View Full Version : Early days at Heathrow

30th Mar 2003, 13:23
In a previous existence I was on the crew of one of the RAF’s mobile Ground Controlled Approach units. We were posted to Heathrow to help it cope with the foul weather of the 1947 winter. The new runways were still being built and the terminal alongside the northern peri-track was a group of khaki tents with duckboard floors.

An early version of ILS was installed but it was very temperamental and not many of the aircraft were equipped to receive it. Our new-fangled GCA was regarded with deep suspicion and many pilots seemed to prefer the wartime Standard Beam Approach. Everything changed one murky day when a BSAA Lancastrian made several aborted SBA approaches, helped by a runway controller firing off Very lights. When a shortage of cartridges threatened, the pilot finally agreed to try a GCA approach. Just as our controller said ‘You are a quarter of a mile from touchdown - look ahead for the runway’ the snow providentially cleared and the pilot found himself perfectly lined up.

Soon he came out to our site and shook hands all round, promising to spread the word. Within a week we were working non-stop. Everyone wanted to practise GCA approaches.

I hope these extracts from my album will be of some interest.


The Bendix GCA truck, self- contained with its own diesel generator. When the wind changed, everything trundled off to the new location alongside the upwind end of the new runway.

Clipper America, a Gold Plate Constellation NC86520 which was on its first stop during PAA’s first round-the-world scheduled flight, 18 June 1947.

A Lockheed Lodestar of the French Air Force.

CF-TEQ, a DC 4m of TCA.

Sabena DH Dove.

30th Mar 2003, 16:46
Nice pics. This one is LHR late 1950's
Mr G.


Spot 4
30th Mar 2003, 18:17
Did the `DC4` with Merlin engines not go by another name?

30th Mar 2003, 18:26
Great pics!

Pan Am Connie - was that "Round the World" service "Clipper One"? Remember that in the 70s with 747s! Woul;d have preferred to see the Connies of course!

The DC-4 with Merlins was the Canadair C-4 Argonaut... one of BOAC's survived on the fire dump at EGLL until relatively recently...
DC-4M does also ring a bell though...

Now, these pics have galvanised me - I have two 8 or 16mm cinefilm reels labelled, tantalisingly, "LAP" which I take to mean "London Air Port" and "Airshow". They were shot in the 50s by either my dad or my grand-dad. I MUST get down to the camera shop and see if I can get them transferred on to VHS or CD and see what's on them... There's also quite a lot of stuff shot on Madeira, so the possibility of Aquilla Airways Solents...



Spot 4
30th Mar 2003, 22:55
Apparently it was a Canadian built version of a DC4 known as a Northstar. Here is one:


I assume by Canadair?

30th Mar 2003, 23:54
Great shots, more please gyp. But what's that Ambassador with the red wings ? I'm sure none survived to be painted in the BEA 'red square' scheme which did feature red wings, so whose is that ? Never seen a shot like that before.

wrt the Canadair, it went by a variety of names/designations. A license-built DC-4 with Merlins it was a DC-4M or C-54GM. The initial batch for the RCAF were unpressurised (square windows) but some were lent to TCA until the pressurised version (round windows) was available. TCA called it the North Star, BOAC called it the Argonaut. When disposed of by BOAC they cascaded to Aden Airways, East African and Overseas (CI). AFAIK only one remains, in the Ottawa museum.

second thoughts On closer inspection, I think that LHR photo is actually a colourised b/w shot, possibly a postcard (grass is never that green !). The 'artist' probably thought all BEA planes had red wings, although the Ambassadors never did.

Shaggy Sheep Driver
31st Mar 2003, 01:40
Some Argonauts ended up at Derby Airways (later British Midland) and operated off grass at Burnaston (now the Toyota car plant). One (G-ALHM???) in BM colours came to grief on the approach to Manchester in the late 1960s, crashing in the centre of Stockport with much loss of life to those on board.

I remember cycling there the next day to see it - the incongruous sight of the big tail section with 'BM' on it in among the buildings of the town.


31st Mar 2003, 12:52
More pics from Heathrow in 1947.

