Article: Imperial Airways Goes Commonwealth

  • Image of Imperial Airways Short Empire flying boat "Cambria" on the bay at Hamilton, Ontario in 1938.

    by James McCook

    This untitled (until now), undated, unpublished (until now, it is believed) and unsigned manuscript is part of the James McCook Collection in the Aviation Museum. Because it bears a strong resemblance to other McCook manuscripts in the Collection, it is assumed that Mr. McCook is the author of this romantic account of the splendours of Commonwealth air travel that would soon include Canada. We also believe Mr. McCook may have written this article around 1937 based on a reference he makes to the first passenger flight from London to Paris.

    Thirteen years ago an aeroplane with two passengers and pilot aboard soared away from a London airport, bound for Paris.*

    It was the opening flight of that vast service which is gradually linking by air the whole British Empire, and so it is the kindly thing to say it “soared” away. As a matter of fact, “staggered” would more closely have described its take-off for it was loaded to its slim capacity and another passenger would have kept it grounded.

    Today, planes leaving London for far-off India and Africa can carry 38 passengers and 1,000 pounds of baggage.

    As the pioneering plane flew across the quiet English south lands and out over the Channel, only a flicker of interest was attached to it. The hum of the aeroplane motor had ceased to be the voice of death, and its novelty had long worn off. It landed at Paris on schedule. After a brief stay it returned to England.

    Looking at that flight from today’s pinnacle of aviation progress the striking fact is that no flag waved, no patriot eulogized. Yet that first flight represented to the Empire what Stevenson’s first steam-engine journey did to the British Isles.

    Now London airliners wing their way over Europe, the Mediterranean, down over the lonely desert and by Persia to glamorous India. They speed southwards from Cairo over the history-haunted Nile, stir to life with the sound of their motors, the strange denizens of the darkest jungles of Africa and swing to rest at Cape Town, on the southerly tip of the former Dark Continent.

    Progressive minds that watch over the destinies of the aerial services of Great Britain are turning to Canada. The Watkins expedition, which some months ago completed a year of study of conditions in Greenland, has reported that a regular air service between London and Winnipeg throughout the year is feasible. This brings Canada into the centre of the Empire airways picture. From London to the Manitoba capital by the northern route there are only a few “hops” of over 400 miles, and only one of 700 over land or sea, where landings would not be possible with some degree of safety. This will give the service ample security, against accidents, such as have overtaken fliers who have attempted the direct flight across the ocean and have failed.

    The British airlines may run onwards from Winnipeg to the Rockies and then probably northwards down the Mackenzie River and west to Alaska. Or it may cut over the Canadian peaks and follow the trail blazed by Kingsford Smith from the western United States to Australia, without following the fogbound route that lies via Alaska and the Aleutian Isles to the Far East, and down to the Commonwealth.

    This connecting link to Canada will doubtless be the last of the chain. At the moment British machines are surveying the route from India south to Australia. The line running down from Canada will complete the band, and bring the furthest point of the Empire to within not more than 14 days travel from London.

    The men in charge of Imperial Airways Limited, the British government-supported, or at least government-backed, service through which development of airlines outside the British Isles has been undertaken, are not dreamers. They have not started services they have been unable to continue. No major aerial route has been operated until its possibilities have been thoroughly investigated, the best possible machines for the job provided for and a complete ground organization prepared to lend to the utmost, safety, convenience and high standards of efficiency.

    It was in 1924 that Britain took the step of merging all existing air services into the one state-aided concern of Imperial Airways. On the directorate of the company are representatives of the four absorbed companies and government officials. The organization has a capitalization of £1,000,000 and its first purpose is to establish aerial transport throughout the Empire on a sound basis.

    Probably no country is so critical of its public services as Great Britain and constantly Imperial Airways has received its full share. Mainly criticism has been levelled at what has been called its unenterprising spirit. Years before any British service extended further than Paris, Dutch machines were flying on a regular service to the Dutch Indies. And there was always the shining example of the extent of the United States air mail lines.

    It was easy to criticize. But the problems that faced those charged with developing British aerial communications were possibly greater than those of the agents of any other nation. Britain, unlike Holland, was a world power and her plans for far-flung airlines were looked on with some suspicion. Endless negotiations had to be undertaken before permission could be secured to fly over certain countries. A shining example of the difficulties involved being the fact that the Indian Government will not allow Imperial Airways craft to fly over India on their way to Australia and that when the route comes into operation it will, at first at least, be flown over the southern Empire with machines leased or operated by the government of that country. When obstacles like this were placed in the way of the aerial envoys by a member of the British Commonwealth, what can have been the barriers raised by other countries?

