Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Empire in the AirAirline Travel and the African Diaspora$

Chandra D. Bhimull

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781479843473

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479843473.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM NYU Press SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.nyu.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University of NYU Press Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in NYSO for personal use (for details see www.nyu.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy/privacy-policy-and-legal-notice). Subscriber: null; date: 14 November 2018



(p.67) 4 Planes
Empire in the Air

Chandra D. Bhimull

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 4 concentrates on how people learned to be in and live with ordinary flight through the everyday sky. Focused on air passage itself, it explores how a flying culture took hold and examines the affective dimensions of airline travel. Analyzing air travel stories, it chronicles what first-generation fliers did and felt inside early airline cabins. The vertical distance between the airplane and the ground profoundly altered the ways air passengers related to colonial landscapes and lives beneath them. The second part of the chapter illuminates how black people on the ground reacted to white people in the sky, and vice versa. It connects the emergence of everyday air travel practices to the upward expansion of empire. The last part of the chapter brings the history of white flight and racial segregation to present-day discussions of aerial mobility and the varying experiences of frequent and infrequent fliers.

Keywords:   aerial mobility, affect, distance, flying culture, frequent flier, segregation, stories, white flight

A “thousand pens have described the sensation of leaving earth,” Virginia Woolf said in “Flying over London.”1 One imagines she drew on these accounts to imagine the experience and power of aerial mobility, especially since she had never flown. One imagines C. L. R. James, a radical Pan-Africanist who was acutely aware of the long-lasting marriage of transportation and oppression, did not need to.

Travel stories from first-generation airline passengers shed light, however subtle, on the entangled promotion of commercial aviation and state violence. In particular, they show how practices used to incorporate air travel into everyday life worked together to further and maintain racism. There are different types of first-generation stories; there are different ways to take flight. There are stories from the first airline passengers and ones from first-generation migrants and their children. People in the first group told the stories shared in this chapter. Someone from the second has claimed and is retelling them.2

During the research and writing of this book, and in my everyday life, I realized that people who have access to flying love, or feel obliged, to swap airline travel stories. The ones I hear (or overhear) in airports or airplanes about in-flight experiences intrigue me the most. I am often struck by the wild assortment of details strangers share with one another; by their willingness to participate in the act of storytelling itself; and by the assumptions people make in order to tell their story to a fellow passenger. (Stories told to people who work on flights or in airports are different.) The storyteller often assumes that their experience is simultaneously unique and shared—that listeners will ‘get it’ because they also fly. Sometimes they talk about a passenger on board their flight acting out or not knowing the rules for acts such as reclining one’s seat or using both armrests, as if there are scripts and rules. Sometimes they recall the days before airline deregulation and remember when air travel (p.68) was, in their opinion, better for everyone, with unknowing wistfulness for an exclusive social world in the sky.

Stories such as these involve thick-layered assumptions about class, about race, about gender, about citizenship, about ability, about sexuality: about belonging. They came from somewhere and somewhen. At some point, people learned how to be airline passengers. They learned standards; learned how to be appropriate, ordinary, and acceptable, in the air. They developed expectations; they learned to expect other passengers to be appropriate, ordinary, and acceptable, on the fly. They learned to revise or unlearn those lessons as well.

The sky is what Teju Cole has called “unquiet.”3 There is an uncanny resemblance between the airline travel stories people tell now and the ones that were told when the airline industry began. The first airlines and airline passengers started to build a grammar of flight. Their travel narratives help to illuminate how ordinary people became part of what Peter Fritzsche coined “a nation of fliers.”4 Each one is jam-packed with explications, assumptions, and descriptions of expectations, perceptions, sensations, and experiences. They are full of exclusions: things not done, places not visited, people not there. Outlines of these old rules have hung around. A story is one place to find them.

The Inflight Magazine

Imperial Airways sought to create an empire, as well as a nation, of commercial fliers in the aftermath of the aerial horrors of the First World War. For the chosen instrument of the state to succeed, the image of the airplane would need to shift from deadly weapon to safe journey.5

Imperial Airways set out to transform the meaning of air travel in the public imagination. The goal was to establish sustained appreciation for commercial aviation throughout the British world. It was a colossal undertaking, though Imperial Airways did not have to do it alone. Newspapers, exhibitions, books, and circuses were among the cultural aids helping to redefine air travel. There were social events arranged by the Post Office, British Empire Film Society, and other state-funded organizations helping to spark public interest in commercial aviation. Government-subsidized fares for “joyrides” afforded working-class children and adults the opportunity to learn about the airplane firsthand.6 (p.69) Slowly, the discourse of flight was changing, as Imperial Airways got under way.

As part of its efforts, the airline created a monthly magazine called Imperial Airways Gazette, which ran from the summer of 1928 to the fall of 1939.7 Each issue was fewer than ten pages, and each of those pages boasted a variety of items: travel schedules, route maps, company plans, advice columns, how-to manuals, aerial photographs, destination guides. The publication, which was known as the “official organ” of the airline, promoted and sold the advantages of flight.8

The Gazette was more than an entertaining magazine. It was an education. Through carefully selected materials, readers of the magazine turned into tourists. Like a guidebook, the Gazette told them where to go, how to get there, what to do, how to see. Curated images of nation, empire, and nature spoke of selfhood, otherness, and trade. The newness of airline travel and the rawness of airline passengers were never taken for granted. The Gazette taught manners and etiquette, both of which it invented. The lesson: how to be in the sky and British through the air.9

It is hard to know who exactly read the magazine. Subscriptions were free. Adults could receive a monthly subscription by contacting the company’s publicity office. The airline encouraged schoolteachers and headmasters to request copies for students. Aeroplane and other popular British publications sometimes included the magazine as a supplement. Imperial Airways also gave copies to its employees.

It is also difficult to know if the Gazette circulated outside Britain for extended periods of time. Workers staffed the airline’s colonial and foreign offices, though it is unclear if the airline considered all or some of them as employees. Articles and announcements in the magazine periodically targeted readers who were not in Britain. There were snippets about dentists in South Africa with Gazettes in their waiting rooms; occasional paragraphs about trips that didn’t start, stop over, or end in England; and a smattering of ads for “intending travellers by Imperial Airways from Europe and the Empire.”10 Infrequent pieces such as these suggest the magazine circulated outside Britain once in a while, at the very least.

Uncertainty about readership or circulation does not diminish the importance of the magazine as a repository and record. The Gazette published a wide range of authors. Some wrote original pieces for the (p.70) magazine while others had their works republished by the Gazette. Some were famous authors and others ordinary passengers with letters, testimonials, diaries, and long tales to share. Their stories help us to sense perspectives, sentiments, inclinations, and attitudes. They enable us to see, even if only slightly, how first fliers flew, and why people inhabit commercial airspace in certain ways.

Like any story once told, these are not inviolable, pristine sources. They were published in the company’s magazine, an instrument to make commercial aviation an ineffaceable part of ordinary, everyday life. That the airline manipulated—selected, edited, printed, distributed—them is not insignificant. The documents are tricky to interpret, no matter how mindful the reader. Then and also now, readers slid into emergent airscapes, which were imagined and material worlds engendered by the cocreation of new “global cultural flows” and the commercial aviation industry, and in formation.11 There, authors moved and wrote in a manner that was not altogether new. Tales to recount trips abroad were hardly a novelty in Britain, especially those about colonial encounters. For centuries, travelers had described sensuous journeys in vibrant detail. They captured what appealed to them: smells, tastes, sounds, touches, sights of people and places. Many of their creations animated imperial culture. Those vibrant detailed passages documented and re-created colonial adventures for people back home.12

Airline travelers descend from that tradition. Those who wrote and published in the Gazette retained aspects of the old style, and they revamped them. In particular, they participated in exoticism as they noticed and chronicled ‘difference’ while moving through the world, like those before them. Airline travelers, however, were transfixed by the experience of sight in a very different way. First-generation fliers had lots to say about what airborne mobility let them see.

