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Longford & Heathrow Airport
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last updated on
26 January 2007

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T5 under construction, 23 April 2004, seen from Longford roundabout

The future of Longford is undeniably linked with the future of Heathrow Airport, its huge and land-hungry next-door neighbour.   During the building of the airport, the hamlets of Heathrow and Perry Oaks were completely demolished and Iron Age and Roman sites were destroyed and buried under concrete.

Special Report - Land-grabbing in the Heathrow Area

What's In A Name

Origins of the Airport

How Heathrow Got Started

 Sabena Air Crash Disaster

 Historic Departures

  What if it Happened at Heathrow

 BEA Air Crash Disaster Kills 118

 Stone Age Heathrow

 Vulcan bomber crashes at Heathrow

8,000 years of history

UK's Hottest day

£25m gold heist at Heathrow

Concorde's adventure is over

Pan Am Flight 103 Remembered

Heathrow 1955

1955: Queen opens London Airport terminal

1977: Queen opens 'tube' link to Heathrow

Tales From The Country

1977: Queen opens 'tube' link to Heathrow

Photo: Tube train: Journey from central London to Heathrow will take 40 minutesOn 16th December 1977, the Queen has formally unveils a £71m underground link from central London to Heathrow's terminals - the first of its kind in the world from a capital to its major airport.

The Queen, whose great-grandfather opened the "tuppenny tube" in 1890, paid tribute to underground staff as she unveiled the new service.

The Piccadilly line covers 71km and serves 52 stations between Cockfosters and Heathrow or Uxbridge, with 76 trains used to operate the morning and evening peak period service.

1955: Queen opens London Airport terminal

The Queen said this was an important stage in the story of London AirportThe Queen inaugurated new buildings in the centre of London Airport on 16th December 1955, part of a new complex designed to handle a growing number of air passengers. For a look back at this historic event, visit this BBC News website.

The name of the new buildings was only revealed at the end of the Queen's speech as she unveiled a plaque naming it "The Queen's Building".

The central terminal area is now known as Terminal 2.

Heathrow 1955

The Public Records Office has published a photograph of the runway layout at Heathrow Airport taken in 1955.  You will see a very different layout to that which we know today.  To see the photo, click here.

Pan Am Flight 103 Remembered

From an article from the BBC News website

On the 21st December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 took off from Heathrow Airport bound for New York's JFK airport.  38 minutes later it had exploded over southern Scotland and most of the debris rained down on the town of Lockerbie as a result of a terrorist bomb.  To read the BBC article looking back at this event in Heathrow's history, click here.

Concorde's supersonic adventure is over

26th November 2003:  After a final supersonic flight from Heathrow to its original birthplace, Concorde touched down for the very last time.  British Airways Concorde 216 became the last of its kind to fly into retirement as it landed at Filton airfield, near Bristol, marking the end of the long goodbye afforded to the fleet over the past few months.

Read more of this Guardian newspaper article here.
Also on the BBC website, Daily Telegraph, Bristol Evening Post.

The Longford website also has a page covering Concorde's last commercial flights  on 24th October 2003 into Heathrow here.

1983: £25m gold heist at Heathrow

From an article from the BBC News website

On the 26th November 1983, an armed gang carried out Britain's largest ever robbery at London's Heathrow Airport.  Over £25m worth of gold bullion bound for the Far East was stolen from the Brinks Mat warehouse, about one mile outside the airport perimeter, between 0630 and 0815 GMT.  Police estimated 15 people were involved in the planning of the Brinks Mat robbery, but only three of the gang members were convicted. To read the BBC article looking back at this event in Heathrow's history, click here.

Hottest day ever in UK

An extract from an article from the BBC News website, 10 August 2003

The record for the hottest day ever in Britain was broken on Sunday as temperatures soared to 37.4C. Recorded at Heathrow airport, it beat the existing record of 37.1C - recorded at Cheltenham in August 1990.

Topping 99F means bookmakers William Hill will have to pay out about £250,000. The Met Office confirmed the new record at 1350 BST, adding that the temperature may not have reached its peak.

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Heathrow reveals historic legacy

An article from The BBC website, 17 July 2003.

