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Resource and skill are needed by the charter pilot in the performance of his varied commissions




























A USEFUL MACHINE for air charter is the De Havilland Dragonfly, which can carry four passengers and which has a cruising speed in excess of 120 miles an hour. The Dragonfly in this illustration is one of the fleet of Birkett Air Service, Ltd., a company which was founded in 1932 by Flight Lieutenant G. Birkett. Other aircraft in the fleet are Miles Merlin, Leopard Moth and Puss Moth aeroplanes.




“By air to anywhere at any moment”. Such is the service rendered by the British charter companies which operate air taxis. Night and day, often at only a few minutes’ notice, an air taxi takes off for a flight of perhaps a hundred miles or for a flight of perhaps several thousand miles. This service fills a necessity, as it has placed air transport at the disposal of any individual and has brought the aeroplane to his door to fly him to any destination. The pilots are among the most resourceful of human beings. They are quick to act in an emergency, and have flying ability, experience and local knowledge.


Many flights are caused by urgency. A passenger bound for the United States misses the boat-train from London, or arrives at Southampton after the liner has sailed. An air taxi reaches Southampton before the train or flies to the liner’s next port of call. An important event occurs. News editors, photographic agencies and news film editors charter air taxis and send reporters and photographers to obtain the story and the pictures. The pilot of each machine competes with his rivals to be the winner of the race to get the news and pictures into print. A man is called to the sick bed of a relative in a distant town or village. A business man finds that if he can be several hundred miles away in a few hours he may obtain a contract or make a bargain. Documents are required urgently. A surgeon is asked to operate on a patient who is abroad. An actor is billed to appear on the same evening at theatres in two towns many miles apart. Thanks to the air taxi, all these people reach their destinations in time.


More and more people are learning to take the air taxi. Air lines work to schedule: the air taxi and its pilot are at the exclusive disposal of the charterer. Because of this advantage over air liners, which fly by timetables on fixed routes, and over trains, road vehicles and steamships, which have their own limitations, the mileage flown by charter companies is expanding. Emergency flights are not the only service-performed by air taxis. They are increasingly being used for tours of Great Britain, Europe and Africa, for holidays to resorts and spas and for ordinary business journeys. Many people charter a machine to fly them to places on regular air routes, as they prefer the privacy of a charter machine, and their movements are not subject to time restrictions.


When there are six or more persons in one party, the cost is lower than by air liner. The efficiency of the aircraft and of the personnel is as high as that in any air line. All machines and technical staff are examined periodically by the officers of the Air Ministry.


Yet another of the facilities of the service is to enable passengers arriving at London airports such as Croydon and Heston to be flown to distant towns or villages without delay. Individuals whose time is valuable do not waste it by going by road from the air port to London and thence by railway to a provincial town; they go by air taxi to their destination.


The prospective passenger telephones a charter company — there is always a responsible member of the staff on duty day and night — or walks into the office, states his destination and ascertains the cost of the journey. Every member of the staff has his work to do to speed the passenger calmly on his way.


The machines range in accommodation from two-seaters to aeroplanes carrying eight or more passengers and a radio operator, in addition to the pilot. Thus there is a machine to suit every type of passenger. One passenger may wish to take his wife to a holiday resort. Another may be a big game hunter who plans to take a shooting party to Central Africa. Business companies and wealthy people often contract with a charter company to have a machine constantly on call for them. The racing season and the seasons at various resorts bring so many passengers that some companies run services to race meetings and resorts. One company recently flew more than a hundred passengers to and from races in the course of a few days.


As charter companies are not subsidized, competition to secure passengers is keen; but there is among the pilots a team spirit akin to that of the merchant service officers of trading ships. Although the passenger who charters an air taxi will not be attended by an air hostess or a steward, he will have all the amenities of air travel, including air conditioning, if he selects an air taxi of the large? type, and he can be landed in private grounds if he chooses a small machine.


Short Flight Becomes Air Tour


Piloting an air taxi is not every pilot’s job, because technical ability is not all. The charter pilot takes charge of his passenger or passengers after the preliminary details have been settled and is thenceforth his or their pilot, ground organization, human encyclopaedia, diplomat, counsellor, linguist and factotum. Some air taxi pilots are veterans of the war of 1914-18; others are of a younger generation who have flown big air liners, or have done good service with the R.A.F., or have been aviators with air “circuses”. Ability and adaptability are essential.


Whether the charterer is an invalid being flown to a spa, a financier anxious to reach a capital, or an exile returning to his homeland, the pilot concentrates on his duty of conveying the passenger safely and swiftly to his destination.