G-AGNX, an Avro York of BOAC.

This Bristol Freighter was fitted with a long-range tank inside the cabin, presumably for its ferry flight to Argentina.

OY-DLA Viking of DDL, a Danish airline. Behind is a Lancastrian and beyond that . . .

. . . a Halifax converted for freight by adding a plywood pannier to the bomb-bay.

At the time three runways were being built in the usual wartime triangular pattern. A further three parallel runways were planned. Each one started as a hole 30 ft deep. The lowest layer were stones so big that each came on its own lorry. Subsequent layers got progressively smaller till they surfaced in a runway strong enough to cope with the Brabazon (take-off weight 290,000lbs on single wheel main undercarriage legs). When a runway was finished it was put into immediate use, despite the fact that the areas round about were still a building site, littered with stacks of pipes, builders’ huts and other impedimenta.

Enter a Halifax with pannier packed with peaches from Barcelona, a high-value cargo in rationed Britain. On landing a swing developed and one wheel went off the edge of the runway onto the muddy rubble which was about a foot lower. It might have been OK had it not met a cross runway also a foot above the mud. The step up and drop off the other side were too much for the u/c which gently folded spreading a swathe of peaches along the ground.

Happily, there were no casualties unless you count some spectacular cases of diarrhoea among the GCA crew who couldn’t bear to see the abandoned cargo go to waste.

and the Haliprang

31st Mar 2003, 15:52

Great photos, great tales - please keep them coming!

31st Mar 2003, 23:35
I recently had the family Super8 films transferred to DVD and was fascinated to find within the collection of memories a section documenting a day trip to Heathrow in about 1962 with YT as a nipper in the paddling pool clearly visible on the roof of T2 (?) in the superb aerial shot above. Can you imagine taking the family for a day out to the hell that is Central Heathrow today???

On the film are a plethora of Viscounts and Vanguards, Caravelles, B707s and a solitary Air France Connie.

Later on I see from the films that we went to an airshow somewhere (my dad can't remember where but it's clearly an RAF expansion period airfield with a line of C-type aircraft sheds in the background, but not enough detail to make an ID). A Lincoln, the Blue Diamonds and a B52 all shown doing flypasts, along with a Tiger Moth, Spitfire and Hurricane. The Diamonds are breathtaking but who would have thought 40 years ago that the B52 would still be in the front line, and worse it would be still in action - but that's another subject entirely.

Great stuff everybody, keep it coming.

vintage ATCO
1st Apr 2003, 00:49
Great shots, more please gyp. But what's that Ambassador with the red wings ? I'm sure none survived to be painted in the BEA 'red square' scheme which did feature red wings, so whose is that ? Never seen a shot like that before.

Yes, I'm puzzled by the Ambassador. Dan Air started using them in 1960, did they have red wings? Last service with BEA was in 1958, before the 'red square' scheme. Or has the photo been retouched? :D

vintage ATCO

1st Apr 2003, 01:22
Red Ambassador.

I have had a look again at the original picture. It is actually a postcard and I think it has been retouched.

The green does not look right either.

I paid 5 pence for the card a few years back at a Stamp Fair in Glasgow.

Mr G.

3rd Apr 2003, 03:11
Before this thread fades away, I thought I’d squeeze in one more picture. This was taken at Prestwick in Feb '47 - well, not exactly Heathrow but an airport from the same era.

Scottish Aviation had this old Fokker F.XXII at the back of their storage cupboard and brought it out in 1946-47 to build a service to and from Belfast. It didn’t last long. It might have been the economics, or maybe the noise. The power units were P & W Wasps so on every take-off this splendid beast made the same racket as a formation of Harvards.


4th Apr 2003, 15:53
Had my fifth birthday party in "the' restaurant ( Nissen Hut) at Heathrow, thirty odd kids, Then bonfires, (five big ones) at the end of the runway. My second and third flights were standing beside Nancy in the nose of her Dragon Rapide for a sightseeing flight down the Thames to Tower of London. 5GBP was a lot of money then, My grandfather used to organise cricket matches beside the runway, airport staff versus the Wimpey's people.

Blessed times.