Week long flights to India all the rage 80 years ago
Almost 80 years ago, the first flight to India took off from Croydon Airport.
In the glamorous days of early air travel, it took seven days to complete the flight.
The aircraft had to make more than 20 stops, travelling through France, Italy, Greece, Libya, Gaza, Iraq and then on to India.
The few able to afford the luxury of flight paid £130 for the privilege of a single fare – more than £5,000 in today’s money.
In January 1927 a service had been opened between Cairo and Basra, in the Persian Gulf.
To solve the problem of navigating the trackless desert between Palestine and Baghdad, a furrow, several hundred miles long, was ploughed in the sand.
Links were added at the ends of the route and on March 30, 1929 the Short Calcutta (the first of Imperial Airways’ flying boats to be built in 1928) left Croydon for Karachi, India, on the first through air service between the United Kingdom and India. Later that year the route was extended to Jodhpur and Delhi.
The Basle-Genoa leg of the journey had to be done by train, as Italy refused to let British aircraft enter Mussolini’s fascist Italy through France.
The flights were managed by Imperial Airways, a merger of the big air companies in 1924. The company was tasked with pioneering a chain of long distance intercontinental air services linking the countries of the British Empire with the United Kingdom.
The first of these routes was to the jewel in the Empire’s crown: India.
Eastbound flights left Croydon every Saturday with the westbound flights from Karachi taking off on Sundays.
The journey took just over seven days. Today British Airways flies to six destinations in India in under a day, with 48 flights a week.
Three different types of aircraft were used on various stages, an Armstrong Whitworth Argosy, a Short Calcutta and a Handley Page Hercules.
Money was made in transporting mail. It cost 6d to post a letter to India. When other colonial routes were opened, to South and East Africa, all mail was charged at 1½d per ounce.
At first, the planes carried mail from the countries they flew through, but this was soon extended to every country in the Postal Union, which included Iraq, Ceylon and Canada.
The first flights to India carried about 300lbs of mail, but this soon increased to an average of 550lbs. In the first six months of the service, 11,893lbs of mail was carried to the East.
After six months and 26 flights, the Post Office proudly announced that the service had been delayed only three times – twice because of flooding and a storm and once when the wingtip of a de Havilland plane caught fire and it was forced to make an emergency landing at Jask near Iran.
The plane was so bogged down in a marsh that it could not take off, even with the spare engine that was rushed out to it on a relief plane from Baghdad.
In 1937 surveys for other Imperial Airways routes were carried out. By the end of the year the company had commissioned the world’s largest fleet of "flying boats".
They had made 10 successful crossings of the North Atlantic between Botwood, Newfoundland, and Foynes, Eire, and took the first step in opening the longest air route in the world, an awe-inspiring 15,000 miles from England to New Zealand.
Their aircraft had carried more than 70,000 passengers and flown more than 6,000,000 miles, were the envy of other countries and a source of pride in Britain.
Did you or anyone you know fly out of Croydon Airport in a bygone era? If you have memories to share, call the Heritage desk on 0208 330 9559.