aviation comes of age
the creation of NACA
the development of air power
advocates of strategic bombing
Billy Mitchell and the bomber
the U.S. Air Corps
the start of air mail
the growth of airlines
Imperial Airways
the flying boats
the clipper ships
  a Russian experiment


Imperial Airways
our thanks to imperial-airways.com

In 1923 a Government Committee was appointed to review the policy of subsidising airlines. It duly reported and recommended that the main existing aircraft companies should be merged into one organisation, with the mission of developing British Commercial Air Transport on an economic basis, and creating a company which would be strong enough to develop Britain's external air services. As a result, Imperial Airways Limited was formed on 31st March 1924 and on 1st April 1924 it took over the aircraft and services of

Handley Page Transport Limited.

Fleet: three Handley Page W8B's - 'Princess Mary', 'Prince Henry' and 'Prince George'.

The Instone Air Line Limited

Fleet: Vickers Vimy Commercial - 'City of London', and four de Havilland DH 34's.

The Daimler Airway

Fleet: Three de Havilland DH 34's.

British Marine Air Navigation Company Limited

Fleet: Two Supermarine Sea Eagle amphibian flying boats.

Imperial Airways Limited inherited 1,760 miles of cross-Channel routes, and out of the collection of aircraft, most were obsolete and five unserviceable. The landplane operations were based at Croydon Airport which opened on 25th March 1920.

Imperial Airways had the task of reopening British European air routes and also developing air communications between Britain and the Empire. Both routes required aircraft to be designed to operate them, but the Empire routes would additionally require major planning, and flying conditions (varying extremes of climate, etc) which until that point had not been regularly experienced.

Industrial troubles with the pilots delayed the operation of services until 26th April 1924, when a daily London-Paris service was opened with a DH34. Thereafter began the task of expanding the routes between England and the Continent, Southampton-Guernsey on 1st May, London-Brussels, Ostend and Cologne on 3rd May, and a summer service from London to Basle and Zürich via Paris.

The first new airliner commissioned by Imperial Airways, was the Handley Page W8F 'City of Washington' on the 3rd November 1924. In the first year of operation the company flew 853,042 miles, carried 11,395 passengers and 212,380 letters.


De Havilland Rapide, July 1st 1980. This first day cover was one of 1000 copies carried by de Havilland Rapide G-AIYR
from London to Cape Town and return, retracing the route of the Survey Flight made by Alan Cobham for Imperial Airways 1925/26

The Beginning of the Empire Routes

As the name 'Imperial Airways' implied, the organisation had been formed to cast its eyes on more distant horizons than the boundaries of Europe. It was charged with the task of pioneering a chain of long-distance intercontinental air services linking the countries of the British Empire with each other and with the United Kingdom. Between the two World Wars it achieved that aim.

The start of the Empire routes occurred when surveys of the Cairo-Karachi air route had been completed by 1st October 1925. In 1926 there was a large increase in the company's fleet: A Handley Page W9 'City of New York', and four Handley Page W10s 'City of Melbourne', 'City of Pretoria', 'City of London' and 'City of Ottawa' were all christened at Croydon airport on 31st March. On 16th July the new Armstrong Whitworth Argosy, the airline's first three-engined airliner which introduced a new standard of roominess into air passenger flying came into service. On 1st May 1927, an Argosy inaugurated the world's first 'named' air service - it was the London-Paris 'Silver Wing' service on which meals were served. (Other European routes on which Argosies operated were those to Basle, Brussels and Cologne.)

On 20th December the first of the de Havilland Hercules airliners (ordered by Imperial Airways for service on overseas routes) left England for their new route from Egypt to India.

