British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) was the British state-owned airline created in 1940 by the merger of Imperial Airways and British Airways Ltd. It continued operating overseas services throughout World War II. After the passing of the Civil Aviation Act of 1946, European and South American services passed to two further state-owned airlines, British European Airways (BEA) and British South American Airways (BSAA). BOAC absorbed BSAA in 1949, but BEA continued to operate British domestic and European routes for the next quarter century. A 1971 Act of Parliament merged BOAC and BEA with effect from 31 March 1974, forming today's British Airways.
On 24 November 1939, BOAC was created by Act of Parliament to become the British state airline, formed from the merger of Imperial Airways and British Airways Ltd. The companies had been operating together since war was declared on 3 September 1939, when their operations were evacuated from the London area to Bristol. On 1 April 1940, BOAC started operations as a single company. Following the Fall of France (22 June 1940), BOAC aircraft kept wartime Britain connected with its colonies and the allied world, often under enemy fire, and initially with desperate shortages of long-range aircraft. During the war, the airline was sometimes loosely referred to as 'British Airways', and aircraft and equipment were marked with combinations of that title and/or the Speedbird symbol and/or the Union Flag.
BOAC inherited Imperial Airways' flying boat services to British colonies in Africa and Asia, but with the wartime loss of the route over Italy and France to Cairo these were replaced by the expatriate 'Horseshoe Route', with Cairo as a hub, and Sydney and Durban as termini. Linking Britain to the Horseshoe Route taxed the resources of BOAC. Although Spain denied access, Portugal welcomed BOAC's civilian aircraft at Lisbon. However, the Mediterranean route from Lisbon or Gibraltar to Egypt via Malta risked enemy attack, so the long West Africa route had to be employed (over-water via Lisbon, Bathurst, Freetown, Lagos), then by landplane to Khartoum on the Horseshoe Route. The Empire routes had contained landplane sectors, but the Armstrong Whitworth Ensign and de Havilland Albatross ordered to replace the Handley Page HP.42 'Heracles' biplanes had proved disappointing, leaving the Short Empire flying boats as the backbone of the wartime fleet. (Only a handful of these had long range tanks but many were eventually upgraded with larger tankage and operated at overload weights).
The Empire flying-boats were at their limit on the 1,900 mile Lisbon-Bathurst sector. Refuelling at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands was permitted by Spain for some Empire flying-boat flights in 1940 and 1941. In 1941 longer range Consolidated Catalinas, Boeing 314As (and later converted Short Sunderlands) were introduced to guarantee non-stop Lisbon to Bathurst sectors (thus eliminating the need to refuel at Las Palmas). BOAC's flying-boat base for Britain was shifted from Southampton to Poole, Dorset, but many flights used Foynes in Éire (Ireland), reached by shuttle flight from Whitchurch. Use of Foynes reduced the chance of enemy interception or friendly fire incidents over the English Channel. BOAC had large bases at Durban, Asmara, Alexandria and a pilots' school at Soroti, Uganda.
Experimental flights had been made across the North Atlantic pre-war by Imperial Airways Empire flying-boats with improved fuel capacity, some using in flight refuelling, culminating in a series of mail/courier flights made by BOAC's Clare and Clyde to La Guardia in camouflage during the Battle of Britain. These were BOAC's first New York services. In 1941, BOAC was tasked with operating a 'Return Ferry Service' from Prestwick to Montreal to reposition ferry pilots who had flown American-built bombers from Canada, and they were provided with RAF Consolidated Liberators with a very basic passenger conversion. This was the first sustained North Atlantic landplane service. By September 1944 BOAC had made 1,000 transatlantic crossings.