A note about who flew and saw, and who wrote: Airline travelers were not prevalent in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The sumptuous ocean liner and reliable train were established forms of mobility, and an expanded steamship market enabled an increasing number of workers, tourists, and itinerants to sail amid a dire postwar economy. By the late 1930s, there was growing public interest in dreaming about and debating the airplane as a form of mass transportation. Air-mindedness was shifting. Payloads were rising. The bulk of cargo was mail and freight.13

(p.71) Airline transport was elite travel, particularly on what government officials and company executives touted as the “Empire Routes” of the “Empire Mission.” They were long-haul flights along the imperial air routes, which officials and executives had designed to ensure “the future of civilisation” for Britain, its dominions and protectorates, and its colonies. Officials and executives imagined the white British businessman as the ideal frequent flier, as they advertised for what they wanted: improved communication flows for a new global Britain, which is where the first story begins.14


This is a story the airline told the public. Imperial Airways was asking people from different social worlds to help advance communication flows in Britain, throughout the empire, and across the world. Promotion of airmail and freight services was an integral part of the campaign. Most people could not afford to travel by air but, they were told, their stuff could. In nearly all issues of the Gazette, Imperial Airways printed at least one article about the power and magnitude of airmail. Airmail, a “vision of cheap and rapid delivery,” was a “contribution to Empire corporate unity.”15

The message was simple enough: use airmail, strengthen the communal and economic bonds of empire, do your part for Britain. Marketing it to the general public was somewhat more complicated. Trust in the safe conveyance of property and persons by road, water, and rail was strongly established. British women and men were not convinced airlines could rival and eclipse the railroad, ocean liner, or on-road vehicle, and become the dominant form of public transportation. By the time Imperial Airways was launched in the mid-1920s, the railway journey symbolized function and reliability; the car represented privilege and prestige; and the steamship embodied the modern.16 By the mid-1930s, as public opinion about airborne mobility shifted, the Air Ministry found that people still preferred to use surface transportation systems. Many of them felt those methods were “already highly developed,” a commonplace set of ways to move valuable personal matters such as mail. At the same time, the Ministry found that the public was drawn to the “greater convenience and speed” of air travel. Although trust in surface transport was strong, speed-up was enticing.17

(p.72) Imperial Airways decided to showcase speed-up to garner trust. It focused its attention on shifting the public’s perception of airmail in two areas: confidence and protection. Its goal was to normalize airmail. One of its lures was weight.

Stories about the mighty weight of airmail filled the Gazette. In the February 1933 issue there was an article about the growth of the airmail industry. It featured an elated Postmaster General applauding British patrons for setting a new airmail traffic record. He praised them for a 20 percent increase in the amount of mail sent: “52 ½ tons” of letters flew from Britain to the colonies in 1931. The next year, “64 tons.” “Christmas mail dispatched to India by air during December amounted to about three tons; the mail of 10 December alone weighed over a ton.” The Postmaster General communicated the significance of the accomplishment by describing heaviness, which he did by using numbers. In a two-column chart, he compared airmail letter traffic from 1931 and 1932. An organized list of numerical figures revealed the “117,350” pounds of letters flown in 1931 and the “143,000” pounds of letters flown the following year—a “record weight of letters” had traveled by air.18

Weight meant significance. The Postmaster General’s focus was on tonnage. The mark of triumphant success was the bulk of the letters; heaviness set the record. (The Postmaster General could have measured increased airmail traffic by the number of letters flown.) The heaviness of the mail was a sign of protection, as it implied that tons of letters safely flew Imperial Airways. It was the combination of speed-up, long distances, heavy weight, and tonnage that helped set the airliner apart from the steamship as a symbol of modern travel.19

The numerical depiction of capacity and distance was also used to build confidence. In the inaugural issue of the magazine, the airline noted the nearly 78,000 passengers, 3,000 tons of freight, and 3,500,000 miles it had flown since services began.20 Numbers—the quantity of people, accumulative weight of freight, and accretion of miles—worked to construct an image of the chosen instrument of the state as durable, established. The belief in numbers as truth, fact, and evidence helped to prove that the airline was established and safe.21 The alignment of protection and verticality was another way the airline tried to build confidence in air transportation. The airline insisted that altitude evaded the hazards of transshipment. Mail was invulnerable and secure because, (p.73) airborne and fast, it was untouchable. The notion of speed-up as a form of safekeeping was a difficult message to convey. In the early 1930s, an ad for airmail in the Gazette drew a sharp contrast between surface and air transportation (see Figure 2). It conjoined speed-up and guardianship. The meaning of the headline and the message was clear. The headline:


Figure 2. “The Advantages of Sending Your Letters and Freight by Air,” Imperial Airways Gazette, July 1934, 8.

(p.74) “The Advantages of Sending Your Letter and Freight by Air.” The message: Airmail was “quicker … so easy.” It was “so safe.”

The lesson being taught was more opaque, leaving itself open to interpretation and accessibility. Two graphic tales were told. In one, letters and freight traveled the world by surface transport and transshipment. They left from London; the postbox, top hat and tails, and St. Paul’s Cathedral made that clear. They went by train, rig, ship, camel, native, and arrived in Paris, Calcutta, Singapore, Cape Town, Nairobi, Cairo. Cargo moved on land and by water, which meant senders needed insurance. The second tale spoke of letters, freight, and their journey by air. They left from London, like the first ones did, and went to Britain’s colonies and dominions, signaled by landmarks and an imperial uniform. Magic moved the cargo: no airplane was shown. Senders posted mail. The posted mail was given wings. It flit across the globe, confidently, because it was safe. No insurance was needed. Scissors cut the policy up.

Instructions were among the tales. The ad showed people how to prepare and pack airmail parcels; like a manual, it told them how to use the new postal system. “It is perfectly easy to post letters by air mail. Simply ask for a blue air mail label at the post office (you can get them free of charge in books like ordinary stamps) and post your letter in any post box.”22 The instructions came over and again. Imperial Airways distributed pamphlets, sponsored exhibitions, and handed lecture materials to schools about how to send mail by air.

There were other directives, more political ones. The airline tethered airmail to three concerns: global ethics, imperial unity, and national obligation. In the Gazette, pieces linked airmail to internationalism. They stressed that fast communication networks among colonies, dominions, Britain, and other nation-states made for peace. In one issue, the chairman of Imperial Airways, Sir Eric Geddes, remarked on the importance of the “Empire Mission” first to shareholders and guests at an annual meeting and then to readers of the Gazette. “To-day we reside in a world which is very disturbed,” he explained. “But there is a majority amongst intelligent people who do realize that the future of civilisation depends upon the spreading of a closer international understanding.” “The essential link in such a bond is transport,” Geddes concluded.23 Airmail could close gaps and bring calm to future global relations. The rhetoric of a civilizing mission was invoked.