In January 1927 a service was opened between Cairo and Basra, in the Persian Gulf. To solve the difficulty of navigating across the trackless desert between Palestine and Baghdad, a furrow, several hundred miles long, was ploughed in the sand. It was probably the longest furrow ever ploughed. Further links were added at either end of the route and on 30th March 1929 the Short Calcutta (which was the first of Imperial Airways' flying boats to be built in 1928, designed to operate the Mediterranean sectors of the long-distance routes from the United Kingdom to Australia and South Africa), left London for Karachi on the first through air service between the United Kingdom and India. Later in the same year this route was extended to Jodhpur and Delhi.

On 16th June 1930, an internal service linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool was run three times a week. This service connected with European services at Croydon and continued until 20th September when a lack of support closed the route.

In April 1930 the surveys of the Cairo-Cape Town route were completed, and on 28th February 1931 the first part of this route was opened with a weekly service between London and M'wanza in Tanganyika. Calcutta flying boats were used on the trans-Mediterranean section and south along the Nile from Cairo.

On 1st April 1931, the first experimental London-Australia air mail flight took place. The mail was transferred to an Australian aircraft at Koepang in the Netherlands East Indies, and it arrived on the 29th April in Sydney.

The Four Engined Airliner Arrives

In 1931, two types of four-engined airliner came on to the scene. The 27th April saw the first of three Short flying-boats, 'Scipio', which worked in the Mediterranean, whilst the first of the Handley Page H.P. 42s, 'Hannibal', operated on the London-Paris route for the first time on 11th June. Two classes of H.P. 42 were made. The 'Heracles' class for European routes, with 38 seats, were based at Croydon, and the 'Hannibal' class for routes in Egypt, India, and Central Africa, with 24 seats (to allow for extra fuel and baggage), were based at Cairo. These airliners brought a new standard of service, comfort, and safety to passengers. Stewards served full course meals, the Pullman style upholstery was unrivalled, and even though each of the eight built flew over a million miles, no passenger was ever hurt.

On 20th January 1932, the England-Central Africa service was extended to the Cape for the carriage of mail. Passengers first left London by air for South Africa on 27th April.

In 1933 the Armstrong Whitworth AW15 Atalantas was introduced. It was the first monoplane ordered by Imperial Airways and offered the first significant increase in airliner cruising speed since 1919, cruising at 130 mph. It was described as 'the fastest and most luxurious aircraft designed and produced for the tropics, with ample room for passengers to walk about and chat and to enjoy refreshments'. The type operated from Central Africa to Cape Town and east of Karachi, as the service was extended to Calcutta on 6th July, Rangoon on 23rd September and Singapore on 9th December. 1933 also saw Imperial Airways complete 10,000,000 miles of flying.


On 18th January 1934, the formation of Qantas Empire Airways Limited took place, which combined the interests of Imperial Airways and Qantas (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited).

The object was to operate in association with Imperial Airways on the Trans-Australian route. The 8th December saw the London-Singapore route extended to Brisbane for mail, the Singapore-Brisbane section operated by Qantas Empire Airways. Passengers were carried over the entire England-Australia route from April 1935.

The operation of the Singapore-Brisbane section of the Australia route led to a new airliner which would be suitable - the de Havilland D.H. 86. This was de Havilland's first four-engined aircraft, and its was both designed and built in just four months for the Empire Air Route contract. Both Qantas Empire Airways and Imperial Airways placed orders for this type, and Imperial Airways commissioned the first of these new airliners, 'Diana', on 25th May 1934. The 'Diana' class made new European routes possible, and on 1st April 1935 a daily London and Budapest via Brussels-Cologne-Prague and Vienna route was opened. During the same year the frequency of both the London-Singapore and London-Johannesburg services were doubled.

On 19th February 1936, the 'Diana' class was used on a weekly mail service between Kano in Nigeria and London, where it flew between Kano and Khartoum, from where the West African service joined the main Africa trunk route. This service later carried passengers and the route terminal was extended to Lagos on 15th October, and to Accra on the Gold Coast on 13th October 1937. This route which Imperial Airways pioneered, was to become a main supply route to the Middle East during the war.

On 14th March 1936, the type operated a new service between Penang and Hong Kong, linking with the main Australia route at Penang, which gave a weekly service between London and Hong Kong for the first time.

