Imperial Airways Speedbird logo, mainly used in advertising and rarely on aircraft before 1939
|Fate||Merged with British Airways Ltd|
|Successor||British Overseas Airways Corporation|
|Founded||31 March 1924|
|Defunct||24 November 1939|
Imperial Airways was the early British commercial long-range airline, operating from 1924 to 1939 and principally serving the British Empire routes to South Africa, India and the Far East, including Australia, Malaya and Hong Kong. The airplanes provided seats for about 20 passengers, typically businessman or colonial administrators. Accidents were frequent: in the first six years, 32 people died in seven incidents. Imperial Airways never achieved the levels of technological innovation of its competitors, and was merged into the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1939. BOAC in turn merged with the British European Airways (BEA) in 1974 to form British Airways.
The establishment of Imperial Airways occurred in the context of facilitating overseas settlement by making travel to and from the colonies quicker, and that flight would also speed up colonial government and trade that was until then dependent upon ships. The launch of the airline followed a burst of air route surveying in the British Empire after the First World War, and after some experimental (and often dangerous) long-distance flying to the margins of Empire.
Imperial Airways was created against a background of stiff competition from French and German airlines that enjoyed heavy government subsidies and following the advice of the government's Hambling Committee (formally known as the C.A.T Subsidies Committee) under Sir Herbert Hambling. The committee, set up on 2 January 1923, produced a report on 15 February 1923 recommending that four of the largest existing airlines, the Instone Air Line Company, owned by shipping magnate Samuel Instone, Noel Pemberton Billing's British Marine Air Navigation (part of the Supermarine flying-boat company), the Daimler Airway, under the management of George Edward Woods, and Handley Page Transport Co Ltd., should be merged. It was hoped that this would create a company which could compete against French and German competition and would be strong enough to develop Britain's external air services while minimizing government subsidies for duplicated services. With this in view, a £1m subsidy over ten years was offered to encourage the merger. Agreement was made between the President of the Air Council and the British, Foreign and Colonial Corporation on 3 December 1923 for the company, under the title of the 'Imperial Air Transport Company' to acquire existing air transport services in the UK. The agreement set out the government subsidies for the new company: £137,000 in the first year diminishing to £32,000 in the tenth year as well as minimum mileages to be achieved and penalties if these weren't met.
Imperial Airways Limited was formed on 31 March 1924 with equipment from each contributing concern: British Marine Air Navigation Company Ltd, the Daimler Airway, Handley Page Transport Ltd and the Instone Air Line Ltd. Sir Eric Geddes was appointed the chairman of the board with one director from each of the merged companies. The government had appointed two directors, Hambling (who was also President of the Institute of Bankers) and Major John Hills, a former Treasury Financial Secretary.
The land operations were based at Croydon Airport to the south of London. IAL immediately discontinued its predecessors' service to points north of London, the airline being focused on international and imperial service rather than domestic. Thereafter the only IAL aircraft operating 'North of Watford' were charter flights.
Industrial troubles with the pilots delayed the start of services until 26 April 1924, when a daily London-Paris route was opened with a de Havilland DH.34. Thereafter the task of expanding the routes between England and the Continent began, with Southampton-Guernsey on 1 May 1924, London-Brussels-Cologne on 3 May, London-Amsterdam on 2 June 1924, and a summer service from London-Paris-Basel-Zürich on 17 June 1924. The first new airliner ordered by Imperial Airways, was the Handley Page W8f City of Washington, delivered on 3 November 1924. In the first year of operation the company carried 11,395 passengers and 212,380 letters. In April 1925, the film The Lost World became the first film to be screened for passengers on a scheduled airliner flight when it was shown on the London-Paris route.
Between 16 November 1925 and 13 March 1926, Alan Cobham made an Imperial Airways' route survey flight from the UK to Cape Town and back in the Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar-powered de Havilland DH.50J floatplane G-EBFO. The outward route was London-Paris-Marseille-Pisa-Taranto-Athens-Sollum-Cairo-Luxor-Aswan-Wadi Halfa-Atbara-Khartoum-Malakal-Mongalla-Jinja-Kisumu-Tabora-Abercorn-Ndola-Broken Hill-Livingstone-Bulawayo-Pretoria-Johannesburg-Kimberley-Blomfontein-Cape Town. On his return Cobham was awarded the Air Force Cross for his services to aviation.