(p.75) Airmail could be a conduit for amity and cultural exchange. The airline hammered this point throughout the 1930s, as tensions between nation-states intensified. An article from 1937, “The World Travels By Air,” pitched airline travel as the quickest way to the “happy state.” The happy state was a riff on a place imagined by the British poet Samuel Butler in the seventeenth century. For the poet, it was a state of being. For the airline, it was a place to be in. The happy state was a destination, and its motto was cultural contact: “The more people see of each other the less likely they are to disagree,” Imperial Airways expounded, carefully. It defined mail as cultural contact, and cultural contact as “the spread of knowledge,” the maker of “goodwill.” The airline stressed, “Contact can only be gained by communication in some form or other.” Then, it asserted, “It is essential that the methods of communication should be continuously improved throughout the world because the easier and the quicker people can see and correspond with each other the less likelihood there is of a misunderstanding.” By the end, Imperial Airways had established itself as the carrier of all four: mail, cultural contact, knowledge, and goodwill—the happy state.24

“Why don’t you fly? Why don’t you post by air? Why don’t you send freight by air?” Imperial Airways once asked readers. They were aggressive, perhaps even accusatory, questions. They were at the bottom, as the finishing lines of a full-page ad for “The Growth of Imperial Airways” on the last page of a Gazette. Above them were three sets of symbols: silhouettes for passengers, envelopes for mail, and angels for freight. Under each set were numbers for what was carried: bodies, ton-miles of letters, and ton-miles of freight. The message: join the crowd, do your part. The lesson: airmail lets ordinary people be passengers too.25

The Frequent Flier

The frequent flier is made. The commercial sky is made for them.

The chosen instrument of the state did not want to carry everyone. The type of rich white businessman the airline sought was one who appreciated luxury, leisure, and the nuances of imperialism. This was how it tried to get him.

Imperial Airways billed its services as cutting edge. It made the airliner seem similar to but better than the ocean liner. It often compared (p.76) the prestige of the airline’s fleet to that of the steamship companies in the columns, advertisements, and photographs of the Gazette. It was a bold, slightly risky strategy; the companies and their steamships were revered as emblems of empire and nation. Imperial Airways did not hold back. In one comparison in July 1936, it dubbed a new fleet of flying boats, “Queen Marys of the Air.” The Queen Mary was one of the fastest transatlantic steamships, owned by the famous Cunard White Star Line. It was beloved, iconic. As enticement, Imperial Airways pointed out that its fleet of twenty-nine planes was like the Queen because it was expensive, luxuriant, and intended for transatlantic crossings. The thing was, its fleet was faster than the Queen’s.

Sometimes rootedness defined the cutting edge. There were times when the airline imagined itself as loyal to the British nation and the British people. It shared accounts of British workers building flying boats in Britain as a reminder of the job, pride, and dream the airline had given them. One such narrative was about a journalist visiting a factory in Rochester and touring its facilities. The short story began: The journalist walked through the factory yards, and stumbled. He saw “a remarkable sight, the impressive spectacle” of three thousand men building ten flying boats. He noted how many men it took to make a handful of planes, then continued. The journalist was soon transfixed as the “buzz of steady activity” overwhelmed him. He watched workers “busy building the new Empire”—the flying boat—and was proud. He admired how they interacted with and cared for metal; they tenderly “bent and hammered and bored and filed, fitting small piece to small piece with the most loving care.” He marveled, as the workers became little boys riveted in model sets: “There must be thrill in this work; the men looked as though they took a joyous pride in it. I envied the apprentice boys, whose faces shone as if they were in some angelic dream as no doubt they were!”

A guide led the journalist deeper into the factory. The visitor wound through rooms, occasionally stopping to inspect piles of duralumin and stainless steel, or “long wings” shaped around circular petrol tanks. His eye caught “silvery shining metal hulls” and the “absolutely smooth” skin of the plane, which he liked. Near the end of the tour, he arrived at a full-size model of an 18 ton flying boat. The journalist went inside and wondered, “Like a ship?” He walked around the interior, which “decidedly” (p.77) resembled a steamship. There were two decks in the fore of the hull. There were also “proper beds, and proper sleeping births, and comfortable chairs that are adjustable to a nicety.” The cabins were “beautifully lighted, carpeted, heated, ventilated, and decorated.” It was like an ocean liner indeed: “the whole outfit speaks of comfort, indeed of luxury.” The journalist classed passengers in the sky, and not those on the sea, “symbols of a new age of travel, argosies of the air, armadas of peace!”26

The story traveled. It went from a newspaper to the Gazette, where it was retold and renamed “Queen Marys of the Air.”

The picture of all in the airline industry—from worker to flier—as doing their civic duty at the vanguard of change was in the image of the model passenger. A question was posed on a Gazette cover. It asked, “£3 12s 6d London-Paris or The Terrestrial Complex?” The question was paired with a piece about Britain in bad health. The country had caught the terrestrial complex, a virulent disease that caused people to act like cheap, irrational ground-worshippers, according to an unnamed leading newspaper. The airline had reduced the cost of flights to continental Europe and still, “a good many worthy citizens with a somewhat disturbing problem” refused to fly. The problem: citizens who preferred “rail and sea rates” could no longer use cost to justify their choice—the “excuse has perished.” Now “we must ask ourselves if we are really ‘air-minded,’ or if a projected flight to the Continent is still fraught for us with the terrors of the unknown.”27

It was coded language. A worthy citizen was someone who traveled. Citizens not flying ailed the nation. Air travel was the antidote, the airline the healer. Britain was sick because the public lacked sense. British people favored surface transport even when air transport cost the same. Technological backwardness scared them; meanwhile, they were terrified by technological innovation. Citizens of worth could heal the country by flying the national airline.

Imperial Airways built this image of the ideal airline passenger around upper middle-class notions of pleasure and opulence. Two of the first excursions it offered were tea flights over London and lunch flights between London and Paris. These were marketed as posh flights, not joyrides which the intended airline passenger considered cheap, vulgar, and common. Short Imperial Airways flights were promoted as chic, up-to-date. They were signs of class superiority and appreciation of (p.78) technological change. The tea flight, which started in 1929, was a thirty-minute service. It cost £2 2s, which was more than double what a joyride cost. It epitomized modish frivolity. One ad announced a plan to offer tea flights at a “considerably reduced fare” during the London Season, a long-standing upper class social ritual. Much like balloon rides in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tea flights were more about height than speed. They were for hosts to “give a novel party for friends who have already done all the usual things,” and for boyfriends to impress their “fiancée up from the country.” For £1 10s per ticket, Imperial Airways flew passengers over well-known sights like the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace. Passengers were sold privilege: a full tea service accompanied by the opportunity to look down and peep inside areas others could not.28

Airline travel was literally high society. Imperial Airways offered and operated a pleasure service from London to the Grand National in Liverpool. A ticket cost £8 8s. A company car drove passengers to and from the airport, and a Heracles class plane flew them to and from Liverpool. In-flight, they received a cold lunch on the way there, and a hot tea service on the way back. When they deplaned in Liverpool, passengers received entrance tickets to the famous steeplechase event. They sat in a special, reserved section.29

Imperial Airways sold segregation as one of its services.30 The airline promoted it as one of the great benefits of traveling by air. A person could fly over and watch events such as the infamous annual Oxford versus Cambridge boat race from above. This sports-related service paired elevation with class advantage. (The flight cost £2 2s.) It was a high society flight that was quite different from the one to the Grand National. Airline travelers had an uninterrupted view of the race. Up in the sky, they were truly above the mass of spectators, separated from the crowd. They were actually untouchable, for a price.31

Height was used to sell domestic flights as leisurely and discriminatory. Speed-up was used to portray international and empire flights as unhurried and distinguished. Ads for the London to Paris lunchtime flight, for example, mixed relaxed efficiency with fastness and height. One of the first Gazette ads to show men and women traveling together boasted that round-trip airline passengers flew expeditiously to Paris: “To Paris while you read your paper and home again in time for dinner!” (p.79) The flight was plush and time efficient. Both women and men experienced the view from above (“for you the chops of the Channel look like ripples”) and the advantage of the swift life (“you arrive in Paris fresh and unfatigued, having spent no more time in the air than it takes to run in your car from London to lunch with your cousins in the country”). This flight cost £7 12s.32

Mention of expense was telling. It is one thing to say how much something costs and another thing to describe it. The construction of the model airline passenger as lavish and economical was a call for the businessman and, to a lesser extent, the modern woman. Representations of airspace and airline travel were profoundly gendered. That the consummate passenger was the British man was hardly a shock; airspace and masculinity stayed knit together in the postwar public imagination.33 (Those worthy citizens who rid Britain of its terrestrial complex were most likely men, in a Wellsian world.) That the archetype of this British man was the businessman was a bit more peculiar. The businessman who flew was ambitious and established and adventurous. He was also frugal. He valued speed-up: he valued time. The flying businessman was not an Edwardian dandy.