The Short S23 Empire flying boat has been described as 'without question the most famous and successful of all pre-war civil transports'. The S23 carried 24 day-passengers or 16 in a sleeping berth layout. A popular feature was its promenade deck. On 30th October 1936, the first of the Short Empire flying boats, the 'Canopus', made its first service flight on a trans-Mediterranean service. Imperial Airways were to make a bold move and order 28 of these aircraft, without awaiting trials of the first aircraft. The aircraft was a success, and further orders were placed, making a total of 42 aeroplanes. These flying boats were produced to put the Empire Air Mail Programme into operation.

Previously Imperial Airways had to carry passengers by train between Paris and the Mediterranean on the Empire routes. The Empire flying boats introduced an all-air route from 16th January 1937, operating from Southampton by way of Marseilles-Rome-Brindisi-Athens and Alexandria. This improvement meant that all Empire services were operated from Southampton from 5th March, and Croydon was the base for European routes only.

During May 1937 Imperial Airways clocked up its 40,000th service across the English Channel, as well as its 1,000th service from England to the Empire. On 15th May land aircraft were withdrawn from the England-South Africa route as far south as Kisumu in Kenya Colony to be replaced by the Empire flying boats which used the Nile bases employed by the Calcutta flying boats. On 2nd June Flying boats took over the entire route.

On 16th June 1937 the first British Atlantic air service began when Imperial Airways and Pan American Airways began a joint service between Bermuda and New York, the British service being flown by the 'Cavalier'.

The Short S30, a later version of the S23, was powered by four Bristol Perseus engines, and had an all-up weight of 48,000 lb, five were built for Imperial Airways.

The Empire Air Mail Programme

The Empire Air Mail Programme was inaugurated on 29th June 1937, when the Empire flying boat 'Centurion' left Southampton for South and East Africa. All mail was charged at 1½d. per oz. which made it possible to post air mail letters in ordinary letter boxes. During that year the 'Caledonia' and 'Cavalier' made survey flights across the North Atlantic, and on 27th and 28th September the 'Cambria' made the fastest flight across the ocean between Botwood Newfoundland and Foynes, Eire, with a record time of ten hours thirty-six minutes. Many other surveys for routes were also made during 1937.

This had been a great year for British Air Transport, starting with the commissioning of the world's largest fleet of commercial flying boats, changing from land planes to faster flying boats, inaugurating the Empire Air Mail Programme, making ten crossings of the North Atlantic to schedule, taking the first step in opening the longest air route in the world (15,000 miles from England to New Zealand), carried over 70,000 passengers and flown over 6,000,000 miles-no mean achievement!

1938 saw the schedules of the Empire routes being accelerated, and air mail figures for the first quarter gave an idea of how well the Empire Air Mail Programme was working. In three months over 100 tons of mail had been flown on the Africa route and the same volume on the India route. This service was given a great amount of praise from the United States where only 2 tons of air mail was carried per week in 1937.

On the 28th July Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Papua, Fiji, Norfolk Island, Lord Howe Island, Nauru, The Mandated Territory of Western Samoa and the Territories under the Jurisdiction of the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific were brought into the Programme.

The Frobisher class Aircraft of Imperial Airways Ltd. were the first to bear the Speedbird symbol.

During 1938 the Armstrong Whitworth Ensign and de Havilland Albatross were entered into service.

There were two versions of the Armstrong Whitworth AW27 Ensign airliner. A short range European version carried 36-40 passengers and a longer range Empire version carried 27 day-passengers or 20 night-passengers sleeping in berths. The Ensign was the first British large, four-engined, all-metal land (as distinct from flying boat) monoplane airliner. The type saw service on European routes, and first went into service on the London-Paris route on 20th October 1938. They carried heavy mail loads during the Christmas period in 1938, and did valuable work between the United Kingdom and France in 1939 and 1940. The Ensigns were used in the Empire by B.O.A.C., but World War II put an end to the original plans for its use.

