Imperial Service Aboard The Majestic Handley-Page

England’s Handley-Page company had developed large and powerful bombers during World War I, and had the new O-100 model coming off the assembly line just as the war ended. These were converted first to military transports, then to a civilian air liner that was furnished in almost Victorian luxury. Note the interior in this shot from about 1920:HandleyPageSaloon

My favorite detail is the candelabra… with the exception of the round windows, this might have been a particularly narrow luxury railroad car. There were neither heating or refrigeration facilities aboard, but cold suppers were loaded in wicker boxes lined with hay for insulation, and stewards in spotless whites poured hot drinks from thermos bottles.

The Handley-Page company became so famous for their large aircraft that any big plane was referred to as a Handley-Page, which must have made their competitors furious. The company built increasingly luxurious biplane airliners such as the model 42, which debuted in 1928. Here’s a cross-section – you can see a tiny galley marked “stewards” beneath the wing, next to the cocktail bar:handley-page-hp-42-03

And here’s an image of service aboard a Handley-Page 42 over Africa – note that the dapper gentleman on the left has a pith helmet in the luggage rack, the proper attire for the well-prepared traveler.handley-page-hp-42-07

The company’s last biplane airliner was introduced in 1929, and they didn’t make another civilian aircraft until 1950 with the turboprop Hermes model. Their postwar efforts were inferior to those built by Vickers and American companies, though they produced one fine design, the Jetstream commuter aircraft, before going bankrupt in 1960. It was a sad end for a company that once produced beautiful and technically brilliant aircraft reengineered from weapons of war.

The Other Airships – Food Aboard Naval Blimps

The luxurious zeppelins got the most attention from historians and the general public, but the smaller, less glamorous blimps stayed in service much longer and performed impressive feats. During the Second World War they patrolled the seas for submarines, and in 1942 one of them, the Resolute, was issued a Letter of Marque – a document last used during the War of 1812 that was usually used to justify attacks that otherwise would have been regarded as piracy. Letters of Marque were issued only to armed vessels, and the blimp did carry one rifle and some depth charges; if someone at the Naval airship office had a sense of history, they might at least have included some cutlasses and muskets. Eyepatches and a parrot would be optional.

Those blimps were called the K-Series, and over 100 of them were built by Goodyear Airship Operations in Akron, Ohio and fitted out to stay in the air for weeks if needed. Two of them made the first crossing of the Atlantic in non-rigid airships, flying round-trip from Massachusetts to Morocco, and others spent long, lonely patrols above the Atlantic, Pacific, and Caribbean seeking U-Boats. Which raised the question – what could be cooked in that cramped cabin to keep up the morale of the crew? The picture below, which was provided by Richard Van Treuren of the Naval Airship Association, gives an answer:

Breakfast is served aboard  the K-28 above the Atlantic. Photo courtesy of the Naval Airship Association.

Breakfast is served aboard the K-28 above the Atlantic. Photo courtesy of the Naval Airship Association.

It’s hard to tell precisely what is on that plate, but it included eggs made on a tiny hot plate and coffee brewed in the electric pot that was built into the bulkhead of the blimp. Other meals included beans heated in a small crock, plus whatever meats and cold cuts could be found locally. Some crewmen complained about the blandness of the meals, but whatever was served hot was probably appreciated; according to Mr. Van Treuren, the heating aboard these blimps was so rudimentary that the eggs sometimes froze.

The blimps were very effective at their job, warning convoys and calling in airstrikes on surfaced submarines. Only one naval blimp was lost during the war, short down by a submarine they were attacking with a machine gun and depth charges in an attempt to keep the U-boat away from nearby merchant ships. One crewman died after a shark attack, the only American blimp crewman ever killed in action, and the rest were rescued a few days later. The navy tried to keep the event classified, which prevented the public from appreciating the service of the crew that initiated the last airship attack in history.

