An important new exhibition at the RAF Museum celebrates the history of powered flight. HARRY KEEGAN reports on how close Hendon, rather than Heathrow, came to being London's airport

"Mr Claude Grahame-White as the courageous champion of an act still in its infancy, has set his mark on Hendon. The name of the town is flashed over the face of the earth and water to the confines of civilisation by the exhibits which take place over its aviation grounds."

So wrote this newspaper in January 1914. Even if you live in Hendon, you may find this reference to its once world-famous aviation grounds baffling - especially if you do not remember 1957 (when the last powered flight left its airport) and have not visited the RAF Museum in Grahame Park Way.

But if Claude Grahame-White had had his way, Hendon - rather than Heathrow - would today be the site of London's principal airport, and some of its streets would instead have been airport runways.

"He saw the big, flat fields, the railway line, that it was nine miles from Marble Arch and he had the vision it could be the equivalent of Heathrow," says David Keen, education officer at the RAF Museum, which now, appropriately, occupies part of the original airport site. "But no-one then quite envisaged the massive amount of land an airport like Heathrow would take up."

Hendon's connections with aviation actually pre-date Grahame-White. In 1909, only six years after Orville Wright had made the first flight in a powered aircraft, the Everett & Edgcombe company built an aeroplane. To accommodate it, the firm built a shed in a field at the end of Colindale Avenue. By the following year, a large area had been cleared and other organisations were using the airfield.

But in 1911, Grahame-White bought the land and promoted the site - some 207 acres of rural Hendon, then well outside the boundaries of Greater London - as the London Aerodrome.

Previously involved in the motor trade, Grahame-White had been inspired by the feats of the Wright brothers and Louis Bleriot, the first person to cross the English Channel by aeroplane.

He became an aviator himself and won a Daily Mail prize for his achievement of flying from Hendon to Manchester, one of the earliest flights made partly in darkness.

He understood, earlier than most, how aviation would change the world.

"The conquest of the air will prove ultimately to be man's greatest and most glorious triumph - what railways have done for nations, airways will do for the world," he once wrote.

In August 1910, he persuaded Bleriot to join him and they started a flying school at Hendon. He built a factory, began producing planes on the site and took every opportunity to promote his new business. Races and aerobatic displays were organised, attracting huge numbers of visitors who came to watch the daring feats of men like Gustav Hamel - who once, it was said, swooped so low over the crowds, the tail of his plane knocked a policeman's hat off - and Grahame-White himself.

To give an idea of the scale of these events, the first Aerial Derby - a race around London, starting and finishing at Hendon - was watched by an estimated 500,000 spectators in 1912.

In 1911, Hamel took off from Hendon and flew to Windsor with Europe's first airmail delivery. But Grahame-White also saw the immense military potential of aviation and tried, in vain at first, to interest the government.

Winston Churchill was among a group of parliamentarians who attended a demonstration of air power at Hendon in May 1911.

Ever the patriot, Grahame-White proudly handed his airfield over to the government at the outbreak of the First World War. The factory grew rapidly and, by 1918, there were 3,000 men and women employed in manufacturing aircraft at Hendon's factories.

Naturally, Grahame-White wanted his factory back after the war but the government had other ideas. Although military activity had drastically declined, the RAF continued to use the aerodrome - flying officials to the Versailles peace conference from Hendon in 1919 - and acquired it by compulsory purchase in 1925.

Grahame-White was so disillusioned he never had anything to do with aviation again.

The aerodrome became RAF Hendon and staged the Hendon Air Pageant, an RAF tournament, for 17 years until 1937. Again, huge crowds came to see the displays and some of the most famous British aircraft were first seen by the public at Hendon - the Spitfire, in 1936, being a prime example.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, fighter squadrons were based at Hendon but these were relocated out of harm's way at the commencement of the Blitz in 1940. The airfield was subsequently used mainly for VIP flights and as a satellite to RAF Northolt.

Although its first modern runways were laid between 1940 and 1941 - one of them following the course of what is now Lanacre Avenue, Grahame Park - Hendon was already losing out to other airfields, such as Northolt, where its RAF squadrons had been transferred.

David Keen explains: "By the end of the war it was becoming clear that jets represented the future of both military and civil aviation. Hendon had become something of an anachronism for the RAF as its runways were too short for jet aeroplanes and the area had become too residential."

The airfield's last official, powered flight took off in 1957, after which much of the area of Grahame-White's London Aerodrome was, perhaps inevitably, sold off for large-scale housing projects, such as the Grahame Park estate.

Today, Hendon's aviation heritage is represented by the RAF Museum, Britain's only national museum dedicated exclusively to aviation, which opened in 1972.

The museum's main building was built around two First World War aircraft hangars on the site. The Battle of Britain building opened in 1979 and today (Dec 17), 100 years to the day after the Wright brothers' first powered flight, the museum unveiled its Milestones of Flight exhibition, commemorating a century of flight.

The impressive exhibition opens to the public tomorrow (Dec 18). It features some classic aircraft, suspended in mid-air around the hall, while a new, interactive section, which demonstrates the science of aeronautics in an approachable format, is likely to be a hit with children and adults alike.

It is a fitting tribute to Hendon's aviation heritage.

The Royal Air Force Museum, Grahame Park Way, is open 10am to 6pm all year (except December 24 to 26 and January 1). Entrance is free and there is free parking. The nearest Tube station is Colindale. For details call 020 8205 2266.