The magazine often depicted business travel as assurance, expediency, and productive rest. Imperial Airways promised reliance and gainful sleep. “Your mail may take wing and fly to the East, your goods may travel swiftly and safely over land and sea alike, you yourself may sleep a thousand miles distant from your morning’s waking place.” The businessman who flew slept. The airliner zipped him and his business around the world, safely and soundly.34

Business flights rewarded the traveler. Ads for them focused on the amount of time and money saved by flying, rather than on the amount of time and money spent. There was once a London businessman who took such a flight for the first time. His clients lived in ten places: Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Uganda, Kenya Colony, the Tanganyika Territory, Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia, and South Africa. Needing to travel over 20,000 miles to see them, he bought an airline ticket for £300, and went. He was gone for sixty days.

He returned to London. He wondered about airline travel and good business sense. He calculated, measured its value. Surface transport would have taken 180 days and cost £360 for a first-class ticket. He (p.80) found that flying was slightly cheaper yet more exclusive. He had saved. He was pleased.

He could then make more money in the time that he saved. He noticed flight saved days, 120 of them for him. “Time is money,” he interjected, and computed what each day was worth: “From my own viewpoint as a business man, I estimate the value of each of my working days at, say £3. Therefore the 120 days I saved by air represented to me a sum of approximately £360.” He saved money because he saved time, and he was very pleased.

What made that happen gripped him: the direct, straight line. It made big places smaller, more manageable. Africa, for example, was inconvenient for him. Before, when he traveled the “big territory” by surface transport, he suffered “long detours and roundabout trips” and “heat, dust, fatigue,” which zapped his energy. Direct and straight, airline travel made “all the difference.” “The airways goes straight from one important point to another.” It reduced layovers, which he found invaluable. Fewer, shorter stops did more than save him time. They cut back chances to buy trinkets, on impulse. Also, the businessman who flew didn’t have to deal with Africans, in a snap, or as much, which was what he said.

He felt energized. Airline travel helped him “avoid fatigue.” He found that flight was good for his “health and mental outlook.” It shored up his power and strength. Invigorated, he did efficient and effective work because he was “fresh and vigorous, ready to plunge into the business on hand.” “On all counts, I can say in conclusion the air tour scores. You save time. You save money,” said the businessman to the airline during an interview.35

The absence of women from the image of the ideal airline traveler was conspicuous. The 1930s were years when women aviators were celebrated in Britain. Some like Amy Johnson were able to cultivate celebrity status by casting their daring flights abroad within the conventional narrative of risky travel as imperial adventure. They were seen as glamorous and feminine rather than risqué and lewd. Fashion designers made clothes to resemble the garments worn by women of the air and styled sharper, more streamlined cuts to invoke the sleekness of the airplane.36

When women as passengers were featured in the Gazette, they often appeared in pieces about flights to continental Europe, in strikingly different ways. In one scenario she was the flip side of the businessman. (p.81) She was timid, fragile. She was convinced flight was unsafe, unhealthy, too high, and too fast. One woman flew from London to Paris because she felt obligated; she had won the airline ticket at a charity event. (She wasn’t a paying airline passenger.) She figured it was “Fate having decided that I must fly,” and absolved herself of agency and responsibility. She considered herself to be like “many women,” and swore, “I shall never fly; I would never think of flying.” She, like others, had a “dislike of heights, a fear of air-sickness, a belief that height combined with great speed will affect heart or blood-pressure, lack of faith in the safety of air-travel, and lastly, a vague horror of an unknown element.”

Then she flew. Airborne, her sentiments changed completely. “From the moment I set foot inside the machine every sense of fear vanished.” Like men, she liked what she saw beneath her: “a rift,” “the world like a pebble.” She liked feeling “an extraordinary sense of detachment.” Unlike men, she listed the daily tasks she was thankful to leave behind: “taxes, conferences, the stock market, work unfinished, worries unresolved.” Later, she took four more flights and relished “heights varying from 50 to 8,000 feet.”

Her story appeared in a Gazette, reprinted from the Morning Post. It was titled “Air Travel for Woman.” It was an account, a lesson, and an endorsement. It educated through cautious adventure; explained why women should fly; told them how to act when airborne; and sold liberation from the mundane. Airline travel removed the typical woman from the monotony of everyday life and gave her new vistas. The woman who flew from London to Paris was reluctant at first. But she embraced her fate, overcame her fears, and her views and rhythms were transformed.37

Another kind of woman went farther. She flew from London to Zurich on a Thursday. She was Scottish and this was not her first flight. She preferred trips by plane: she needed to be efficient and effective, like a businessman. She had “less than three days at [her] disposal to go to Zurich, transact business, and return to London.”

The woman arrived at the aerodrome in Croydon and learned there would be one woman onboard as a passenger: her. She was not taken aback. She went to “the revealing face” of the weighing machine and was pleased to find it turned toward the airline official and away from the crowd. The welcomed rotation of the scale accelerated the check-in process and hid her weight, which was, as H. Stuart Menzies remarked, “A (p.82) neat idea that, especially for the women folk! and [sic] come to think of it, very tactful.”38 An agent hurried them along to the plane, just in case “there should be a latent craven who may elect to change her (or his—it has been known) mind.”

She boarded the “floating hotel.” Over the English Channel, she rejoiced, feeling “a glad exhilaration and warm rush of gratitude” because she “lived in this wonderful age of sky travel.” “It is magic—white magic—the very soul of the poetry of motion—to be skimming up there on velvet air speeding so easily and lightly to foreign lands.” For her, the airplane was an inherently good technology, and airline services were preferred. She was a woman who had business to do quickly, in foreign lands.39

White Flight

Three white men flew the empire routes in the 1930s. One flew to Iraq, one to India, and one to South Africa. They kept diaries and wrote letters while on their way. They described what they did and explained what those actions meant to them. Each one preferred something different: layovers, windows, and people. The objects themselves were not novel but the airborne experience of them was, which was what the men noted.

Sometimes the men described what it was like to see—and to be seen by—black and brown people on the ground. The men welcomed their actions, which they took as evidence of colonial envy of imperial flight. But what they understood as “a look of lust, a look of envy” might have been displays of antipathy and discontent.40 Perhaps what seemed like friendly local responses were, in fact, flashes of colonial resistance. However short-lived or scarce in the archive, these scenes may well retrieve moments when racism was carried out and confronted on the fly.

The Layover

When Mr. W. D. H. McCullough, an Englishman, traveled from London to Baghdad on an Imperial Airways ticket in the early 1930s, he kept a travel diary. Sections were published in the Gazette as installments in a column called “Baghdad Bound.” Subheadings like “From London” (p.83) and “Over the Desert” mapped the route flown. They helped readers to travel the empire with McCullough.