(Another factor in their failure was that they were delivered about two years late to Imperial Airways due to problems with the engines and rearmament.)

The second airliner to be introduced in 1938 was the de Havilland DH91 Albatross, known as the 'Frobisher' class (after the name of their flagship), which was designed for the European routes. The Albatross was the first British airliner to top the 200 mph cruising speed, and with a top speed of 234 mph, it set a number of records for flights between European capitals, such as a 200 mile trip from London to Brussels in forty-eight minutes by the aircraft 'Falcon'.

The North Atlantic

The vast stretch of the North Atlantic seemed an almost insurmountable barrier, preventing the start of air services westwards to Canada and the USA.

Imperial Airways experimented with two methods of getting over the problem of getting heavily loaded aircraft into the air with a reasonably short take-off run. The first was assisted take-off, and the second was flight refuelling.

The assisted take-off came in the form of the Short-Mayo composite aircraft, which was a large four-engined flying boat similar to the Empire design called 'Maia', with a smaller seaplane ' Mercury' mounted on top. The 'Mercury' was designed to carry mail over long distances but when fully laden with fuel and mail, could not take off unassisted. Therefore the sole purpose of 'Maia' was to take-off with 'Mercury' on its back (all engines on both aircraft would be used for take-off), and when they got to a suitable height they separated and 'Maia' would return to base, whilst 'Mercury' set off on its journey.

The first trial of 'Mercury' was on 21st July 1938, when it left 'Maia' near Foynes and flew non-stop to Montreal, 2,930 miles in twenty hours and twenty minutes. After unloading cargo, 'Mercury' flew to New York with newspapers and news photographs, making a total time of twenty-five hours and eight minutes. These flights had set three new records: the first commercial flight across the North Atlantic by a 'heavier-than-air' machine, the first east to west crossing from the British Isles to Montreal and the fastest east to west crossing of the North Atlantic. The time taken from Foynes to the Newfoundland coast was thirteen hours and twenty-nine minutes.

The 'Mercury' helped carry Christmas mail between Southampton and Alexandria in December 1938, and received further fame when it made the longest non-stop flight by a seaplane between Dundee and Walvis Bay just short of Cape Town in the autumn. The flight was 6,045 miles at a speed of 144 mph, which was the highest maintained speed on a long-distance test.


RECORD BY MERCURY, 6th October 1978. As described above, Air Vice Marshal D.C.T. Bennett (who joined Imperial Airways in 1935), was the pilot of the first commercial East-to-West Atlantic crossing in seaplane, Mercury. He also flew the trip from Dundee to Walvis Bay in October 1938.

The second of Imperial Airways' trans-Atlantic experiments was flight refuelling. On 5th and 6th August 1939 a modified C-class flying boat, 'Caribou', flew from Southampton to New York via Foynes, Botwood and Montreal. This was the first in a series of flights along with the 'Cabot', where air mail was carried on scheduled flights and the aircraft were refuelled in the air by a Handley Page Harrow tanker aircraft, after setting course for the ocean sector of the route. Even though war came during the programme, the experiments carried on until September as planned, the 'Cabot' arriving in New York on the morning after war had been declared.

In the summer of 1939, the last aircraft type designed for Imperial Airways, the Short S-26 G-class, was launched. They were developments, on a larger scale, of the Empire Class flying boat, and the 'Golden Hind' was the first of three aircraft ordered by Imperial Airways. Before they could be put into commercial service, the war had started and so they were fitted with gun turrets and served with the Royal Air Force on long-range reconnaissance duties. The 'Golden Fleece' was lost off Finisterre in August 1941. Suitably modified, the remaining two S26s entered BOAC service on the United Kingdom-West African routes in July 1942. The 'Golden Horn' was lost in the River Tagus, Portugal on 9th January 1943. The 'Golden Hind' continued in service with BOAC on a variety of routes until the end of 1947.