An archaeological dig at the site of the new Terminal 5 building at Heathrow Airport in west London has provided a unique insight into 8,000 years of human history, excavation leaders have said.  About 80,000 objects have been unearthed at the 250-acre site, including pottery and flint.

A team of 80 archaeologists have spent more than 15 months working on the site and traced how the communities and landscape around Heathrow has changed.  The project was the largest single archaeological dig in the UK in terms of the area excavated and the numbers of archaeologists employed.

Evidence showed that the first permanent settlement was in the Bronze Age (2,400BC to 700BC).  By the Iron Age (700BC to 43AD) a small village had appeared but that settlement died out at the end of the Roman era.  Another one grew up in the 12th Century.  Experts also found evidence that field boundaries were being created from about 2,000BC, 500 years earlier than previously thought.

Tony Trueman of Framework Archaeology, formed especially to carry out the dig, said this was highly significant.  "It shows that people were actually claiming ownership of land for the first time.  Before this land was shared by the whole of a community, but this shows us social attitudes were changing and hierarchies were emerging much earlier than we first thought."

Before the first settlement, the team found pits where meat was cooked by hunter gatherers during the Middle Stone Age, when the landscape was covered by trees.

Heathrow Airport was built on the site of what had previously been a private airfield on Hounslow Heath in 1946.  The £2.5bn Terminal 5 project is likely to be operational in 2007.

Objects from the dig are already being displayed at the Museum of London and others will be exhibited at the Heathrow Visitors' Centre later this year (2003).

Click here for photographs from the dig.

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Vulcan Bomber Crashes at Heathrow

On 1st October 1956, the first Avro Vulcan bomber taken on charge by the RAF, returning from a successful flight to Australia and New Zealand, crashed on approach to Heathrow Airport (then called London Airport).  The pilot and Air Marshall Broadhurst, who occupied the co-pilot's seat, both survived, ejecting after the plane had struck the ground and bounced back into the air.  The 4 other occupants, including a civilian contractor, died instantly.  I have provided a link to a draft statement by the Air Secretary, Nigel Birch, which can be viewed online here or at the Public Records Office at Kew.

Henry J Wild, a Longford villager who moved to Canada in the 1970s, described the incident like this:
I was standing in the farmyard when a very severe thunderstorm was approaching with a lot of lightning and strong wind and there was a tremendous noise and there appeared a triangular aircraft from the low clouds, it was so low it was obvious it could not reach the runway, there were two cracks then a loud bang as it crashed then silence, except for the thunder. It was The Vulcan arriving from Australia non-stop, the cracks were the ejector seats, it fell in a field of brussel sprouts about half a mile south-west of the village, just over the river. I heard afterwards that it was told not to land but an Air Vice Marshal aboard overruled the advice as he wanted to be sure to meet the air ministry welcoming party: he had also ordered the co-pilot to give him his seat so he was able to eject when the crash came, he broke his ankle.

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1972: UK's worst air crash kills 118

An article from The BBC website, 18 June 2003, the 31st anniversary of this disaster.

All 118 people on board a flight from London Heathrow to Brussels have died when the airliner crashed minutes after take-off. The British European Airways plane came down in a field in Staines, missing the town centre by just a few hundred yards. It is the worst disaster in British aviation history.

The Trident jet - which had been involved in another accident in 1968 - left Heathrow at 1710 BST and was only three miles (4.8 km) from the airport when witnesses said it "dropped out of the sky". The airline said it did not know what had caused flight BE548 to crash, but BEA chairman Henry Marking told reporters there was "no reason" to suspect sabotage.

Witnesses said the three-engined plane broke into two as it fell - the fuselage ploughed into trees bordering a reservoir and the tail section landed 50 yards (45.7 m) away. "I heard the plane circling overhead and there was a spluttering sound as though the engines were cutting out - then there was a thud like a clap of thunder," said 15-year-old Adrian Bailey.

Rescuers pulled two people alive from the wreckage of the airliner - a young girl, who died at the scene, and a Dublin businessman who was taken to a local hospital where he died a few hours later.

Heathrow airport Catholic chaplain Father Peter Knott reached the site of the crash within 10 minutes and said it was a scene of total devastation. "There was chaos inside the aircraft - it looked as if everybody had been killed instantaneously," he said.