    Also during the past 13 years, Britain has been retrenching and the great mass of British taxpayers could not be “sold” on the efficiency of aerial services. It took years of careful operation on the part of the company to build up the average Britisher’s faith in air transportation. And until this faith could be secured there was no display of willingness on the part of the people, who eventually would pay any bills involved, to support further expansion of air services.

    The service to India was inaugurated in 1929 and that to Cape Town in 1932, after the central Africa service had been in operation for some time. Those services involved flying under widely divergent conditions with new problems to be met and solved every few thousand miles.

    With the first plane for Cape Town, which left London in January 1932, there travelled a man whose journey illustrated in remarkable fashion the advance of aviation and the revolution it has wrought in means of travel. He was Major Ewart Grogan. Thirty-two years ago, Major Grogan ended at Cairo, a walk from the Cape that had occupied three years. He had toiled through thousands of miles of brush and jungle, distressed by fever bouts and myriads of insects; he had faced the danger of wild beasts; he had suffered from thirst and sometimes hunger.

    In 1932 he travelled to the Cape by air. He was carried from Cairo to the southerly tip of Africa in seven days, seated in a cool cabin.

    This service to Africa jumped the mileage of Imperial Airways in an amazing fashion. In 1924 the company operated 1,760 miles of regular routes and in 1928 the total was only 2,100 miles. But in the following year it was 6,400 miles and in 1932 no less than 12,000 miles. Immediate plans by the company for extensions will add 6,000 miles to this total within the next two years.

    Study of the figures of mileage covered and days required shows that Imperial Airways planes are comparatively slow. This is due to the fact that little night flying is done, it being the aim at present to place safety before speed. The hazards of night flying are still sufficiently great on most of the India and Africa routes to cause delay in placing passenger-carrying aircraft in operation after dark.

    But realizing the need of speedier transportation for mail and express, Imperial Airways, it is said, intends soon to separate mail and passenger services. Experimental work to find the most suitable type of craft has already been started, the requirements laid down in a specification placed before British contractors being as follows:

    “The machine will be designed for a cruising speed of more than 150 miles per hour. Two pilots, a load of 1,000 pounds of mail and fuel for 1,000 miles non-stop, must be carried, and provision made for elaborate navigational equipment suitable for night and day flying.”

    And the support given to airmail appears to warrant a special service. Fifty-two and a half tons of letters were carried from England in 1932, an increase of 29 per cent over 1930 and 74 percent over 1929. The Indian line, which serves Egypt, Iraq and Palestine, took 52,509 pounds; the Central Africa service, 5,457 pounds and the European service 36,094 pounds, all in 1931. The Christmas mail to India alone was over two tons.

    Here is an example of what the magic carpet of the aeroplane allowed the traveller to glimpse:

    “Many a glorious panorama has stretched beneath us since we left Cairo far behind – ancient pyramids and temples; the blue waters of the Nile; deserts, forests and herds of game, with splendid views of lakes, mountains and rolling plains and glimpses of natives living in just as primitive a way as they did centuries ago.”

    And in manner such as this in the years that are to come, the people of South Africa, will read of the romance of travel by air over the historic Quebec, rich Ontario, golden Western wheat lands and the mighty Rockies of this Dominion.

    *Imperial Airways’ first flight between London and Paris took place on April 26, 1924 on a DH34. It is perhaps this flight to which Mr. McCook refers.

    Imperial Airways was the early British commercial long-range air transport company, operating from 1924 to 1939 and serving parts of Europe, as well as routes to South Africa, India and the Far East. There were local partnership companies: Qantas (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd.) in Australia, and TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways Ltd.) in New Zealand.

    Compared to other operators (Air France, KLM, Lufthansa) it was lagging behind in Europe and it was suggested that all European operations be handed over to its competitor British Airways Ltd. (founded in 1935), which had more modern aircraft and better organization. However, in November 1939 both Imperial and British Airways Ltd. were merged into a new state-owned national carrier: British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). The new carrier adopted the Imperial Speedbird logo (below). In April, 1974, the name was changed to British Airways. In 1987, the company was privatized. In January, 2011, British Airways merged with Iberia (Spain’s largest airline).

    Image of the British Overseas Airways Corporation "Speedbird" logo

    The top image is of an Imperial Airways Short Empire flying boat “Cambria” on the bay at Hamilton, Ontario in 1938.

    The BOAC Speedbird logo, adopted following the merger of UK airlines in 1939. It was commissioned by Imperial Airways but rarely used on its fleet prior to 1939. Speedbird is now the callsign of British Airways.

    This article originally appeared in the Summer, 2008 edition of Altitude.

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