Robin’s Column


This is something I hope to be able to publish from time to time.

I was around at Robin Johnson’s place earlier today and the latest issue of a magazine about airlines and airlines distracted us and we ended up talking about Sikorsky flying boats and Pan American Airways, among other things. Robin’s career included working for airlines including BOAC and TAA, and as a travel agent, and he has many fascinating stories to tell about air travel from the 1950s. It cannot have escaped the attention of visitors to this site that I am also interested in civil aviation, as a historian and a modeller, and so Robin and I often find ourselves chatting about the past and present or air travel.

Today Robin mentioned that he had thought about writing some short articles about his experiences and thoughts about air transport and I told him that, in this site, I have a place where they could be published to reach a modest audience. He agreed to give it a go and later in the evening I found the two short articles that follow waiting for me in my email in-box. I’m looking forward to reading many more and publishing them here for you to read too.


When my father was posted from Britain to Kingston, Jamaica in 1951, my parents took my two younger siblings with them. I was by this time at an English boarding school and it was thought I would be better off staying there, and staying with relatives for the holidays.  BOAC had recently taken over the Caribbean route from British South American Airways and offered a deal for unaccompanied minors, and my parents booked me a return flight to Jamaica later that year.

At the time I had only flown a few hours on local flights, but this was 24 hours or so aboard a Lockheed Constellation, and I was thrilled. My London-based aunt collected me off the school train and took me to the Airways Terminal early that morning.  This was before the Central Area of the airport was built, and the airlines operated from huts and tents along the Bath Road, later termed the North Side.  Checking-in was performed in town at the Terminal – specially  built by Imperial Airways before the war by the railway linking to Southampton for flying-boats – no longer in use by this time – and we were loaded in an airline bus to go to the airport.  No duty-free shops were in evidence, and we walked out to the steps – they seemed very high to me – up into the beautiful Connie, with two reclining seats on each side of the aisle and big round windows giving an excellent view.

Piston powered planes took a long time to warm up, one engine at a time, but eventually we were taxying out to the runway for takeoff.  It seemed to me to take a long time before we left the ground for the four-hour first hop to Lisbon, and the climb would not now be thought of as steep, but we – I think around 40 passengers – had pleasant time looking at land and sea, and having lunch, before landing at the Portuguese capital.  The airport was only slightly less shambolic than Heathrow, and we were held in a small waiting-room while the aircraft was refuelled.  I remember little of the view taking off as we turned West for the island of Santa Maria in the Azores, where it was evening by the time we landed.  I do remember the unusual food served at the airport – a sort of cold porridge.

Then came the longest hop, to Bermuda.  Kindley Field was an American base about an eleven-hour flight from the Azores.  At times, these flights diverted to Gander or other airports if the headwinds restricted payload, but this was unnecessary on my flight. It was the middle of the night and no other activity was to be seen. Soon enough we were off again for Nassau on the island of Grand Bahama.  As this is only a short distance from Florida, many private aircraft could be seen on the tarmac, still early in the morning.  Soon we were off again, flying south over Cuba to Kingston, on the south coast of Jamaica.  I remember being a little startled on the approach: we had overflown the city and out to sea, getting very close to the water.  Suddenly the runway appeared beneath us, and we were down.  The airstrip is built across the Palisadoes, a silted-up breakwater enclosing Kingston Harbour.  This was a busy airport in 1951: KLM and Pan American Convair 240s, as well as Vickers Vikings of British West Indian Airways, and another Constellation of Chicago and Southern, later part of Delta Airlines.

Robin Johnson


The first passenger intercontinental flights were based on European countries with colonial empires:

KLM (Netherlands), SABENA (Belgium), and Air France all commenced services in the late 1920s from their home countries to outposts in Africa, and together with Imperial Airways of Britain soon started flying to the Middle East and Orient.  The short ranges of available aircraft meant frequent stops, and by the time in the late 1930s passenger service was available to the Orient and Australia, the journey from Europe included multiple overnights at en-route points.

Pan American Airways from the late 1920s, through a combination of intense diplomatic and commercial pressure, built up a massive network throughout the Caribbean and South America

Oceanic crossings started over the North Pacific with several island stops between Honolulu and Hong Kong by Pan American, with flying boats operating once weekly.  The limiting sector for available load was San Francisco-Honolulu, a flight of 2,398 miles.  The South Pacific route started in 1938, also with several island stops between Honolulu and Auckland: this initially operated every two weeks.

In 1939, Pan American’s Boeing 314 flying boats operated once weekly from San Francisco to Hongkong and two weekly flights from Port Washington, New York, one to Southampton and one to Marseilles, while Imperial Airways flew from Southampton three times weekly to Kisumu, Kenya, two continuing to Durban, South Africa; five weekly to Calcutta, India, three continuing to Sydney, Australia, and did not publish a schedule for North Atlantic services.

KLM flew three times weekly from Amsterdam to Batavia, two continuing to Sydney as KNILM flights. SABENA operated once weekly from Brussels to the Congo. Air France flew once a week from Marseilles to Saigon and on to Hongkong, and a mail service on the South Atlantic. Lufthansa also operated a weekly mail service to South America

North Atlantic operations had started in 1939, when Pan American and Imperial flying boats commenced New York-Southampton service with intermediate stops, after preliminary mail services commenced. Pan Am also started service to France via Lisbon.  The outbreak of war limited service to neutral Eire and Portugal almost immediately, while Pacific flights continued until the entry of Japan closed all civilian flights. Also ceased was the Qantas route to Singapore: later the Kangaroo Hop (Perth-Ceylon) was in operation, then the world’s longest overwater route.

During the war, Imperial Airways became BOAC and, to avoid Northern winters, operated some North Atlantic services via West Africa and South America, as did Pan American.  Other US airlines with suitable equipment operated under contract to the military as well. Pan American’s South American contacts opened up the route from the USA via Brazil to West Africa and on to India.

One of the effects of wartime was the widespread construction of landplane airstrips capable of handling the longer-ranged DC-4s and Constellations that became available to airlines in time to recommence scheduled intercontinental traffic.

Flying boats continued on some routes until about 1949, but by that time there were multiple competing commercial landplane services on most routes.

Robin Johnson

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