Gordon Pirie

The Secretary of State's flight to India aboard an Imperial Airways aeroplane was only one step toward the creation of Empire airways. Empire route development took place in stages. The network was not laid out in one grand sweep even though the guiding dream was always two imperial trunk lines, one to South Africa, and one to India and Australia. Without any pomp and ceremony in London, Imperial took control of the Middle East air route. The Middle East sector was initially organised and flown by the Royal Air Force (RAF) to eliminate the roundabout sea journey to Iraq, a British territorial mandate, and the site of concerted British imperial air policing. In British Africa Imperial did not have to contend with geopolitics as it did in Europe or the Middle East, but it did have to contend with precursors, the Air Ministry, and several different colonial governments.

in Air empire
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Gordon Pirie

Sir Samuel Hoare's lecture confirmed that the two trunk routes to South Africa and Australia remained centrepieces of the Empire airway master plan. After the R101 debacle, the Air Ministry, Sir Eric Geddes and Woods Humphery took for granted that a British airline headquartered in the imperial capital would operate the principal trunk service in the Empire. Airshipping made the first breakthrough in Britain's organised Empire aviation in the 1930s. Acceptance could have had dire consequences for the organisation and for Empire aviation. Without airship competition, Imperial Airways had the intercontinental Empire trunk routes to itself from 1931 onward. Dangling the carrot of managerial democracy was one way to smooth the path for a British monopoly on imperial routes. Whereas the strategy had a chance of working in the Empire, unfortunately it was impossible to apply on Empire air-route stages closest to London.

in Air empire
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Gordon Pirie

Imperial Airways developed a sense of entitlement on the air route east from Europe to India and beyond. The French used nine airports provided at British expense, and the Dutch used eleven; the British used only one French and no Dutch facility. Grudges about inter-airline dues and obligations would also have reflected the stresses of establishing Britain's eastern airway. Britain's prime anxiety about air services in and across India arose out of a concern for efficient, regular Empire service. While British plans for aviation through India to Australia were still inchoate, the Dutch offered to operate a temporary trans-India airmail only service between England and Australia as from October 1932. The opening of scheduled mail and passenger services by air to and from Australia in the mid-1930s was a tale of intricate bargaining, compromise and intrigue.

in Air empire
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Gordon Pirie

The stirring tale of determined, organised struggle against nature so as to pioneer an African airway was brought to public attention again in January 1931. The first successful 1920 trans-Africa flight was never envisaged as the launch of regular air service. The first despatch of mails down the contested African airway was in December 1931 aboard an aircraft delivery flight. The purpose, S. J. G. Hoare told the House of Commons, was to flaunt British technology and study air routes with a view to future commercial services. Appeasement focused on Oswald Pirow, air-minded Germanophile Cabinet minister who used air transport to challenge British paramountcy in the subcontinent. Pirow steadily and skilfully manipulated South African Airways into an increasingly powerful position as the prime regional airline. The principal historian of British African aviation contends that Imperial probably would not have made quick progress in the continent without the competitive spur.

in Air empire
Gordon Pirie

Postponed, slow and erratic Empire service tainted Imperial Airways. Tasteless, unpatriotic, or economically irrational, discounting the value of Imperial Airways to Britain and the Empire by the size of financial subsidy was not the only option open to critics. Despite its position at the top of the export table, Britain's aircraft industry was hamstrung by a small order book. Although the monopoly Imperial was established partly to aid the post-war industry, its orders for aircraft were small in volume and narrowly directed at three firms. The inter-war period was 'truly miserable' for the British civil aircraft industry'. Sir Eric Geddes illuminated the economics of Imperial services in his presentation to the Marshall Society at Cambridge in February 1931. The start of experimental airmail services to Africa and Australia in 1931, and their regularisation in the following year, set some criticism to rest, at least once teething troubles had passed.

in Air empire
Gordon Pirie

The most striking change in Empire aviation in the mid-1930s was not flagged by a more dense or extended route map or just by the imprimatur of flying the Royal Air Mail pennant on Imperial's aircraft. Thrust by engines that could propel aeroplanes toward a top speed of 200mph, the proposed new Empire flying schedule was two days to India, four to the Cape and to Singapore, and seven days to Australia. The intention was to operate four-a-week services to India, three to Singapore and East Africa, and two each to South Africa and Australia. In East Africa serious political challenges to the Empire Air Mail Scheme (EAMS) arose over the proposed realignment of the Empire air trunk route away from the continental interior. South Africa's nationalistic air minister Oswald Pirow used the proposed flying boat service to express displeasure with Imperial generally.

in Air empire
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Gordon Pirie

Pressure mounted for change to the design and practice of aviation in the British Empire. In its new home, the transformation of Imperial continued smartly. The nationalisation of the airline had been announced formally in 1938 and stockholder sales coincided with the relocation in 1939. The airline's image as a progressive organisation owed more to the exulted place of aviation in the transport sector than to either its aircraft or internal workings. Expecting a boom in flying boat service, the Shell company went so far to commission a new shallow draught ship to deliver aircraft fuel in bulk at river-mouth landing sites between Beira and Mombasa. J. C. W. Reith decided that the name of the new airline would be 'British Overseas Airways Corporation'. Mayo's criticisms and recommendations would have been taken into account when civil aviation resumed after the War, but intervening technical progress presented new opportunities and solutions.

in Air empire
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Gordon Pirie

Books and films conveyed the bare history of air Empire, its technologies, organisation, key 'commercial' operator and spheres of operation. In interwar Britain, the pursuit of long-distance civil aviation was about the wish to maintain national standing and imperial interests in the face of competitive international industrial progress. Britain's designated imperial flagship civil airline was conceived during the world's first air war, and was part-seeded by anxiety about a second. The designated imperial airline was also a share-stock business part subsidised for ideological purposes. Only small numbers of people and small quantities of cargo circulated by air through imperial skies in the 1930s. But Imperial Airways did more than convey passengers and commodities; it facilitated and advanced British imperialism in a new technological setting. British imperial aviation helped to revive imperial ambition and pretensions in Britain in the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century.

in Air empire