London Heathrow Airport or Heathrow, located in the London Borough of Hillingdon, is the largest and busiest airport in the United Kingdom. It is the third busiest airport in the world in terms of total passenger traffic and it handles more international passengers than any other airport in the world. It is also the busiest airport in the European Union in terms of passenger traffic and the second busiest in terms of traffic movements, second to Paris CDG airport in Paris, France. Heathrow is the primary hub for BMI, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways.
Located 14 miles west of Central London, Heathrow has two parallel main runways spanning east-to-west and five operational terminals. The site covers 12.14 square kilometres (4.69 sq mi) but it was a lot different back in 1914 when it was nothing more than just a field.
In the days of the First World War from 1914 and up to 1919 the area that is now Heathrow Airport was used as a training area and military airport for the British Flying Corps (actually at Hounslow Heath). On 25th August 1919 the airfield, Hounslow Aerodrome, was the take off point for the world’s first ever international flight by a De Havilland DH-4A to Paris, France. In 1920 the airport was closed due to various logistical reasons including bad communication possibilities, the bumpy nature of Hounslow Heath, its tendency to become boggy and muddy in Winter and its frequent covering of mist.
In the 1930’s the area was born again as an airfield called the Great Western Aerodrome (also had other names such as Harmondsworth Aerodrome and Heath Row Aerodrome), it was owned by Fairey Aviation, a private company, and the airport was mainly for aircraft testing purposes. Charles Fairey had paid £15,000 for a 150 acre plot of clear land.
In 1944 the airfield was requisitioned by the government for use by the ministry of Air. At the time it was said the airport was needed for long haul flights to support the war with Japan. However it later emerged that it was always intended to be used for civil purposes and a requisition meant a public enquiry would be side stepped. The airport was used by the RAF on only two occasions. In 1940 Hurricane aircraft were based here during the Battle of Britain as safety measure, diverted from their normal base at Northolt. In 1945 Lancaster bombers, Halifax, DC-3, Anson and York aircraft were also diverted here for a period of time. With the end of the war in 1945 it was announced the airport would be used for civilian flights instead of military flights.
By the end of 1945 the first runway had been built, the East-West runway at 9,000 ft long. Two more were on their way, and 1st of January 1946 became the opening day of the airports civilian life, after being officially handed over from military control. It was announced as “the worlds largest airport and the country’s largest post-war building scheme”. This was no small project and £20,000,000 had been set a side for the entire Heathrow project on a 1,500 acre site.
As for when the airport first officially opened for commercial flights is a mater of debate. Though some flights had been taking off during the whole of the year, three dates are out as being the official opening. 1st January 1946, 28th May 1946 and 31st May. The dates seem to depend on who the interested party is.
During its first year Heathrow saw 9,000 flights to 18 destinations and the airport rapidly expanded over the next few years. By 1951 796,000 passengers were using the airport annually significant as for the first time the numbers exceeded those from the nearby Northolt airport, and hit 1 million by the end of 1953 with 62,000 flights.
However in those early days there were no terminals, just a tented village to provide the facilities for those early passengers. What today is terminal 2 was actually the site of the first true terminal building, the ‘Europa Building’, which saw its first passengers for short haul flights in April 1955 and was officially inaugurated on the 16th December 2005 by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh. A section for domestic flights became known as the ‘Britannic Building’.
In 1961 the airport constructed a terminal to handle long haul flights, ‘The Oceanic Building’, at a cost of £3 million pounds and on the site that is now terminal 3, opening on 13th November 1961. The terminal was only used for flight departures and was renamed to Terminal 3 in 1968. The terminal turned out to be uncomfortably hot in summer and very cold in winter. This went on for 20 years until in the 1980’s refurbishment found a tile cutting machine had been left inside the utility ducts and was blocking the heating and air-conditioning system. This was removed and the problem of uncomfortable climate inside the terminal was solved.
In 1968 a new short haul terminal was brought into service which today is terminal 1, officially opened by the Queen in April 1969. The ‘Europa building’ was now renamed as Terminal 2 and the ‘Oceanic building’ would now be renamed Terminal 3.
At this point all three terminals had been built close together in the central area of the airport, inside the runways triangle. The thinking at the time was that little car parking facilities would be needed by travelling passengers. Flying at that time was still very much the preserve of the rich and it was believed most passengers would be chauffeur driven to the terminals for their flights. This thinking left a legacy that would haunt the modern day management as the closely built buildings limit the possible expansion of short term car parking facilities for this central area.
