Cultures and caricatures of British imperial aviation

Passengers, pilots, publicity

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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‘A worthy successor to Pirie's earlier Air Empire ... makes him the acknowledged expert on British imperial aviation .... It deserves a place on the bookshelves of the aviation historian as much as the scholar of Empire - indeed of anyone interested in the cultural upheavals of the 1930s.'
Peter Lyth
Journal of Transport History 34(2), pp. 218-220
January 2013

‘A nother entertaining and enlightening study ...'
JE Hoare
Asian Affairs
January 2013

‘In all, this is a fascinating view of a bygone era.'
Airways
Airways
July 2013

‘In this book, Gordon Pirie has managed to give readers the next-best thing by offering an entertaining and comprehensive study of the unique perspective on the twentieth-century British Empire offered by flying.'
John McAleer
H-Empire, H-Net Reviews
May 2014

‘This highly engaging and helpfully illustrated account ... expertly interweave[s] an engrossing narrative history with a critical analysis of the academic and cultural significance of Britain's growing aerial aspirations and influence.'
Lucy Budd
Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History
January 2014

‘This highly original and readable book is to be recommended to anyone interested in the history of air transport, and to scholars concerned with the culture and mentality of colonialism.'
Marc Dierikx
Journal of Transport Geography, 28, p. 214
January 2013

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