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Imperial Airways have two trunk routes, one to South Africa and the other to India and Australia



CONVERTING THE CAMBRIA FOR PASSENGER CARRYING after its experimental North Atlantic flights in 1937. Among the modifications of design for the purpose of those flights was the inclusion of large-capacity petrol tanks. The flights, with those of the flying boat Caledonia, were part of the survey work for the projected regular service between Great Britain and the United States.

THE keystone of civil aviation in the British Commonwealth of Nations is Imperial Airways. The company was incorporated on April 1, 1921, as the “chosen instrument” of the British Government to develop British commercial air transport on an economic basis. Four companies, Daimler Airways Ltd., Handley Page Transport Ltd., the Instone Air Line Ltd., and the British Marine Air Navigation Company Ltd., were amalgamated into the organization now known as Imperial Airways Ltd.

Geographical, economic and political considerations, intricate in the extreme, have complicated the creation of the company’s Empire air services. In spite of these difficulties, however, the eastern and southern chains of Imperial communication by air have been forged and the work of establishing regular reliable services across the North Atlantic is progressing. Only an infinitesimal portion of the far-reaching routes operated by Imperial Airways passes above the soil of the homeland. In the summer of 1924 the Imperial Airways services did not link any two countries in the Empire. There were a service between London and Paris, one between London and Cologne, a flying boat service between Southampton and Guernsey and a service operated in the summer to Switzerland (London—Paris—Basle—Zurich). By the summer of 1938 the European services from Croydon to France, Germany, Belgium Switzerland and Hungary shared the traffic of the European network. Aeroplanes of the Heracles type alone have carried more than a quarter of a million passengers across the English Channel. Far more vital, however, has been the work of building up of the Empire routes. The importance of these routes from the mail aspect is described in the chapters “Air Mails of the Empire” and “Advance of the Empire Air Mail”. These routes take passengers to India, Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia; to South Africa and West Africa; and between New York (or Baltimore) and Bermuda. Survey flights between Great Britain and the United States are continuing and Pacific routes are under investigation. British aircraft are used exclusively.

The story of Imperial Airways is one of improvement in large British commercial aircraft, continuous piloting by experienced pilots, and survey flights which are the essential preliminary to the organization of each new route. Four British companies are associated with Imperial Airways in the Empire routes; the New York (or Baltimore)—Bermuda route is flown in conjunction with Pan American Airways, who are also collaborating in the survey flights for the projected North Atlantic service.


PASSENGERS BOARDING AN AIR LINER at Croydon for Paris. The covered gangway is to protect passengers from the slipstream of the propellers when the engines are running. The aircraft shown in this photograph is a Short Scylla type scheduled to be replaced by more modern monoplane air liners.

The English end of the chain of Empire communications is at Southampton. The traveller from London arrives (autumn 1938) by evening train from Waterloo and, after a night’s rest, embarks at Berth 108, Southampton Docks. The flying boat takes off from Southampton before 6 a.m.

The first day’s flight is to Athens in Greece, with the following stops: Marseilles, Rome, Brindisi. This stage of 1,748 miles is completed by the evening. The passenger sleeps in Athens that night and resumes his journey by flying boat at 6 a.m. next morning, to arrive at Alexandria in the forenoon.

The route from Southampton to Alexandria has been steadily built up so that it forms the trunk from which two main routes extend, with many branches. By following the two main routes from Alexandria as they existed in 1938, when a series of improvements was made, it is possible to obtain a perspective of the service.

The first of these two main routes is to the East and to Australia. It enables the passenger who has arrived at Alexandria to reach Basra (Iraq), 3,490 miles distant from Southampton, on the evening of the second day’s flight. The flying boat route provides halts at Tiberias (Palestine) and Habbaniyeh (Iraq). The landplane route — Alexandria to Calcutta — is served by machines which stop at Lydda (for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv), Rutbah Wells and Baghdad on the way to Basra. Thence the flying-boat route is followed to Karachi; from Karachi the route is via Jodhpur, Delhi and Cawnpore to Calcutta. This route, 5,113 miles long, is flown eastbound from Alexandria on Fridays and Sundays and westbound from Calcutta on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Having spent the night at the Basra airport, the passenger begins his third day’s flight, which brings him in the evening to Karachi, 4,875 miles from Southampton. This stage provides halts at Bahrein, an island in the Persian Gulf, at Sharjah (Dabai), in Oman, and at Jiwani, in Baluchistan.