On 30 June 1926, Cobham took off from the River Medway at Rochester in G-EBFO to make an Imperial Airways route survey for a service to Melbourne, arriving on 15 August 1926. He left Melbourne on 29 August 1926, and, after completing 28,000 nautical miles (32,000 mi; 52,000 km) in 320 hours flying time over 78 days, he alighted on the Thames at Westminster on 1 October 1926. Cobham was met by the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Samuel Hoare, and was subsequently knighted by HM King George V.
On 27 December 1926, Imperial Airways de Havilland DH.66 Hercules G-EBMX City of Delhi left Croydon for a survey flight to India. The flight reached Karachi on 6 January 1927 and Delhi on 8 January 1927. The aircraft was named by Lady Irwin, wife of the Viceroy, on 10 January 1927. The return flight left on 1 February 1927 and arrived at Heliopolis, Cairo on 7 February 1927. The flying time from Croydon to Delhi was 62 hours 27 minutes and Delhi to Heliopolis 32 hours 50 minutes.
Regular services on the Cairo to Basra route began on 12 January 1927 using DH.66 aircraft, replacing the previous RAF mail flight. Following 2 years of negotiations with the Persian authorities regarding overflight rights, a London to Karachi service started on 30 March 1929, taking 7 days and consisting of a flight from London to Basle, a train to Genoa and a Short S.8 Calcutta flying boats to Alexandria, a train to Cairo and finally a DH.66 flight to Karachi. The route was extended as far as Delhi on 29 December 1929. The route across Europe and the Mediterranean changed many times over the next few years but almost always involved a rail journey.
In April 1931 an experimental London-Australia air mail flight took place; the mail was transferred at the Dutch East Indies, and took 26 days in total to reach Sydney. For the passenger flight leaving London on 1 October 1932, the Eastern route was switched from the Persian to the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf, and Handley Page HP 42 airliners were introduced on the Cairo to Karachi sector. The move saw the establishment of an airport and rest house, Al Mahatta Fort, in the Trucial State of Sharjah now part of the United Arab Emirates.
On 29 May 1933 an England to Australia survey flight took off, operated by Imperial Airways Armstrong Whitworth Atalanta G-ABTL Astraea. Major H G Brackley, Imperial Airways' Air Superintendent, was in charge of the flight. Astraea flew Croydon-Paris-Lyon-Rome-Brindisi-Athens-Alexandria-Cairo where it followed the normal route to Karachi then onwards to Jodhpur-Delhi-Calcutta-Akyab-Rangoon-Bangkok-Prachuab-Alor Setar-Singapore-Palembang-Batavia-Sourabaya-Bima-Koepang-Bathurst Island-Darwin-Newcastle Waters-Camooweal-Cloncurry-Longreach-Roma-Toowoomba reaching Eagle Farm, Brisbane on 23 June. Sydney was visited on 26 June, Canberra on 28 June and Melbourne on 29 June.
There followed a rapid eastern extension. The first London to Calcutta service departed on 1 July 1933, the first London to Rangoon service on 23 September 1933, the first London to Singapore service on 9 December 1933, and the first London to Brisbane service on 8 December 1934, with Qantas responsible for the Singapore to Brisbane sector. (The 1934 start was for mail; passenger flights to Brisbane began the following April.) The first London to Hong Kong passengers departed London on 14 March 1936 following the establishment of a branch from Penang to Hong Kong.
On 28 February 1931 a weekly service began between London and Mwanza on Lake Victoria in Tanganyika as part of the proposed route to Cape Town. On 9 December 1931 the Imperial Airways' service for Central Africa was extended experimentally to Cape Town for the carriage of Christmas mail. The aircraft used on the last sector, DH66 G-AARY City of Karachi arrived in Cape Town on 21 December 1931. On 20 January 1932 a mail-only route to London to Cape Town was opened. On 27 April this route was opened to passengers and took 10 days. In early 1933 Atalantas replaced the DH.66s on the Kisumu to Cape Town sector of the London to Cape Town route. On 9 February 1936 the trans-Africa route was opened by Imperial Airways between Khartoum and Kano in Nigeria. This route was extended to Lagos on 15 October 1936.
