In May 1969, the rear of St Pancras railway station saw a most unusual sight, as it became very temporarily an airport.

In 1969, the Daily Mail inaugurated the Trans-Atlantic Air Race, which pitted teams on both sides of the Atlantic who had to race from the top of two iconic towers in London and New York – the Empire State Building and the Post Office Tower.

This was in fact one part of a 50th anniversary reenactment of the 1919 race across the Atlantic which had been the first to achieve the non-stop crossing in less than three consecutive days.

The biggest hurdle that bedeviled the competitors was getting from the tower in the centre of the city to the nearest airport – but the RAF had a trick to play.

They landed one of the only recently commissioned Harrier Jump Jets in the centre of London – on a former coal yard just behind St Pancras Station. Although the plane was slower than others used in the race, and needed in-air refueling, its ability to land close to both of the target towers saved valuable time – and ended up winning the contest with the fastest overall journey time.

It was also a PR stunt for the Harrier as a fighter jet, which they were trying to sell to the Americans, who were initially skeptical that a plane could land without a runway.

There is a video about the Trans-Atlantic race below – jump ahead to about 2:20 on the video (relevant bit ends at 6:20).

Sadly, it would be impossible to carry out the stunt in 2019, because Harriers as a single engine aircraft are not allowed to fly over London.

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9 Comments

  1. Long Branch Mike

    Look at all the coal dust blown around! Great coup for the RAF & the Empire!

  2. Graham Tanner

    “single engine aircraft are not allowed to fly over London”

    harumph!

    Spitfire – single engine
    Hurricane – single engine
    Hawk (as used by the Red Arrows) – single engine

    I think “single engine aircraft are not allowed to fly over London” should also include “Citation required”!

    • John

      “I think “single engine aircraft are not allowed to fly over London” should also include “Citation required”!”

      The requirement is to be able to land clear in the event of engine failure. Spitfires, Hurricanes and Hawks all have sufficient gliding characteristics as to allow them to land clear.

      Helicopters, especially single engine helicopters, are more or less limited to the Helilanes – the main one being along the Thames where the “Land Clear” option is to land on shore at low tide or ditch in the river itself.

      Harrier and Sea Harrier had atrocious Engine Failure characteristics (glides like a brick almost). Hence they were never permitted to take part in flypasts – if only because those on the crowd wouldn’t be able to see them if flying at a safe altitude.

  3. Dave

    And helicopters.

    However, I believe they are restricted to routes that more or less follow the Thames.

    Presumably a few “exceptions” are made for the aircraft used in ceremonial flypasts.

  4. M@

    Excellent find. I reckon the landing site is pretty much where they’re building the Francis Crick Institute behind the British Library.

    • Steven Bennett

      it was on land between Purchese street and Midland Road there are houses built on it now and they landed where the community gardens are now. the flats are called Coopers lane I still remember the noise they were very loud

  5. Steven Bennett

    I was their my Dad took us and it was just over the road were we lived opposite in Phoenix Court which is still there with people living in. I lived in number 22.
    I was 3 in 1969 and its my first memory. Its great to find a record of it and it would be great to do it as a one off again some time. it really is a place in history.

  6. Ritchie Stephen

    I was a Member of the RAF Team based in the St. Pancras Coal Yard, where we were servicing all arrivals and departures from the yard. I have many fond, funny and interesting tales around that particular Detachment from RAF Tangmere, where we were normally based. Anybody interested in those recollections, are free to contact me on le_eminence_noir@xtra.co.nz. I will be visiting London from the end of September until the last week in October 2013.

  7. Rosemary Mullen

    My late husband Patrick Mullen assisted “Lecky” Thompson to plan the New York end of the race. The harrier landed on the helicopter pad of the East River and a motorcycle was waiting to take Thompson to the Empire State building.

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