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Over Empires and Oceans
Pioneers, Aviators and Adventurers
Forging the International Air Routes 1918-1939
This a story of pioneers, intrepid aviators, adventurers, tycoons and innovators. It is also a story of dedication and determination, for despite fixed-wing aircraft proving their value over the battlefields of the Western Front during the First World War, convincing governments and public alike that they had a role in peacetime proved far more challenging. The Americans, as inventors of heavier-than-air powered flight, had briefly courted with a passenger airline across Tampa Bay in 1914, yet it took a further nine years for mail to be flown coast-to-coast. In 1919 a British company made the first international scheduled flight between London and Paris, but the continuation of regular services was thwarted by a less-than-enthusiastic government that allowed its generously subsidised French competition, for a short time at least, to fly cross-Channel passenger schedules unimpeded.
The British eventually realised that fast links with their Empire were vital, and followed the example of the French and Dutch who had forged air links with their cousins in North Africa and the Far East. Meanwhile, in South America, the Germans, forbidden under the Versailles Treaty from any major aircraft-building, were establishing cunning supremacy by forming airlines throughout South America and in China. While America awaited a transcontinental passenger service, Juan Trippe’s Pan American Airways was crossing swords with Ralph O’Neill of New York, Rio & Buenos Aires Line (NYRBA) for air
supremacy between the US, Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America, which led to the formation of arguably the world’s greatest airline.
In Russia, Igor Sikorsky had built a vast passenger-carrying aircraft, the Il’ya Muromets, and politicians debated whether giant airships or fixed-wing aircraft should rule the skies – an issue that was put firmly to bed when the mighty German airship, Hindenburg, exploded while mooring at Lakehurst in 1937.
Robert Bluffield’s highly researched and detailed account tells the dramatic stories of explorers such as Kingsford Smith, Lindbergh and Cobham, and flamboyant entrepreneurs,
some well known, others forgotten, who risked fortunes and reputations to follow their dreams of reaching and ruling the skies over empires, continents and oceans. Against bewildering adversity, corruption, underhanded deals and dwindling resources, these tenacious individuals braved the elements using primitive, entirely unsuitable equipment to establish earth-shrinking aerial services that criss-crossed the great oceans and the globe’s most inhospitable territories. These are the stories of those pioneers – of Aéropostale, CNAC, Air Orient, Imperial Airways, KLM, Deutsche Luft Hansa, Pan Am, SCADTA, The Condor Syndicat, Qantas and others – which had a far-reaching impact on the way the modern world would travel.
Robert ‘Bob’ Bluffield was born in London and has had a wide and varied career that includes advertising, cinema management, publishing and working as a private investigator. During the 1970s he started a successful photographic studio and wrote technical features for the photographic press. He is the author of books and articles on aviation history, the photography business, politics, travel, food and wine, and cars. He has also worked as contributing editor to a business and lifestyle magazine publisher.
A five-minute interview with Robert Bluffield, author of 'Over Empires and Oceans'
The Tattered Flag: Bob, very many thanks for your time. Perhaps we can start by asking you when and how you came to be interested in aviation?
Robert Bluffield: My dad would take me to London Airport (as it was then) in the late 1950s and early 1960s and I remember going on the Queen’s Building and watching the old prop aircraft such as the DC3s, Lockheed Super Constellations, Vickers Viscounts and Boeing Stratocruisers and later the early jets such as the DH Comet. I have liked aeroplanes ever since.
TF: The book is a phenomenal piece of research covering a wide geographical and lengthy time period. Did this add to the ‘challenge’ of writing such a book, or do you enjoy the research?
RB: Yes, I thoroughly enjoy researching for the books because it teaches me a lot about areas of my subject I may not previously have known about. It can be a bit like being a detective; I sometimes I find clues about an aspect of aviation I was unaware of and this makes me delve deeper into the subject. For example, I had heard that the Germans had set up and used airlines in Latin America to train future bomber pilots, but I only found out the extent of this subterfuge after uncovering previously published works from the 1930s.
TF: And was there any one area or event that particularly surprised you as you researched and wrote?
RB: As I have said, the German war-machine’s infiltration into South America as well as the later involvement of the Italians. But there are plenty of other examples I have included in the book, especially about the resilience of the early pioneers such as Ralph O'Neill who founded The New York, Rio and Buenos Aires Line.
TF: The book is filled with an array of colourful and enterprising characters from Juan Trippe and Wilmot Hudson Fysh to Sir William Sefton Brancker and Dr Albert Plesman – but is there one that you admire or who intrigues you most?
RB: I have admiration for the majority and it is difficult to pinpoint one single person as the one that intrigues me more than all the others. If I had to name one then I suppose it would be Juan Trippe for the amazing way that he established what became the first truly global airline empire with Pan American Airways. What I particularly admire about most of the characters described in the book is the way that they overcame so many obstacles to follow to prove a theory or to establish an enterprise against overwhelmingly stiff odds.
TF: How about a company or airline, or even aeroplane?
RB: I have a terrific feeling of admiration for George Holt Thomas who founded the AT&T, the first scheduled British airline and battled against the ‘backward thinking’ British government who refused to support British companies despite their rivals, especially from France, who were being heavily subsidised on the cross-Channel routes. If I had to pick an aircraft – although I have always been fascinated by the big flying boats, I would have to choose the impressive Handley Page HP 42 as a particular favourite because, to me, it epitomised Imperial Airways.
TF: If there was one major or memorable thing that you covered during the writing of the book, what was it?
RB: Phew (laughs)! This is a really tricky and interesting question because as the story unravels most of the enterprising actions of the pioneers becomes memorable. I especially recall writing about the world’s first scheduled airline; the St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. This was an amazing achievement albeit it only short-lived, but what is possibly so memorable about it was that the Americans failed to pursue the idea and the potential of commercial aviation until many years later and thus lost their lead.
TF: Do you think the modern airline industry has learned – or could learn – from the past?
RB: Another extremely difficult question, but I guess here in Britain, on transport issues, various governments have continuously failed to invest sufficiently in our transport infrastructure. They initially failed to support our fledgling airline industry and then when they were persuaded that it was in the nation’s interest, there was still a marked reluctance. The British have been world leaders in transport innovation but have always failed to capitalise on this by a lack of investment which has meant we have fallen behind countries that have understood the benefits.
TF: Yes, I can see your point. Very many thanks for talking with us, Bob.
RB: A pleasure.