At first, pilots set height and speed records unintentionally, but later they had to pursue them deliberately. Two such record-setting flying events in the British Empire caught the public imagination in the 1930s. One event was the first flight over Mount Everest. The second event was an air race from Britain to Australia. The organisation of the air 'assault' on Everest, and its execution, eclipsed the ponderous fourth British Everest overland climbing expedition that set out in 1933. The England-Australia air race over 11,000 miles in October 1934 was held in conjunction with celebrations to mark the centenary of the founding of the Australian state of Victoria and its capital, Melbourne. Organised in London by the Royal Aero Club, the race was a logistical triumph, not least because of the international diplomacy involved in securing rights of over-flying and landing.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book focuses on impetus for Empire aviation, and its geo-political, commercial and technical frameworks. British pilots were not the only ones to make private long-distance flights between the two world wars, but their accomplishments were seized on as signs of national strength. The influential and elite of Britain and Empire revelled in the heavenly perspectives which flying offered, and its sensations of power, speed and efficiency. Imperial Airways projected an idealised Britain to the Empire, and interpreted and refracted the Empire to Britons. The landing grounds used by British aircraft were safe islands in a foreign world. Leaving more traces of affection than fidelity, the reality and significance of flying imperially passed into memory after 1939.
Flying for pleasure and adventure over long distances in the British Empire was part of the individualisation of imperial travel. British-manufactured light aircraft played their part in the late imperial movement. Typical of the young, moneyed and leisured aerial adventurers, Sir Robert Clayton flew his Moth to Egypt in 1932 to take part in an official desert survey. Whether for moral support, company or security, many people embarking on private adventure flights did so with a partner. Partnered flying across the Empire attracted less attention in the 1920s and 1930s than did long-distance journeys flown solo. Amy Johnson was the first, but neither the only nor the last woman to soar solo between the extremities of the British Empire. As in Johnson's case, the clamour surrounding Jean Batten was astonishing. Both women's heroic reception contrasted with the chill which Lorres Bonney felt after her epic flight.
In an inward-looking era the central issue in British aviation was the defence of the island against foreign (especially German) air attack. During the first decade of the twentieth century aeronautical developments posed a new threat to one of Britain's most enduring concerns: protection from invasion. In view of the boost given to aviation by the First World War, the British Government decided to examine the post-war prospects for civil aviation and the possibility of employing demobilised personnel and surplus wartime aircraft. Some of the first peacetime applications of flying overseas were patrol, policing and defence of imperial space newly enlarged to more than two million square miles by post-War territorial mandates. The thought of using aviation to modernise and perpetuate Britain's glorious maritime Empire dovetailed with the revival of a spirit of imperialism in Britain after the First World War.
W. G. H. Salmond initially thought of involving existing British air transport companies but he concluded quickly that each was too self-absorbed. The Atlantic crossing had been 'by a British pilot and navigator, in a British machine powered by British engines'. In recognition of a staggering achievement generally, but in celebration of a triumph for British aviation in particular, both J. R. Alcock and A. W. Brown were made Knights Commander of the British Empire. Ignoring the prospect of direct air service between England and Empire, J. B. Seely judged that Egypt would be 'an ideal starting point' for air journeys to India, Australasia, and central, East and South Africa. Not only did the Smiths link Britain and Australia by air, but the Royal Air Force (RAF) ended its African air route survey and its programme of establishing basic aviation infrastructure.
Sir Francis Younghusband, aligned the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) prominently with aviation and aimed to interest the British public in quick communication by air. Glimpses of a future programme of organised civil aviation in the British Empire were reaching geography teachers, the reading public, scientists and professionals working in transport. The RGS was a venue for airing aviation exploits and challenges for as long as overseas flying resonated with discovery and exploration. The speakers who addressed the subject of aviation efficiency at a conference in London in February 1921 were whistling in the wind. The idea and the pursuit of Empire aviation might have folded had it not been for people who aligned it with Britain's strategic interests. The council of the British Empire League, which met at the House of Lords in March 1922, made a last-gasp plea for British Government assistance for an Empire airship service.
Time would show that by virtue of his work for British aviation generally, and Empire aviation in particular, it was a masterstroke choosing Sefton Brancker to succeed Sykes. At the Imperial Economic Conference in October 1923 delegates from the dominions and India showed interest in C. D. Burney's airship proposals, and in aerial survey. They also spoke of their willingness to co-ordinate Empire aviation. In November 1924, Sir Samuel Hoare became, for the second time, the Cabinet minister responsible for civil aviation in S.Baldwin's second Conservative administration. Under Sir Samuel Hoare's guidance, more practical steps were taken to launch Empire aviation in the second half of the 1920s. Speaking in public, the leaders of putative British Empire civil aviation interpreted the project for outsiders, practising the art and socialising the technology. In 1927, German progress in civil aviation was set out clearly in a lecture to the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Alan Cobham had no difficulty raising the extra money from the aeronautical industry that grasped the propaganda value of a flight by the Director of Civil Aviation. Within nine months of his Asian tour with Sefton Brancker, Cobham set out on his first African flight. Cobham's return to Britain from Australia on the first day of October 1926 was scripted perfectly. In April 1927, the same month that the Royal Air Force (RAF) flew Brancker from Egypt to Tanganyika and back to drum up support for an East African air service, Cobham was making plans to fly round the world. Cobham denied his bravery and argued that, on the contrary, his flights had been made to stress the safety of civil aviation. Individual pilots attracted attention to themselves, but in Cobham's view, it was a displaced affection.
Leo Amery sought out neutral ground in the proceedings by endorsing the potential of aviation and listing ways in which aeroplanes might help unify and develop the Empire. William Courtenay, the aviation impresario, recalled that it was in the mid-1920s when Sir Alan Cobham was grabbing news headlines that he learnt most about the geography of the Empire. Making propaganda for and from Empire aviation did not come easily to British people renowned for their reserve. After the Imperial Conference, Sir Samuel Hoare indicated that Imperial Airways would in future play a role more in keeping with its name: it would ply Empire routes in addition to European routes. Hoare drew attention to civil-aviation progress and prospects in the Empire wherever and whenever he could. In the company of Sefton Brancker he attended the May 1927 Colonial Conference in London.
Far from being disembodied machinists, private pilots who dashed about the Empire were social creatures. Their individual characters and dispositions were unique, of course, but they were all moulded in late imperial times and traditions. Before Amy Johnson and Jean Batten, the most prominent British women who flew across the Empire were the Duchess of Bedford, Lady Bailey and Lady Heath. A violent thunderstorm between Dodoma and Juba obliged the Duchess's party to land on the Imperial Airways emergency air field at Nimule. Lady Bailey admired French air initiatives in West Africa, and was generally grateful for hospitality in French-speaking Africa. Lady Heath started out from Cape Town for London in February 1928. Before beginning her 6,150 mile flight in a light plane, she gave lectures and flying exhibitions, and helped to arrange an air race in South Africa.