Imperial flying was not just about machines, timetables and routes; it was also about ideas, values and practices. This book focuses on the way airborne mobility itself expressed imperialism. Imperial Airways projected an idealised Britain to the Empire, and interpreted and refracted the Empire to Britons. Passengers in commercial aircraft had adventures in the early days of Empire flying, in a mild way, fleeting, organised overnight stops at foreign places. Writing about and publicising imperial flying in the 1920s and 1930s created the first caricatures of Empire aviation. Words and images about long-distance air journeys, aircraft, landing grounds, passengers, crew and landscapes were necessarily selective and partial. Amy Johnson, in a BBC broadcast, said Great Britain was ready to make a decisive bid for world supremacy in the air. Wealthy people were the passengers (acronym 'PAX' in current airline parlance) on scheduled civil aircraft services in the 1930s on routes between England, Africa, India and Australia. The flying crew and ground staff personified the values of their employer and the Empire. Making the public 'airminded' was certainly part of deliberate acculturation in late imperial Britain; Imperial Airways tapped the Empire for publicity. The virtual mobility, presented by the 1930s texts and images, were enjoyed by earthbound readers and viewers. However, the first life of Empire aviation ended in 1939. In the past six decades, Empire aviation has been actively re-imagined and reincarnated as historical subject, hobby, and period artefact and icon.
The whole business of British air transport during the period of 1919-1939 was infused with muddle, belt-and-braces attitudes and old-fashioned company ideas. The conditions of inter-war Britain militated against new technology, fresh approach to management, organization and the relationships between capital and the state. This book provides unrivalled insights into the massive hopes engendered by the supposed conquest of the air, and the ways in which these were so swiftly squandered. Aeronautical societies attempted to spark initiatives through 'juvenile' lectures. The initial pioneering efforts were in the form of trans-Atlantic flights by ex-RAF pilots, the journey of Smith brothers to Australia, and flights across Africa. The book discusses the efforts towards organising the civil aviation and propagation to serve the cause of air communication, and the reconnaissance mission of Alan Cobham and Sefton Brancker to negotiate over-flying and landing facilities. Empire route development took place in stages, starting with the Middle East before venturing to India and Africa. However, organised Empire aviation was alive only in the form of occasional news items and speeches. The book examines the stresses of establishing Britain's eastern airway, and the regularisation of air services to Africa. Criticisms on Imperial Airways due to its small fleet and the size subsidy, and the airline's airmail service are also dealt with. As part of reconfiguration, the airlines had to focus more on airmail, which also saw a curtailment of its independence. Imperial Airways was finally nationalised in 1938 as British Overseas Airways Corporation.
An informative account of an Imperial flight by an inexperienced air traveller appeared in the Field in the summer of 1935. An Imperial ticket bought some comfort and security, but not lightning speed. The Imperial Airways Chairman, Sir Eric Geddes, was adamant that speed was a secondary consideration for many Empire travellers. Air services were beginning to choreograph imperialism, especially in places not yet touched by mechanised land transport. In 1932, a disillusioned South African reckoned that Imperial was unlikely to have its passenger contract renewed in Central and Southern Africa. Whimsy percolated an article published in 1939 in the Journal of the Royal African Society about 'the romance' of the air mail to Africa. Like the African airway, the new air route to India was an irresistible subject for writers.
Passenger fares on Imperial's single-class services clearly played a role in determining who flew, and how flying served and projected Empire. Imperial Airways kept statistical records fastidiously. Flight incident reports show men out numbering women on Imperial's long-haul flights, but the ratios were not static. British women passengers were generally given only vague identity if they were unmarried. Foreign royalty were among the most celebrated passengers in the publicity Imperial gave to celebrity passengers. The Indian air route had its share of notable passengers. The Vicereine flew back to India on Imperial after four months' home leave in 1933. Professionals with other paid careers also used Imperial Airways to move about. Surgeons, scientists and scholars were among the first converts to commercial air transport. People connected with Imperial Airways and those conducting aviation negotiations or doing airline business also travelled about the Empire by air.