In Context: An inquiry by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch said a speed error had caused the plane to stall. The aircraft was not at a sufficient height for the crew to regain control. An autopsy on pilot Stanley Key found he was suffering from a heart condition which was likely to be causing him some pain immediately prior to the crash. The investigation concluded this had probably impaired the judgement of the captain which led to him making a fatal error not noticed by the other crew until too late.

The BBC website for this incident is here and includes a link to some three and a half minutes of video of the crash scene shortly after the crash.  The Air Accidents Investigation Branch report on the crash can be found here.  A report from The Guardian is here.

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Druids used Heathrow for spiritual take-offs

An article from The Independent, 9 June 2003, by David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent

Heathrow has been a "take-off" point since the Stone Age, archaeological research shows. Five thousand years ago, Druid priests used the site west of London as a "spiritual runway" to travel to the spirit world or commune with their ancestors. Three miles long and seven metres wide, it was flanked by ditches three metres wide and artificially raised two metres above the surrounding countryside.

Excavations in preparation for the fifth terminal show it was a substantial religious centre, probably used for sacred processions associated with fertility and funerary rituals.

The archaeological investigations will last until 2006.

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Historic Departures
extract from an article in the Daily Telegraph, 15 March 2003, by Lucinda Lambton

It is not near Gatwick but on Hounslow Heath, however, that you find the most remarkable architectural survivors. "To be in Heathrow is to be in the historic bosom of the British Isles, with its pure sweet air of antiquity . . . in interest it is unapproachable in the land," wrote a Mr J Pendle Brodhurst in the 1930s; and so write I, or rather wail I, today, crying tears of anguish on behalf of its buildings. Many have stood since the Norman Conquest; stood, that is, for almost a thousand years, only to be threatened today with annihilation by airport runways.

Year in and year out, at Heathrow I have marvelled at the clinging-on-for-dear-life enclaves of old England at its best: of being able to drive from one Norman church to another, down as-narrow-as-your-car country lanes and over tiny humpback bridges spanning such watercourses as the Duke of Northumberland river, while all the time within yards of Britain's largest airport. The sense of the surreal never fails.

Harmondsworth, where the dread of development hangs heaviest of all, will lose buildings of the first order, one of them of startling national importance. With its Norman church and 18th-century pub, not to mention its 18th- and 19th-century houses, this is rich architectural fare. The stone and flint body of the church of St Mary's dates from the 1100s, while the 18th-century battlemented tower is built of Tudor bricks, topped by a cupola that shelters the bells - an endearingly rustic version of Wren's baroque bell-towers in London. Then there is the "Mass clock", a pre-Reformation rarity, dating from the 1200s or earlier, with flints forming a sundial that showed the time of day, along with the times of the masses incised deeper into the stone. Most fanciful of all is the Norman doorway, with birds carved so that their pointed beaks form the decorative design of the day. Executed in the 1200s, treasured for 800 years, it may be destroyed in 2003 for a monster mass of tarmac.

Such is the beauty of these buildings in their still-rural settings that you are hoodwinked, despite certain knowledge to the contrary, into thinking that this area has remained unchanged since the day it was described in the 1940 RAC Gazette as "scented with the gracious fragrance of green untainted country".

Heathrow was, after all, the richest agricultural land in the United Kingdom. Its legacy still looms magnificently large today in the form of the 15th-century tithe barn at Harmondsworth - at 192ft, the second longest in Britain. Justly known as "The Cathedral in Wood", its great webs of pale, untreated oak - chosen, most suitably, by John Atte Oke in 1424 - giving all the appearance of Gothickery, it is a jaw-dropping sight. Its marvellous medieval carpentry survives unaltered since the day it was created in 1427. This, too, would be flattened by Heathrow's newest runway.

If only I could enlist the ghosts of Harmondsworth and Harlington as fellow protestors: what weighty voices we could muster! Due to vanish beneath international airport ersatz is the grave of one whose triumph we still taste today. Richard Cox, who first propagated the Cox's Orange Pippin in 1825, lies buried at Harmondsworth. He died never having known of the success of his apple, which once grew by the thousand on Heathrow land.