Air travel along imperial routes took days. It was often intermodal and airplanes stopped frequently on the way. The layover was an important part of empire flights for reasons the previously mentioned businessman stated, and more. Speed-up deepened the compression of space by time; it reduced the number of stopovers and shortened the gap between multiple layovers. Airline passengers spent less time traveling between intermediary places, condensing and compacting the experiences they had in transit, which was what that businessman appreciated. Shortened gaps also meant that airplanes and their passengers ascended and descended rapidly and repeatedly between places. Quickly rising and falling, rising and falling, dramatized the differences between people above and people below. Many passengers cherished the experience, like McCullough. His itinerary: Fly London to Paris and then board an express train to Brindisi that same night. Spend two days on the train, passing through Switzerland and Milan, along the southeast coast of Italy to Brindisi. Then fly across the Mediterranean Sea to Piraeus, and spend the night. Then, fly to Rhodes and then to Cyprus. Refuel in Cyprus. Thereafter, fly over the Jordan River, land on the Sea of Galilee, take the ferry to Palestine, and spend the night. The next day, fly across the Syrian Desert, land at Rutbah Fort in Iraq, and then fly on to the aerodrome in Baghdad.

“This narrative starts a thousand feet above Limasol, in Cyprus,” read the opening lines of his account. On a flying boat “climbing steadily and heading across the last strip of Mediterranean,” McCullough recalled how his trip began. One Saturday afternoon he flew from Croydon to Paris on a Hannibal class craft, the first four-engine passenger biplane in the world. The plane was designed for people to travel in comfort. Before pressurized airplane cabins and ‘above the weather’ flights, passengers on other planes found it difficult, often sickening, to eat while flying. McCullough, however, enjoyed the airline’s famed four-course lunch, carpeting, and soundproofing, and the full-service bar during the two hours and forty-five minute flight. In hindsight, he remembered this part of his trip as “pleasant” but “uneventful.”41

McCullough felt imperious. He had a six-hour layover in Paris; Imperial Airways had booked him on the 9:30 p.m. express train to Brindisi. (p.84) He swam and ate at the airline’s hotel while he waited and after dinner, he rested in the hotel lounge. Days later he decided that what had happened that night turned his pleasant and uneventful trip into a “magnificent” journey: “I had the rather exciting experience of having a uniformed official coming into the hotel lounge to ask for passengers on the Empire air route. I rose to my feet and strode pita-pat down the lounge, feeling every inch an Empire builder.” McCullough often used the word ‘magnificent’ to describe his experiences after Paris; sometimes, like now, it was a stand-in for British progress and dominance. McCullough was proud and purposeful as the airline officer in regalia called, classified, and escorted passengers ceremoniously. He was embarking on what felt to him like an imperial project.

The observations that McCullough made while flying shed light on empire building, illuminating how imperialism and air travel coalesced on the cultural front in the decades between the First and Second World Wars. After Brindisi, McCullough reached Baghdad via Piraeus, Rhodes, Cyprus, Palestine, and Rutbah Fort at Rutbah Wells. En route, he described what he did, how he felt, and whom he saw during layovers. He evoked an orientalist language of otherness to do so. For example, in Rhodes he enjoyed bathing in “an Oriental version of the Brighton Metropole,” while in Cyprus he shaded by the sea and “felt very pleased with life” when a “group of natives collected and stared,” putting him on display. Before leaving Cyprus for Palestine, he observed, “We stared at the natives and the natives stared at us, and neither party seemed greatly impressed with the view.” For McCullough, the ambivalence generated by gazing indifferently or derisively while pleasured, stemmed from the normalization of commercial flight. After all, the locals were looking at “what was no doubt their weekly exhibition of flying foreigners.”

McCullough’s plane trip to and overnight stay in Palestine exposed the discriminatory habits privileged white men in commercial flight reproduced from older ways of moving. Somewhere between Cyprus and Rutbah Fort, McCullough’s traveling companions, who were “pretty tough old campaigners,” schooled him on “the perils of the East.” From instructions on how to shake tigers out of his trousers to tips on evading deadly mosquitoes, the other, more experienced men “spent a great deal of their time warning” him. Later, their exoticized cautions influenced (p.85) McCullough’s attitudes toward Palestine. When he was alone on the ground, he went for a walk, down to the sea, “gathering [his] first impressions of the East.” He heard foreign music, which sounded to him like noise from “a hospital in which at least one of the patients is right at the top of the danger list.” He “quickly came to the conclusion that there was a good deal to be said for the West,” and went to bed. After some “occasional bursts of weird music and the howling of pi-dogs” broke the “silence of the night,” McCullough was pleased when an “extremely fierce-looking young woman in a very original costume” woke him up at 3.30 a.m. She prepared him for his next flight.

In addition to the people and places encountered on the empire route, McCullough liked airline layovers. They underlined the literal and symbolic power of the airplane and its passengers in motion. Throughout his diary, references to leaving abruptly, ascending authoritatively, “climbing rapidly out,” and landing “irreverently” revealed how the acceleration of taking off, the vertical trajectory of going airborne, and the deceleration of touching down taught some airline passengers how to detach themselves from seemingly intermediate places. McCullough observed: The “four engines thundered into life … the whole terrible force of our four engines let loose” after he alighted in Brindisi and “quickly” boarded a flying boat to Piraeus. “The effect is most inspiring,” he declared, “rising rapidly into the air.” After his half-hour in Rhodes, he delighted in the momentum of finishing leisurely drinks, returning swiftly “back to our machine,” and flying away again.

The short duration and quick succession of layovers, as well as the flying that occurred in between them, prompted McCullough to describe himself in two ways. First, he characterized himself as forward-looking and progressive. Then, he thought about his national identity and asserted that he was metropolitan and British. As he flew into Rutbah Fort he saw, judged, and dreaded landing at “the most desolated and extraordinary hostelry in the world.” It was “300 miles from any sign of civilisation … stuck right in the very centre of the Syrian desert.” His attitude shifted from disdain to delight when he learned that the layover would last an hour and the station restaurant would serve those who “arrive out of the sky” an almost English breakfast during that time. Grounded in the desert, the fliers feasted on “bacon and eggs, coffee, iced drinks, toast and marmalade, and electric light.”

(p.86) McCullough listed electricity among the British products he consumed in Iraq. He believed airline travel allowed him to see British industry from a new vantage point. Above the protectorate, ungrounded altitude enabled him to watch the empire-state develop and modernize the interior of a place he considered to be remote. As Priya Satia reminds us, “It was in Iraq that the British first practiced, if never perfected, the technology of bombardment, there that they first attempted to fully theorize the value of airpower as an independent arm of the military”42

What McCullough noticed, thought, and wrote when he flew from Palestine to Iraq exemplified these sentiments. Leaving Palestine, he felt “something exceedingly thrilling” when he went from “the rather dirty antiquity of the native village to the quiet efficiency of the British aerodrome.” Airborne, he was “in complete comfort sipping iced drinks, far above the hot and dusty earth” when a man from the military showed him where a “famous British general” had fought during the First World War. He peered through the window with reverence and watched as he moved over where “our men” had fought “in a climate and surroundings like these.” His thought was fleeting; “in a very short time,” McCullough’s impressions changed when the plane “flew very high—about 8,000 ft.” Up here, he found it “extremely interesting to see the plans that had been made for laying the pipe line” in the desert. Then when landed, this aerially informed imperial outlook deepened during breakfast. McCullough glanced at a lighting plant, which a British broadcasting company had installed, and he “could not help feeling rather proud of the fact that this British plant was carrying on so gallantly in such a forsaken part of the globe.” Less than an hour later, he was “soon several thousand feet up feeling gloriously cool and comfortable again.”43

The Window

Around the same time as McCullough flew, a Londoner named Mr. P. W. Pitt declared, “I have had a great adventure.” One autumn, he flew from England to India, passing over and through France, “the length of Italy,” Greece, “the Holy Land,” the Arabian Desert, “the Persian Gulf from end to end,” and Balochistan. Forty-eight hours delayed, the flight, which covered approximately five thousand miles, lasted nine days. During (p.87) that time, Pitt kept a diary and in June 1933, the Gazette published the first part of his travelogue: “The Magic Carpet—A Journey to India by Imperial Airways.”

