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The Birth of Air Traffic Control

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

Air Traffic Control as we know it today saw its first development in the 1920 at the Croydon Airport in London. The first World War (1914-1918) brought about major developments in aviation. With the increasing number of aircraft traversing the sky and Croydon becoming the busiest airport in the world, it was no surprise that a need for order and regulation arose after a few incidents and near misses. The First Control Tower was commissioned and shortly after the first Air Traffic Controller was certified, operating out of the Croydon Airport.

Croydon Airport, Control Room

In the years that followed this revolution in Croydon the USA saw a surge in Aircraft transport due to the the United States Postal Service. Aircraft was the fastest way to connect the US by mail; larger aircrafts were built and the USPS subcontracted mail transport to companies, and more and ore passengers were transported by air. Just as with Croydon a need for order was identified as flights increased and Airlines came together to develop the first Air Control Centre at Newark Airport. A further need was identified; regulations were developed, subsequently responsibility and operations of the centre were taken over by the U.S. Government.

Newark Airport

Below are some historical facts on the birth of ATC as we know it today...


1920 - International Commission of Air Navigation

At the beginning of the decade of 1920 it became clear that commercial aviation was going to be a total success, and that the government should establish a set of rules as soon as possible, in order to regulate the activity. Under the umbrella of the Treaty of Versailles, the International Commission for Air Navigation (ICAN) was created in 1919, and it developed the first air traffic regulatory framework, initially signed by 19 states.

Cit. Unión Sindical de Controladores Aéreos


1920 - First Aerodrome Control Tower

On the 25th February 1920 the United Kingdom’s Air Ministry detailed the specification and construction of the world’s first technical building to control air traffic, the “Aerodrome Control Tower”, to be installed at Croydon Aerodrome. This was also the first time that the “Control Tower” terminology was used. The Air Ministry specification stated that the “platform of the tower to be 15 feet above ground level”, “have large windows placed in all four walls”, “with a “wind-vane to be fitted to the roof of the hut with a geared- down indicator placed inside ,”enabling the control officer to read changes of wind”. The world’s first Air Traffic Control Tower was born.

Cit. Historical Croydon Airport Trust

Croydon Aerodrome Control Tower

Early air traffic controllers would provide basic traffic, weather and location information to pilots over radio, at a time when the airport was dealing with just a handful of flights daily.

Cit. Historical Croydon Airport Trust

NOTAM No.60 1920

A NOTAM was developed and issued which was instrumental in the formation of Air Traffic Services as we know them today. Some key developments from this NOTAM No.60 1920 were the terminology concerning “Route Traffic Control” and the intent of using ground-based personnel to provide real-time assistance and “control” of aircraft in flight. These provide pertinent air traffic information about other aircraft and weather reports- the base principles of air traffic control.

Cit. Unión Sindical de Controladores Aéreos

Croydon Airport


1922 - First Air Traffic Controller

The first aerodrome to provide an actual air traffic control service was Croydon, south of London. In 1922, after a minor collision between an arriving and a departing aircraft, the aerodrome published a NOTAM in which it was stated that all the pilots had to obtain a sequence number for departure, as well as authorisation from the tower for taking off. This authorisation was given waving a red flag from the observation tower.

Cit. Unión Sindical de Controladores Aéreos

Air Traffic Controller License No. 1

G.J.H “Jimmy” Jeffs, Croydon Civilian Air Traffic Officer, was one of the great innovators in developing the new discipline. Issued with Air Traffic Control Licence No.1 dated 22nd February 1922, Jeffs developed many of the systems and procedures that were approved by the Air Ministry and are still in use. Having established over twenty-five ATC Units in the UK, it was the United States who asked that Jeffs lead the establishment and organisation of the North Atlantic Airspace during World War Two. Jeffs had a distinguished career in civil and military Air Traffic Control, culminating in the award of the CVO, OBE and the US Legion of Merit.

Cit. Historical Croydon Airport Trust

Croydon Airport, Air Traffic Controller


1935 - First Air Control Centre

In Newark (New Jersey), several carriers created the first air control centre, in order to supervise together their air routes. In 1936, two more centres are opened in Cleveland and Chicago. The Department of Commerce then assumed the control of the operations and, shortly after, opened eight more units in order to cover the United States airspace.

At the time they used blackboards to register the positions that the pilots reported, and maps where they placed aircraft in order to avoid mid-air collisions. Taking into account the speed of the aircraft and the flight time, they were able to foresee the future position of the planes and warn the pilots in case a conflict was detected. Shortly after, pilots were instructed to always follow ATC instructions. This method to order and separate the traffic, based on estimated positions and times reported by the pilots, is what we call “procedural control”

Cit. Unión Sindical de Controladores Aéreos

Newark Air Control Centre, Control Room


“Unión Sindical de Controladores Aéreos” is a professional trade union that represents more than 90% of air traffic controllers in Spain. Our main goal is to guarantee that the labour rights of the controllers are respected, and to enhance the highest level of safety in the exercise of our profession.

The Historic Croydon Airport Trust was founded in 1978 as the Croydon Airport Society. It set out to conserve the history and heritage of London Croydon Airport, Britain’s first major international airport, for the benefit of the community. In 1983, the Croydon Airport Society became a registered charity to better support its mission of conserving one of Britain’s most significant historic places. 

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