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Imperial Airways

During May 1937 Imperial Airways clocked up its 40,000th service across the English Channel…

1933 also saw Imperial Airways complete its first 10,000,000 miles of flying

At the end of the First World War, it was realised that aviation was no longer for the select few but aeronautical technology had advanced so much that passengers could be carried long distances relatively economically. As soon as civil aviation was allowed to resume again in 1919, a few companies were set up to provide a passenger service to European destinations such as Paris and Rotterdam.

In 1923, the British Government's Civil Air Transport Subsidies Committee under Sir Herbert Hambling was appointed to review the policy of subsidising the country's fledgling airlines.

It duly reported and recommended that the main existing aircraft companies should be merged into one organisation, with the mission of developing British commercial air transport on an economic basis, and creating a company which would be strong enough to develop Britain's external air services throughout the Empire.


As a result, the Hambling Committee agreed to the launch of a new company, Imperial Airways Limited, which was incorporated on 31 March 1924 as the "chosen instrument" of the British Government. The new airline was formed out of and took over the fleets of Handley Page Transport Limited, The Instone Air Line Limited, The Daimler Airway and British Marine Air Navigation Company Limited.

Based at London's Croydon Airport which opened on 25 March 1920, Imperial Airways would receive a Government subsidy of £1 million spread over ten years on the basis that they would be required to develop routes to the Empire – to South Africa, India and ultimately Australia – particularly for the carriage of mail. The Chairman was The Rt. Hon Sir Eric Geddes CBE, GBE. The initial fleet was three Handley Page W.8bs – 'Princess Mary', 'Prince Henry' and 'Prince George', two Supermarine Sea Eagle flying boats, one Vickers Vimy Commercial – 'City of London' and seven de Havilland DH 34s.

Operations were due to begin on 1 April 1924, but a pilots' strike over pay and conditions delayed the start of services until 26 April when the de Havilland DH 34, under the command of Captain H.S. Robinson.

Capr operated the London Croydon to Paris Le Bourget service. Thereafter began the task of expanding the routes between England and the Continent, with Southampton to Guernsey on 1 May, London to Brussels, Ostend and Cologne on 3 May, and a summer service from London to Basle and Zurich via Paris.

The first new airliner commissioned by Imperial Airways, was the Handley Page W.8f 'City of Washington' on 3 November 1924. In the first year of operation the company flew 853,042 miles, carried 11,395 passengers and 212,380 letters.

However, as the name 'Imperial Airways' implied, the organisation had been formed to cast its eyes on more distant horizons than the boundaries of Europe. It was charged with the task of pioneering a chain of long-distance intercontinental air services linking the countries of the British Empire, and between the two World Wars it achieved that aim.

The start of the Empire routes occurred when the Air Ministry and Imperial Airways completed their surveys of the Cairo to Karachi route on 1 October 1925. Between 16 November 1925 and 13 March 1926, Alan Cobham successfully completed Imperial Airways' route survey flight from London to Cape Town and back in the Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar-powered DH 50J. The outward flight was London-Paris-Marseille-Pisa-Taranto- Athens-Sollum-Cairo-Luxor-Aswan-Wadi Halfa-Atbara-Khartoum-Malakal-Mongalla-Jinja-Kisumu-Tabora-Abercorn-Ndola-Broken Hill-Livingstone-Bulawayo-Pretoria-Johannesburg-Kimberley-Bloemfontein- Cape Town. On his return to England Cobham was awarded the Air Force Cross for his services to aviation.

In 1926 there was also a large increase in the company's fleet: a Handley Page W.9 'City of New York', and four Handley Page W.10s 'City of Melbourne', 'City of Pretoria', 'City of London' and 'City of Ottawa' were all christened at Croydon Airport on 31 March.

On 16 July the new Armstrong Whitworth Argosy, the airline's first three-engined airliner which introduced a new standard of roominess into passenger flying came into service. On 1 May 1927, an Argosy inaugurated the world's first 'named' air service – it was the London to Paris 'Silver Wing' service, which included a steward, a four-course luncheon and bar service.