After an emergency flight the passenger may look back upon it as a dramatic crisis in his life; but to the pilot it was one of a long list of satisfactory flights. Many short flights booked at a British airport become extensive tours. Sometimes a passenger who has not flown previously hires a machine to take him or a party a modest distance and discovers when in the air that he and his friends enjoy flying.


A party of friends chartered a machine to fly them one week-end to a resort on the French side of the English Channel. They found the short flight so fascinating that, instead of spending the weekend in one place, they asked the pilot to take them on an air tour. They were flown to the Riviera, Switzerland, Paris and back to London, and enjoyed an extensive tour free from the fatigue of surface travel. Busy people unable to take even a week-end holiday spare an afternoon for a short flight, which acts as a tonic. They take a trip by air taxi over London, the Home Counties and the coast, or above the Isle of Wight, the Solent and the New Forest.


AIR TAXIS are often chartered by newspapers for important news stories.










AIR TAXIS are often chartered by newspapers, photographic agencies and news-reel companies for important news stories such as the burning of the Lafayette at Havre in May 1938. Within two hours of its having been chartered, one aeroplane returned with pictures of the blazing ship.











De Havilland machines are prominent in air taxi work. For long-distance charters and for carrying parties of friends, the D.H.89 Dragon Rapide biplane, powered by two 200 horsepower Gipsy Six air-cooled engines, is used by a number of companies. There is seating accommodation for six or eight passengers. Armchair seats, air-conditioning, excellent ventilation and wide windows enable the passengers to enjoy the comfort and interest of flying. The cruising speed of 132 miles an hour and the normal range of 573 miles, as well as the reliability of the engines, have done much to build up the reputation for efficiency and speed essential for air taxi work.


A number of companies have a machine of this type which is converted into an air ambulance at short notice. The patient lies on a comfortable bed and he is accompanied by a doctor and a nurse. The smooth running of the engines, the comfortable cabin, the avoidance of jolting, and the provision of radio are features which have commended the air ambulance to the medical profession. This method of transport has eliminated many of the discomforts which attend invalids travelling by train and steamship between Great Britain and the Continent. The speed greatly reduces the time of travel and eliminates the weariness of mind that is dangerous to a sick person.


Notice is generally given well in advance so that every detail of the patient’s journey is arranged. The radio keeps the pilot informed of the weather along the route while the machine is in flight. If the weather changes he may be able to locate smooth air and avoid any risk of bumpy conditions that might disturb the patient. Journeys to and from the French Riviera and Switzerland are frequent, and there are many to and from British spas and resorts. Sometimes an urgent call comes for a machine to fly to a remote place in Great Britain for the purpose of taking a casualty to hospital. Doctors and organizations such as the St. John Ambulance Association and the British Red Cross Society frequently call up a charter company for an ambulance machine. A specially built ambulance aeroplane is described in the chapter “Dramas of Air Rescues”.


The smaller aircraft have some advantages over the larger in taxi flights, particularly when the passengers desire to be landed in a field adjoining their home. The De Havilland Moths are particularly useful for such trips. A typical example is the Leopard Moth, a cabin monoplane carrying two passengers and luggage at a cruising speed of 117 miles an hour. Another example is the Percival Vega Gull four-seater, described in the chapter “Percival Aircraft Types”. The three-seater Miles Falcon Six is a cabin monoplane, powered by a 200 horse-power Gipsy Six engine, which gives it a cruising speed of 160 miles an hour and a maximum range of 880 miles. A larger machine is the Miles Merlin five-seater monoplane, powered by a 200 horse-power Gipsy Six, which gives it a cruising speed of 140 miles an hour.


Fixed Rates for Race Meetings


The variety of the types enables the companies to supply the hirer with the machine suited to his requirements. Costs are in ratio to the size of the machine. There is no fixed tariff for all the companies. Each has a rate for the type of machine at so much a mile, with a fee for waiting time.

Fixed rates are established for each passenger for journeys to many towns in Europe and for journeys to race meetings and the like. Charter rates average from 9d. a mile for a two-seater to 3s. 6d. a mile for a machine accommodating ten passengers. One company charges 1s. 9d. a mile for a machine which carries eight passengers; the cost per mile for each passenger is little more than 2½d. if all seats are occupied. At night the charge is higher.


Many of the companies have been operating for a number of years and have built up successful businesses. Not long ago every emergency flight was reported in the newspapers. Although little notice is now taken of such journeys, there are more of them than ever. Each company maintains a twenty-four hours’ service and the telephone is the nerve centre.


