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British imperial civil aviation, 1919–39
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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.

Passengers, pilots, publicity
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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.

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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
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Gordon Pirie

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.

in Cultures and caricatures of British imperial aviation
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Gordon Pirie

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 Cultures and caricatures of British imperial aviation
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Gordon Pirie

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.

in Cultures and caricatures of British imperial aviation