Robert de Salis, who rode in the Charge of the Light Brigade, lived and died at Harlington, where yet another Norman church will be grazed by jets. Would that he could thunder to the aid of his hamlet. Lord Knyvett, who foiled the Gunpowder Plot, also lies nearby, and no doubt would be incandescent with rage at these proposals. A useful ally for writers of letters of protest would be Eustace Burnaby, who patented white writing paper! What, too, about Sir Edward Suckling, who invented cribbage in the 1600s and who loved the place? Or the 17th-century clergyman Dr John Wilkins, who, with grim presage for the future of Heathrow, was one of the first to write about life on the "moone" and of the means of flying to it; experimenting in a "land sailing carriage" about Hounslow Heath.

Next in the roll-call of honour is Nicholas Hillyard, the greatest of all 17th-century miniaturists, who lived nearby; and it was at Harlington that Jonathan Swift first read Gulliver's Travels aloud, in the company of Alexander Pope, John Gay and John Dryden. They were gathered at Dawley Court, home to the Secretary of State, Lord Bolingbroke. Voltaire was a constant visitor, as was Goldsmith, all of them relishing Bolingbroke's "farm": with agricultural implements, painted trophy-like, all over the walls. Would that I could summon up all their inventiveness, artistry, poetry and prose to save the surviving buildings around Heathrow from destruction.

It has not always been thus. Even at the height of the Second World War, in 1943, resistance to the Civil Aviation Authority's original plan to buy up historic swathes of rich horticultural land around Heathrow was so irresistibly strong that it could only be overcome by deceiving the Government.

In his autobiography, published in the 1970s, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, the wartime Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Air, tells how he lied to Churchill's cabinet by pretending that the land was urgently needed by the RAF to defend London - which was wholly untrue. But only by claiming that national survival was at stake could he hope to get the necessary requisition order through.

What is the justification being put forward today? Nothing as important as national survival: merely that runways are needed to cater for the extra demand for air travel created by the existence of all the latest bargain flights. Better the wartime lie, however detestable, than this shoddy parody of a huckster's excuse. How can such self-destructive schemes be allowed to continue?

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Sabena Air Crash Disaster

On March 2nd, 1948, a Sabena Airlines DC3 crashed on landing at Heathrow Airport.  It was just after 9pm and there was thick fog at the time. 

Of the passengers and crew, numbering 22, all but three were killed.  The three survivors — one of them is Brigadier Otho William Nicholson, of Privett, Hampshire, who was a member of Parliament for the Abbey division of Westminster from 1924 to 1932 — were pulled clear of the wreckage by the first members of the airport rescue teams to reach the aircraft and taken to Hillingdon County Hospital.  The other two survivors are Mr Christopher Roberts of Little Berkhamsted, Herts; and Captain Jan Oles, of the Polish Resettlement Corps, Naval Camp, Okehampton, Devon. 

A full reproduction of the 3rd March 1948 article can be seen in The Times dated 3rd March 2003.

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How the Airport Came To Heathrow

Based on an article by Philip Sherwood in The Journal of the Hayes & Harlington Local History Society, Issue 45, (Spring 1992).

The official version of the origin of Heathrow Airport has always been that it was developed as an airfield for the RAF in World War 2 and that at the end of the war it evolved into the main civil airport for London.  In reality this is far from the truth and the true story behind its development show that the War Cabinet was misled into giving approval for its construction.  As a result development of the airport, which was conceived from the beginning as a civil airport for London, diverted resources away from the war effort at a crucial time of the war when London was under attack from V-1 flying bombs and preparations were being made for the Normandy Landings.

The first mention of the proposed airport in Air Ministry files is in mid-1943.  It is clear that it was destined to be a civil airport right from the start.  The development of the site for the Royal Air Force was merely a ruse to circumvent a public inquiry and to quell criticism that the war effort was being diverted to matters that could await the end of hostilities.  In 1973, Harold Balfour (later Lord Balfour of Inchyre) published his autobiography, 'Wings Over Westminster'.  He was the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State between 1938 and 1944.  In his book, Balfour states that he deceived the cabinet committee over the requisitioning of land for post-war civil aviation needs.  He strongly made a case for the need to requisition land at Heathrow for a bomber airfield although there were several existing airfields in the Home Counties, which could have been made to do the job just as well.  Balfour persuaded the Cabinet and the Government took the land using emergency powers (The Defence Of The Realm Act 1939) that circumvented the usual procedures applicable in peacetime.  This allowed no right of appeal.