In 1937 with the introduction of Short Empire flying boats built at Short Brothers, Imperial Airways could offer a through-service from Southampton to the Empire. The journey to the Cape was via Marseille, Rome, Brindisi, Athens, Alexandria, Khartoum, Port Bell, Kisumu and onwards by land-based craft to Nairobi, Mbeya and eventually Cape Town. Survey flights were also made across the Atlantic and to New Zealand. By mid-1937 Imperial had completed its thousandth service to the Empire. Starting in 1938 Empire flying boats also flew between Britain and Australia via India and the Middle East.
In March 1939 three Shorts a week left Southampton for Australia, reaching Sydney after ten days of flying and nine overnight stops. Three more left for South Africa, taking six flying days to Durban.
Imperial's aircraft were small, most seating fewer than twenty passengers; about 50,000 passengers used Imperial Airways in the 1930s. Most passengers on intercontinental routes or on services within and between British colonies were men doing colonial administration, business or research. To begin with only the wealthy could afford to fly, but passenger lists gradually diversified. Travel experiences related to flying low and slow, and were reported enthusiastically in newspapers, magazines and books. There was opportunity for sightseeing from the air and at stops.
Imperial Airways stationed its all-male flight deck crew, cabin crew and ground crew along the length of its routes. Specialist engineers and inspectors - and ground crew on rotation or leave - travelled on the airline without generating any seat revenue. Several air crew lost their lives in accidents. At the end of the 1930s crew numbers approximated 3,000. All crew were expected to be ambassadors for Britain and the British Empire.
In 1934 the Government began negotiations with Imperial Airways to establish a service (Empire Air Mail Scheme) to carry mail by air on routes served by the airline. Indirectly these negotiations led to the dismissal in 1936 of Sir Christopher Bullock, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Air Ministry, who was found by a Board of Inquiry to have abused his position in seeking a position on the board of the company while these negotiations were in train. The Government, including the Prime Minister, regretted the decision to dismiss him, later finding that, in fact, no corruption was alleged and sought Bullock's reinstatement which he declined.
The Empire Air Mail Programme started in July 1937, delivering anywhere for 1 d./oz. By mid-1938 a hundred tons of mail had been delivered to India and a similar amount to Africa. In the same year, construction was started on the Empire Terminal in Victoria, London, designed by A. Lakeman and with a statue by Eric Broadbent, Speed Wings Over the World gracing the portal above the main entrance. From the terminal there were train connections to Imperial's flying boats at Southampton and coaches to its landplane base at Croydon Airport. The terminal operated as recently as 1980.
To help promote use of the Air Mail service, in June and July 1939, Imperial Airways participated with Pan American Airways in providing a special "around the world" service; Imperial carried the souvenir mail from Foynes, Ireland, to Hong Kong, out of the eastbound New York to New York route. Pan American provided service from New York to Foynes (departing 24 June, via the first flight of Northern FAM 18) and Hong Kong to San Francisco (via FAM 14), and United Airlines carried it on the final leg from San Francisco to New York, arriving on 28 July.
Captain H.W.C. Alger was the pilot for the inaugural air mail flight carrying mail from England to Australia for the first time on the Short Empire flyingboat Castor for Imperial Airways' Empires Air Routes, in 1937.
In November 2016, 80 years later, the Crete2Cape Vintage Air Rally flew this old route with fifteen vintage aeroplanes - a celebration of the skill and determination of these early aviators.
Before the outbreak of war on 1 September 1939, the British government had already implemented the Air Navigation (Restriction in Time of War) Order 1939. That ordered military takeover of most civilian airfields in the UK, cessation of all private flying without individual flight permits, and other emergency measures. It was administered by a statutory department of the Air Ministry titled National Air Communications (NAC). By 1 September 1939, the aircraft and administrations of Imperial Airways and British Airways Ltd were physically transferred to Bristol (Whitchurch) Airport, to be operated jointly by NAC. On 1 April 1940, Imperial Airways Ltd and British Airways Ltd were officially combined into a new company, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), that had already been formed on 24 November 1939 with retrospective financial arrangements.
