Last week the government finally (maybe) ended years of banging on about London airports by endorsing a plan to build a new runway at Heathrow, as opposed to Gatwick, or in the middle of the Thames as Boris Johnson was obsessed with doing for some reason.
The thing is, none of these places are really in London, are they? Okay, Heathrow might say it’s in London, but we all know it might as well be in Berkshire. But back at the dawn of air travel London’s planners and architects had dreams of far more convenient airports, right in the heart of the capital.
In 1931, architect Charles Glover proposed that Kings Cross could double as an airport - in his plan, three half mile long runways would be built on top of a network of buildings in the area, intersecting to form a giant wheel in the sky. Unfortunately, even if it had been built, the entire enterprise would by now have been obsolete for decades, since commercial runways are now nearly three times as long as those in Glover’s design.
There was a concept for an elevated airport above King's Cross, which would have been totally fine. pic.twitter.com/se2me3Rfs2
— Toby Earle (@TobyonTV) October 25, 2016
Still more practical than the garden bridge, Lumley. Image: Popular Science/Public Domain
This charmingly bizarre suggestion from the 1930s would have involved constructing a gigantic bridge right next to the houses of Parliament – the interior would form a hanger, the roof the runways. Unfortunately there’s not much evidence this was anything more than the fevered imaginings of an artist working for Popular Science magazine and it’s hard to imagine it being a goer with politicians, for fairly obvious reasons.
After the Second World War, another rooftop airport was proposed to the east, this time to take advantage of Liverpool Street’s transport links – the design would have featured five skyscrapers constructed in ‘formation’, with two crossed landing strips passing over their roofs, though architects Lindy and Lewis were primarily thinking of it as landing place for the newly invented helicopter, rather than for planes.
— Tim Dunn (@MrTimDunn) May 10, 2015
In the 1970s the British Institute of Geographers published a report making the case that should London need increased airport capacity, a cost-benefit analysis demonstrated that Hyde Park was in fact the ideal site, not least for reasons of convenience. This was picked up by the Sunday Times, who had apparently failed to notice that author John Adams was an anti-expansion campaigner satirising the controversial decisions of the Roskill commission, then considering a location for a third major London airport. Still, a retired Air Vice-Marshall wrote to the paper congratulating all concerned on their “courage”, so the non-existent project had at least one fan.
The 1950s and 60s saw a whole range of over-optimistic proposals to accommodate helicopters – thirty years after his first Kings Cross airport proposal, Charles Grover had another suggestion – Covent Garden market was then looking for a new home, so he proposed another development at Kings Cross, with a helipad on top of a new covered market. Other proposed heliport sites included St Katherine Docks by Tower Bridge and the roof of Charing Cross station: in the end none of these came to fruition.
In the end, the closest thing central London ever got to an airport was Waterloo Air Terminal, which in 1955 offered passengers the options of being flown by helicopter to Heathrow, where they could board planes to their final destination. The economics of this never quite worked as it was mostly used by people who just wanted to have a go on a helicopter, with no intention of meeting a flight; the service was dropped after less than a year.
Sadly these days if you’re absolutely desperate to get into central London by air, the closest you can get London Heliport, a small jetty over the Thames in an unremarkable bit of Battersea. But you can always sit on the top deck of the number 19 bus into town and pretend it's a really low flying plane.