At fifteen minutes past midnight recently the telephone bell rang in the Croydon Airport Office of Olley Air Service, Ltd., and was the prelude to an emergency flight by night. The call was from a man in Surrey who had received a message that a relative was dangerously ill in Liverpool. He drove by car to Croydon, where the aeroplane was waiting to take off. At 2.5 a.m. the machine landed at Liverpool.


This company provides air taxis at five minutes’ notice in daytime. For night flights, although an hour’s notice is specified to enable arrangements to be made with various airport authorities, in practice the take-off is well within the hour. Short charters, long-distance charters to all parts of Europe and special charters are undertaken not only from Croydon but also from Shoreham (Sussex), Liverpool and Penzance (Cornwall).


WHEN TWO PASSENGERS are to be carried in a chartered aeroplane the Leopard Moth is a suitable machine.





















WHEN TWO PASSENGERS are to be carried in a chartered aeroplane, the Leopard Moth is a particularly suitable machine. This De Havilland high-wing monoplane accommodates the passengers side by side on a cross seat at the back of the cabin. The Leopard Moth is powered by a Gipsy-Major 130 horse-power engine which gives a cruising speed of 117 miles an hour.




The fleet of twenty-two comprises Dragon Rapide, Dragon, Leopard Moth, Fox Moth and Short Scion machines. Numerous ambulance flights are made by a machine fitted for the purpose. Some of the charters are to take surgeons and specialists to patients. A recent charter was to carry a surgeon and his instruments to Switzerland to operate on a patient. The machine waited while the operation was performed and then carried the surgeon back to England. The round trip was flown in a few hours and the surgeon was able to undertake the operation in Switzerland without the long interruption to his work at home which travel by boat and train would have involved.


An extensive charter was a flight of about 30,000 miles to many parts of Africa. This was not an emergency flight, but a hunting expedition, which was flown to West and Central Africa, British and Portuguese East Africa and the Rhodesias. The use of the aeroplane as a means of transport for big-game hunters was demonstrated a few years ago by a director of the company, Captain Gordon P. Olley, who was one of the first pilots to fly one million miles. The original trip proved the advantages of flying and the resource of the charter pilot in picking up passengers after the charter with the big-game hunters had ended.


The prelude to the adventure was, as in so many flights, a telephone call. A machine was fitted with gun racks and provisions were placed on board to be used in the game reserves. The outward flight was to Nairobi, in Kenya, where further stores were obtained. Then the machine flew to the spot in the wilds where the hunters wished to camp. The aeroplane was placed in the lee of some rocks. For protection at night against wild animals, a hedge of thorny bushes was built round the aircraft. This hedge kept off lions and hyenas, which are said to gnaw the rubber tyres of landing wheels if they have the opportunity. The hunters spent a fortnight in this district shooting lions, leopards, cheetahs and other game. Then they were flown to Port Sudan, on the Red Sea, where they left in a yacht for a fishing expedition. The flying part of their holiday had ended, but Captain Olley was determined to try to pick up some more “fares” instead of flying an empty machine back to England immediately.


Millionaire's Special Aeroplane


A liner bound for Port Said and Europe called at Port Sudan with an American financier on board. Captain Olley saw the American, who chartered the machine for a flight along the valley of the Nile to see some of the wonders of ancient Egypt. The aeroplane was then to fly to Port Said, where the liner was to be caught. Captain Olley made the flight as arranged. This trip brought him part of the long way home, but he persevered in search of another charter and he succeeded.


In Cairo he found a party of American scientists who intended to visit sites where archaeological research was proceeding. He suggested that the aeroplane would enable them to cover a large area that would take months to traverse by other means of transport. They chartered the machine. First they were flown to Tel Asmar, about fifty miles from Baghdad, and then to Bushire, on the Persian Gulf. Then the aeroplane took them over the mountains of Iran to the ruins of Persepolis, once the capital of the ancient Persian Empire. From Persepolis the party flew to Mosul (Iraq), to Aleppo (Syria), to various places in Palestine, to Luxor, in Upper Egypt, and back to Cairo, where the charter ended. Captain Olley returned to England, having added two charter flights to the original one, and another 30,000 miles to his log book.


Some of the flights made by Captain Olley are outstanding examples of the work of the taxi pilot. A cable was received from an American stating that he was arriving in a liner at Plymouth and wished to be flown to a nursing home in Surrey, where his son was dangerously ill. Arrangements were made and Captain Olley arrived on time at Plymouth. Then things beyond the pilot’s control began to go wrong. There was no sign of the liner, which had been delayed by bad weather.


