Air empire

British imperial civil aviation, 1919–39

By Gordon Pirie

Air empire

Book Information

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN: 978-0-7190-4111-2
  • Pages: 264
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Price: £80.00
  • Published Date: November 2009
  • BIC Category: Aerospace & Air Transport Industries, Humanities / Colonialism & imperialism, United Kingdom, Great Britain, European history, Colonialism & imperialism, TRANSPORTATION / Aviation / Commercial, HISTORY / Europe / Great Britain, History
  • Series: Studies in Imperialism


Air empire is a fresh study of civil aviation as a tool of late British imperialism.

The first pioneering flights across the British empire in 1919-20 were flag-waving adventures that recreated an era of plucky British maritime exploration and conquest.

Britain's development of international air routes and services was approved, organised and celebrated largely in London; there was some resistance in and beyond the subordinate colonies and dominions. Negotiating the financing and geopolitics of regular commercial air service delayed its inception until the 1930s. Technological, managerial and logistical problems also meant that Britain was slow into the air and slow in the air. Propaganda concealed underperformance and criticism.

The study uses archival sources, biographies, industry magazines and newspapers to chronicle the disputed progress toward air empire. The rhetoric behind imperial air service offers a glimpse of late imperial hopes, fears, attitudes and style. Empire air service had emotional appeal and symbolic value, but disappointed in practice.


"The field of academic air transport historical geography may be a very small one but Air Empire sets dauntingly high standards of scholarship and accessible, elegant prose".
Brian Graham Journal of Transport Geography, 18 (2010) p. 761

" . a thoroughly researched and well-written and illustrated volume which will appeal to a wide audience. Pirie convincingly recounts the tortuous path which led to the formation of imperial civil aviation, and the effect this had - not necessarily on Empire, but on the imaginations of Empire within Britain."
Federico Caprotti, African Affairs, 110 (2011), pp. 148-149.

"[a] hugely informative and entertaining study".
Stephen Constantine, Twentieth Century British History, 2010.

"He skilfully interweaves a narrative history of imperial civil aviation with a fascinating exploration of less obvious topics" Journal of Historical Geography

"a triumph for its author, and for the Studies in Imperialism series ..."
Prof Ashley Jackson, review in Journal of Southern African Studies, 36 (4) (2010) p. 966


1. Introduction
2. Ideas and initiatives
3. Empire airway pioneering
4. Conferring and agitating
5. Organising Empire civil aviation
6. Route reconnaissance
7. Propagating Empire aviation
8. Trunk route development
9. Route organisation
10. Eastern crescent
11.African arc
12. Arguing about Imperial Airways
13. Reconfiguring Empire aviation
14. Transformation
15. Conclusion


Gordon Pirie is Professor of Geography at the University of the Western Cape in greater Cape Town, South Africa

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