In 1970 terminal 3 was extended to allow its use for arrivals as well as departures. The extension was also notable as seeing the very first moving pedestrian walkways in the UK. Also in 1970 the airports two main runways were lengthened to a length of 2 and a half miles.
In April 1986 terminal 4 was officially opened. The terminal was mainly for the long haul home of British Airways. With the opening of terminal 4 saw the total separation of departing and arriving passengers for the very first time. The terminal was built on the South side of the airport away from the other terminals. At the same the other 3 terminals were upgraded and refurbished.
In June 2005 redevelopment work to Terminal 1 saw a doubling in the size of the terminal lounge with 1000 extra seats. 20% extra retail space was also added for 22 new stores.
In 2006 Heathrow constructed a brand new £100 million pounds glass fronted pier building at terminal 3. This was to accommodate four brand new aircraft stands able to accommodate the Airbus 380, the world’s largest passenger plane.
In March 2008 Terminal 5 opened on the far western side of the airport grounds. One of the largest construction projects in Europe the construction included the main terminal 5 and 3 separate satellite buildings all located on the far West of the airport. At the time of opening Terminal 5 provided 47 extra aircraft stands of which 10 being of sufficient size to handle the giant A380 airbus. By 2011 another 13 stands will be added to bring the total extra capacity up to 60 aircraft stands.
The project included a 4,000 space multi-storey car park, a new link road from the M25 motorway, the diversion of two rivers, reconstructing the Western perimeter road, a new 600 bed major hotel, (the Sofitel Heathrow terminal 5), the extension of rail links, the Heathrow Express and the Piccadilly line.
Terminal 5 brought in a totally new baggage handling system handling all baggage for the entire airport and flight connection baggage transferred from Heathrow.
The first phase of the construction was the main terminal and the first satellite buildings with the second satellite building being due by 2011.
So what can you expect to see at Heathrow today?
Since Heathrow is the primary hub for BMI, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways, you can be guaranteed to catch numerous Airbus 319s, A320s, A321s any time of the day which make up a large part of the BMI and BA fleet. Airbus 340-200s and 400s are widely used by Virgin Atlantic and arrive and depart throughout the day.
Mornings is the best time to catch a lot of the heavies arriving from the US and further afield, a large portion of arrivals are BA Boeing 747-400s, 777-200s and 767-300s with the major US carriers (United, Continental, American, Delta, US Airways) using Boeing 777-200/300s, 767-300/400s. Morning arrivals also tend to include Boeing 747-400s from Malaysian Airlines and Thai Airways. Some other interesting morning arrivals include South African Airlines A340s and occasionally the odd 747-400.
Other major European airlines (Lufthansa, Iberia, KLM, etc) operate throughout the day with a range of equipment ranging from Airbus A319s through to A330s and Boeing 737-400s through to 767-300s. Some less common types include Embraer 145s (BMI Regional), Fokker 50s (KLM Cityhopper), ATR-72s (Air France), Fokker 100s (Austrian Arrows) and on vary rare occasions a Tupolev TU-154 (Rossiya) or an Ilyushin IL-96 (Aeroflot)!
Those looking to catch the Airbus A380 at Heathrow now have quite a few opportunities to see it thanks to Emirates, Qantas and Singapore Airlines all operating them in to LHR.
Emirates now fly daily to LHR and the flight is scheduled to arrive at 12:15 (EK001) and depart at 14:15 (EK002). Singapore Airlines also operate a twice-daily service; the first flight arrives at 5:45 (SQ322) and departs at 10:55 (SQ317) the second flight arrives at 18:55 (SQ318) and departs at 22:05 (SQ321). Finally Qantas operate five flights a week (Friday-Monday and Wednesday), flights are scheduled to arrive at 6:20 (QF31) and depart at 11:15 (QF32).
Afternoons and evenings at Heathrow are the best time to catch the Asian carriers which include Japan Airlines JAL, Asiana Airlines, Korean Air, Eva Airways, China Eastern Airlines, Air China, Kingfisher Airlines and China Airlines. The majority of Asian carriers operate various Boeing 777 and Airbus A330 variants, Korean Air being one of the few who use Boeing 747-400s although recently they too have been switching to 777s.
