06 Apr A few facts about 100 years of Schiphol


Schiphol, founded in March 1916 as a military aerodrome, is not the oldest airport in the Netherlands; Soesterberg is. However, Soesterberg, open since 1913 only has glider flights these days. Schiphol has grown in 100 years to a major international airport moving over 55 million passengers a year. As Schiphol is starting a photographic exhibition of historical photographs of the airport in April, To70 thought  it would be a good idea to note Schiphol’s 100th anniversary with a few facts about its history:

1. Origin of the name unclear

Aeronautical chart 1930

Figure 1 – Aeronautical chart produced by UK Automobile Association’s aviation department, 1930

One of few airports where the origin of its name is still under discussion; the oldest documented reference dates from 1447 in a land transfer deed. The name is believed to originate either from an Old-Dutch word “Scip” meaning wood or, more sinisterly, to the frequently occurring shipwrecks in this area. As this corner of the world used to be part of a huge lake, numerous sailing vessels were blown into the bog at the Northeast corner of the lake. “Hol” meaning “grave” it was a graveyard of ships. Other theories claim this to be incorrect and it was actually a safe haven for ships (Ship Hall). We might never know.

2. Runways below sea level

After the lake was drained in 1852 the area became available for development. Amsterdam Schiphol resides at -11ft and is therefore one of the lowest airports in the world.

3. Schiphol-les-Bains

Built on the soft clay deposit of the former lake it received one nickname in the 1920s: “Schiphol-les-Bains”. A rude name awarded to the muddy grass landing area by French pilots frustrated at getting bogged down.

4. Fast growth from the start

Despite these circumstance Schiphol welcomed its first commercial flight in 1920. By 1930 at least the grass surface was considered to be ‘fair’ (Figure 1). The airport grew to about 53 thousand passengers by 1938; the year its first runway was covered with tarmac.

5. Saved by the neighbours

The airport nearly didn’t make it into the 1940s; a discussion to move the airport to Leiderdorp was scuttled by protests from local inhabitants. Schiphol remains one of the oldest airports situated on its original site.

6. Quickly back on its feet

World War II had a large impact; Schiphol was badly damaged three times – once during the invasion in 1940, once by Allied action and finally due to the destruction by the retreating German forces at the end of the war. After the war Schiphol recovered remarkably quickly, the rubble was cleared and Schiphol restarted operations on 28 July 1945, about 10 weeks after the country’s liberation.

7. Large number of runways

Promotional material, 1949/1950

Figure 2 – Promotional material, 1949/1950

By 1948, the year that the airport’s then owner, Amsterdam Council, commissioned Dellaert’s great study, Schiphol had four hardened runways and passenger numbers were up to 190 thousand. The idea of mixed modality at an airport was included in the 1948 designs for Schiphol. This included a railway; something that wasn’t implemented until 1978. A fashion for airports that the Dellaert report also highlights is the idea of large number of runways arranged in a tangential pattern around a central terminal. In Dellaert’s report up to a dozen runways were proposed. A similar number to Chicago, New York (Idlewild, later JFK) and Buenos Aires. Paris Orly and London’s Heathrow airport had plans, in the late 1940s for modified tangential runway systems of up to 10 runways each (Figure 2). Whilst such a runway system virtually eliminates all problems to do with crosswinds, the runway safety implications of these designs in today’s considerations make them impractical.

8. Belt and braces approach

A small detail of the runways at Schiphol in its pre-war years was a non-standard way of marking the runway’s identifier. The runway’s identifying number, not based on its magnetic alignment, was underlined and was followed by a full stop; a belt and braces approach that makes the mis-identification the runway more difficult (Figure 3).

SPLrunwaysFigure 3 – Runway 7. at Schiphol, 1938. Source: Urban Nebula

After 100 years, starting as a small, muddy, airport in the corner of a polder, Schiphol has grown to a large airport moving over 55 million passengers a year.

Well done on reaching a century of operations: Happy Birthday Schiphol!

About To70. To70 is one of the world’s leading aviation consultancies, founded in the Netherlands with offices in Europe, Australia, Asia, and Latin America. To70 believes that society’s growing demand for transport and mobility can be met in a safe, efficient, environmentally friendly and economically viable manner. For more information, please refer to www.to70.com

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Adrian Young
Adrian Young
Combining safety and efficiency in civil aviation is a key part of our work. With a passion for aviation and aviation safety, I have contributed to safety improvements for airlines and at airports in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Projects range from major hub airports to remote operations from dirt runways. When relaxing, I can be found in the artist’s studio, where I sculpt in stone.
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