Celebrating three decades at London City Airport

Over the past 30 years a lot has developed – text messaging, DVDs and the World Wide Web to name a few – but one thing has always remained constant, the air traffic control tower at London City Airport.

Standing 20-metres tall and overlooking London’s Royal Docks, London City's Visual Control Tower is the only part of the original airport left… and is the place NATS Engineer Vic Abbott has called “work” since 7 September 1987.

Vic Abbott

My aviation career began straight after completing my ‘A’ levels at school as an Engineering Cadet at the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA’s) College of Technical Engineering at (the then still somewhat secret) Bletchley Park.

Two intensive years later, my first posting was to the ‘Southern Area Maintenance Unit’ at Heston where I gained much experience working on remote Navigation Aids and also HM Coastguard communications systems around the south of the country. This experience and training was invaluable in helping me gain promotion and the posting to London City Airport six years later; an exciting new site which was billed as the very first commercial airport actually in London.

Four engineers in total were posted to London City, 50% of which are still here! My colleague Mike is the longest serving engineer as he started a week before me.

Fast forward three decades and I’ve been there with my SLR camera to experience most of the big milestones – from the Queen joining us at the official opening in 1987 to this year's exciting announcement of a digital tower coming in 2019!


Two ‘training heavy’ months after my first day, London City Airport officially opened to the public for the first time and we were honoured to welcome Queen Elizabeth for the occasion.

The queen arrived via boat into the Royal Docks.

With good accessibility and fast check-in times, London City attracts a greater number of business travellers than any other airport in London. I'd never have thought that a year later we'd go on to handle more than 130,000 passengers and, less than thirty years later, a number thirty times that figure! Check out their very first broadcast video from the early 90s:


An important moment for my controller colleagues came in 1992 when the runway was extended from 1030m to 1199m, which was formally opened by Princess Diana.

The extended runway was made of concrete and could handle aircraft up to the size of a BAe 146 regional jet.

Diana arrived in the First Vehicle and was greeted by the Mayor of Newham.


In the same year that we welcomed our 10 millionth passenger, London City unveiled its very own Private Jet Centre to the West of the runway. Being the only private jet centre situated within London itself means passengers can arrive closer to the key business districts.


In 2003 a new holding point, catering for up to three aircraft at a time, was built at the eastern end of the runway to improve the airport’s efficiency during peak hours and enable us to manage 32 flights per hour.


This year saw completion of a new Eastern Apron built on stilts over the Dock Water comprising four stands capable of comfortably handling larger aircraft such as the Embraer 170/190.

British Airways, now the airport’s largest airline, commenced their first scheduled transatlantic flight from the airport in 2009; the same year that we reached 3.3million passengers. They now fly directly from London City to 29 destinations, including a daily business class only service to New York.


2 February 2009, known as “the day the snow came, and Britain stopped” witnessed the heaviest snowfall for 18 years – bringing disruption to all transport systems including London City Airport.


The year of the London Olympics was a busy one… not only did the airport welcome the GB swimming team home with water cannons, but the airport also had to extend its terminal building to create a larger Central Search area and NATS was required to run a restricted-hours air traffic service.


In 2016, London City Airport handled 4.5 million passengers. Comparing per acre of airport footprint, that’s 1.5 times more than Heathrow! Impressive.

The runway need extensive refurbishment to make sure it could handle so much traffic, so later in the year it got a full tarmac overlay and new LED lighting throughout. Check-in time remained less than 30 minutes throughout the works.

Plans to extend the Eastern Apron over the dock by an additional seven stands along with a new terminal building were also approved last year, and work is expected to commence in 2018. All these works (some in close proximity to the runway) must be planned, coordinated and safeguarded so as not to impact the safe operation of air navigation services during the operational hours of the airport.


In 2017, Bombardier’s new C-Series CS100 aircraft gained certification to operate into London City, making it the largest type of aircraft to operate at the airport. Its revolutionary engine design means that it is quieter and delivers greater performance efficiencies, and opens up the airport to the potential for many intercontinental destinations.

Bombardier’s C-Series CS100

Earlier this year, London City Airport also announced that it will become the first UK airport to build and operate a digital air traffic control tower. It will be operated from NATS' control centre in Hampshire by 14 High Definition cameras and two pan-tilt-zoom cameras.

I visited the Digital Towers demonstrator at Swanwick in July . The initial reaction when walking into the room is ‘Wow! Impressive’ but it doesn’t take long before you feel that you aren’t 100 miles away from the airport.

Simulation room at NATS Swanwick Control Centre

"Time flies when you're having fun..."

Airport engineers, like me, are responsible for making sure the technology our controllers rely on is in full working order to ensure a safe operation.

Everything from the screens and headsets the controllers use, through to NATS' national network of radar and radio stations, is managed and maintained by the engineering teams.

London City is no more complex than most other UK airports but is considerably more constrained because the equipment has to cater for a steep glideslope angle and is bordered by water on two sides. The Instrument Landing System (ILS) is at a 5.5° Glidepath angle (compared with the normal 3°) to reduce the effects of aircraft noise over the neighbouring residential areas.

The Airport sometimes has its own weather climate including banks of sea fog that can roll in off the Thames without warning. Special procedures also exist to cater for the effects of shipping on Air Traffic Operations!

The past 30 years have come full circle – what started as an airport which many thought would fail in the first year of operation is now set to become the UK's pioneer in the evolution of digital tower technology.

Being part of the NATS engineering team at London City has been a unique experience and is predicted to be even more so in the future!

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