights

In June 1982 the feasibility of the proposal was demonstrated for local residents when Captain Harry Gee landed a Brymon DASH-7 at Heron Quay on the Isle of Dogs. This was well received. The plan offered to bring life and hope back to the area and support for it was stronger the closer people lived to the proposed site.   (Video Clip - 285kb)

In 1988 a plaque was unveiled at Heron Quays DLR Station to commemorate the 1982 landings. This was removed when the station was rebuilt but was restored and unveiled again in June 2005 [***More Details]

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Dash 7 landing on Heron Quay Dash 7 on Heron Quay Dash 7 turning on Heron Quay
Three views of the demonstration landing at Heron Quay on the Isle of Dogs in 1982. The DHC-7 of Brymon Airways was flown by Captain Harry Gee.
 

 

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Planning Inquiry

In 1983 a Planning Application submitted by Mowlem's for the Airport was the subject of a Public Inquiry lasting four months. There was a very full examination of the noise and safety issues and the wider planning issues, i.e. could the land be used more beneficially for other purposes; would the Airport prevent desirable development in the wider area? During the Inquiry there was another demonstration landing at Heron Wharf.  Click here for the Inspector's Conclusions and Recommendations

A year or so later the Secretary of State for the Environment announced his decision giving permission for the Airport to be constructed subject to a number of conditions including:-

  • The Airport could be used only by the DASH-7 or aircraft of similar operating characteristics (there was an exemption for the Twin Otter).
  • The number of air traffic movements would be limited to 120 per day (i.e. turn rounds).
  • There were to be no helicopters.
  • There would be no flying at night.

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Construction and Opening

Work on the 30m project, designed by Seifert Ltd, was soon under way. The terminal was constructed to a very high standard both internally and externally reflecting its proposed use by business travellers. The building was to set the tone for a high standard of redevelopment around the Airport as the regeneration of the Docklands spreads eastwards. The runway was completed in May 1987 and as part of a special event at the end of that month Captain Gee landed the first DASH-7(Video Clip - 173 kb). The Airport subsequently opened for passenger traffic on 26th October 1987 with a formal opening by the Queen on 5th November - (Video Clip - 289kb) - accompanied by a dramatic fireworks display in Beckton.  Click here for an article about the Construction of the Airport

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Early Services and Problems

At the outset there were scheduled international services to Paris and Brussels operated by two airlines - Brymon and Eurocity Express, a new venture set up by British Midland (later London City Airways) specially to operate services to and from the airport. Brymon also operated a domestic service to Plymouth but this was short-lived. In the summer of 1988 London City Airways introduced a service to Amsterdam.

 
Maiden flights 1987 Captain Harry Gee lands Dash 7 at Airport
The completed Airport 1987 Maiden flights - Dash 7s of Brymon Airways and Eurocity Express Captain Harry Gee, who made most of the demonstration and test flights, brings a Dash 7 into the Airport
 

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There was a steady build-up in passenger traffic although this was not helped by the suspension of Paris flights immediately before Christmas 1987 because of concern over the safety of City traffic on its way to the South Coast. It had been agreed that pending the re-organisation of controlled airspace over London, City traffic would fly at lower uncontrolled levels but with a radar advisory service provided from Heathrow and Gatwick. The problem was that the Gatwick Low Altitude service was not always available and, given the complexity of air traffic in that locality there was serious concern among pilots. This problem was soon resolved by allowing south-bound traffic from City to climb into the lower reaches of the controlled airspace regulated by Gatwick Approach Controllers who were on duty 24 hours a day. But the problem undoubtedly dented confidence in the Airport and it was a long time before confidence in the safety of the Airport was fully restored. The Airport soon had fully regulated access to and from the airways through the usual system of Standard Instrument Departures and Standard Arrival Routes.