On 20 December the first of the de Havilland Hercules airliners ordered by Imperial Airways for service on overseas routes left England for their new route from Egypt to India. In January 1927 the company opened the Cairo-Baghdad-Basra sector of the route from Britain to India. To solve the difficulty of navigating across the trackless desert between Palestine and Baghdad, a furrow, several hundred miles long, was ploughed into the sand. It was probably the longest furrow ever ploughed.

Further links were added at either end of the route and on 30 March 1929, the Short S.8 Calcutta (which was the first of Imperial Airways' flying boats to be built in 1928, designed to operate the Mediterranean sectors of the long-distance routes from Britain to South Africa and Australia), left London for Karachi on the first through air service between Britain and India. Later in the same year this route was extended to Jodhpur and Delhi.

On 16 June 1930 the surveys of the Cairo to Cape Town route were completed, and on 28 February 1931 the first sector of this route was opened with a weekly service between London and Mwanza on Lake Victoria, taking ten days to cover the 5,124 mile route.

In 1931, two types of four-engined airliner came onto the scene. The first of three Short S.17 Kent (Scipio class) flying boats came into service on 27 April, which worked the Mediterranean, whilst the first of the Handley Page HP 42s, 'Hannibal', operated on the London to Paris route for the first time on 11 June. Two classes of HP 42 were built.

The 'Heracles' class for European routes, with 38 seats were based at Croydon, and the 'Hannibal' class for routes in Egypt, India and Central Africa, with 24 seats (to allow for extra fuel and baggage), were based at Cairo.

These airliners brought a new standard of service, comfort and safety to passengers. Liveried stewards served four-course meals, the Pullman style upholstery was unrivalled, and even though each of the eight built flew over a million miles, no passenger was ever hurt.

Routes to East Africa via Cairo were also being developed and on 20 January 1932, a mail-only route to Cape Town was opened. On 27 April the route was opened to passengers. The flights left Croydon on Wednesday and landed at Cape Town on Sunday, ten days later.

In 1933 the Armstrong Whitworth AW XV Atalanta was introduced. It was the first monoplane ordered by Imperial Airways and offered the first significant increase in airliner cruising speed since 1919, reaching 130mph in level flight. It was described as "the fastest and most luxurious aircraft designed and produced for the tropics, with ample room for passengers to walk about and chat and to enjoy refreshments". The type operated from Central Africa to Cape Town and east of Karachi, as the service was extended to Calcutta on 6 July, Rangoon on 23 September and Singapore on 9 December. 1933 also saw Imperial Airways complete its first 10,000,000 miles of flying.

On 18 January 1934, the formation of Qantas Empire Airways Limited took place, which combined the interests of Imperial Airways and Qantas (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited). The object was to operate in association with Imperial Airways on the trans-Australian route. The 8 December saw the London to Singapore route extended to Brisbane for mail, the Singapore-Brisbane section operated by Qantas Empire Airways. Passengers were carried over the entire 12,754 mile England- Australia route from April 1935, for a single fare of £195.

The operation of the Singapore-Brisbane section of the Australia route led to a new airliner which would be suitable – the de Havilland DH 86 (Diana class). This was de Havilland's first four-engined aircraft, and it was both designed and built in just four months for the Empire route contract. Both Qantas Empire Airways and Imperial Airways placed orders for this type, and Imperial Airways commissioned the first of these new airliners on 25 May 1934.

The 'Diana' class made new European routes possible, and on 1 April 1935 a daily London to Budapest via Brussels-Cologne- Prague and Vienna route was opened. During the same year the frequency of both the London to Singapore and London to Johannesburg services were doubled.

On 19 February 1936, the 'Diana' class was used on a weekly mail service between Kano in Nigeria and London, where it flew between Kano and Khartoum, from where the West African service joined the main Africa trunk route. This service later carried passengers and the route terminal was extended to Lagos on 15 October, and to Accra on the Gold Coast on 13 October 1937. This route which Imperial Airways pioneered, was to become the main supply route to the Middle East during the war. On 14 March 1936, the type operated a new service between Penang and Hong Kong, linking with the main Australia route at Penang, which gave a weekly service between London and Hong Kong for the first time.

