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.
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.
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.