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Imperial Airways

The launch of Britain’s National Airline

London Croydon to Paris Le Bourget quickly became the world’s busiest air route. Competition was fierce and British airlines found it very difficult to compete against the heavily subsidised continental airlines. Aircraft, Transport & Travel Limited was the first casualty from the subsidised competition and went into liquidation on 28th February 1921. The British airlines were facing fierce competition from the heavily subsidised European competitors. As winter approached, the three UK airlines that operated from the London Terminal Aerodrome, Croydon found it increasingly difficult to compete. In December, Aircraft, Transport and Travel Limited ceased operations and by 21st February 1921 the other two British airlines, Handley-Page Transport and Instone Air Line, had also suspended operations. 

The suspension of British air services was a serious matter for the government. In response, the then Secretary of State for Air, Sir Winston Churchill,  established the “Cross Channel Subsidies Committee” to assess and respond to the issue. A scheme of financial assistance was put in place and on 21st March 1921 the two remaining British airlines recommenced operations.

The BSA-Daimler group acquired the assets of A, T and T Ltd parent company, Airco, but soon withdrew financial support for the heavily indebted airline. Using the assets of A, T and T, Daimler Airway was launched at London Croydon Airport in April 1922. Daimler Airway became the launch customer for the newly developed De Havilland DH.34 single-engined 10 seat bi-plane. The British Marine Navigation Company, the fourth British airline, was formed in March 1923 and offered flying boat services from Woolston, Southampton to the Channel Islands. Scheduled services began on 28th September 1923.

The financial viability of the new transport industry continued to be an issue which led to the government establishing the Hambling Committee on 2nd January 1923. On February 15th 1923, the Hambling Committee produced its report recommending that all three British airlines be merged into one company to develop Britain’s air services. Negotiations between the government and the companies concerned began in October 1923 and included the newly formed British Marine Navigation Company. Agreement was reached in principle on 5th December 1923 to form a single state-assisted airline.

The result was the formation of Imperial Airways Limited which came into being on 31st March 1924 with its base of operations at London Terminal Aerodrome, Croydon. The Government subsidised Imperial Airways with £1,000,000 spread over 10 years. Although Imperial Airways was government subsidised, it was a limited company with shares in circulation and was expected to make a profit. The Chairman of the new company was the Right Honourable Sir Eric Geddes GCB, GBE.

Each of the four constituent companies’ staff, assets and aircraft were combined together to form the new airline. The combined fleet of the new airline consisted of fifteen aircraft inherited from the four merged airlines. As of 1st April 1924, the Imperial Airways fleet consisted of:-

  • Four x De Havilland DH.34s, one x Vickers Vimy Commercial and one x Vickers Vulcan (from Instone Air Lines)
  • Three x De Havilland DH.34s (from Daimler Airway)
  • Three x Handley Page W.8bs and one x Handley Page 0/400 (from Handley Page Transport Limited)
  • Two x Supermarine Sea Eagles (from British Marine Air Navigation) 
After the merger the Vickers Vulcan and Handley Page 0/400 were both retired from service.

The first day of operations was planned for the day after the merger, 1st April 1924, but, due to a dispute with the pilots over remuneration, all operations were cancelled. Operations finally commenced on the 26th April 1924 when the London Croydon- Paris Le Bourget service was flown operated by Captain H. S. Robertson in De Havilland DH.34, registration G-EBCX. The pilot contract negotiations continued until formally concluded at the end of May, when a revised pay scale ranging from £780 to £880 per annum was accepted and included £1000 life insurance. Although there were 21 pilots available to sign the new contracts, there was only enough work to offer employment to sixteen pilots.

The government tasked Imperial Airways with developing the “Imperial Air Routes”. To this end, focus was shifted wholly onto expanding european services and establishing intercontinental services to Britain’s overseas interests. With Imperial Airways government-mandated task, the few UK domestic routes were reviewed and cancelled (save the flying boat service to the Channel Islands, eventually cancelled in 1929) to focus on developing international air services only. With no other UK-based competition, Imperial Airways had the sole responsibility, and a monopoly, on developing Britain’s international air routes.

Imperial Airways was the government’s “chosen instrument” to connect Britain with its extensive overseas interests. Privately owned but government sponsored, Imperial Airways grew an extensive network of international routes across the globe that originated from its base of operations at London Croydon Airport. In 1924, Britain had just two airports, Croydon and the secondary or diversion airport at Lympne, Kent. The routes grew steadily year by year, reaching through Europe, India, Africa, the Middle East and onto the Far East and finally Australia. In 1934, Imperial Airways established the world’s longest air route from London Croydon to Brisbane Australia. The international air routes developed from the London Airport are some of the world’s longest established air routes with some now over ninety years old.

New services were added to the European schedule. From 3rd May a daily service was launched from London (Croydon) to Brussels and onwards to Cologne. On 2nd June, in conjunction with Deutsche Aero-Lloyd AG, a weekday service was launched from London (Croydon) to Amsterdam- Hannover- Berlin. From the 17th June, the London (Croydon)- Paris- Basle- Zurich service was operated three times a week.

On the grounds of safety, Imperial Airways declared that all new airliners in its service would be multi-engined, signalling the end for the single-engined De Havilland DH.34s in its fleet. Armstrong Whitworth developed its Argosy tri-engined airliner for the airline which entered service on the 16th July serving the London- Paris route. Imperial would increase the Argosy fleet to seven of the 20 seat airliners, all named after UK cities. 

The Argosy was fairly typical of the early airliners designed in the 1920s. It was a wood and canvas constructed bi-plane with an open cockpit for the flightcrew and an enclosed cabin for 20 passengers. It had three petrol-driven, piston engines, cruised at 90 m.p.h. and had a range of 400 miles. The wingspan was 90 feet (27.43m) and it had a maximum take-off weight of 8709 kgs.

On the 1st May 1927, a new product was launched on the London Croydon- Paris Le Bourget service. Known as the “Silver Wing” it was unique as it introduced the concept of a named service and could be identified as an airline-specific product. The new service utilised an adapted Armstrong Whitworth Argosy which had two seats removed to faciltate installation of a bar. A Steward was employed on the service to deliver a four-course lunch and provide bar facilities during the two and a half hour flight to Paris. The airline Stewards’ duties extended beyond just serving customers in flight. Stewards were also expected to procure and prepare provisions for the airborne service and would frequent Surrey Street Market in Croydon to do so. The introduction of the Silver Wing service marked the starting point of the business-class airline product. 

Until the outbreak of World War Two halted commercial flying, Imperial Airways would be at the forefront of driving innovation and developing intercontinental air travel. It worked closely with aircraft manufacturers to develop safe, reliable and comfortable airliners. The Handley Page H.P.42, in service from 1931, was the result of a specification from Imperial Airways for a four-engined, long range, luxury passenger airliner. The world’s largest bi-plane airliner ever built, it was also one of the safest, having an untarnished safety record in commercial service.

Imperial Airways was the forerunner of today’s British Airways.