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BOAC Speedbird logo, adopted following the merger of UK airlines in 1939, it was commissioned by Imperial Airways who rarely used it on their own planes prior to 1939. According to Adenair who also used it under their BOAC ownership, it was designed by Theyre Lee-Elliot. Speedbird is now the callsign of British Airways.

Imperial Airways was the early British commercial long range air transport company, operating from 1924 to 1939 and serving parts of Europe but especially the Empire routes to South Africa, India and the Far East. There were local partnership companies; Qantas (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd) in Australia, and TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways Ltd) in New Zealand.



The establishment of Imperial Airways occurred in the context of British hopes of prolonging and modernizing maritime empire by using a new transport technology that would facilitate settlement, colonial government and trade. The launch of the airline followed a burst of air route survey in the British Empire after the First World War, and after some experimental (and heroic) long-distance flying to the margins of Empire.[1]


Created following the advice of the government Hambling Committee in 1923 — that the main existing aircraft companies should be merged to create a company which would be strong enough to develop Britain's external air services — and offered a £1m subsidy over ten years if they merged. Imperial Airways Limited was formed in March 1924 from the British Marine Air Navigation Company Ltd (three flying boats), the Daimler Airway (five aircraft), Handley Page Transport Ltd (three aircraft) and the Instone Air Line Ltd (two aircraft). 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 not being interested in serving what they regarded as the 'Provinces'.

The first commercial flight was in April 1924, when a daily London-Paris service was opened. Additional services to other European destinations were started throughout the summer. The first new airliner was commissioned by Imperial Airways in November 1924. In the first year of operation the company carried 11,395 passengers and 212,380 letters. In April 1925, The Lost World (a recent blockbuster film) was shown to the passengers on the London-Paris route. This was the first time that a film had been screened for passengers on a plane.

Imperial Airways, 1936 Brochure for the airline, illustrated with the first Short Empire flying boat Canopus

The extension of service to the British Empire (Empire Services) was not begun until 1927 when, with the addition of six new aircraft, a service was instituted from Cairo to Basra. but the first service from London for Karachi did not start until 1929 using newly purchased Short S.8 Calcutta flying boats, even then the passengers were transported by train from Paris to the Mediterranean where the Short flying boats were. In February 1931 a weekly service between London and Tanganyika was started as part of the proposed route to Cape Town and in April an experimental London-Australia air mail flight took place; the mail was transferred at the Netherlands East Indies, and took 26 days in total to reach Sydney. The purchase of eight Handley Page HP.42 four-engined airliners boosted the range of services, in 1932 the service to Africa was extended to Cape Town. Typically, services were inaugurated with considerable ceremony and publicity.[2]

In Australia in 1934 Imperial and Qantas (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd) formed Qantas Empire Airways Limited to extended services in Southeast Asia. But it was not until 1937 with the Short Empire flying boats that Imperial could offer a real through service from Southampton to the Empire. The journey to the Cape consisted of flights 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.

Air Mail

Speed Wings Over the World, statue on a portal above the Empire Terminal's main entrance; by Eric Broadbent

In 1934 the Government began negotiations with Imperial Airways to establish a service to carry mail by air on routes served by the airline. Indirectly these negotiations led to the dismissal of Sir Christopher Bullock, the Permanent Secretary of the Air Ministry, who was found by a board of enquiry to have abused his position in seeking a position on the board of the company while these negotiations were in train. The Empire Air Mail Programme began in July 1937, delivering anywhere for 1½ 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. The terminal provided train connections to flying boats at Southampton and to the since closed Croydon Airport. The terminal operated as recently as 1980.

Flown cover carried around the world on PAA Boeing 314 Clippers and Imperial Airways Short S23 flying boats June 24-July 28, 1939 (The Cooper Collections)

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 with Imperial carrying the souvenir mail eastbound over the Foynes, Ireland, to Hong Kong portion of the New York to New York route. Pan American provided service from New York (departing on June 24) to Foynes (via the first flight of Northern FAM 18) and Hong Kong to San Francisco (via FAM 14), while United Airlines carried it on the final leg from San Francisco to New York where it arrived on July 28.

Captain H.W.C. Alger was the first pilot to fly the inaugural air mail flight carrying mail from England to Australia for the first time on The Castor for Imperial Airways' Empires Air Routes, in 1937.


Compared to other operators (Air France, KLM, Lufthansa) it was lagging behind in Europe and it was suggested that all European operations be handed over to its competitor British Airways Ltd (founded in 1935) which had more modern aircraft and better organization. However in November 1939 both Imperial and British Airways Ltd were merged into a new state-owned national carrier: British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). The new carrier adopted the Imperial Speedbird logo, which has evolved into the present British Airways Speedmarque, and the term (Speedbird) continues to be used as BA's call sign.

Related lists


  1. ^ Pirie, G.H. Air Empire: British Imperial Civil Aviation, 1919-39 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009). 243pp. ISBN 978-0-7190-4111-2
  2. ^ Pirie, op. cit.

Additional reading

External links

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