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 imperial spirit.
It is tempting to reduce Britishimperialaviation to a
tale of just the eponymous airline, Imperial Airways. Yet
overlaps with other aviation codes – military, sporting and
leisure – were not without consequence. Organised civil aviation
may claim the limelight, but the roles of exploratory military aviation,
and of airships and light aircraft in Empire aviation, were not
In 1929 Sir Charles Wakefield, long-time financial backer of British aviation and owner of the Castrol Oil company, wrote that ‘we are not yet by any means a nation of air-travellers, but we are beginning to be air-minded’. 1 During the interwar period promoters of Britishimperialaviation such as Wakefield tried to build national air-mindedness up into a notion of imperial aeromobility, or what Gordon Pirie calls ‘flying imperially’. 2 The latter was a form of spatial imaginary: it was a set of ideas about the meaning and role of flying within the British
studies devoted to overseas civil
air transport in the inter-war British Empire were written
half-a-century ago. Higham’s encyclopaedic 1960 book extended his two magazine
articles, overshadowed a 1954 academic paper, and has been the standard
reference work on Britishimperialaviation ever since. Whereas his work
focused on policy, technology and economics, Pudney’s marginally
earlier book – an insider
imperial dreams behind those
projects and flights, and the practical difficulties of bringing the
Empire airways and commercial air services into operation, are the
subject of Air Empire , a previous volume in this book series.
In this book, Cultures and Caricatures of BritishImperialAviation , the focus switches from the impetus for
Empire aviation, and its geopolitical, commercial and technical
Airways make brief
appearances. Social style, personal cunning and a stubborn
conservatism are key elements of the novel. Balancing commercial
practicality against prestige emerges as a pivotal consideration for
aircraft manufacturers. 10
Binding’s 1993 novel In the Kingdom of
Air harks back to the so-called ‘golden age’ of
imperial air routes, with Walter undertaking extensive journeys by car, truck and aeroplane in an attempt to identify suitable locations for weather stations.
Liz Millward examines the promises and messy realities of Britishimperialaviation in the 1920s and 1930s in Chapter 10 . After examining the cultures of ‘airmindedness’ advanced by prominent aviators and groups such as the Air League in the inter-war years, she traces the many hindrances which grounded planes in imperial settings, from weather and crashes, to gender expectations in various societies that could
of the elemental, the imaginative, the scientific and the technological played out in the making of imperial mobilities.
1 The most useful overview of Britishimperialaviation is provided by G. Pirie , Air Empire: British Imperial Civil Aviation, 1919–39 ( Manchester : Manchester University Press , 2009 ). For a trans-imperial perspective, see D. R. Headrick , Power over Peoples: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism, 1400 to the Present ( Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press , 2012 ).
2 See, for example, F
the hands of weak, shortsighted, second-rate Cabinets where the high
turnover of foreign secretaries contributed to policy confusion. 23
Editorials and obituaries about gallant and dedicated men
tumbled from British presses. Writing gravely in the London Times
about the grievous blow to the Empire, Hoare forgot that the domestic
price of Britishimperialaviation included widowhood. He mentioned only
Gordon Pirie, Cultures and Caricatures of
BritishImperialAviation: Passengers, Pilots, Publicity
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), p. 177.
Ibid., pp. 184–5.
Stephen Constantine, Buy and Build: The