Pitt’s travels began when a Heracles class plane brought him from an aerodrome in Croydon near London to Paris one morning. Pitt, like others at the time, was fascinated by the anatomy of the long-range biplane. Pitt, for example, counted forty-two seats and noticed four engines. He noted being aboard one of the “largest passenger carrying air liners in the world.” He appreciated the comfort, smoothness, and quiet of a machine whose technological advance “does away with the tiresome necessity of having to plug ears with cotton wool.” At 6,000 feet, Heracles was a “marvel of modern science.”

References to ‘the modern’ appeared throughout the travelogue. For Pitt, they mostly materialized in combination with comments about speed-up. The nine-day duration of his flight, which he felt was “so short a time,” offered panoramic views whose rapidly “changing scenes and all that they recalled had a strange effect upon my emotions.” Through the airplane window, Pitt looked down, watched, and was transported. He felt present in a future, as “the whole history of the world had passed in review before [his] mind.” From the locus of the plane, his “noisy modern spirit had been hushed by the associations of Palestine and the age-old unchanging mentality of the Arabs.” History was outside the aircraft, below, inert, and beyond the rapidly moving payload without a past.

Cruising at altitude made passengers feel like they were in a different time and place. In the air, many of these incipient male travelers observed the affective effects of airborne flight. As the aforementioned reference to “changing scenes” revealed, Pitt sensed that passing comfortably, smoothly, quietly but quickly over the perceived past beneath him altered his emotions. He enjoyed being physically unable to touch what he was seeing. He enjoyed experiencing travel as contemplation. Aloft, moving east and south over western Europe, he “pondered,” “wondered,” “marveled,” “dwelt upon the past glories of the Roman Empire,” and was “saddened by the broken beauty of the Greeks.” Leaving the debris behind, Pitt did something rare when, above the visual remnants of the wreckage below, he briefly considered contemporary European politics before moving on: “the seeming futility of … attempts to bolster up what may be a toppling civilisation.”44

(p.88) Alongside these somewhat maudlin sentiments, Pitt used language laden with a mix of racial and presentist overtones to describe his adventures above Palestine, “Arabia,” and “the Arabs and the Turks.” Compared to the imperial glories of Rome and ruined beauty of Greece, Pitt recalled “the old crusaders” when he encountered nonwestern people and places in-flight: a “profligate monster,” “Sinbad the Sailor,” and “the foundation of the famous fairy stories.” On this section of the empire route, the Londoner likened himself to an early explorer who had “heard of [and possibly seen] an almost uncivilised race … whose existence is entirely unknown to most people.” For Pitt, fast-paced flying to India was educational because it was emotional; it was a set of contained cultural and constructed historical experiences rooted in a newfangled form of detachment. As he put it, “All this and more I learnt” up in the air, in a new world, looking down at the old one through the window, as he passed it by.45

The People

Airline travel transformed the position and perspective of passengers from surface and horizontal to air and vertical. To explain to readers why this new way of moving was radical in its consequences, Imperial Airways and its clients used a range of images to turn going airborne into a colonial encounter. Among them were magic carpets, wings, and letters home.

When McCullough finished what he deemed and perhaps punned a “high-handed” mission, he called Imperial Airways a “magic carpet.”46 Similarly, when the Gazette published Pitt’s travelogue it dubbed the airline thus, and when a journalist for Modern Man magazine described flying, he used the trope to explain his experience on Imperial Airways and the empire routes.47 Why was flying on a plane like flying on a carpet? Why was flying magical?

Cultural references to airplanes as magic carpets existed before the empire-state and its airline forged routes in the 1920s. For example, four months after the First World War ended, an editor for the Illustrated London News used the image of the airplane as a magic carpet to describe his flight from London to Paris. For him the airplane was magical because it gave rise to a new class of mobility, reconfiguring the rift (p.89) between the haves and the have-nots. As he put it, air travel “enabled its owners to be transported from one quarter of the globe to another at will … the rapid transition through space, the abolition of distance.”48

By the time McCullough and Pitt flew the empire routes in the early 1930s, the association between airplanes and magic carpets registered differently. Alongside the above-mentioned associations with ownership, control, and instantaneous global passage, the meaning of airline travel expanded to include surveillance. As the adventures of Pitt and McCullough demonstrated, magic carpet references, with their long-standing orientalist affiliations, captured what it meant to fly over and watch rather than to pass through and touch the grounded lives of others; earlier remarks aligning airplanes with magic carpets seemed to associate aerial movements more with transport than experience.49

This shift from prolonged horizontal to sustained vertical and horizontal travel reworked perceptions of colonial wildlife and race. Throughout the mid-1930s, the Gazette published a series of articles about what passengers flying over colonies saw. One article, “Wings over Africa” outlined how travel by air reoriented sight and prioritized distance. Prescriptively, it told readers that while flying from Alexandria to Johannesburg, they could swiftly “inspect quaint villages, note some of the curious customs of the little-known tribes, and catch fleeting glimpses of the continent’s wildlife.” It mentioned a male passenger who took pleasure in passing over and seeing the colonies: “elephants splashing about,” “several groups of giraffe,” “crocodiles and hippopotami were distinguishable,” “great clouds of smoke from many bush fires,” and “the best of the African natives.” For him, this was “one of the most fascinating and thrilling of air journeys” because he “encountered”—without having to interact with—colonial life. For example, on his way to Uganda, he liked his look-down as he “passed over many native settlements, each surrounded by a wall of reeds and straw,” and was extremely pleased when he could “detect black forms scattering from hut to hut, apparently calling to one another [to] come and see the white man riding his ‘strange bird.’”50

The airline traveler’s reference to race is one of the few descriptions of how ‘black’ people in the colonies might have reacted to the metropolitan airline situating and moving privileged white men in and through the sky above them. On the one hand, the airborne man enjoyed the (p.90) double gaze of looking down at local inhabitants and having local inhabitants look up at him. He also liked how the vertical position of the airplane distanced the watcher and the watched in a new way; he clearly understood the power and privilege of his gendered, classed whiteness in relation to it. On the other hand, his reference to the exaggerated gestures and wonderment of grounded subjects suggested that colonized people might have found airline travel and the spectacle of colonizers overhead absurd.

