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.
While commercialflying was being
organised, and absorbed some decommissioned pilots and planes, the RAF
was adapting to peacetime work. One of its most senior members in the
field, Maj.-Gen. (Sir) W. G. H. Salmond, the Commanding Air Officer in
Cairo, was also becoming anxious about the absence of civil air progress
in the Empire. Presumably he was having to deal with private companies
chose also to
reflect on flying between the Empire’s constituent countries.
Commercialflying, he declared, was the most important Empire
‘problem’ at the time. The usual terse press report of
audience ‘cheers’ (which failed to distinguish degrees of
discernment or acclamation) followed Mitchell’s advice that
Britain should not throw away the greatest opportunity it had ever had
implemented seriously much more was needed than the
gesture of imperial naming. In 1927, when two first-generation
‘Calcutta’-type flying boats were being built in
Short’s factory at Rochester, Lord Sempill, then chairman of the
Royal Aeronautical Society, wrote in The Times about the oddity
that a historically great imperial maritime power did not have a single
modern commercialflying boat in operation
flyer whose adventures raised eyebrows was Lt-Cdr
G. Kidston. In May 1931 he wrote an open letter to Woods Humphery denying that
his six-and-a-half-day flight from Britain to the Cape had been a stunt
incompatible with commercialflying. Whereas it was understandable that
the managing director of a parastatal organisation would be quizzical
about an arduous flight made without the resources of a large company
of lone, self-sufficient pioneers.
The men up-front were not of this grubby world; they were ‘the
salt of the sky’. 6 As late as 1938, six years into Empire
commercialflying, the obituary of an Imperial Airways pilot
(but not his four crew) could appear in The Times . Capt.
Ernest Attwood, who died in the Calpurnia flying boat
accident on Lake Habbaniyah in Iraq, had
towards the sky, the thunder of exhausts, the rhythmic drone of
super-powered engines, the high-pitched whine of the
radio at work, and the swishing silence of the plane’s
descent’, or indeed, to go beyond these elements. 63 Another
writer, disillusioned by flying, thought that modern aircraft and
commercialflying did not lend themselves to poetry. 64 But poetry
of commercialflying and not in work for the Air Ministry’. 43
One Comet racer was crewed by O. Cathcart-Jones and K.
Waller. Each pilot had at one time held the speed record for
England–Australia and Australia–England flights.
Tellingly, Cathcart-Jones originally hoped to race an American
plane, but had difficulty finding a sponsor until he inveigled
himself into the seat