|Founded||24 November 1939|
(amalgamation of Imperial Airways and British Airways Ltd)
|Commenced operations||1 April 1940|
|Ceased operations||31 March 1974|
(merged with British European Airways to form British Airways)
|Fleet size||≈200 (at its peak)|
|Parent company||Government of the United Kingdom|
|Headquarters||Speedbird House, Heathrow Airport, Hillingdon, England|
|Key people||Whitney Straight|
British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) was the British state-owned airline created in 1939 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 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, effective 31 March 1974, forming today's British Airways. For most of its history its main rival was Pan Am.
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 end destinations. 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 Skagerrak direct route.
Between 1939 and 1945 6,000 passengers were transported by BOAC between Stockholm and Great Britain.
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 Am 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.
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.
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 Boeing 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.
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 Civil Aviation Authority, 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.
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, Fiji 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:
During the time of the airline's existence, BOAC operated these aircraft:
Dates above are for service with BOAC or its forerunners; those still in service in 1974 subsequently passed to British Airways.
The Beatles song "Back in the U.S.S.R." references a flight from Miami Beach aboard a BOAC aircraft.
In the song Montego Bay by Bobby Bloom, the first line is Vernon will meet me when the BOAC lands.
It is referenced in the James Tiptree Jr. story "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain."
Multiple references throughout the Netflix TV Series The Crown.
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