Five Services Weekly to India

There are two routes across India from Karachi to Calcutta, one for flying boats and the other for landplanes. Three services are operated on the flying boat route, which is 1,410 miles in length and has stops at Raj Samand, Gwalior and Allahabad. The landplane route, with two services, is 1,520 miles long; it is operated in conjunction with Indian Trans-Continental Airways, one of the lines associated with Imperial Airways. This route provides stops at Jodhpur, Delhi, Cawnpore and Allahabad. Both routes enable the passenger to spend the night in Calcutta, and in the morning he begins his fourth day of flight.

At Calcutta the five services a week thin out to three between Calcutta and Australia, via Singapore. There are similar services in the reverse direction from Australia to Southampton. Flying boats operate between Calcutta, Singapore and Sydney. Calcutta is 6,285 miles from Southampton by the flying-boat route across India, and is the terminus of the landplane service of the Indian company.

The next stage is from Calcutta to Bangkok, the Siamese capital, 7,326 miles on the route. Stops are made at Akyab and Rangoon, in Burma.

Bangkok is the junction for the landplane service to Hong Kong, the British Crown colony in China. This branch route, 1,178 miles in length, provides stops at Udorn, in Siam, at Hanoi, capital of Tongking, and at Fort Bayard, in French Indo-China. There are two services a week in either direction, the distance being flown between morning and evening.

The stage on the trunk route for the fifth day is via Koh Samui (Siam) and Penang (Malaya) to Singapore, 8,297 miles from Southampton.

Beyond Singapore the route is operated by Imperial Airways’ Australian associate, Qantas Empire Airways, which introduced flying boats to operate between Singapore and Sydney in July 1938. This route is via the Netherlands East Indies. The seventh day from Southampton brings the traveller via Batavia to Sourabaya, where he spends the night in a hotel, 9,322 miles on his route.

The eighth day’s flight is to Bima and Koepang, Netherlands East Indies, and then across the sea to Darwin, 10,639 miles from Southampton. The former landplane route to Longreach (Queensland), 11,822 miles, where a halt was made for the night, and on to Brisbane, 12,527 miles, is described in the chapter “Australia’s Civil Aviation”. The flying-boat route is identical as far as Darwin. From there it proceeds to Groote Eylandt (see below) and Karumba, on the Gulf of Carpentaria; then over Cape York Peninsula to Townsville, on the east coast of Queensland. Here passengers stop for the night. The route then goes down the coast to Brisbane and on to Sydney, 13,032 miles from Southampton.

A D.H.86A EXPRESS AIR LINER of Imperial Airways

A D.H.86A EXPRESS AIR LINER of Imperial Airways. Although four-engined aircraft are a feature of the equipment of Imperial Airways, the aircraft are not ail of giant size, such as the Heracles type. D.H.86As have been used for service on the branch lines — such as that between Bangkok and Hong Kong—which connect up with the trunk routes.

By the beginning of August 1938 there were three services between Southampton and Australia in either direction by flying boat.

Within a brief period the Empire services will be still further improved when the new Ensign landplanes are put on the Indian route.

Although the other great route onwards from Alexandria to South Africa is shorter, the changes it has made in Imperial communications are of equal importance.

The Alexandria junction is reached from Southampton via Athens in the forenoon of the second day. The flying boat then proceeds to Cairo and flies over the Nile Valley to Luxor and to Wadi Haifa (Anglo-Egyptian Sudan), 3,036 miles from Southampton.

On the morning of the third day from England the first stage is to Khartoum. This city, in which General Gordon was killed by the troops of the Mahdi in 1885, is now the air junction between the flying boats and the landplanes that go westward across the desert to West Africa.

Imperial Airways machines fly to El Obeid, El Fasher and Geneina, in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and then cross French Equatorial Africa, via Fort Lamy and Maiduguri, to reach Kano, in Nigeria. The Nigerian stages are to Kaduna, Minna, Oshogbo and Lagos, from where the service is continued by Elders Colonial Airways to Accra, on the Gold Coast. Three days is the scheduled time, as the traveller stops overnight at Geneina and Kano. Elders Colonial Airways, an associate of Imperial Airways, also operates a service between Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and Bathurst, the capital of British Gambia. This service is not linked with the feeder route.

Through Central Africa

The trunk route southwards from Khartoum follows the White Nile to Malakal, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and continues to Port Bell, in Uganda, on the north shore of Lake Victoria. It then turns eastward to Kisumu, in Kenya, 4,726 miles, which is the end of the third day’s flight from England. Kenya is an important junction. There are three services weekly in either direction between England and Kisumu; beyond Kisumu they are less frequent.

