The crew was growing puzzled. "What's happened to Africa?" they asked themselves. Their 325-kilometer (200-mi) flight across the Mediterranean, expected to take two hours, had now lasted three, and there was still no sign of the North African coastline. It was August 7, 1918—three months before the end of World War I—and the twin-engined Handley Page 0/400, a biplane bomber of the British Royal Air Force (RAF), had taken off from Crete at first light with a spanking tail wind, bound for Cairo. It was piloted by Brigadier General Amyas Borton; the co-pilot was Major Archibald McLaren. Two mechanics and McLaren's dog Tiny made up the rest of the crew.
They were out to prove a point.
Earlier, Borton had proposed to the Air Council that, instead of shipping aircraft like the 0/400 to Alexandria in crates by sea, ferrying them by air—with enormous advantages of speed—had now become possible. He asked to be assigned to prove it.
Borton had discussed the implications of the idea with his superior, Major General Geoffrey Salmond, who commanded the RAF in the Middle East. With the war nearing an end, Salmond was beginning to imagine peacetime air routes stretching from England to India, Australia and Africa, all via the Middle East. He saw Borton's proposal as a step toward the realization of such empire-girdling long-distance routes.
Leaving Manston, England on July 18, Borton and his crew flew via Paris, Lyon, Miramas, Pisa, Rome, Otronto, Potasi and Crete, with overnight stops in each of those places. It was a spartan trip: At Lyon, Borton considered himself fortunate to find an aircraft packing-case, complete with wood shavings for dunnage, in which he made "a very comfortable bed." In Rome, sleeping under the wing of the plane, he was savaged by mosquitoes, despite covering his head with his undershirt. Now, three hours out from Crete, Africa was proving elusive.
Borton and McLaren guessed that the wind had shifted, slowing them and causing them to drift. And indeed, the coast appeared soon afterward, and the map showed they were some 50 kilometers (30 mi) east of their intended landfall near Sollum. No harm done: They continued east along the coast, and after being airborne nearly five and a half hours, they set down at Marsa Matruh for refueling. In the afternoon they flew on to Alexandria, and continued to Cairo the next day. Their actual flying time to Cairo was 37 hours.
The challenge of long-distance flight in the Middle East was formidable. In any direction, there were deserts to cross, and deserts, to an aviator, were little different from oceans: vast, almost featureless, expanses. Radio directional beacons still lay a decade in the future, en-route weather stations did not yet exist, and aircraft engines were not entirely reliable. Navigation was strictly visual, aided by sun and compass and confirmed—not always reliably—by comparing visible ground features, such as rivers and railway tracks, to maps. Although aircraft were equipped with radios for two-way Morse-code communication, radio range was limited to 150 to 300 kilometers (90-180 mi), and the letter-by-letter transmissions were painfully slow. In a featureless desert, crews could only suppose their likely location.
Three years after Borton's flight, in June 1921, the RAF inaugurated a fortnightly service between Cairo and Baghdad, the first step toward a regular England-India route. It carried official mail and senior civil servants, and became known as the Desert Airmail Service. The route was some 1520 kilometers (940 mi) long, from the airfield in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis—where the Egyptian capital's airport still lies—to Hinaidi, just south of the Iraqi capital. The first aircraft on the route were two-man, single-engined bombers, the De Havilland DH9A, flown in pairs as a precaution in case of engine failure. (Bombers were used because of their cargo capacity, and, in addition to mail, they carried spare wheels, tents, bedding and goat-skins full of water.)
Before the first Cairo-Baghdad flight, the RAF had to solve the navigational problem presented by some 760 kilometers (470 mi) of desert between the refuelling stations at Ziza, 50 kilometers (30 mi) south of Amman, and Ramadi, on the Euphrates River 130 kilometers (80 mi) north of Baghdad. While flyers in North America and Europe often followed railway tracks, construction of a railway across the desert was hardly practical. Nonetheless, some now forgotten genius suggested, a facsimile might be: A distinct, plowed furrow, of some two meters' width, could serve as a line-of-sight navigational aid.