A newspaper article reprinted in the Gazette offers additional clues. Three years before Imperial Airways winged that white man from northern to southern Africa, a journalist in Uganda observed, “The modern Uganda native takes little notice of this new wonder which weekly appears over his head.” Like the people McCullough met in Cyprus, the local residents mentioned in this column found the “novelties of the European” inconsequential. For the journalist, this indifference marked ignorance: “So much that he cannot understand has been brought into his surroundings and made part of daily life that further marvels perturb him very little.” According to the author, the “modern efficiency” and “amazement” of Imperial Airways profited European businessmen, consumers, and other “us Colonials” while, for locals, air transport was just another British technology. Like “the steam roller” or the “hot water tap in his master’s bedroom,” the airline had “passed into his accepted scheme of things. … It is enough for him that it has been brought by the Europeans—all is thereby explained.”51

To comprehend the significance of this observation of impassivity as evidence of subaltern agency, it is important to note that the so-called natives were colonial workers. With references to servants and market vendors pitted against comments about masters and patrons, the journalist led readers to marvel at the moving plane by outlining how an ascended airline descending affected the everyday life of labor on the ground. When “the early activities of the day in the bazaar and the market-day have subsided” and traders rest on verandahs while others stroll around Entebbe, “the demeanour of them all clearly shows that for them the chief business of the day is done.” Then “suddenly, away in the far distance, a speck appears in the sky. It rapidly approaches. … The drone of the engines becomes louder and clearer and the huge ’plane is quickly circling over the town,” disrupting the pace of grounded workers (p.91) decelerating. For colonial workers and other oppressed people to disregard such efforts to establish Imperial Airways as a mighty and spectacular part of British imperial life—to ignore the constructed awesomeness of being airborne or to treat the technology of air transport as trivial—was likely a small but notable rebellious jab.52

Above and below, the experience of airline travel was about race. For some passengers, the physical gap between people in the air and on the ground repositioned racial hierarchies. During the summer of 1936, the Gazette published a series of letters that Harry, a man flying between Croydon and Johannesburg, wrote to his “Dearest Mother” in England. It was not the first or last time the magazine featured familial exchanges between male passengers and their kin.53 However, Harry’s letters were the only ones the Gazette deemed “good.”54

What made Harry’s letters so exceptional? At first glance, his missives were somewhat typical. Like other airline travelers, Harry wrote and sent his letters en route, and he described what it was like to inspect the below from the above, and to feel like he had conquered nature. He told “Dearest Mother” about seeing the sky change colors, as he reflected on how “the sun rose” like her son rose. He gawked at lives beneath him, acutely aware of the substantial somatic and technological distance that separated his existence from theirs: “we saw the Nile … a hive of activity, as wheels moved by donkeys, men in a line hoeing in unison certainly to a chant which we could not hear.” Like other fliers, he also felt powerful when “we came down within 500 ft. of the ground” and the noise of the airplane spooked animals like the “four great herds of white elephant, which scattered as we flew over them.” During layovers, he rather liked that “all was cool, clean and civilised and delightfully arranged” because it exhibited British betterment schemes, just as “the refreshments on a snow white table cloth showed that some Englishwoman (or at least British) was doing her bit to make the tropics better and brighter.” Then, when his aerial escapades ended, he too concluded, “Imperial Airways put up the best show I’ve seen for efficiency and comfort of the passenger.” Uplift, order, spectacle, and ease were all part of the performance.55

Unlike other airline travel writers, Harry explicitly linked speed-up to the formation of new racial differences and the obliteration of nuanced human diversity. On his way from Khartoum to Juba, he noticed how (p.92) the landscape “changed gradually as we proceeded” south; “the trees got thicker” slowly down there. From the vantage point of speed-up Harry was able to survey and “see the hand of civilised man, as paths and roads went straight” across the territory’s thickness. As Harry peered through the accentuated scope of his aircraft’s quickened movement and suspended verticality, he deduced at a distance, “This is Africa now … from the air the villages look more like clumps of mushrooms than anything else. The natives are now just niggers the same as in Brazil.”56

It is easy but amiss to suggest that affluent men alone helped build white flight, the move of white travelers from the below to the above. White women actively participated in the segregation practices that helped establish this new domain. In November 1937, the Gazette reprinted Genesta Long’s empire air route story, which had first appeared in Vogue. (The writings of McCullough, Pitt, and Harry were previously unpublished.) Long was among the few women the magazine published. Her account was also one of the few that focused on women flying over the empire.57

Long flew Imperial Airways from England to South Africa. Like the male writers featured in the Gazette, she focused on what she saw when airborne in flight. She told her readers about “the full drama,” “the kaleidoscopic changes of scenery,” “the sudden arrivals in new worlds” that they would see if they took to the air. She talked about the magic carpet ride “over the hot Arabian deserts” and the “swoop over Africa,” which she found to be the “most lovely and exciting flight of all.” She also told women what to wear and when to wear what, when flying over the empire, which the men did not do for their gender. Long’s instruction was a lesson the Gazette hoped women would want to learn: “We believe that it will be of particular interest to our women readers as it gives useful information on the type of clothes which should be worn.”

Long included a meticulous shopping list. Women passengers en route to Africa must have “the right luggage and clothes.” She had to be prepared. She needed two handbags and “a two-bottle, spill proof case for [her] day and evening scents, while [she] should have a special fitted travelling case for face lotions and all other liquid beauty things.” She strongly advised, “For the first day’s flight wear a light wool suit with a gay scarf and a reckless hat.” Then, on the “next day wear a light linen frock and jacket, and have your dark glasses handy, for you will need them during the various stops.” From remarks on how to wear an olive (p.93) green “double felt hat” in Cairo to reminders to keep an “uncrushable lace dinner frock at hand, in case a party materialises” in Rome, Long told women how their bodies should look during flight.

Fashion advice was, and still is, more than advice about fashion. On those rare occasions when it was given in the Gazette, it was unabashedly about the intersectional construction of race, particularly whiteness, class, gender, and the aerial style. Long’s directives chronicled, and thereby helped to create, the hazards and dangers women passengers faced while flying. Layovers, for example, were risky for white women, though not for men like McCullough. Long insisted that travel over Sudan had to be “a trouser day.” “There are halts, at strange, desert places such as Malakal and Butiaba, where, leaning upon their spears, groups of apparently one-legged people stand staring; silent, stork-like Dinkas, coal-black.” Women should be content to “watch carefully out of the window” and see the “savage red bluff of the Nandi Escarpment, a wild country and the home of a wild and difficult tribe,” much as Pitt had done en route to India. That said, women must also prepare for and protect themselves from the black unknown of flight, according to Long and the two magazines that printed her work. Women need to keep wearing trousers when they fly over places “mysterious and pregnant with strange things, a bit of the primeval world lost in the heart of the dark continent.” Only “after the many strange and primitive places you have seen from beneath the wings of your plane” should you put that “thin linen frock” back on.58


The air travel story is powerful. Sometimes people ask for it, sometimes people just give it, and sometimes people keep it to themselves. Not everyone has one because not everyone can.

The air travel story is never just a story. It has history. It was and remains a way people learned how to live—or live in relation to those who could be—in the air. One version encouraged people to use airmail. It taught them to trust, and now to expect, that their things would arrive quickly and safely on time. It was how some people unlearned how to wait.

Another kind of narrative explained how to be a passenger: how to move and occupy space; how to see and be seen; how to dress; to expect (p.94) entertainment; to expect service; to expect to have an experience; to assume all onboard will be like you.

For the most part, the tales in this chapter were industry stories. They were part of how a culture of airline travel was made. For Imperial Airways, they helped to establish and sell British air travel. Other national airlines had their own stories to tell.

The colonial world was at the heart of how modern flight was fashioned. Airline passage altered how travelers understood themselves and felt about others. For first-generation passengers on the empire routes, the accelerated and sustained movement of the plane through vertical space reconfigured power. For some, the combination of hastening and hovering through the sky started to turn airspace into a dwelling place. Passengers like Pitt experienced the high speed of airborne mobility, the containment of the airliner cabin, and the airy gap between below and above as a transient yet inhabitable setting beyond historical time. Flying, the perceived seamlessness of being in the above led them to render the territories and folks being passed over as vestiges of an elsewhere and elsewhen.