The landplanes of the associated company, Wilson Airways, operate services which form a cross-hatch of routes of particular importance, some of them linking places formerly on the trunk route. One feeder service of Wilson Airways from Kisumu goes along the western shore of Lake Victoria to Lol-gorien, Musoma, M’Wanza and Geita. Another service links Kisumu with Nairobi direct; a third proceeds from Kisumu via Kakamega, Kitale, Eldoret, Nakuru, Nanyuki and Nyer to Nairobi.

Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is the feeder junction of Wilson Airways for two other routes. One of these goes to Mombasa, Tanga, Zanzibar and Dar-es-Salaam; the other follows the former Imperial Airways route inland through Moshi, Dodoma, M’Beya, M’Pika, Broken Hill and Lusaka.

The trunk route from Kisumu is to the coast at Mombasa, the port of Kenya Colony. Thence it goes down the coast to Dar-es-Salaam and Lindi, in Tanganyika Territory, and on to Mozambique, in Portuguese East Africa, 5,929 miles. This concludes the fourth day’s flight by flying boat from Southampton.

The fifth and final stage of the Imperial route is to Beira (a junction with the routes of the associated company, Rhodesian and Nyasaland Airways), to Lourenco Marques and then across the frontier to Durban, Natal, 7,245 miles. Durban is the terminus of Imperial Airways route.

THE TWO TRUNK LINES of Imperial Airways

THE TWO TRUNK LINES of Imperial Airways take the same route as far as Alexandria. Here they divide and the African route runs southwards as far as Durban. The Eastern route goes via India to Malaya and Australia. A large mileage of air routes, including two across the North Atlantic, is projected.

The feeder routes of the Rhodesian and Nyasaland Airways from Beira are to Blantyre, Nyasaland and Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia; Blantyre and Salisbury also have direct communication. At Salisbury contact is made with the routes operated by this line, by Wilson Airways and by South African Airways. These routes link Johannesburg with the inland route, formerly operated by Imperial Airways before the change was made from landplanes to flying boats. At one time Imperial Airways operated through Johannesburg to Capetown, but since March 1936 all routes in the Union have been operated by South African Airways.

In the North Atlantic, Imperial Airways (Bermuda) Limited operates a service between New York (or Baltimore) and Bermuda in collaboration with Pan American Airways. This route of 770 miles began to operate in June 1937. It is flown by Imperial flying boats and by Pan American clippers.

There are many dates since 1924 which stand out as milestones in the evolution of the two trunk routes to Australia and to South Africa. It was not until nearly three years after the formation of the company that, on December 27, 1926, a fortnightly mail and passenger service between Cairo and Basra was begun. This was the first stage of the through England-India service.

Not until March 30, 1929, was the weekly service from England to Karachi inaugurated; nor was this entirely by air, as there was a railway section from Basle to Genoa which functioned until November of that year, when the “all-air” route began via Germany, Austria and the Balkans. This route was changed within a fortnight, however, and the mail was carried by railway from Cologne to Athens. At the end of 1929 the Karachi service was extended to Jodhpur and Delhi by the Government of India, which chartered machines from the company.

Throughout 1930 plans for the Cape to Cairo route were consolidated after the completion of survey work. These plans were put into operation in the spring of 1931, when a mail and passenger service was begun between England and Mwanza.

In India experimental flights were being made eastward from Delhi by Imperial Airways, and mails were picked up on two occasions by Kingsford-Smith and flown to Australia; but at the close of 1931 the Government of India ceased to carry the trans-Indian mail and Karachi again became the terminus.

World’s Fastest Fleet

In 1932 great progress was made in the southern route, and in the spring of that year was begun the mail and passenger service between England and Capetown, but Karachi remained a dead end. In June 1933 difficulties over the Indian route were ended by the formation of Indian Trans-Continental Airways Limited, and by the close of the year the service from England had been extended not only across India to Calcutta, but also as far as Singapore. Qantas Empire Airways Limited was formed in January 1934, and by the end of the year the mail service reached Brisbane. Between Singapore and Brisbane it was operated by the Qantas company.

The year 1935 saw the inauguration of passenger services to Australia and steady increases in the services on all routes. These improvements continued throughout 1936, and the air mail service in Africa was extended to Lagos, Nigeria.

The Empire flying boats began service flights in 1937; these splendid aircraft greatly accelerated operation and added to the comfort of passengers. They marked vital changes, and Southampton Water became the English terminus of the Empire routes on March 5. With these aircraft, Imperial Airways began, in cooperation with Pan American Airways, who used clipper flying boats, the survey flights across the North Atlantic.

