Civil aviation


Would you?

Croydon Airport booking hall, summer 1935

It's the summer of 1935.((Late July or early August 1935, judging from the August Popular Flying on display. I can't quite make out the newspaper headlines but the themes (British troops? American naval policy?) could fit late July.)) You're at Croydon Airport, waiting to board an Imperial Airways flight to Paris. But you were in a rush this morning, and you forgot to bring something to read. According to your Bradshaw's it's a flight of 2 hours and 15 minutes, and you don't particularly want to spend it looking out the window at the ground, so far beneath your feet. No matter, Croydon is fully up to date and has a news kiosk in the booking hall. You wander over to peruse the selection on offer, and this is what you see:

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Nearly four years ago, I wrote a post about a software project Tim Sherratt and I were working on for Heritage of the Air called hota-time. Briefly, the idea was that hota-time would extract and then plot travel times between London and Sydney mentioned in Trove Newspaper headlines, as a quantitative way to gauge the qualitative impact that aviation had on Australian perceptions of distance -- or, to be more precise, travel time. We (Tim) wrote the code, proved the concept to our satisfaction, uploaded the project, and then didn't get around to writing it up for publication. Which we are now remedying… nearly four years later! (The writing, that is, not yet the publication.)

As part of this process, we've been cleaning up the data and trying some different visualisations. Here's one of the more interesting plots.

X-Y scatter plot, with X axis = Year (from 1880 to 1950s), Y axis = Days (travel time) between Sydney and London. Indigo data (sea travel, predicted travel times) dominates from about 1880s to 1915, between 20 and 30 days without much trend. Dark red data (sea travel, actual travel times) is not common, mostly sits around 30 days. Yellow (air travel, actual travel times) shows up in the 1930s, declining from around 15-22 to 5 or less by the late 1940s. By far the most common data is teal (air travel, predicted), which thickly clusters from 1917 onwards, starting at around 5-12 days and declining to well under 5 by the early 1950s

This is an updated version of the first plot in the old post, but instead of just lumping all the data together, it is separated out by colour:

  • dark red: sea, present
  • indigo: sea, future
  • yellow: air, present
  • teal: air, future

That is, present travel times are those reported as actually having been achieved, whereas future travel times have not yet been achieved (usually because they are medium or long-term forecasts, but shorter-term schedule changes fall into this category too). So dark red + yellow tracks actual travel times between London and Sydney, while indigo + teal tracks predicted travel times. Or dark red + indigo tracks sea travel, while yellow + teal tracks air travel.

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Victory Through Air Power

A few weeks back I previewed my cohosting of the 1943 Disney film Victory Through Air Power for History at the Movies Australia and Aviation Cultures Mk.V. Both the conference and the livetweeting went splendidly (I think!), but I didn't get around to lazyblogging the latter... until now.

The evening began with the half-hour short documentary Flight Plan, made in 1950 by the Australian Department of Civil Aviation, which you can watch here.

[tweet id="1375357664641773573" conversation=false]Conference jokes and airline jokes -- together at last. Yes, this is going to be a good night in...

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Wreck of the Hindenburg

Alexander Rose. Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World. New York: Random House, 2020.

The two men of the title both led a great aviation enterprise. Both dreamed of spanning the world with their passenger aircraft. Both struggled at times, and prospered at others. But one was outlived by his company, while the other died knowing that his life's work had been reduced to ashes. The former was Juan Terry Trippe, the head of Pan American Airways (PAA; better known as Pan Am) from 1927 to 1968; the latter, Hugo Eckener, who ran Luftschiffbau Zeppelin and DELAG, the Zeppelin airline, after the death of Count Zeppelin in 1917.1 Both wanted to span the world's continents and oceans by air: Trippe championed aeroplanes as the best way to do this; Eckener, obviously, airships. We all know how that turned out, but well-known stories are often worth revisiting because, well, you don't always know what you thought you did. And so Alexander Rose -- who is perhaps best known as the author of Washington's Spies, which was turned into a successful television series, but wrote his PhD on British air defence policy in the 1930s -- has written a thoroughly researched, fully referenced, hugely informative and compellingly readable account of the struggle for the future of civil aviation.
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  1. Citing a newspaper obituary, Wikipedia claims that Trippe got his first name from 'the Venezuelan wife of his great uncle'. But according to Rose he was actually named after his mother's stepfather, Juan Terry, a Venezuelan millionaire. Trippe hated his name and his non-WASP family connections; the fact that PAA's empire began in Latin America was a coincidence. []


Sea, Land and Air (Melbourne), February 1920, 765

Although the war had been over for more than a year by this point, in 1920 the editor of Sea, Land and Air issued a rather hysterical warning of the danger of foreign pilots being allowed to fly in Australia.1

The passenger-'plane of to-day may be the bomber of to-morrow. It depends on the man who owns the machine, and the one who flies it, upon whom she will drop her bombs. If he be an Australian it is pretty certain that he will not let them fall on his own countrymen. At present there is nothing to say that the man who is learning to fly here, or the man who is going to own the machine for him to fly, shall be even a British subject. In certain parts of Australia it is reasonably probable that he will be a German, for instance.