In late 1942, the new hard-surface airport at Lisbon permitted the use of civil registered Liberators to North and West Africa and Egypt. Arguably, BOAC's most famous wartime route was the 'Ball-bearing Run' from Leuchars to Stockholm (Bromma) in neutral Sweden. Initially flown with Lockheed 14s and Lockheed Hudson transports, the unsuitable Armstrong Whitworth Whitley "civilianised" bombers were also used between 9 August and 24 October 1942 ("Civilianised" meant that all the armaments and unnecessary guns and turrets had been removed, a legal requirement for operating a commercial civilian service to a neutral country). The much faster civilian registered de Havilland Mosquitoes were introduced by BOAC in 1943. The significance of the ball-bearings is debatable, but these night flights were an important diplomatic gesture of support for neutral Sweden which had two DC-3s shot down on its own service to Britain. Other types used to Sweden included Lockheed Lodestars, Consolidated Liberators, and the sole Curtiss CW-20 (C-46 prototype) which BOAC had purchased; these types had more payload, and some had the range to avoid the German-controlled Skaggerak direct route.
Between 1939 and 1945 6,000 passengers were transported by BOAC between Stockholm and Great Britain.
Early post-war operations
BOAC Avro York freighter operating a scheduled service at Heathrow in 1953
BOAC Short Solent 3 G-AHIN Southampton
served the airline's route from the UK along the Nile to Johannesburg between 1948 and 1950
BOAC DC-4M-4 Argonaut G-ALHS "Astra" at London Airport (Heathrow) in September 1954
The sole C-69C after civilianisation for BOAC as a Lockheed 049E at London Heathrow
At the end of the war, BOAC's fleet consisted of Lockheed Lodestars, lend-lease Douglas DC-3s, Liberators, converted Sunderlands, and the first Avro Lancastrians, Avro Yorks, and Handley Page Haltons. The Short Empire, Short S.26 and Boeing 314A flying boats, plus the AW Ensigns, were due to be withdrawn. The Corporation's aircraft, bases and personnel were scattered around the world, and it took a decade to reorganise it into an efficient unit at Heathrow. In 1943, the Brabazon Committee had laid down a set of civil aircraft transport types for the British aircraft industry to produce, but these were to be several years in coming, and particularly in the case of the tailwheel Avro Tudor, not what BOAC wanted.
Since 1941, the advanced pressurised Lockheed Constellation had been under development, and in 1946 BOAC was permitted to use dollars to purchase an initial fleet of five for the prestigious North Atlantic route (there were no equivalent British types available). Throughout the whole of BOAC's existence, the argument over buying American or (often delayed) British products continued, and Parliament, the press, British manufacturers and the unions accused BOAC management of only wanting American aircraft. Whilst the major world airlines abandoned flying-boats at the end of WWII, BOAC continued with theirs until 1950, and even introduced the new Short Solent on the leisurely Nile route to South Africa. In 1948, the unpressurised Yorks were still operating passenger services as far afield as Nairobi (Kenya), Accra (Gold Coast, later Ghana), Delhi and Calcutta (India), and the type continued to operate freight schedules until late 1957.
After its first six Lockheed 049 Constellations, BOAC had to use some ingenuity to increase its Constellation fleet. In 1947, Aerlínte Éireann in Ireland bought five new Lockheed 749 Constellations, and prepared to launch a transatlantic service with assistance and crew-training from Captains O.P. Jones and J.C. Kelly-Rogers of BOAC. The project was abandoned in February 1948, and BOAC were able to buy the almost new 749s without dollar expenditure four months later. This enabled BOAC to serve Australia with Constellations from 1949. A total of 25 Constellations passed through the BOAC fleet, including 12 749As obtained from Capital Airlines in the mid-1950s, with BOAC's older 049s in part exchange.
BOAC was also permitted to spend dollars on six new Boeing 377 Stratocruisers for its key transatlantic routes from October 1949, offering a double-deck non-stop eastbound service from New York City to London Airport (later Heathrow). However, because of the prevailing westerly winds, the westbound flights needed re-fuelling at Shannon and Gander before reaching New York. Another four Stratocruisers were taken over from a frustrated SAS order and seven were bought secondhand in the mid-1950s. The Handley Page Hermes and Canadair DC-4M Argonaut joined the BOAC fleet between 1949 and 1950, replacing the last of the non-pressurised types on passenger services. When service entry of the Bristol Britannia was delayed in late 1956, BOAC was permitted to purchase ten new Douglas DC-7Cs. These long-range aircraft enabled BOAC to operate non-stop westbound flights from London and Manchester to New York and other US East Coast destinations, in competition with DC-7Cs of Pan American World Airways and Lockheed Super Constellations of Trans World Airlines (TWA). This was the first purchase of aircraft direct from the Douglas Aircraft Company in BOAC's history.