The possibilities for movements are endless, so any visit could bring some form of Star Item. Best way to find out if something rare or exotic is due to arrive at Heathrow is to check the various forums and message boards, someone is bound to have the information.
Where to go?
Heathrow use one runway for take-off and one runway for landing in the mornings and then swap the runways at 1500 to use the opposite in the afternoon. The morning / afternoon rotation is then reversed at the start of each week.
Between 6am and 7am aircraft may land on both runways. If runways 09L/R are in use then 09L is used for landing and 09R for take-offs all day.
Location A – 27L Arrivals
The field located at the end of Myrtle Ave. offers a great view as aircraft pass 40 feet above the ground. The field is located in a large clearing and there are plenty of opportunities to photograph the aircraft as they pass. This spot is best from 9am till sundown in the winter and 9am till 8pm in the summer.
Directions: From the Hatton Cross tube/bus station, located on the Piccadilly Line and numerous Heathrow bus lines, exit the building facing the airport and walk to the right and around the building. At the intersection for the A30 cross the street and head right. You will pass a gas station, a field with landing lights and horses, and then on your left will be the field. Most photographers tend to gather by the tree line on the far right of the field.
The most you would need from this spot would be 100mm and that would be to photograph a 737 full frame. For the larger aircraft like the 747-400 or A340-600, 50mm would suffice.
Location B – 27R Arrivals
The Northern Perimeter Rd. roundabout offers a great view of the very low flying aircraft on short final for runway 27R. The aircraft are slightly lower and closer then at Myrtle Ave. There are a few light poles but you have a good opening to get a side on shot. This spot is best from 9am till 5pm in the summer and 9am till sunset in the winter.
Directions: From the Hatton Cross tube/bus station, exit facing the airport and turn right to cross over the Hatton Cross Bridge. Continue to walk along the Eastern Perimeter Rd. You will pass a British Airways World Cargo sorting facility and a Jurry’s Inn on your right. When you can, cross the street and walk alongside the airport fence, which follows along the British Airways maintenance facility. After you make a left turn at the top of the road continue to follow the road all the way around the British Airways facility. You will pass parking lots to your right and general buildings to your left. At the end of the road you will find the roundabout and it is best to position yourself in the grassy patch to the left of the roundabout.
Photography: Like Myrtle Ave, a small lens would suffice for this spot. 58mm would suffice for a full frame A330-200 photo and 90mm for a full frame 737-800 shot.
Location C – 27L Departures
One of the best places to take photos of planes departing from LHR, situated at the Southern Perimeter Road near Esso petrol is perfect to catch planes taking off from runway 27L. Every lens above 70mm will be good in that area for almost whole day.
Location D – 09L Arrivals
With the Terminal 5 complete there’s now a grass embankment to the south side of runway 09L where approach shots can be taken from. When runway 09L/R are in use then 09L is used for the vast majority arrivals and so you won’t miss much in a day of shooting. The area is best from about 10am until 3pm on a summer’s day. The sun does tend to work its way round and at about 5pm ends up at 90 degrees to the runway, meaning shots are very difficult by that time. After this time you can walk down to the roundabout on the north side and shoot south, although its probably 7pm before you get the sun behind you.
Not on map – 09R Departures
The field in Feltham can deliver superb banking shots aircraft departing 09R. The vast majority of aircraft turn sharp right after take-off allowing some really nice shots, particularly on a nice sunny day. It should be noted though that aircraft are far off and a big lens is required. An A340-300 will require a slight crop in order to be full frame with a 400mm lens on a digital body (ie 680mm). Anything smaller is not worth bothering about. The spot is pretty good throughout the day although you will suffer heat haze on a hot summer’s day so it is best to shot during the winter months here.
If you have a scanner, these frequencies are useful to listen out on for ground traffic, inbound and outbound movements
119.725 BOV/LAM arrivals
134.975 OCK/BIG arrivals
119.900 Transits through LCZ (VFR & helicopters)
120.400 / 127.525 / 135.125
121.700 SE half of airport
121.900 NW half of airport
118.825 / 121.225 / 124.925 Northeast
119.775 / 121.275 / 133.075 Northwest
120.175 / 120.525 / 133.175 Southeast
121.325 / 129.075 / 129.275 Southwest
London TMA Middle
London TMA Upper