For other airline travelers, the airplane journey was more than a mechanism of modernity. Going airborne generated feelings inextricably linked to furthering the enterprise of empire. Men like McCullough saw themselves as imperial agents, and they executed their Britishness accordingly. Long-haul layovers—the repeated act of rapidly ascending, descending, touching down, and abruptly taking off again—generated new geographies of selfhood. The heading-up, leveling, and coming-down of flight fashioned a very different way for these men on the go to imagine themselves inspecting metropolitan contrivances and instituting colonial order while dashing between places.

Flight was a colonial encounter. Passenger accounts illuminate how airline travel could vividly change a person’s appreciation of cultural specificity and limit his, her, or their ability to empathize with others. Adventurers such as Harry enjoyed personal mobility in three-dimensional space largely because access to aerial surveillance facilitated a version of firsthand visual knowledge that made him feel racially superior. From his perspective, via the elevated vistas of the plane, all black people seemed the same.

Early airline travel enabled people to embody and experience the racial hierarchies of vertical power relations. The tales told about their (p.95) experiences help us to understand the racialized practices, everyday oppressions, and dimensions of inequality that were—and still are—at work when people move overhead. Speed-up rearranged space, and the perceived miracle and magic of air transport was twofold for passengers: Its ability to reduce travel times shrank distances on the one hand and its ability to enlarge the span between sky and ground expanded distance on the other. On different planes, the inside and the outside seemed detached, never touching. For the grounded, however, this new form of movement might have meant something different. They are not dominant in the archive, but their momentary actions offer a slightly atypical way to make sense of air mobility during this period. Rather than imply that the onset of airline travel was profoundly remarkable, their gestures suggest that, though the geometry of empire was mounting upward and in the ordinary sky, there was a hint of familiarity about how to negotiate the arrival of this kind of power. Far from expressions of technological awe or evolution, pointing, disregarding, and gawking might also have been a way for people on the ground to uncover, then undercut, the racialist inflections embedded in the latest implement of imperial rule.

The Infrequent Flier

I return briefly to one of the earliest fragments in this book to highlight a few of the reasons why airline stories matter: Terminal, Fragment 2. The death of Jimmy Mubenga has received a lot of media coverage. It has appeared in this and other academic works, and nongovernmental organizations and activists have recounted it over and again. And thankfully so. The death of vulnerable people on commercial airlines, which includes people who are being deported, is not new. Many of the men and women who have died while escorted by private security corporations died in a manner similar to Mubenga. Those deaths are not as well known.

The passengers and crew members who were on board the British Airways flight with Mubenga have done a tremendous job of documenting and sharing their stories. Their detailed accounts have played important roles in the investigations and case studies of governmental and nongovernmental organizations. They have also helped to bring attention to one of the ways in which the commercial airline industry and the deportation industry support and profit from each other.

(p.96) There are many reasons why the death of Mubenga is well known, but I want to draw attention to one in particular: the ground. Unlike most other cabin deaths, his came to pass on the ground; the plane had not taken off. Admittedly, as someone who studies cultural practices aboard airliners in flight, I am acutely aware of location. However, when one reads travel stories from that flight with location in mind, the significance of the sky starts to open up: “He’ll be alright,” a guard explained, “once we get him in the air.”59

The airliner cabin is a place. This chapter has sought to show how air places were built through narrative, as well how those with access to airline travel learned to inhabit the airplane and live in the sky. In particular, it has drawn attention to the broader state projects that were involved in the construction of air places. Nowadays, occasional and frequent fliers tend not to think of the cabin as a place of humanity; from airmail to lessons about how to see the below from above, the normalization of air travel and the promotion of individualism were part of how the industry was made. The guard’s statement points to how power, in particular state and corporate power, benefits from the idea of the cabin as a nonplace and flying as a liminal practice. ‘Un-grounding’ knowledge-making practices and critically sharing stories about the unremarkable—about how ordinary lives are lived in the everyday sky—is one way to struggle against the old flying lessons that have made the air, as the guard put it, seem like a place to “be alright.”60


(2) On black writers claiming what James Baldwin called “history as written by whites,” see Baldwin, “James Baldwin.”

(3) Cole, “The Unquiet Sky,” in Known and Strange Things, 207–211.

(7) Brian Riddle at the Royal Aeronautical Society graciously helped estimate when the last issue was released.

(9) On guidebooks, spectatorship, and governance, see Apter, “On Imperial Spectacle”; Grewal, Home and Harem.

(11) The notion of scapes and their imagined worlds belongs to Appadurai, Modernity at Large, 30.

(13) A wonderful essay on airfreight and globalization is Lopez, “Flight,” in About This Life, 73–109.

(p.163) (14) Sir Eric Geddes, “The Annual General Meeting of Imperial Airways,” Gazette, 2; Imperial Airways, “Map of Empire and European Air Routes,” 1936. A199006050000, ct. neg. 98–20236, NASM.

(19) For weight in steamship culture, see Woollacott, To Try Her Fortune in London, 21.

(20) There were other options. The airline used miles to measure distance; the Postmaster General used place to evoke an emotive sense of how far letters had flown. For example, when he wanted to say how far Christmas mail flew, he said ‘from Britain to India’ to indicate distance.

(24) For all quotes in the paragraph, see “The World Travels by Air,” Gazette, 4.

(27) Front Cover, Gazette, October 1930.

(30) For comparison, see aerial racial segregation in the United States in Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, esp. 117.

(32) For all quotes in the paragraph, see “To Paris While You Read Your Paper,” Gazette, 8.

(34) Front Cover, Gazette, January 1931.

(37) “Air Travel for Women,” Gazette, November 1933, 5.

(38) Menzies, All Ways by Airways. TL 526.G7M55, NASM.

(39) “In Swiss Cloudland,” Gazette, 3, emphasis in original. My thanks to Mary Harris O’Reilly for pointing out that interwar references to ‘white magic’ were often about intentions that were good or bad, and were not necessarily about race. For a different approach to affect and air travel experiences, see Budd, “On Being Aeromobile.”

(41) On in-flight experiences, see “Catering Up in the Air,” Gazette, 6.

(43) Unless noted, for all quotes from McCullough, see “Baghdad Bound,” Gazette, February 1934, 2; March 1934, 7; May 1934, 5.

(44) On the complexities of empire and debris, see Stoler, ed., Imperial Debris.

(49) For surveillance technologies and their racial politics, see Browne, Dark Matters. For aerial surveillance before and during this period, see Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control; Satia, Spies in Arabia.

(51) As an example of flight serving metropolitans abroad, he noted, “Urgent merchandise is hurried to us with astonishing rapidity.” For all quotes in the paragraph and this footnote, see L., “Our Air Link with Home,” Gazette, 1.

(52) For all quotes in the paragraph, see L., “Our Air Link with Home,” Gazette, 1. On interpreting daily acts of resistance, see Kelley, Race Rebels.

(55) Emphasis mine. For all quotes in the paragraph, see Harry, “A Good Letter,” Gazette.

(56) For all quotes in the paragraph, see Harry, “A Good Letter,” Gazette.

(57) Long later became the well-known writer Genesta Hamilton. For a woman airline passenger writing prescriptively about flying the empire route to Australia, see “Flying in Comfort,” Gazette, 6–7. For gender and imperial aerial subjectivity, see Millward, Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922–1937.

(58) Unless noted, for all quotes from Long, see “South Africa by the Empire Flying Boat,” Gazette, 2–4.

(60) On whiteness and flight, see Back, “Falling from the Sky.”