|Armstrong Whitworth Argosy Mk.I||landplane
|3||Birmingham (crashed 1931), City of Wellington (later City of Arundel) (1934), Glasgow (retired 1934)|||
|4||1929-35||City of Edinburgh (wrecked 1926), City of Liverpool (wrecked 1933), City of Manchester (sold 1935) and City of Coventry (scrapped 1935)|||
|Armstrong Whitworth Atalanta||landplane
|8||1932-41||Atalanta (sold), Andromeda (withdrawn 1939), Arethusa (renamed Atalanta), Artemis, Astraea, Athena (burnt 1936), Aurora (sold) and Amalthea (wrecked 1938).||For Nairobi-Cape Town leg on South Africa route & Karachi-Singapore leg on Australia route.|
|Armstrong Whitworth Ensign||landplane
|12||1938-46||Empire type (27 passengers) Ensign, Egeria, Elsinore, Euterpe, Explorer, Euryalus, Echo, Endymion and Western Type (40 passengers) Eddystone, Ettrick, Empyrean and Elysian||Everest & Enterprise delivered to BOAC. Intended to deliver 1st-class mail to the Empire by air.|
|Avro 618 Ten||landplane||2||1930-38||Achilles (crashed 1938)Apollo (collided with radio mast 1933)||licence-built Fokker F.VII 3/m|
|Avro 652||landplane||2||1936-38||Avalon and Avatar (later Ava) to RAF in 1938.||Prototypes for Anson bomber/trainer|
|Boulton & Paul P.71A||landplane
|2||1934-36||Bodiciea (lost 1935) and Britomart (lost 1936)||Experimental mailplanes|
|Bristol Type 75 Ten-seater||landplane||2||1924-26||G-EAWY, G-EBEV (retired 1925)||ex-Instone Air Line used as freighters|
|de Havilland DH.34||landplane||7||1924-26||ex-Instone Air Line G-EBBR (wrecked 1924), G-EBBT (scrapped 1930), G-EBBV (scrapped 1926), G-EBBW (scrapped 1926) and ex-Daimler Airway G-EBBX (wrecked 1924), G-EBBY (scrapped 1926), G-EBCX (wrecked 1924)|||
|de Havilland DH.50||landplane||3||1924-33||G-EBFO (damaged 1924 and sold), G-EBFP (scrapped 1933), G-EBKZ (crashed 1928)||G-EBFO used for surveys, later fitted with twin floats and sold in Australia|
|de Havilland DH.54 Highclere||landplane||1||1924-27||G-EBKI||freighter, destroyed in hangar collapse|
|de Havilland Giant Moth||landplane||1||1930-30||G-AAEV (wrecked 1930)||crashed in Northern Rhodesia 2 weeks after hand over.|
|de Havilland Hercules||landplane||9||1926-35||City of Cairo (wrecked 1931), City of Delhi (to SAAF 1934), City of Baghdad (withdrawn 1933), City of Jerusalem, City of Tehran, City of Basra (to SAAF 1934), City of Karachi (withdrawn 1935), City of Jodhpur (sold) and City of Cape Town (sold)|
|de Havilland DH.86||landplane
|12||1934-41||Daedalus (burned 1938), Danae, Dardanus, Delia (wrecked 1941), Delphinus, Demeter, Denebola, Dido, Dione, Dorado, Draco (wrecked 1935), and Dryad (sold 1938)||All surviving aircraft impressed in 1941|
|de Havilland Albatross||landplane
|7||1938-43||Faraday (impressed 1940), Franklin (impressed 1940), Frobisher (destroyed 1940), Falcon (scrapped 1943), Fortuna (crashed 1943), Fingal (crashed 1940) and Fiona (scrapped 1943).||1 used as long range mail carrier|
|Desoutter IB||landplane||1||1933-35||G-ABMW||Air-taxi No 6|
|Handley Page O/10||landplane||1||1924-24||G-EATH||ex-Handley Page Transport but never used|
|Handley Page W8b||landplane||3||1924-32||Princess Mary (wrecked 1928), Prince George (retired 1929) and Prince Henry (retired 1932)||ex-Handley Page Transport|
|Handley Page W8f Hamilton||landplane||1||1924-30||City of Washington (wrecked 1930)||Converted to twin engines and redesignated as W8g in 1929|