The Short S.23 Empire flying boat has been described as "without question the most famous and successful of all pre-war civil transports". The S.23 carried 24 daypassengers or 16 in a sleeping berth layout. A popular feature was its promenade deck. On 30 October 1936, the first of the Short Empire flying boats, the now legendary 'Canopus', made its first flight on a trans-Mediterranean service. Imperial Airways were to make a bold move and order 28 of these aircraft, without awaiting trials of the first aircraft. The S.23 was a success, and further orders were placed, making a total of 42 aeroplanes. These flying boats were produced to put the Empire Air Mail Programme into operation.

Previously, Imperial Airways had to carry passengers by train between Paris and the Mediterranean on the Empire routes. The Empire flying boats introduced an allair route from 16 January 1937, operating from Southampton by way of Marseilles-Rome-Brindisi-Athens and Alexandria. This improvement meant that all Empire services were operated from Southampton from 5 March, and Croydon was the base for European routes only.

During May 1937 Imperial Airways clocked up its 40,000th service across the English Channel, as well as its 1,000th service from England to the Empire. On 15 May land aircraft were withdrawn from the England-South Africa route as far south as Kisumu in Kenya Colony to be replaced by the Empire flying boats which used the Nile bases employed by the Calcutta flying boats. On 2 June flying boats took over the entire route.

On 16 June 1937, the first British Atlantic air service began when Imperial Airways and Pan American Airways began a joint service between Bermuda and New York, the British service being flown by the Imperial Airways C class flying boat G-ADUU 'Cavalier'.

The Empire Air Mail Programme was inaugurated on 29 June 1937, when the Empire flying boat 'Centurion' left Southampton for South and East Africa. All mail was charged at 1½d. per ounce, which made it possible to post air mail letters in ordinary letter boxes. During that year the 'Caledonia' and 'Cavalier' made survey flights across the North Atlantic, and on 27 and 28 September the 'Cambria' made the fastest flight across the ocean between Botwood, Newfoundland and Foynes in County Limerick, Ireland with a record time of ten hours thirty-six minutes.

This had been a great year for British Air Transport, starting with the commissioning of the world's largest fleet of commercial flying boats, changing from land planes to faster flying boats, inaugurating the Empire Air Mail Programme, making ten crossings of the North Atlantic to schedule, taking the first step in opening the longest air route in the world (15,000 miles from England to New Zealand), carried over 70,000 passengers and flown over 6,000,000 miles – no mean achievement!

1938 saw the schedules of the Empire routes being accelerated, and air mail figures for the first quarter gave an idea of how well the Empire Air Mail Programme was working. In three months over 100 tons of mail had been flown on the Africa route and the same volume on the India route. This service was given a great amount of praise from the United States where only 2 tons of air mail was carried per week in 1937.

On 28 July, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Papua, Fiji, Norfolk Island, Lord Howe Island, Nauru, The Mandated Territory of Western Samoa and the Territories under the Jurisdiction of the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific were brought into the Programme.

There were two versions of the Armstrong Whitworth AW-27 Ensign airliner. A short range European version carried 36-40 passengers and a longer range Empire version carried 27 day-passengers or 20 night-passengers sleeping in berths. The Ensign was the first British large, four-engined, all-metal land (as distinct from flying boat) monoplane airliner. The type saw service on European routes, and first went into service on the London-Paris route on 20 October 1938. They carried heavy mail loads during the Christmas period in 1938, and did valuable work between the United Kingdom and France in 1939 and 1940. However, in 1939 both Imperial Airways and British Airways Ltd were merged into a new state-owned national carrier: British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). The Ensigns were used in the Empire by BOAC, but World War II put an end to the original plans for its use.