When the liner appeared Captain Olley boarded the launch that was to have taken the port officers to the vessel, but the engines broke down. Having left the disabled launch, Captain Olley hired a fast motor boat which sped to the liner. He took his passenger to shore and to the machine, which was waiting; but, because of the delay, darkness was approaching and the high wind was increasing to gale force.


As the machine battled against the wind, which added to the delay, Captain Olley spoke by radiotelephone to Croydon Airport and gave notice that he intended to land at night at Brooklands Aerodrome, Surrey. He asked for lights and for a car to take the passenger to the nursing home. When the storm increased in force he realized that precious minutes would be saved if he landed at Farnborough Aerodrome, Hampshire. He called Croydon again, cancelled the first plan and asked the airport to make arrangements for him at Farnborough.


Autogiro aircraft were used to film the 1936 FA Cup final.




THE OFFICIALS BANNED the taking of films in the Stadium at Wembley on the occasion of the Football Association Cup Final between Arsenal and Sheffield United in 1936. “Autogiro” aircraft were used to film the game, but, as the “Autogiro” aircraft were not allowed by the Air Ministry to fly below 500 feet, telescopic lenses were used for the cameras.





Directly the machine had landed, the passenger transferred to the car and was driven to the nursing home. The child’s condition had become critical, but when his father appeared at the bedside the boy recognized him. From that moment the boy was nursed back to health.


Such an episode shows that, however excellent the planning of an emergency flight may be, incidents beyond the control of the charter company sometimes arise. At such times the alertness and decision of the pilot decide the issue. At the head of each charter company is a pilot who knows every side of the work and ensures that the pilots of the company are first-class.


A recent special charter was to fly a party of business men to Alexandria, to Turkey and round Europe. Radio artistes were flown to Luxembourg; they gave their programme and were flown back to England. A passenger embarked in a liner at Southampton for the United States and realized that he had forgotten his luggage. A message was sent, the luggage was collected in London and flown to Cherbourg in ample time to be put on board the liner. A good deal of flying for newspapers and news film companies is done by Olley Air Service, Ltd.


Personal Airways, Ltd., Croydon Airport, operate four Dragon Rapides, a Leopard Moth and a Miles Falcon Six. The company is popular with individuals who charter machines for visits to the Continent and to races. Trainers and jockeys are regular users. The air taxi is valuable to them, as it enables a trainer to go direct from a training centre such as Newmarket (Suffolk) to, say, Chester, with his jockeys, and to be flown back in good time.


The more successful the jockey, the greater the call for his services; thus the leading jockeys are well known to pilots of air taxis as “fares”. A charge of 1s. a mile is made for each two-seater, and a charge of 2s. a mile for the machines having from five to seven seats.


British-American Air Services, Ltd., Heston Airport, was founded to save the time of liner passengers travelling between the United States and Europe. Aircraft meet liners at Cobh (Queenstown), Plymouth and Cherbourg. The service is not confined to this duty, but covers the entire range of taxi work. The racing season is provided for by services from Heston to the races and back. These are advertised, and a timetable is supplied at the beginning of the season to inquirers, with a list of fares. A minimum of four passengers is required for the Continental race machines.


Night Flight to Gretna


The aeroplanes leave at stated times before the first race — four hours for Longchamps — and London passengers who telephone when about to go by Piccadilly Railway to Hounslow West Station are met at that station by one of the company’s cars and conveyed to the airport.


The longest flight of these aeroplane race “specials” is to Ayr, Scotland, the minimum number of passengers being four. Only two passengers are required as the minimum for the “specials” to races at various places in England. Private charter machines are also available. A charge of 1s. a

mile is made for the two-passenger Leopard Moth; 1s. 4d. a mile is charged for the three-seater Vega Gull; 2s. for the six-passenger Dragon Rapide and 3s. 6d. for the D.H.86, which carries ten passengers. The machines receive an engine overhaul after every twenty-five hours of flying. The maintenance branch undertakes the overhaul of private aircraft.


Air Commerce, Ltd., Heston, whose fleet comprises Dragon Rapide, Dragon, Vega Gull and Leopard Moth machines, has a reputation for taxi work. Recently a call came through from Paris. A machine left Heston, flew to Paris, picked up the passenger, landed him on his estate in North Wales and returned to Heston. The round trip was made in less than six hours. Another passenger flown from Heston was landed on his property in Wales within fifty minutes. The journey by train would have involved several changes, and would have taken about seven hours.


DE HAVILLAND DRAGON RAPIDE aircraft have proved suitable for use by air taxi charter companies.