Introduction of jets
1 at Heathrow in 1953
In May 1952 BOAC was the first airline to introduce a passenger jet into airline service. This was the de Havilland Comet which flew via Nairobi to Johannesburg and via the Far East to Tokyo. All Comet 1 aircraft were grounded in April 1954 after four Comets crashed, the second last being a BOAC aircraft at altitude. Examination of the wreckage recovered from the Mediterranean sea-bed and observation of a sample fuselage in a pressurisation test-tank at Farnborough revealed that the repeated pressurisation / depressurisation cycles of airline operation could cause fatigue cracks in the thin aluminium alloy skin of the Comet leading to the skins ripping away explosively at altitude and disintegration of the aircraft.
Later jet airliners including the revised Comet 4 were designed to be fail-safe: in the event of, for example, a skin-failure due to cracking the damage would be localised and not catastrophic. In October 1958 BOAC operated the first transatlantic jet service with the larger and longer-range Comet 4. In the 1950s turbine powered airliners were developing rapidly, and the Comet and the seriously delayed Bristol Britannia were soon rendered obsolescent by the flight of the swept-wing Boeing 367–80 (707 prototype) in 1954.
Revenue Passenger-Kilometres, scheduled flights only, in millions
Source: ICAO Digest of Statistics for 1947–55, IATA World Air Transport Statistics 1960–1971
In 1953 Vickers had started building the swept wing VC-7/V-1000 with Rolls-Royce Conway turbofan engines, but BOAC short-sightedly decided the Britannia and Comet 4 would be adequate for its purposes, and when the military version of the V-1000 was cancelled in 1955 the 75% complete prototype was scrapped. In October 1956 BOAC ordered 15 Boeing 707s with Conway engines (briefly the most economical commercial engine option). They entered service in 1960. (The British airworthiness authorities insisted on tail-fin modifications which Boeing made available to all 707 users.) Sir Giles Guthrie, who took charge of BOAC in 1964, preferred Boeing aircraft for economic reasons, and indeed BOAC began turning a profit in the late 1960s. After a row in Parliament the government instructed BOAC to purchase 17 Vickers VC10 aircraft from a 30-aircraft order which Guthrie had cancelled. The Standard VC10 had higher operating costs than the 707, largely due to BOAC's requirement at the design stage for the aircraft to have excellent hot and high performance for Commonwealth (African/Asian) routes, but the larger Super VC10 was a success with American passengers on the North Atlantic and was profitable.
The next major order of Boeing aircraft was for 11 747-100s. On 22 April 1970 BOAC received its first 747, but the aircraft did not enter commercial service until 14 April 1971 due to BOAC's inability to settle crewing and pay rates with the British Air Line Pilots' Association. BOAC's successor British Airways later became the largest Boeing customer outside North America.
Merger with BEA
The first attempt at a merger of BOAC with BEA arose in 1953 out of inconclusive attempts between the two airlines to negotiate air rights through the British colony of Cyprus. The Chairman of BOAC, Miles Thomas, was in favour of the idea as a potential solution to a disagreement between the two airlines as to which should serve the increasingly important oil regions of the Middle East, and he had backing for his proposal from the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, Rab Butler. However, opposition from the Treasury blocked the idea, and an agreement was reached instead to allow BEA to serve Ankara in Turkey, and in return to leave all routes east and south of Cyprus to BOAC. Paradoxically, through its effective control of Cyprus Airways, BEA was able to continue to serve destinations ceded to BOAC, including Beirut and Cairo by using Cyprus Airways as its proxy.
