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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  1. Long Branch Mike says:

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

  2. Graham Tanner says:

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


    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 says:

      “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.

    • Dave says:

      John… the Harrier did not have an atrocious engine failure rate.. as technician who spent years working on the Harrier i do know that

  3. Dave says:

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

    • Steven Bennett says:

      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 says:

    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 says:

    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 [email protected]. I will be visiting London from the end of September until the last week in October 2013.

  7. Rosemary Mullen says:

    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.

  8. Andy Armitage says:

    I was with 51 Fld Sqn (Airfields)RE, putting the aluminium landing pad down behind St Pancras Station. When the Harrier took off there was a huge cloud of coal dust.

  9. Lynne Peters (Dearden) says:

    I was seconded to Wittering as SACW shorthand typist to the air race planning team. It was exciting seeing all the arrangements being made. Then my friend Ruth (air traffic control) went to London based at Mod ops to follow the Harrier’s progress. (Ruth and I are still great friends). I remember that when the Harrier came down at St Pancreas, a bride was covered in coal dust nearby. Exciting times

  10. Nigel Gardner says:

    This is a blast from the past!
    Alec Sneddon (pilot) and myself (navigator) took a Wessex into the coal yard to ferried the pilots to the building site by the tower.

    We were rung up at 10 o’clock the previous night to the start and told to position in the black unmarked hole ‘just to make sure’.

    The cloud from a hundred years of coal dust was truly horrendous so we just sat tight in the aircraft with all doors tightly closed.

    I do have a photograph someone took of us landing at the coal yard if anyone is interested.

    • Tom s says:

      Hi Nigel,

      Was the Wessex XR498? I am researching this helicopter and would love to see the photo!

    • Nigel Gardner says:

      A somewhat tardy reply but the aircraft was indeed XR498 and I could send you a copy of the photograph if I knew where to send it.

      Nigel Gardner

    • Guy Ellis says:

      Hi Nigel
      I am writing an article on this for The Aviation Historian and would really like to make contact please
      My email is [email protected]

  11. Diane Steel nee Davis says:

    Happy days

  12. Derek kenward says:

    I was there when that plane took of, the noise was tremendous, I was a GPO telephone engineer working in Euston Rd just 25,it was the most exciting thing I had ever seen.

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