DE HAVILLAND DRAGON RAPIDE aircraft, similar to that in this illustration, have proved particularly suitable for use by air taxi charter companies. The cabins may be arranged to suit the operating company and generally have seats for six or eight passengers. Air-conditioning and wide windows enable passengers to fly in comfort in all weathers.




A romantic couple made a night flight to Gretna, Scotland, to be married “over the anvil”. The pilot took off at 9.15 p.m., and a flare path was lighted at Carlisle Aerodrome, in Cumberland, where the machine landed at 11.50. When the Empire Exhibition was opened at Glasgow in May 1938 a chartered machine took off with 15,000 feet of film exposed by news film photographers and flew it to London, where it was developed and processed during the night. In the morning positive films were flown to Newcastle-on-Tyne and to Glasgow, where they were distributed. They were shown in local cinemas the same afternoon.


Birkett Air Service, Ltd., was founded in August 1932 by Flight Lieutenant G. Birkett. The fleet includes Dragonfly, Miles Merlin, Leopard Moth and Puss Moth aeroplanes, which make numerous flights, some of which are for the Press. A noteworthy flight was to Tirana (Albania) in connexion with the wedding of King Zog of Albania in 1938.


During the war in Abyssinia two machines were in service in that country on Press work, and, in 1936, at the beginning of the civil war in Spain a machine was flying in Spain on similar charter work. A somewhat unusual method of trying to enlist in the French Foreign Legion was adopted by two men who chartered a machine and were flown to Tangier (Morocco), where, however, they were rejected by the recruiting officer.


Other charter companies are Air Dispatch, Ltd., Brian Allen Aviation, Ltd., Surrey Flying Services, and Wrightways, Ltd., all of which fly from Croydon; and Utility Airways, Ltd., of Hooton (Cheshire) and Morecambe (Lancashire). One company, International Air Freight, Ltd., of Pall Mall, London, is concerned solely with goods. Its red Curtiss Condor machines fly from Croydon.


The development of the electrical transmission of photographs has affected the former practice of sending negatives and prints by air, but the use of aeroplanes to secure photographs and to carry films, which cannot be telegraphed, is extensive.


Off the Regular Air Routes


An important event such as the burning of the French liner Lafayette at Havre in May 1938, or the arrival of the yacht Endeavour after she had been feared lost in September 1937, is the occasion of a race between charter pilots. One machine was away and back with pictures of the burning liner within two hours. Such a “beat” adds spice to the vocation of the charter pilot and inspires every member of his company.


A few charter flights have been to India, and the companies can carry passengers to places on or off the map of the regular air routes. By ringing up a company, the passenger can put his travel problem into the care of experts who will ensure that he is safely conveyed from his home to his destination.


One of the pioneers of air charter work, Captain W. L. Hope, who is now technical director of Air Freight, Ltd., is a veteran of war-time flying who became an air line pilot. Later, Captain

Hope founded Air Taxis, Ltd., at Hendon; the company afterwards operating for a time from Croydon. Captain Hope has won the King’s Cup Air Race no fewer than three times — in 1927, 1928 and 1932 — with a Moth or a Fox Moth. He finished eighth in the 1937 race with a B.A. Eagle powered by a Gipsy Major I engine.


Sir Alan Cobham made a remarkable charter flight round Europe in 1921 with a D.H.9. chartered by two business men. Cobham flew the charterers to seventeen cities, covering 4,500 miles in three weeks; the flying time was fifty-six hours. The route flown was probably the longest business trip by air undertaken up to that time.


As moderate first cost and economy of operation and maintenance are imperative and of more importance than high speed, the design and construction of machines for taxi work involve considerations that do not apply to military aircraft or large liners. Although the designer is necessarily restricted by these limits, the fact that the machines enable the taxi companies to compete successfully with express trains, motor cars and motor coaches is proof of success. A feature of the larger machines is the ingenuity in designing accommodation so that it is quickly rearranged to suit the charter party to convey the impression that he is “the owner”. These machines are often equipped with radio which can receive broadcast wireless programmes.


SMALL AIR LINERS are useful for air taxi work, such as the Short Scion type.




















SMALL AIR LINERS are a specially useful type of aircraft for air taxi work. Among them are aircraft of the Short Scion type, illustrated here. This is a high-wing twin-engined monoplane which can carry five passengers in addition to the pilot. The cruising speed is 116 miles an hour. The aircraft can be supplied with floats in place of a wheel undercarriage if desired.



[From Part 21 & Part 22, published 26 July & 2 August 1938]



You can read more on “Dramas of Air Rescues”, “Novel Uses of the Aeroplane” and

“Percival Aircraft Types” on this website.

Air Taxis