However, it was only following the recommendations of the 1969 Edwards Report that a new British Airways Board, combining BEA and BOAC, was constituted on 1 April 1972. This event coincided with the establishment of the CAA, the UK's new, unified regulator for the air transport industry.
BOAC would have become one of the first operators of the Concorde, had it not merged to become British Airways. BA's Concordes carried registrations of G-BOAA to G-BOAG. The first Concorde delivered to British Airways was registered G-BOAC.
Other BOAC companies
BOAC Associated Companies
BOAC held shareholdings in a number of other airlines operating in several parts of the British Commonwealth through a subsidiary, BOAC Associated Companies. These included Aden Airways, Bahamas Airways, Ghana Airways, Gulf Aviation and Nigeria Airways. In the late 1950s BOAC Associated Companies was declared to have holdings in eighteen companies.
In 1962, BOAC and Cunard formed BOAC-Cunard Ltd to operate scheduled services to North America, the Caribbean and South America. BOAC provided 70% of the new company's capital and eight Boeing 707s. The independent Cunard Eagle Airways, of which Cunard held a 60% shareholding, provided two more 707s.
BOAC-Cunard leased any spare capacity to BOAC which could use it to supplement the main BOAC fleet at peak demand, and in a reciprocal arrangement BOAC would provide capacity to BOAC-Cunard on some operations when it had a shortfall.
The effect of this arrangement was to remove competition on western routes. The operation was dissolved in 1966.
The following is an incomplete list of destinations historically served by BOAC:
BOAC Boeing Stratocruiser G-AKGJ "RMA Cambria" at Manchester in June 1954 en route to New York
BOAC Britannia 312 landing at Manchester on a transatlantic flight in 1959
London Heathrow Airport in 1965. Nearest the camera are two BOAC aircraft – a Vickers VC10
(with the high tail) and a Boeing 707.
Dates above are for service entry with BOAC or its forerunners.
Incidents and accident
- On 21 December 1939, Lockheed 14-WF62 Super Electra G-AFYU ditched in the Mediterranean Sea off Malta, killing five of 11 on board.
- On 23 May 1940, Armstrong Whitworth Ensign G-ADSZ Elysean stalled and crashed at Merville Airport after the crew diverted to avoid an attack by a German fighter.
- On 23 May 1940, Armstrong Whitworth Ensign G-ADTA Euryalus was damaged during a crash at RAF Lympne. It had been one of six that escaped a Luftwaffe raid on Merville Airfield, France. The intended destination was Croydon. Approaching the English coast, first she lost her port inner engine and the pilot diverted to RAF Hawkinge. Her starboard inner engine also had to be shut down shortly afterwards. The pilot changed course for Lympne. On landing, the starboard undercarriage failed to lock down, causing the wing to drag on the ground and the aircraft to go through a fence. Euryalus was flown to RAF Hamble in June, but it was decided to cannibalise her to repair G-ADSU Euterpe which had been damaged in an accident at Bonnington on 15 December 1939. Euryalus was scrapped in September 1942.
- In February 1941, Short Empire G-AFCX Clyde was wrecked in a gale at Lisbon, Portugal.
- On 1 September 1941, Consolidated Liberator C I AM915 crashed into a hill outside Campbeltown, Argyll after a flight from Montreal, killing all four crew and six passengers.
- On 29 December 1941, Short Empire G-ADUX Cassiopeia crashed after striking debris on takeoff from Sabang, Indonesia, killing four.
- On 30 January 1942, Short Empire G-AEUH Corio was shot down by seven Japanese fighter aircraft and crashed off West Timor, killing 13 of 18 on board. The aircraft was owned by BOAC, but was operated by Qantas.
- On 15 February 1942, Consolidated Liberator C I G-AGDR was shot down by a Royal Air Force Supermarine Spitfire in error over the English Channel near Plymouth, England. All five crew and four passengers (including Townsend Griffiss) were killed.
- On 28 February 1942, Short Empire G-AETZ was shot down over the Pacific between Java and Broome by a Japanese fighter, killing all 20 on board. This crash is the worst ever accident involving the Short Empire.
