March 2019

The beginnings of aviation are shrouded in a romantic haze of Icarus-like achievements, and at the same time spectacular failures and catastrophes.

In 1938, on the fledgling Imperial Airways, it took four long days in a Short Empire flying boat from Southampton to South Africa, with 24 stops en route in France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika and Portuguese East Africa. Passengers had to endure airsickness, technical failures, empty fuel tanks and even crash landings. Fatal accidents occurred with startling regularity. In its 15 years of operation, Imperial Airways suffered 20 of them, including two ditchings in the English Channel, a sinking off the coast of northern Italy, a collision with a radio mast in Flanders and a crash in Belgium following an in-flight fire.

The trials and tribulations of early air travel are the subject of a new illustra-ted book, Taking to the Air. The author, Lily Ford, pinpoints the catalysts that spurred us upwards: the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic by Captains Al-cock and Brown in a Vickers Vimy bomber; the British government’s flogging of excess First World War RAF aircraft, for “£5 a plane at Hendon, cheaper by half than the mechanic’s charge for its certificate of airworthiness”; and the solo transatlantic crossing from New York to Paris by Charles Lindbergh, who “for a few months… became the most famous man in the world”.

To find out more, read our article with several excerpts from this fascinating book on the beginnings of passenger aviation. Enjoy your reading.

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