Still greater changes began in 1938, following one another in rapid succession. Its fourteenth birthday on April 1, 1938, found the company with the largest and fastest fleet of flying boats in the world. It carried a greater tonnage of external air mail than any other organization in the world, and it operated on the Empire routes a service which for mileage, regularity, security and speed was outstanding. The fleet was six times more numerous than in 1924, there being eighty-three aircraft in operation and under construction, compared with fourteen in 1924. Mileage of routes had increased from 1,700 to 28,000 miles; passengers from 11,395 to 69,000; mail from 47,000 lb. to 1,603,000 lb.

A CRUISING SPEED OF 160 MILES AN HOUR is attained by the Imperial Airways Ensign

A CRUISING SPEED OF 160 MILES AN HOUR is attained by the Ensign, first of a series of landplanes introduced in 1938 for the Empire and European routes of Imperial Airways. The overall length is 110 ft. 6 in. and the height to the tips of the propellers is 23 ft. 6 in. The four 800 horse-power Armsrong Siddeley Tiger IX engines are supercharged.

The overall times from Southampton had been reduced to the following: Alexandria 1 day 3 hours; Karachi 2 days 9 hours; Calcutta 3 days 6 hours; Bangkok 4 days 7 hours; Hong Kong 5 days 6 hours; Singapore 5 days 2 hours; Darwin 7 days 2 hours; Brisbane 8 days 23 hours. On the southern route the times were: Cairo 1 day 5 hours; Khartoum 2 days 1 hour; Kisumu 2 days 23 hours; Mombasa 3 days 2½ hours; Mozambique 3 days 9½ hours; Durban 4 days 10 hours.

An analysis of passenger traffic on the Empire routes showed that about forty per cent of the passengers were business men. About thirty-five per cent were Government officials and others; most of the officials flew to and from Great Britain during periods of leave. About twenty per cent of the passengers were flying for pleasure.

The number of passengers making air tours was particularly large on the African route. Many were people with a limited amount of time who found that they could fly to Central Africa, make excursions to the big game lands by surface transport and return by air to Great Britain. The entire holiday occupied no longer than a more prosaic tour within a few hundred miles of home. About five per cent of the passengers made journeys of an urgent private nature, some of them to visit relatives who were dangerously ill.

Typical fares from London are: Alexandria, single £40, return £72; Baghdad, single £62, return £112; Karachi, single £85, return £153; Delhi, single £90, return £162; Calcutta, single £95, return £171; Rangoon, single £100, return £180; Singapore, single £130, return £234; Darwin, single £149, return £264; Sidney or Brisbane, single £160, return £274. On the African route fares are: Cairo, single £42, return £75 12s.; Luxor, single £50, return £90; Khartoum, single £70, return £126; Nairobi, single £109, return £196 4s.; Mombasa, single £110, return £198, the fares to Accra, on the other side of Africa, being the same; Dar-es-Salaam, single £112, return £201 12s.; Durban, single £125, return £225.

The fares include meals taken in flight or on the ground and also hotel accommodation. The company claims to be the only one in Europe serving full restaurant meals on aircraft. One of the pleasures of a flight through so many countries is the wide variety of food. On the eastern flight the traveller enjoys French, Italian, African, Indian and Malayan food, as well as the interesting dishes of the Netherlands East Indies.

New Names on the Map

Sometimes a passenger is on a diet and his wants are studied. Invalids are also catered for individually. Then there are the baby passengers to be studied. Children up to the age of three are carried at only ten per cent of the full fare when accompanied by an adult and when no separate seat is required for them. If the child requires a separate seat it comes under the half-fare scale, which is applied to children between three and seven years of age. The baggage allowance is 44 lb., irrespective of the passenger’s weight. Formerly the fares were based on a combined weight of passenger and baggage of 221 lb. and, as the average passenger weighs 11 stone 12 lb. (166 lb.), 55 lb. of baggage were normally carried free of charge. If the passenger weighed more than 13 stone 5 lb. (187 lb.), he was allowed baggage up to 33 lb., although this allowance might have brought the combined weight over the maximum of 221 lb.

Safety of operation is such that in 1933 the premium rate for accident insurance for passengers travelling by Imperial Airways was reduced from 12s. to Is. per £1,000 per day, or the same as for surface transport. Most life assurance policies cover air travel without extra charge.

NEW EMBARKATION ARRANGEMENTS were made during 1938 for Imperial Airways flying-boat passengers

NEW EMBARKATION ARRANGEMENTS were made during 1938 for flying-boat passengers. The embarkation rafts are placed near the quayside in Southampton Docks and joined to the quay by a pontoon bridge. Passengers are thus saved the trip by speedboat from the docks down to Hythe, on the west side of Southampton Water. The flying boat Canopus is shown in this photograph.