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BAe 146 taxis to standRunway Extension

Even at the opening of the airport the hot issue for the future was whether the Airport could be used by other types of aircraft and in particular the British Aerospace 146. This is a turbo fan aircraft and, because it does not have propellers, people regard it as a jet. There was, therefore, considerable apprehension locally about the introduction of this aircraft. In fact the aircraft is almost as quiet at the DASH-7 and noise was not the main problem. The real problem was that the BAe l46 needs a 1200 metre runway (the DASH-7 needs only 750 metres) and, moreover, it could not, like the DASH-7, make an approach at 7.5 degrees. These factors have an effect on the height of structures which can be constructed in the vicinity of the Airport. It gave rise, for example, to problems about the height of the tower then being planned at Canary Wharf and over the height of the towers of the suspension bridge then proposed to carry the East London River Crossing over the Thames to the north east of the Airport. On the other hand the 146 was much faster than the DASH-7, it carried more passengers and had a greater range. It would, therefore, very considerably widen the scope of the City Airport and ensure its viability far into the future. 

In 1988 the146 was demonstrated for local people - (Video Clip - 286 kb) and the following year the Airport submitted a new application for planning permission. In July 1990, nearly three years after the Airport had opened, there was a second public inquiry. In his Conclusions and Recommendations the Inspector concluded that the expansion of the airport would be of benefit to the economy of east London and the City, although there would be an increase in noise levels. In 1991 the Secretaries of State for the Environment and Transport approved the application subject to conditions and limitations on noise.and the following year the Princess of Wales re-launched the Airport with its newly extended runway - (Video Clip - 138kb).

With the longer runway the airport soon started to attract services to new European destinations. The opening of the new Docklands highways in May 1993 was a milestone in improved accessibility from the City and substantial growth in passenger numbers was achieved in 1993/4. Since then passenger numbers have grown steadily and by the end of the decade they stood at about 1.6 million.

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New Management

In 1995 Mowlem sold the airport to Irish businessman Dermot Desmond and the following year Richard Gooding took over as Managing Director. The aim of the new management was to push forward the expansion of the airport. While by mid 1997 there were already 12 airlines serving 19 destinations, the new business strategy was to secure mature airlines serving the 25 destinations in Europe most in demand.

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Into the Future

With such growth in view the Airport launched a programme steadily to enlarge and improve its capacity and facilities for passengers, a programme which continues still and looks now to 8mppa by 2030 - see our Looking Ahead page. 

The projected growth also requires new and improved public transport links. The first of these was completed late in 1998. The opening of the new transport interchange at Canning Town meant that the Jubilee Line Extension, the DLR and the North London Line were now just a few minutes away by the Airport's shuttle bus. But better still in 2003 work started on the extension of the DLR from Canning Town to the Airport and North Woolwich. This opened in December 2005 by which time work was already under way on the extension of the new line under the River to provide a link to Woolwich and the North Kent Line. This opened in January 2009

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Click here for more information about Brymon Airways


**Bill Bryce, founder of Brymon Airways together with fellow kiwi Chris Amon, died aged 70 in his native New Zealand in mid December 2003 after a long fight against cancer. From Malcolm Ginsberg, who knew him well, we learn that the exuberant Bryce came to the UK in the late sixties as a journalist/hanger-on following a host of Antipodean racing drivers including his friends the late Denny Hulme and Amon. Bryce’s vision helped to create the first proper airline to serve Plymouth, turn its grass tracks into a proper airport and pave the way for London City. A motor bike enthusiast he would often spend a Sunday morning with his friend, comedian Dick Emery, prowling the leafy lanes of Sussex. In 1983 he lost control of Brymon after over-extending himself financially.

***In June 2005 Reg Ward returned to Docklands for the second unveiling of a plaque at Heron Quays DLR Station to commemorate the trial Dash-7 landings there in 1982. The picture (right) shows (left to right) Richard Gooding (Airport MD), Reg Ward and Ian Brown (Chairman of DLR) performing the ceremony. The plaque was first installed at Heron Quays at a ceremony in the 1990s but had to be taken down when the DLR station was redeveloped.

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An independent Consultative Committee established by London City Airport pursuant to Section 35 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982
Chairman:
John Adshead     Secretary: Stuart Innes
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Page last modified: 25 September 2010