Australia is quite big enough to offer concealment while the alien airmen replaces passenger seats by bomb-racks. Unless there is control of flying, every possible enemy of Australia can be an aircraft-owner here.2

Hence the need for 'Regulations that insist that no aliens may either fly or own aircraft in Australia'.3 What's going on here?
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  1. Sea, Land and Air has been digitised in its (near?-)entirety and is freely available from American Radio History, which credits the National Library of Australia for the scans although they're evidently not in Trove. []
  2. Sea, Land and Air (Melbourne), February 1920, 732. []
  3. Ibid. []

Eric Thake, Vimy flight stamp, 1969

Michael Molkentin. Anzac and Aviator: The Remarkable Story of Sir Ross Smith and the 1919 England to Australia Air Race. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2019.

[Disclaimer: Michael is a friend of mine. But I wouldn't have agreed to review his book if I wasn't confident, based on everything else that he has published, that it was going to be excellent. And I was right.]

Anzac and Aviator is a new biography of Ross Smith, the first Australian aviation pioneer to find global fame.1 This fame rested largely on just one flight in 1919, but it was a truly epic one: the first flight from Britain to Australia. At around 18,000 km, it was the longest to date (albeit carried out in stages, unavoidably). Despite being accompanied by his older brother (and fellow pilot), Keith, Ross -- it's hard to avoid using first names in this review! -- was the driving force behind the flight. With the centenary of the flight this December almost upon us, this biography is timely.
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  1. With the possible exception of Harry Hawker. []


Australian Air Squadrons Fund leaflet

This is the cover of a leaflet produced in 1916 by the Australian Air Squadrons Fund, the Australian arm of the Imperial Air Flotilla which raised funds around the British Empire for presentation 'battle-planes' for the Royal Flying Corps. My interest in it is not so much for its own sake, though I am struck by the slightly confusing promise that this aircraft 'will carry your name and message of sympathy and support over the heads of our troops into the enemy capitals', as well as the sadly forlorn hope that 'This is, please God, the only war in which we will be able to take part'. Rather, it's here as an example of the aviation records to be found in the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP), which is being digitised and made freely available through Trove.
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Popular Mechanics, October 1922

John Ptak asks of this cover from the October 1922 issue Popular Mechanics: 'why?' It's a good question. The accompanying article doesn't really help:

Consider yourself aboard a giant airplane whose whirring propellers rapidly drive from view faint objects on the earth far below. As towns and hamlets recede in the distance you realize that you are fast approaching the one that is your destination, for the captain is giving orders to make ready for the discharge of passengers at one of the intermediate points along the route of the great air liner. The crew unfold from the capacious hold a small air boat, and lower it dangling from the huge hull by its special tackle. You and several fellow passengers climb down into the seats behind the pilot and buckle yourselves in as the big ship slows its engines to enable the little wings to catch the air. With a quick movement of a lever your steersman unleashes the small craft, which begins its motorless flight and gracefully glides downward to a safe landing, while the mother plane speeds out of sight.

It turns out that this was an idea which cropped up repeatedly in the first few decades of flight. But such 'aerial trains' never quite came to commercial fruition. Which suggests that yes, you could indeed consider yourself leaving an airliner in mid-air; but you probably wouldn't want to.
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[Cross-posted at Airplay.]

Australia is a long way from anywhere, even from itself. It nearly always takes a long time to get to where you want to go. Historian Geoffrey Blainey famously popularised the idea that this remoteness has shaped Australian history and culture in the title of his 1966 book, The Tyranny of Distance. The longing of European Australians, especially, for closer connections to Europe and America found an expression in an interest in technological solutions, as in a speech given by J. L. Rentoul in 1918:

We are now living in a day when fast ocean greyhounds have broken the tyranny of distance; when the wireless has annihilated space.

A couple of years later, Rentoul might have mentioned the aeroplane: the first flight from England to Australia was completed by Keith and Ross Smith in their Vickers Vimy in December 1919. They took 28 days in total, which admittedly may not seem impressive to Australians today, when we can get to London in under 24 hours. But when compared with 45 days by steamship (Rentoul's 'fast ocean greyhounds'), that was a huge leap forward. And it was only the start. In the 1920s and 1930s, the England-Australia route became the ultimate venture for pioneers who wanted to test themselves and their machines against one of the longest air routes in the world: Alan Cobham, Bert Hinkler, Amy Johnson. In 1938, you could board a Qantas airliner in Sydney and be in England 10 days later; another fifteen years on, that was down to 3.5 days. The introduction of jets in 1965 brought the travel time down even further.
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The Sphere, 19 September 1925, 24-25

Following a thread provided by John Ptak on Twitter led me to the above image of 'The great air-liner of the future', published in The Sphere (London), 19 September 1925, 24-25. I agree with John: it's an unusually fabulous image of the future of aviation, and I'd add unusually optimistic for Britain (though not uniquely so).
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