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  • Cultures and Caricatures of British Imperial Aviation: Passengers, pilots, publicity by Gordon Pirie
  • Lucy Budd
Cultures and Caricatures of British Imperial Aviation: Passengers, pilots, publicity By Gordon Pirie. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.

In this highly engaging and helpfully illustrated account of British Imperial aviation in the 1930s, Gordon Pirie builds on his near-unparalleled knowledge of inter-war British air services to expertly interweave an engrossing narrative history with a critical analysis of the academic and cultural significance of Britain’s growing aerial aspirations and influence. The title is the second of Pirie’s books on British Imperial aviation and, like the first, it forms part of Manchester University Press’ Studies in Imperialism series, which is edited by John MacKenzie. While, however, Air Empire: British Imperial civil aviation, 1919–1939 (2009) focused on the pioneering years of civil aviation and the formation of Britain’s new “chosen instrument” of imperial development, Imperial Airways, in April 1924, Cultures and Caricatures explores events that occurred between 1928 and 1938, at a time when Britain sought to reinforce its overseas territorial influence through the medium of flight by dramatically expanding the scope of Imperial Airways’ air services around the world. The rapid development of this new international aerial network was considered vital to maintaining contact with overseas colonies and promoting Britain’s technical prowess, and Pirie adeptly charts how the inauguration of new destinations into Imperial Airways’ portfolio came to embody notions of modernity and British imperialism both at home and abroad.

The eleven chapters in the book are divided into three parts. Part I contains three chapters which concern “private flying.” Here, the focus is not on commercial services but on the early aviators who flew not only for sport and recreation but also to penetrate previously remote regions of Africa by air and pave the way for the start of scheduled civilian flights. Crucially, not only does Pirie alight on the exploits of famous pilots like Alan Cobham (later Sir Alan Cobham), who flew round Africa in an effort to identify suitable landing grounds and engender a stronger sense of “airmindedness” among British politicians and the public, and Australian aviator Charles Kingford-Smith, but also identifies the important but often unreported contribution made by female pilots including Freda Thompson, Lores Bonney and Jean Batten to the history of flight.

In addition to undertaking pioneering flights, speed, altitude and endurance were all key features of individual aviators’ quests for fame and aerial supremacy. Chapter 3 critically discusses the important contribution sponsored aerial races, aviation meets and long-distance flights to the farthest outposts of Empire made to public and political perceptions of air travel. Here, Pirie details the role of the print and (to a lesser extent) broadcast media in reporting on (and thereby raising awareness of, engendering enthusiasm for, and encouraging support for) aviation.

The three chapters in Part II switch their focus from private flying to commercial air services and, in particular, the passengers and pilots who flew on them. As the 1930s progressed, colonial administrators and high-ranking military and Government officials increasingly shared the airways with affluent civilian passengers. These valuable customers, as Pirie details, were consequently afforded every care, consideration and in-flight comfort available. Yet owing to the restricted range and limited speed of the early aircraft, pilots had to frequently land to rest and refuel their aircraft. Central to Imperial’s image as a safe, efficient, and dependable modern organisation that embodied the very best of Britain, were its pilots, navigators, cabin crew and ground personnel. These individuals were tasked with transporting “national” values of integrity, resilience and authority to the four corners of Britain’s empire and were often depicted in Imperial Airways’ marketing and publicity material.

Accordingly, the final three chapters in part III of the book explore the textual and graphic representations of Imperial aviation. Here, the role of Lee-Elliott’s famous “speedbird” logo (which remains the radio callsign for all British Airways’ international flights) in unifying the brand and projecting its core values is identified and discussed as are the role of inter-war flying books and advertising and publicity material in raising consumer awareness of and...

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