Shortly after this brilliant suggestion was made, the route was initially marked with chain harrows, and in 1922, teams on Fordson tractors, pulling weighted plows and escorted by armored cars, set out eastward from Amman and westward from Baghdad, aiming to meet halfway. They plowed a total of some 500 kilometers (310 mi), and the remainder of the route, which lay over scattered black basalt rock, they marked in white paint. The task took eight weeks.
Every 40 kilometers (25 mi) or so, the plowing crews also demarcated emergency landing fields, each prominently numbered for identification from the air and marked with arrows indicating direction of approach. Fuel was made available at two of them, protected from theft and attack by a heavy bronze dome. The depot's locking system was ingeniously designed to function also as a double lock on the aircraft cabin doors, so that an aircraft could not take off either with its door open or with the depot key left at the fuel tank.
Had this desert been similar to many parts of the Sahara, what came to be called simply "the Furrow" would have disappeared within weeks, filled in by drifting sand. But much of this terrain in what is today Jordan and western Iraq was cast up by volcanic action, and tends to be hard, often stony ground, with patches of sand and hardened mud. As a result, pilots referred to flying "FTF" on this route: "follow the furrow."
Not everyone was happy with this navigation system, however: From altitude, the Furrow looked like "a thin pencil line on the desert's surface," one pilot griped. Others complained of the strain of flying a straight line for hour after droning hour. Still other critics claimed that the Furrow allowed aircrews to become altogether too relaxed.
The aircraft type most closely associated with the early days of the Cairo-Baghdad service was the Vickers Vernon, powered by the same twin Rolls Royce Eagle engines that had carried John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown on the first nonstop west-to-east North Atlantic crossing in June 1919. In the Middle East, if the mail load were light, a Vernon, which had an open cockpit with an enclosed cabin behind, could carry six or seven passengers.
Crews on the Desert Airmail Service had to be all-rounders. The aircraft generally flew at no more than 2700 meters (under 9000'), which meant that engine failure would give them only a few minutes to glide—often steeply—down to an impromptu landing. Passengers often literally pulled their weight, too, irrespective of social status, by joining in to handle the gasoline cans should more fuel be needed. Fueling en route was a slow job at best, as the fuel had to be filtered through chamois to remove water and grit. Given the unwelcome local attention a landing aircraft could attract, visible for many kilometers in the treeless landscape and with another noisily circling overhead, there was ample incentive to get back into the air and away, for there were Bedouin along the route who resented the aircraft as intruders that frightened their herds.
At the end of 1926, the RAF handed over the Cairo-Baghdad route to Imperial Airways, formed two years earlier, for incorporation into their Britain-India service. Pilots continued to benefit from the Furrow, which was still clearly visible. The 1929 edition of Cook's Traveller's Handbook for Palestine, Syria and Iraq mentions that "the convoys meet the Cairo-Baghdad airmail track leading from Amman." The same publication says that Imperial Airways had a weekly service between Cairo and Baghdad with a connecting flight to Basrah. "The journey from Cairo to Baghdad takes just under 12 hours with a halt at Gaza and Rutbah [Wells] in the desert."
At Rutbah Wells, which lay on a high plateau halfway between Damascus and Baghdad, the airline developed an overnight resthouse in an old fort. (In 1932, to serve passengers to and from India via the Arabian Gulf, they added a second one in Sharjah, then one of the Trucial States and now one of the United Arab Emirates.) There, a common complaint in winter was the cold, for the builders at Rutbah Wells had, unaccountably, made no provision for fireplaces or chimneys."We dined in overcoats," a passenger reported, "and had a very shivery night." One compensation, whereby passengers might momentarily forget the temperature, was the experience of climbing the circular stone staircase to the roof. "Breathtaking, millions of stars sparkling in the clear desert air," one said. Above the roof there was a radio and observation tower whose beacon was visible to aircraft 130 kilometers (80 mi) around. If few travelers praised the resthouse meals as first-class, all agreed that lounge, bedrooms and other conveniences were "clean, comfortable and well arranged." In the morning, a brass bell summoned passengers to embark.