- On 22 March 1942, Short Empire G-AEUF struck debris while landing and crashed at Port Darwin, Australia, killing two of 11 passengers on board; all four crew survived.
- On 15 February 1943, de Havilland Flamingo G-AFYE crashed at Asmara, Eritrea after going into a vertical dive from 800 feet (240 m) during a test flight, killing both pilots.
- On 4 April 1943, Lockheed C-56 (G-AGEJ) was shot down by a German fighter (Do 217 or Me 110) and crashed 32 mi off Skagen, Denmark, killing all seven on board.
- On 1 June 1943, Douglas DC-3 G-AGBB operating as Flight 777 was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by German Junkers Ju 88s. All seventeen crew and passengers were killed, including actor Leslie Howard. There has been widespread speculation that the downing was an attempt to kill British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
- On 28 July 1943, Short Sunderland III G-AGES, crashed into a hill in Dingle Peninsula near the village of Brandon in Ireland on a flight from Lisbon to Foynes. The crash killed 10 passengers and crew out of 25 on board.
- On 17 August 1943, de Havilland Mosquito G-AGGF crashed near Glenshee, Perthshire.
- On 25 October 1943, de Havilland Mosquito G-AGGG crashed near RAF Leuchars.
- On 17 December 1943, Lockheed Lodestar G-AGDE crashed into the sea off Leuchars, Scotland on a flight from RAF Leuchars to Stockholm-Bromma Airport. The accident killed all 10 passengers and crew on board the flight.
- On 3 January 1944, de Havilland Mosquito G-AGGD stalled on landing at Såtenäs, Sweden and was written off.
- On 19 August 1944, de Havilland Mosquito G-AGKP crashed into the North Sea off Leuchars, Fife. All three people on board were killed.
- On 29 August 1944, Lockheed C-60A G-AGIH crashed after striking the top of Mount Kinnekulle near Lidköping, Sweden, killing 11 of 15 on board.
- On 29 August 1944, de Havilland Mosquito G-AGKR disappeared on a flight from Gothenburg, Sweden to RAF Leuchars with the loss of both crew.
- On 21 February 1946, Consolidated Liberator II G-AGEM crashed on landing at Charlottetown, Canada due to icing, killing one of 14 on board.
- On 23 March 1946, Avro Lancastrian I G-AGLX disappeared between Sri Lanka and the Cocos Islands with ten on board. The aircraft was owned by BOAC, but was operated by Qantas.
- On 14 August 1946, Douglas Dakota III G-AGHT crashed at Luqa Airport due to fuel starvation after the auxiliary fuel tanks were selected by mistake, killing one of five on board.
- On 11 January 1947, Douglas Dakota III G-AGJX crashed at Stowting, Kent whilst on an international scheduled flight from Heathrow to West Africa via Bordeaux. A number of attempts were made to divert in poor weather. The aircraft crashed whilst attempting to land at Lympne. Eight people were killed and eight injured of the five crew and 11 passengers.
- On 16 July 1947, Avro York C.1 G-AGNR crashed at Az-Zubair, Iran due to pilot and ATC errors, killing all six crew; all 12 passengers survived.
- On 23 August 1947, Short Sandringham 5 G-AHZB crashed on landing at Bahrain Marine Air Base due to the pilot using an incorrect procedure for landing and takeoff, killing ten of 26 on board.
- On 19 November 1947, Short Sunderland 3 G-AGHW struck high ground at Brightstone Down in poor visibility due to navigation errors by the pilot, killing one of four on board.
- On 14 July 1948, Douglas Dakota IV G-AGKN crashed into cloud-covered cliffs near Toulon, France, killing all six on board.
- On 26 May 1952, Handley Page Hermes IV G-ALDN crashed 71 mi from Atar, Mauritania due to navigation and pilot errors; all on board survived, but the first officer died five days later.