The second airliner to be introduced in 1938 was the de Havilland DH 91 Albatross, known as the 'Frobisher' class (after the name of their flagship), which was designed for the European routes. The Albatross was the first British airliner to top the 200 mph cruising speed, and with a top speed of 234 mph, it set a number of records for flights between European capitals, such as a 200 mile trip from London to Brussels in forty-eight minutes by the aircraft 'Falcon'.

The vast stretch of the North Atlantic seemed an almost insurmountable barrier, preventing the start of air services westwards to Canada and the USA. Imperial Airways experimented with two methods of getting over the problem of getting heavily loaded aircraft into the air with a reasonably short take-off run. The first was assisted take-off, and the second was in-flight refuelling.

The assisted take-off came in the form of the Short S.20 Mayo Composite aircraft, which was a large four-engined flying boat similar to the Empire design called 'Maia', with a smaller seaplane 'Mercury' mounted on top. The 'Mercury' was designed to carry mail over long distances but when fully laden with fuel and mail, could not take off unassisted. Therefore the sole purpose of 'Maia' was to take-off with 'Mercury' on its back (all engines on both aircraft would used for take-off), and when they got to a suitable height they separated and 'Maia' would return to base, whilst 'Mercury' set off on its journey.

The first trial of 'Mercury' was on 21 July 1938, when it left 'Maia' near Foynes and flew non-stop to Montreal, 2,930 miles in twenty hours and twenty minutes. After unloading cargo, 'Mercury' flew to New York with newspapers and news photographs, making a total crossing time of twenty-five hours and eight minutes.

These flights had set three new records: the first commercial flight across the North Atlantic by a 'heavier-than-air' machine; the first east to west crossing from the British Isles to Montreal and the fastest east to west crossing of the North Atlantic. The time taken from Foynes to the Newfoundland coast was thirteen hours and twenty-nine minutes.

The 'Mercury' helped carry Christmas mail between Southampton and Alexandria in December 1938, and received further fame when it made the longest non-stop flight for a seaplane between Dundee and Walvis Bay just short of Cape Town in the autumn. The flight was 6,045 miles at a speed of 144 mph, which was the highest maintained speed on a long-distance test.

The second of Imperial Airways' trans-Atlantic experiments was in-flight refuelling. On 5 and 6 August 1939 a modified C class flying boat, 'Caribou', flew from Southampton to New York via Foynes, Botwood and Montreal. This was the first in a series of flights along with the 'Cabot', where air mail was carried on scheduled flights and the aircraft were refuelled in the air by a Handley Page Harrow tanker aircraft, after setting course for the ocean sector of the route.

In the summer of 1939, the last aircraft type designed for Imperial Airways, the Short S.26 G class, was launched. They were developments, on a larger scale, of the Empire class flying boat, and the 'Golden Hind' was the first of three aircraft ordered by Imperial Airways. Before they could be put into commercial service, the war had started and so they were fitted with gun turrets and served with the Royal Air Force. The 'Golden Fleece' was lost off Finisterre in August 1941. Suitably modified, the remaining two S.26s entered BOAC service on the United Kingdom-West African routes in July 1942.

The 'Golden Horn' was lost in the River Tagus, Portugal on 9 January 1943.

The 'Golden Hind' continued in service with BOAC on a variety of routes until the end of 1947. The new carrier, which has evolved into the present day British Airways, still adopts the Imperial Airways 'Speedbird' logo, if only in the term of BA's renowned call sign.

- Peter Holthusen


Top Image - Several months after her launch in 1928, the Short S.8 Calcutta flying boat alighted on the River Thames at Westminster and was open to inspection by Members of Parliament. ( © Short Brothers [Bombardier Aerospace] via Peter Holthusen)

Middle Image - The second airliner to be introduced by Imperial Airways in 1938 was the de Havilland DH 91 Albatross, known as the 'Frobisher' class (after the name of their flagship), and is seen here at London's Croydon Airport. (© BA Heritage Centre)

Bottom Image - A striking artist's impression of the first of the Empire flying boats, the now legendary ‘Canopus’, seen here landing on the Nile near Cairo. (© The Peter Holthusen Collection)


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