Nearly 10 km of the south of London, in Croydon, today another neighborhood in the gigantic British capital and where historically the first air control tower is located.
On February 25, 1920, an assistance service for aircraft pilots began to operate, which in time would become an essential part of the civil and military aviation sectors.
The First World War was over, after taking more than 40 million human lives and, despite the sad side of history, enormous technological advances came during the long years of struggles and battles.
The small military biplanes, built mostly with wood and cardboard, had prepared the basis for the design and manufacture of more powerful engines, which would eventually be used for the development and operation of large civilian aircraft, intended for the commercial transport of passengers.
The pilots had to fly guided only by their own eyes and with the help of maps, which significantly limited air operations.
There was still no contact between land and air. On many occasions, there was a situation where the pilot, when trying to return to the base from which he took off, was bombed, and his airfield was impractical, or the weather conditions worsened, and he could not land.
Until then, there was no way to warn about such incidents, which forced pilots to improvise at the last moment, putting their lives at risk.
The history of commercial aviation took off in 1919, with the first flight departing from Croydon to Paris, and it was at that very moment that it was decided that new technical measures were needed to offer more safety to all users.
Until then, the experimental works of two pioneers in radio wave research were well known: the German Hertz and the Italian Marconi.
Thanks mainly to the experiments carried out by both scientists, aerial and maritime communication began to be established via Morse code between two operators, hitherto limited to cable telegraph lines, to give later way to voice transmission.
The term RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging) would not arrive until much later, in 1939, and was used for the first time in the US Marine Corps.
At the beginning of this type of technology, we should only think about a very primitive primary radar, like the one invented by the German Christian Hülsmeyer, to detect the presence of large vessels, to avoid collisions between them.
Later and, thanks to the combination of several stations, the location of an emission point was achieved through its triangulation. Still, it was not yet possible to know precisely vital data, such as height or travel speed, which would be implemented later and would be experienced during World War II.
Meanwhile, in Croydon, a small wooden shed was built on four pillars, with a height of 4.5 meters.
There was nothing like it until then, as it was not known what form and position an air control point of these characteristics should have. Finally, it was decided to provide windows on its four walls and to build a minimal outdoor terrace around it.
The control center was equipped with members of CATO (Civil Aviation Traffic Officers), who had experience in Morse code radiocommunications and navigation but did not have a specific course or previous test to access the controller post due to the novelty of the concept.
These pioneers began to offer information on air routes to pilots who, for the first time, had radio devices on board their planes, as well as air and wind traffic data, which were collected thanks to various pinwheels installed on the roof.
The first air traffic controllers in history already worked an average of 12 hours a day. During the first year of operation of Croydon's control tower, they were responsible for the safety of 7,000 passengers.
Six years later, in 1926, that number had already reached 19,000 passengers, and in 1931 it reached 45,000.
Initially, only flights were operated from Croydon to Paris, Rotterdam, Brussels, and Amsterdam, until in 1929, Imperial Airways began working a route to India that took seven days to complete, as the plane had to land every night to refuel and facilitate the rest of its passengers.
One of the workers at this first air control tower was Fred Stanley Mockford. He developed what would later become the international signal for reporting an emergency: "Mayday."
Stanley had developed his work in the communications department during the First World War, noting the significant presence of pilots from France and Belgium.
The new Minister of Aeronautics charged him with finding a word that would allow understanding between all pilots and ground services and that he would emphasize giving preference in communications to those who used it.
From the French aidez-moi, he came to m-aide that would end up becoming the “Mayday” that we all know today.
In this way, the daily work of the first air traffic controllers happened, executing and inventing daily the best way to develop their assistance work, without any pre-defined operations manual or lines of action.
Croydon reached its peak in 1928, the year in which the old tower was replaced by another more modern construction and equipped with the latest advances in the technological fields of communication and air navigation.
In 1946, it started operating from the new Heathrow hub, when the Croydon control tower ceased to exist and became an aviation museum.
A century of unparalleled history, work, effort, and technological development, which has taken us to the point of safety we are in today, thanks to that work rarely recognized by air traffic controllers.