- On 2 May 1953, Flight 783, a de Havilland Comet I G-ALYV crashed during a storm near Calcutta, India after a structural failure of the airframe, when the flight took off from Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport on a flight to Delhi. The crash killed all 43 passengers and crew on board the Comet aircraft.
- On 10 January 1954, Flight 781, a de Havilland Comet I G-ALYP took off from Ciampino Airport in Rome, Italy en route to Heathrow Airport in London, England when it suffered an explosive decompression at altitude and crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, killing everyone on board.
- On 13 March 1954, a Lockheed L-749A Constellation G-ALAM crashed at Kallang Airport after a flight from Jakarta, killing 33 people out of 40 passengers and crew on board.
- On 8 April 1954, de Havilland Comet I G-ALYY was operating as South African Airways Flight 201 when it suffered an explosive decompression at altitude and crashed into the Mediterranean near Naples, Italy. The aircraft was operating for South African on behalf of BOAC.
- Early on Christmas Day 25 December 1954, at 0330 hours, a BOAC Boeing 377 Stratocruiser G-ALSA crashed on landing at Prestwick, killing 28 of the 36 passengers and crew on board. The aircraft had been en route from London to New York City, when, on approach to Prestwick, it entered a steep descent before levelling-out too late and too severely, hitting the ground short of the runway. A number of factors have been attributed to the cause of the crash, including pilot fatigue (the captain was well over his duty limit due to the aircraft being delayed), the landing lights at Prestwick being out of action due to repair and the First Officer either not hearing a command from the Captain for landing lights (which may have helped judge the low cloud base) or mistakenly hitting the flaps, causing the aircraft to stall.
- On 21 September 1955, a Canadair Argonaut G-ALHL crashed on its fourth attempt to land at Tripoli International Airport after a flight from London and Rome. The accident killed 15 passengers and crew out of 47 people on board.
- On 24 June 1956, Canadair Argonaut G-ALHE crashed after taking off from Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport on a flight to Tripoli International Airport. The crash killed 32 passengers and crew out of 45 people on board.
- On 24 December 1958, a Bristol Britannia 312 G-AOVD crashed during a test flight near Winkton, England, killing nine of 12 on board.
- On 5 March 1966, Flight 911, a Boeing 707 G-APFE, crashed on Mount Fuji after experiencing clear air turbulence. All 124 on board died.
- On 9 April 1968, Flight 712 a Rolls-Royce Conway engine exploded and broke off the wing of a Boeing 707 G-ARWE ("Whisky-Echo") following take-off from London Heathrow Airport causing an uncontained wing fire. A successful emergency landing at Heathrow was carried out, but a stewardess and four passengers were killed and 38 other passengers were injured as the fire spread during evacuation. The stewardess, Barbara Jane Harrison, was awarded a posthumous George Cross for her part in helping passengers escape.
- On 9 September 1970, Flight 775, operated by Vickers VC10 G-ASGN, became the first British plane to be hijacked as part of the Dawson's Field hijackings.
- On 23 July 1971, BOAC Flight 045, from London to Khartoum, was forced by military jets to land at Benghazi at 3.30 am. New Sudanese President Babiker El Nur, instated a week previously in a political coup, was instructed to leave the aircraft, otherwise the fighter planes would bomb it. President Babiker El Nur quickly agreed to leave in order to save the lives of the other passengers. He was quickly taken off the aircraft along with his companion, Major Farouk Osman Hamadullah, to be held at gunpoint. Despite the best efforts to save the President and his staff-member, both men were ultimately executed.
- On 3 August 1971, BOAC Flight 600, operated by a Boeing 747 from Montreal to London, was diverted to Denver, Colorado due to a bomb hoax inspired by a TV film Doomsday Flight. The aircraft travelled 3,200 miles out of its way to land in Denver. The supposed bomb was thought to be triggered by flying below 5,000 feet. Denver's airport was above 5,000 feet.
In popular culture
The Beatles song Back in the U.S.S.R. references a flight from Miami Beach aboard a BOAC aircraft.
- Miles Thomas, Chairman of BOAC at the time of the 1950s Comet crashes.
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