The work of expansion is ceaseless and is putting new names on the map of the world. Survey parties search for the most suitable site for a base which will further the growing needs of the route, as at Jiwani. This is a fishing village on a remote stretch of coastline in Baluchistan isolated from any port or centre of supply. Near it was found a sheltered inlet suitable for the flying boats. Here there was established a community comprising traffic officials, engineers and wireless and meteorological experts, with native labourers. The experts prepared a future station on the route to the East, which now functions as a radio and fuelling air halt.

The routine at these vital posts is as follows. The station receives the routine messages about the flow of traffic. When a flying boat scheduled to alight is approaching, the meteorological officer prepares a report of the local weather. This report is wirelessed to the captain of the flying boat so that he is able to manoeuvre his craft before landing, in accordance with the wind and the weather.

Between Darwin and Sydney, a chain of marine air halts has been set up. At one, Groote Eylandt, an island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, the spot was so remote that the only white man in the locality was a missionary. The bay to be used by the flying boats was unnamed and uncharted; it has now been charted and named Princess Elizabeth Bay.

In the early years of the company the air halts for the landplane routes sometimes had to be built in wild and desolate country. One air halt had to be built as a fort, as the nomadic tribesmen were hostile. It was provided with sufficient food and stores to withstand a siege of several weeks. Watch towers were erected and a power plant and water supply were installed.

Imperial Airways’ fine record of achievement since those pioneer days has been largely due to the experience and efficiency of the company’s pilots, many of whom have left their mark in the history of commercial aviation. A total of nearly ten million miles has been flown by Captains F. Dismore, O. P. Jones, W. Rogers, A. B. H. Youell, J. J. Horsey, A. S. Wilcockson, H. H. Perry and L. A. Walters.

Captain Dismore celebrated his flying silver jubilee on August 4, 1938, and he had then flown a million and a quarter miles and about 11,600 hours. Captain L. A. Walters, who is Air Superintendent at Croydon, has also flown more than a million miles with Imperial Airways. Captain O. P. Jones had flown more than 1,340,000 miles in 1937. Captain H. H. Horsey is approaching a mileage of 1,500,000 at the time of writing.

Atlantic Survey Flights

Among those pilots who have taken part in some of the company’s most outstanding flights is Captain H. Shaw, one of the first London-Paris pilots. He flew in the flying boat Coolangatta on her flight from England for delivery to Qantas Empire Airways at Sydney. Captain Wilcockson piloted the long-range flying boat Caledonia and Captain G. J. Powell commanded the Cambria, on the round trips across the Atlantic in 1937. The Caledonia made three round trips and the Cambria two.

When the Short-Mayo composite aircraft began the first of the North Atlantic flights scheduled for

1938, Captain Wilcockson was at the controls of the Maia and Captain D. C. T. Bennett was in charge of the Mercury. The composite machine took off from Foynes Harbour, Eire, on July 21. At 7.58 p.m. the separation was made and the . Mercury flew towards Newfoundland. Captain Bennett, who was accompanied by Wireless Operator A. J. Coster, flew to Boucherville, Montreal, 2,860 miles, with newsreels, Press photographs and newspapers representing a commercial payload of 600 lb. The ground speed was 141 miles an hour, but a head wind was encountered. Mercury had eighty gallons of fuel in her tank when she reached Montreal. She proceeded to New York. The return flight (unassisted by Maia) was via Boucherville to Botwood, Newfoundland, across the Atlantic to the Azores and Lisbon, and thence on to Southampton. The Maia’s average speed for the return flight was over 160 miles an hour.

This historic flight was yet a further fulfilment of the company’s object “to develop British commercial air transport on an economic basis”.

The introduction of the Ensign landplane on the route to India is another step forward. It is a high-wing monoplane powered by four 800 horse-power Armstrong Siddeley Tiger IX supercharged engines. The wing span is 123 feet, the overall length 110 ft. 6 in. and the height to the propeller tips 23 ft. 6 in. On Empire routes twenty-seven passengers are carried by day and twenty at night.

Considerable enlargements to aerodromes have been found necessary to make them suitable for the new aircraft, which cruise at 160 miles an hour and have a maximum speed of some 200 miles an hour. The Ensigns will make possible still further improvements in the mail service to India and beyond.


AN ATALANTA TYPE AIRCRAFT at Calcutta Aerodrome. There are two Imperial Airways routes across India from Karachi to Calcutta, one by flying boat and the other by landplane. Atalanta type aircraft have been largely used on the landplane route. The landplane route is operated in conjunction with Indian Trans-Continental Airways, one of the associated companies of Imperial Airways.

You can read more on “Air Mails of the Empire”, “Australia’s Civil Aviation” and “Short Empire Flying Boat” on this website.

Imperial Airways