The Perry Oaks sludge works frustrated the Air Ministry's initial plans and they informed the Middlesex County Council (MCC) that they had amended the layout of the airfield to avoid the immediate necessity for removal of the site.  The MCC were directed to continue to survey for a suitable site to relocate the sludge works.  The sludge works are still at the same location today, at least until a Fifth Terminal for Heathrow is approved.

The British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) was party to the whole plot but complained about the unsuitability of the proposed layout of runways for their civil aviation requirements.  To maintain the ruse, a runway was built which was totally unsuitable for civil purposes and which was subsequently abandoned without ever having been used.

Development began in June as the first V-1 attacks rained down on the London area, one actually exploding in Longford on 13th June 1944.   Stage 1 of the construction was incomplete when the airport was transferred to the Ministry of Civil Aviation on 1st January 1946.  Despite all the spurious claims about the urgent RAF need, the RAF had never used the airport and the first use of the airport was for a civil flight, which took place for publicity purposes, when a British South American Airways Lancastrian aircraft took off on a long distance proving flight to South America.  The airport was formally opened on 31st May 1946.

For more about Heathrow Airport, it is recommended that you read 'Heathrow - 2000 Years of History' by Philip Sherwood in paperback published by Sutton Publishing in June 1999, ISBN 0750921323.
You can order it from your library or purchase it from your bookstore quoting the ISBN number shown above.

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 “Almost the last thing I did at the Air Ministry of any importance was to hi-jack for Civil Aviation the land on which London [Heathrow] Airport stands under the noses of resistant Ministerial colleagues. If high-jack is too strong a term I plead guilty to the lesser crime of deceiving a Cabinet Committee. Within the Department those of us who had studied post-war Civil Aviation needs knew that spreading out from the Fairey Aviation Company’s small grass aerodrome on the Great West Staines Road was land ideal for London’s main airport. We also knew that any thought of trying to get the land for a civil purpose would have to go through the complicated civil procedures and bound to be resisted by Agriculture and Housing and maybe more Ministries. Therefore our only hope lay in taking over the Fairey field and adjacent land under wartime powers and regulations. These powers were drastic and should not be employed for anything but war purposes.” 

“By now [1945], with German defeat only a matter of time, Senior Staffs were planning for Phase Two of the war which was to be our effort and contribution for the final consequent conquest of Japan, alongside our American ally. For this Phase Two there would be much long-range air transportation of troops and supplies from the UK to the Far East. … Arthur Street, my chief fellow conspirator, prepared a powerful paper for the Cabinet saying that by requisitioning under war powers the Fairey field and a large area beyond we could ensure a Service airfield from which all our Phase Two needs could operate. I confess now that in our hearts we knew of several bomber airfields in the Home Counties which could have done the job just as well. … “ 

“Rob Hudson, Minister of Agriculture, put in fierce objection on grounds that we were taking acres of the very best market ground. This, I fear, was very true. Ernest Brown, National Liberal Minister in charge of housing, joined Hudson in protest, saying we proposed to take fringe land earmarked for future housing schemes. I advanced as powerfully as I could the case for Phase Two needs. I did not dare breathe the words “Civil Aviation”. I put this right out of my mind so effectively that I really convinced myself of the priority of our case. The Cabinet came down on our side. We took the land. Hiroshima killed Phase Two. London [Heathrow] Airport stands.” 

from Wings over Westminster, memoirs of Harold Balfour, Aviation Minister during Second World War.

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What's In A Name?

The following appeared in the Evening Standard dated Friday December 21, 1973.

"Some air passengers arriving in this country think that Heathrow is named after the Prime Minister (then Edward Heath), as Kennedy Airport is named after President Kennedy.  In fact it was named after a man whose estate was on the site.  John Heath, cousin of Dr. Benjamin Heath, the Harrow Headmaster who abolished archery at Harrow and brought in cricket and public speaking in its place, was a Judge of Common Please.  He died on his land at what is now the airport."