Making the public 'airminded' was certainly part of deliberate acculturation in late imperial Britain. In view of the relatively few people who did fly on Empire services, advertising the new airway to and from Empire may have burnished imperial sympathies more than it boosted Imperial revenues. In the mid 1930s, once the Empire air routes and services had acquired better definition, Imperial's advertising increased. 'Speedbird', the name given to the new signifier of Empire aviation, appeared on posters, tickets, advertisements, luggage tags, stationery and aircraft fuselages from 1932. A lot of Imperial Airways advertising was on its own account, but the airline and the imperial spirit benefited by a considerable amount of free publicity. In the autumn of 1934, Imperial Airways and The Times banded together to mount an exhibition entitled 'Flying over the Empire'.
The image of Imperial Airways as an organisation, and its iconic status in the Empire, hinged partly on its perceived efficiency and reliability, and partly on the impression created by its senior management. Indeed, Empire aviation traced the tiers, ceilings and colours of transport work in colonial shipping and railways. Promoters of Empire aviation, knowledgeable commentators and enthusiastic air travellers used maritime metaphors avidly. When the Empire-class flying boats entered service, Imperial instituted a new category of cabin crew to manage paperwork that included recording passenger and passport details, checking manifests of luggage, mail and freight, and handling customs documentation. British ground crews and support staff scattered around the Empire's airfields were probably reminded often about being representatives of their home country and its culture. Flagged aeroplanes and their flying crew came and went often, but ground personnel were more rooted.
Pilots, politicians and propagandists all publicised the possibility and desirability of imperial flying. British newspapers and magazines, several radio broadcasts, and vigorous book publishing for children and adults contributed accounts about imperial aviation and flying experiences. The encyclopaedic Air Annual of the British Empire represented specialised serial publishing about Empire aviation most voluminously. The world air route maps published periodically in The Times and in Aeroplane and Flight, as well as in aeronautical books, transmitted a powerful message about tenancy of the sky and about imperial communications. In the early 1930s the market for books about British aviation appeared inexhaustible. The BBC's Radio Times billed the programme as a sound-panorama of the development of flight since the Middle Ages. Empire air transport reappeared on the National Service in 1938 as part of a series of four radio programmes entitled 'Lines on the Map'.
The actuality of imperial flying never quite reached the pitch that was hoped, and a great deal of the service anticipated from Empire aviation in the inter-war period was to reside forever in inter-war imaginings. After Empire flying ceased, the mass media continued as a medium of sporadic and partial recall of the thick confection of Empire aviation. Intriguing personal recollections of imperial air travel emerged in the BBC's 1979 television series that drew on one social history text and generated another. Alfred Hitchcock followed with his 1940 film 'Foreign Correspondent'. It featured a full-scale mock-up of an Imperial Airways Empire flying boat In the 1980s, an icon of Empire aviation was used to brand a popular merchandising incentive and customer loyalty scheme in Britain.
In the twilight of the British Empire, flying imperially was one last expression of the reach of British overseas ambition and style. By securing administrative, cultural and trade ties in the Empire, flying also had a politico-strategic purpose. Moreover, for Imperial Airways passengers, and for private purchasers of British light aircraft, flying imperially was also patriotic. Flying imperially was an experience, an expression and always partly an act of imagination. The dreams began after the First World War. Demobbed airforce pilots sought new victories, frontiers and exhilaration by flying first, furthest, fastest or highest. The business of creating an imperial air passenger market in the 1930s drew heavily on selling novelty, sensation and status. Aviation may not have prolonged Britain's historically maritime Empire, but it did give imperialism new dimensions, meanings and significance.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book describes the differentiated roots, channels and instruments of imperialism. It examines the sources and strains of Empire aviation. The book explores the paternalism, polemic, posturing, symbolism and spectacle surrounding the planning and performance of imperial aviation. British military aviation played its part by surveying and testing long-distance air routes that could be used for defending the Empire as well as for civil purposes in the Middle East, India and Africa. Aviation became the new imperial heroic; brave, dashing pilots became icons and were invested as the new Knights of the British Empire. The grandly titled Imperial Airways company was established as the 'chosen instrument' of organised Empire civil aviation in 1924. Facets of British imperial civil aviation history have gradually been tackled in a manner that veers away from bland narrative.