|Handley Page W9a Hampstead||landplane||1||1926-29||City of New York (sold 1929)|
|Handley Page W10||landplane||4||1926-33||City of Melbourne (sold 1933), City of Pretoria (sold 1933), City of London (crashed 1926) and City of Ottawa (crashed 1929).|
|Handley Page H.P.42E||landplane
|4||1931-40||Hannibal (wrecked 1940), Horsa (impressed 1940), Hanno (wrecked 1940), Hadrian (impressed 1940)||(24 passengers) used on long "Empire" routes|
|Handley Page H.P.42W/H.P.45||landplane
|4||1931-40||Heracles (wrecked 1940), Horatius (wrecked 1939), Hengist (wrecked 1937) and Helena (impressed 1940)||(38 passengers) on short "Western" routes, Hengist and Helena converted to H.P.42E.|
|Short S.8 Calcutta||flying boat||5||1928-35||City of Alexandria (wrecked 1936), City of Athens (later City of Stonehaven) (scrapped), City of Rome (wrecked 1929), City of Khartoum (wrecked 1935) and City of Salonica (later City of Swanage) (scrapped)|
|Short S.17 Kent||flying boat
|3||1931-38||Scipio (wrecked 1936), Sylvanus (burned 1935) and Satyrus (scrapped 1938)|
|Short L.17 Scylla||landplane||2||1934-40||Scylla (wrecked 1940) and Syrinx (scrapped 1940)||Landplane version of Kent, replacement for lost H.P.42s.|
|Short Mayo Composite||flying boat||2||1938-40||Mercury (scrapped 1941) and Maia (destroyed in German raid, 1942).||Long range piggyback Composite aircraft derived from Short Empire.|
|Short S.23 Empire||flying boat
|31||1936-47||Canopus, Caledonia, Centaurus, Cavalier, Cambria, Castor, Cassiopea, Capella, Cygnus, Capricornus, Corsair, Courtier, Challenger, Centurion, Coriolanus, Calpurnia, Ceres, Clio, Circe, Calypso, Camilla, Corinna, Cordelia, Cameronian, Corinthian, Coogee, Corio, and Coorong. Carpentaria, Coolangatta, Cooee delivered but not used, and transferred to Qantas||provided mail and passenger service to Bermuda, South Africa and Australia.|
|Short S.26||flying boat
|3||1939-40||Golden Hind, Golden Fleece and Golden Horn||Built for trans-atlantic service, impressed by RAF before entering revenue service. 2 returned to BOAC service and used until 1947.|
|Short S.30 Empire||flying boat
|9||1938-47||Champion, Cabot, Caribou, Connemara, Clyde, Clare, Cathay, Ao-tea-roa (to TEAL as Aotearoa), Captain Cook (to TEAL as Awarua).||long range variant of S.23|
|Supermarine Sea Eagle||flying boat||2||1924-29||Sarnia/G-EBGR (retired 1929) and G-EBGS (wrecked 1927)||ex-British Marine Air Navigation|
|Supermarine Southampton||flying boat||1||1929-30||G-AASH||RAF S1235 on loan for 3 months to replace crashed Calcutta on Genoa-Alexandria airmail run.|
|Supermarine Swan||flying boat||1||1925-27||G-EBJY (scrapped 1927)||RAF prototype loaned for cross-Channel service|
|Vickers Vanguard||landplane||1||1926-29||G-EBCP (wrecked 1929)||on loan from Air Ministry for evaluation|
|Vickers Vellox||landplane||1||1934-36||G-ABKY (wrecked 1936)||cargo/experimental flights. Crashed at Croyden in August killing pilots and two wireless operators.|
|Vickers Vimy Commercial||landplane||1||1924-25||City of London (wrecked 1925)||ex-Instone Air Line|
|Vickers Vulcan||landplane||3||1924-28||G-EBLB/City of Brussels (wrecked 1928), G-EBFC (withdrawn 1924 unused), G-EBEK (loaned from Air Ministry for 1925 Empire Exhibition Display.)|||
|Westland IV and Wessex||landplane||3||1931-37||G-AAGW, G-ABEG (wrecked 1936), G-ACHI||2 leased to other operators. IV (G-AAGW) upgraded to Wessex.|