Given Britain's dominant political position in the area, Imperial Airways had a head start across the Middle East, but other countries were catching up quickly. The end of World War I set off a flurry of surplus-bomber conversions throughout Europe that led to the first generation of aircraft for passengers, mail and freight. Despite the modest British lead, the French, it turned out, had a clearer perception of what air transport would eventually mean for colonies in the Far East and Africa. In Paris, a government policy of subsidizing airlines contrasted with the British contention that airlines "must fly by themselves." To this day, the French economic model is still demonstrating its validity.
As European air services became common, Belgium, Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands—the colonial powers—dispatched proving flights to Africa, Asia, the Antilles and Latin America, preparatory to establishing new, far-flung routes of regular service. General Salmond sent three RAF survey teams to select possible sites for no less than 42 landing grounds between Cairo and the Cape of Good Hope. The Germans, having been stripped of colonial holdings, concentrated on technical development, especially that of aircraft instrumentation, and they circumvented the Versailles Treaty's ban on constructing large aircraft by establishing manufacturing facilities in Italy, Spain and Switzerland, thereafter demonstrating that their aircraft were better than any others produced in Europe.
Deutsche Lufthansa carried out its first proving flights to Egypt in February 1935, culminating in a same-day Berlin-Cairo round-trip flight: 16 1/2 hours in a Junkers 52/3m. Subsequent German flights pushed farther east. The Italians, also relative latecomers, inaugurated a flying-boat service to Tunisia in 1929, and they developed routes down through Africa. In 1939 they started flying-boat service from Rome to Buenos Aires, where nearly half the population was of Italian origin. By 1936, Imperial Airways itself operated nearly 30,000 kilometers (18,000 mi) of routes that linked 23 countries. Few wartime aircraft conversions survived in regular service long after World War I, and many innovations appeared in Middle Eastern skies during the late 1920's and mid-1930's. Air-cooled engines gradually superseded the much heavier water-cooled ones, and from British and French factories there came a series of heavy, even stately, biplanes: The largest was the four-engined, 24-passenger Handley Page HP42, constructed first in 1930 with an upper wingspan of 40 meters (130') and a triple rudder. Renowned for luxurious furnishings and relative quietness—albeit in an era when air travel was deafeningly loud—the HP42 proved ponderous in the sky, rarely attaining even its nominal 160 kph (100 mph) cruising speed. Only eight were constructed.
Captain Griffith James "Taffy" Powell, a veteran pilot of Imperial Airways' HP42 service in the Middle East, recalled that, going east to Jordan from the Sea of Galilee, "you had to climb all the way, keep going straight to get over the hills. It was the limit of the ability of the HP42. In the hot weather, you were sometimes lucky to make a thousand feet of altitude in five minutes.
"It was the most regal-looking aircraft, but not in the least streamlined," he added. "It had a certain dignity. I once had [Imperial Airways chairman] Sir Eric Geddes standing beside me in the cockpit saying 'You're supposed to be doing 100 mph,' and I said 'Well, the aircraft won't do it!' He was annoyed. The aircraft's performance was disgraceful, really."
British pilots' impatience was in no way lessened by the in-flight indignity suffered when a three-engined Fokker FXII of KLM overtook an HP42 en route to Baghdad. Pulling up alongside, the Dutch captain slid open his cockpit window, gestured to his British counterpart, and forged ahead to land at Baghdad well ahead of the HP42.