The following appeared in the Letter section of the Evening Standard dated Monday December 31, 1973.

"The statement in Londoner's Diary claiming that Heathrow Airport is named after Judge John Heath is incorrect.  Heathrow Airport derives its name from a hamlet called Heath Row, which was obliterated during the construction of the airport.  The hamlet of Heath Row was on the western part of Hounslow Heath and lay along a road that ran in a southerly direction from near the Magpies Inn on the bath Road at Sipson in the Parish of Harmondsworth.  The name "Heath Row" can be found on maps and documents going back several hundred years, long before Judge Heath was born.  Some strange variations in spelling occur, as in the case of Hithero in John Warburton's map of Middlesex dated 1749.  It appears as Heath Row in John Rocque's map of Middlesex of 1754.

Judge Heath was a Judge of the Court of Common Please from 1780 to 1818 and had a house in Hayes about three miles NNE of Heath Row and about 600 yards west of the Parish Church of Saint Mary at Hayes.  The house was demolished many years ago.  It stood on the north side of a lane which is now known as Judge Heath Lane and so commemorates his connection with Hayes."

Further information:

In John Ogilvy's map of Middlesex of 1675 the hamlet of Heath Row is shown as "Hetherow".

In "The Place Names of Middlesex" by Cover, Mawer and Stenton, the name is given as "Hetherow" in the time of King Henry V, "Hetherowfeyld" in the time of King Henry VII, Hitherowe in 1547 and 1553.   It also states that it was probably the home of John atte Hetthe, i.e. John who lived at, or on, the heath.  Many people whose ancestors lived on or near a heath owe their surname to their ancestors' place of residence in the same way as people with surnames such as Bradford, Chester, London, etc., may be descendants of people who lived in those towns in the days when people were adopting surnames which became hereditary.

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What if it happened at Heathrow?

El Al freighter crash in Amsterdam, 4th October 1992.  All 4 on board killed along with 47 on the ground. (Flight LY1862)  On trying to land after an earlier incident, the aircraft reported a loss of power.  The aircraft hit a block of flats 11kms short of the runway and about 0.5kms north of the extended runway centreline.  Transposed to Heathrow, depending on the direction of operations and runway usage, this would result in the aircraft coming down on the north bank of the Thames opposite the Public Records Office, or near Chalker's Corner (a busy traffic intersection) or in Windsor, about 1Km southwest of the racecourse or a little to the east of Legoland. 

Air Transport International DC-8 freighter crash near Toledo-Express airport, 15 February 1992.  All 4 on board aircraft killed, no ground fatalities. (Flight ATI805, crash report: NTSB AAR 92/005)  The location of the crash site relative to the runway is not given but was about three miles from the airport.  A circle drawn three miles from Heathrow's central terminal area passes through areas of open ground, but also through the M4's Heston Services, Ashford, Colnbrook and the streets between Hayes & Hayes Town.

USAir Boeing 737 crash near Pittsburgh, 1903hrs, 8th September 1994. All 132 on board killed. (NTSB AAR 99/01) Rudder malfunction on approach caused sudden crash into woodland. Wreckage scattered in a 350 foot radius. Transposed to Heathrow, the crash site was about 6 miles from the runway end but to the left of the extended runway centreline. On western operations, the crash site would be in the Kew Road/Sandycombe Road area (north runway) or Manor Road (south runway). On easterly operations on either runway, this would have caused a crash in the Windsor area.

Air France Aerospatiale Concorde crash near Gonesse, 1642hrs, 25th July 2000.  113 lives were lost including all those on the aircraft and a number on the ground.  A burst tyre on take off led to damage to the underside of the wing.  The aircraft crashed while trying to maintain altitude to land at an alternative runway.  Transposed to Heathrow on easterly operations this would have caused a crash in the Ealing area.

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Tales From The Country

In these two videos. Tony Francis investigates the threat that the expansion of Heathrow Airport poses to Harmondsworth, Longford and Sipson, and the blight of local residents.

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