Witnessing the nimbyism and delaying tactics surrounding the potential decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is, for me, quite bewildering.
If I were to write the stories of my childhood, growing up in what might be considered now an abandoned suburb of west London, then Heathrow Airport would get a very special mention – probably two or three chapters at least. I was too young for the sixties of mini skirts and Carnaby Street, but I was exactly the right age to develop a life-long love of aviation and air travel. The airport was, quite literally, a play ground for our little Raleigh Chopper-riding and den-building gang in a way which would be absolutely impossible now.
Imagine this. You’re a kid on your bike, built from reclaimed wheels and frames, and you can ride up the road past the Minimax fire extinguisher factory, into the airport and right up to the BOAC or the BEA hangar door, wander in, climb the stairs to the mezzanine offices at the back and ask somebody important if you can go on an aeroplane. And they’d say yes, and you could find youself sitting in the pilot seat of a 707 or a Trident, or spend an hour with the maintenance men while they poked around in the vast undercarriage bays beneath wings propped up on jacks. It was there I learned how a jet engine works – I remember the patient explanation from a supervisor in white coat as we stood beside a new one about to be fitted, looking unbelieveably complex without its cowling, but incredibly simple nonetheless.
Impossible now. We’d have been arrested or shot, and those managers and supervisors in the hangar would no doubt have been fired. At least thirty Health & Safety violations would have been logged, and we’d probably be mired in litigation about something which hurt our feelings.
We’d go to the Queens Building and sit for hours on the roof terrace, or just hang around in the new Terminal One, with its nylon carpets and stainless steel which we soon discovered turned us into agile van-der-Graaf generators as we imparted multi-kilovolt shocks to unsuspecting passengers.
We would sit for hours under the landing lights at the end of whichever runway was working that day. Yes, technically this was ‘over the fence’ but there actually wasn’t a real fence. Not one for keeping nasty people out, anyway, just a low wooden affair serving only as a boundary marker and as a bike rest for plane spotters. From there we’d watch the comings and goings from the Far East and the Wild West and log them in our little exercise books, greeting old friends today whom we’d watched depart a day or two before to some unknown but definitely exciting corner of the world. Caravelles from France, Tridents from Britian, 707’s from America, Vanguards, Viscounts, Ambassadors, 720’s, VC10’s – surely the most exciting of all. There was absolutely no doubt in any of our minds that we were at the centre of the world.
And then one day in 1970, a monster arrived from New York, conceived in Seattle as the future of air travel for my generation – the Jumbo Jet – and those runways became the gateway to the world for ordinary people like me and, probably, you. Shortly afterwards, our family left west London (not because of the Jumbo Jet!), and the Boeing 747 became a sort of flag at the end of a fantastic childhood.
Since then I have flown all over the world, nearly always coming back to Heathrow on 747’s, A380’s and all manner of aircraft large and small from those very corners I’d imagined when I was a kid. I’ve thundered over those lights a thousand times (well, not really a thousand, but ‘a hundred times’ doesn’t really work) from Japan, America, Africa, Russia, Australia, Europe, Arabia, India, and every landing has reminded me of that wonderful west London childhood, and confirmed for me that indeed, we are at the centre of the world.
And although we’ll need to build huge fence around it to protect it from terrorists, other assorted nutters, H&S maniacs, climate change protesters, hijackers and kids on their Raleigh Choppers, which, perhaps carrying a message, are just now coming back into fashion, can we just build that third runway so we can stay there!