Passengers, on the other hand, liked the service and the aircraft. Sir Montagu de P. Webb, who made a number of early air trips between England and India, effused in 1933 about a trip from Karachi, including the Baghdad-Cairo leg aboard the HP42 Hanno : "London in five days—what more could one want!" He described a strong headwind on the leg from Rutbah Wells to Gaza:
But what is this? Our engines are slowing down, and we are descending to earth. Landing so gently as to be almost unnoticeable, our Engineer steps out and runs ahead to show the way to some unknown destination. Taxiing after him, Hanno comes to rest over a small circular iron cover to what is clearly a large receptacle underground. In fact, it is an emergency petrol supply. Our Captain, faced with the possibility of more strong head-winds before reaching Gaza, decides as a precautionary measure to take in more petrol. So we all alight and watch the proceedings.
The last British biplanes operated by Imperial Airways on the Cairo-Baghdad run were both tri-motors: the De Havilland DH66 Hercules, which carried seven passengers at 178 kph (110 mph), and the Armstrong Whitworth Argosy, which carried 20 passengers at 155 kph (96 mph). They were succeeded by the first of the four-engined, all-metal monoplanes: the Armstrong Whitworth Atlanta, whose speed exceeded that of biplanes by only some 25 percent; the De Havilland Albatross, which could reach 340 kph (210 mph) carrying 22 passengers, and the Armstrong Whitworth Ensign, whose capacity was 40 passengers but which cruised at 275 kph (170 mph).
But the best-remembered aircraft of Imperial Airways and its successor, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), between the World Wars are without doubt the flying boats. (See sidebar, at left.) While airlines of most European countries also operated flying boats at one time or another, only Britain maintained regular flying-boat services via Egypt to India, the Far East and Australia for almost two decades, as well as down the length of Africa. As Imperial Airways was fond of naming its aircraft after distant destination cities, the first of its flying boats, which reached Alexandria in July 1928, was a three-engined, 12-passenger "Calcutta-type" aircraft named City of Alexandria. At various times, flying boats landed in Alexandria's east harbor and, later, on Lake Mariut; on the Nile at Rod el Farag, north of Cairo; on the Dead Sea at El Lisan; on the Sea of Galilee and on Lake Habbaniyah in Iraq.
May 1936 saw the arrival on a proving flight of the first four-engined Short C-Class Sunderland, a 24-passenger luxury flying boat, a great step forward from its predecessors. The all-metal, high-wing Sunderlands had been designed for the Empire Air Mail program, for which Alexandria served as a hub. By 1938 the airline was carrying some 2000 tons of mail annually.
Yet for all the progress, the route from England to India via the Middle East, first surveyed in 1919, was blocked by politics from full completion until the late 1930's. Because of a dispute with Italy, France declined to permit British aircraft to fly over French territory to Italian destinations—the most practical way to circumnavigate the Alps. This obliged passengers arriving in Paris by air from London to take the train from there to Brindisi, Italy, where they boarded an Imperial Airways flying boat for Egypt and went on to India. Another obstacle was Persia's initial opposition to transit flights, though this was later modified to permit passage along the eastern shore of the Arabian Gulf. With the rail link between Paris and Italy, a journey in the late 1920's and early 1930's from Croydon, south of London, to Karachi took seven days, and the one-way fare was £130.
By the late 1930's, and especially following the enormous aviation advances that came with World War II, land-based aircraft became increasingly rapid and preferred over flying boats. Still, BOAC promoted their flying boats as luxurious alternatives, emphasizing their comfort and relaxed atmosphere and downplaying their relatively slow cruising speed. Advertisements touted the "absence of that chained-to-a-seat feeling" and contrasted the flying-boat experience to that of "bored passengers sitting in serried rows" in land-based aircraft.
Serried or not, the public in general opted for speed over comfort. The last BOAC flying boat was decommissioned in November 1950. By then, flying "the Furrow" was already a memory, superseded by the early radio aids to navigation, more advanced versions of which still guide aircraft today.
Alan McGregor ( alan.mcgregor@ ties.itu.ch ) was a reporter in Cairo from 1949 to 1962. He now lives in Geneva, where he pursues his interest in aviation history.
Benjamin Freudenthal specializes in aviation and motor sports. He lives in Bordeaux, France, and his website is http://www.atinternet.com/ benjamin/index.htm .