There’s a lot more to learn about these naval airships – if you’d like to know more, the Naval Airships Association has a page at

Mystery To Be Solved: Food Aboard CNAC and Air Eurasia

The history of airlines in China before World War II is shadowy, but it started surprisingly early. During the Chinese warlord period after the fall of the Empire, war surplus twin-engine bombers flew the skies of China, and some level of civilian aviation was up and running by 1925. The fact that China’s inland cities were built along rivers made seaplane travel practical, as seen in this letter from 1932 that shows the eight stops between Chengdu and Shanghai.28.Auktion The romance of air travel was played up in this timetable, which is from the same period.


CNAC had technical assistance from Pan Am, while their competitor, Air Eurasia, was a subsidiary of Lufthansa. Unfortunately I have been unable to find any pictures or descriptions of meals aboard either airline, despite contacting eminent historians of flight in Asia. Gregory Crouch, author of “China’s Wings,” a history of CNAC, found a mention of a “boxed lunch” in notes about an Air Eurasia flight, but the person who wrote that letter didn’t give any further details. Crouch also mentioned that CNAC outsourced their catering to an entrepreneur who became quite wealthy as a result, but he has never seen any menus. If anyone out there can find any descriptions, photographs, or menus from China in the 1920’s or 1930’s, please share them with me.

Spice, Flight, and Expectations in Africa

After the great colonial powers relinquished their overseas possessions, one of the symbols of sovereignty was having an international airline. Africa, Asia, and South America sprouted new carriers, which proudly flew new flags but usually served the same European food that was standard around the world. Take a look at this Ghana Airways menu, which is probably from the early 1970’s: GhanaAirwaysMenuThe new airlines had to deal with two facts: first, few of their own people could afford to fly, so they had to please European and American palates to have any hope of attracting customers. Second, for people who are used to spicy and flavorful food bland meals are dull but edible, while people used to bland food will reject spicy and unfamiliar items. Serving English or French -style meals was a safe choice, so even between points in Africa and Asia the food served usually did not reflect local tastes.

The reports I have read of food aboard most of these carriers were not positive, though service problems may not be entirely to blame for the demise of Ghana Airways. The airline ran off schedule so often and overbooked their flights so regularly that having a ticket and showing up at the airport at the appointed time was no guarantee that you would actually go anywhere. Like many other new airlines they were an instrument of state policy and flew some routes to serve political purposes – in three months of operation between Accra and Khartoum, they flew twelve paying passengers. Other routes that were actually popular were underserved; while those empty planes flew back and forth to Sudan, flights to Europe and America routinely were so overloaded that fistfights erupted over who would get to board the aircraft.  There were multiple instances of passengers taking airport personnel hostage, threatening to burn down ticket offices and terminals, and rioting because they had been stranded at remote airports. The only surprise when Ghana Airways went bankrupt in 2005 was that it had taken so long. The routes that made economic sense were taken up by less nationalistic but more reliable foreign carriers, and a new generation of private airlines provides a wider range of cuisine aboard flights that actually depart and arrive on something approximating a schedule.

Who Was First in Flight?

In my book I gave a few facts about the earliest airline service, a topic that always seems to start arguments. There are multiple claims regarding which carrier operated the world’s first airline service, and the correct answer depends on how you define the terms. The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line started scheduled service in 1913, unquestionably before anybody else, but their operations weren’t really what we would now think of as an airline. The flights took 23 minutes to travel 23 miles, and attained the awesome height of five feet above the water while carrying the pilot and one passenger. The flights were subsidized by the city of St. Petersburg for five weeks, and when that subsidy ran out operations ceased immediately. Milestone that it was, it was still a publicity stunt. A similar service ran in Yorkshire between Bradford and Leeds in Yorkshire in 1914 – it was subsidized for two days, then promptly folded.

Red Arrow Flying Service started passenger flights from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to the Bahamas in 1917, but like the air taxi service between Tampa and Sarasota they only carried a single passenger.  They changed the name to Chalk’s International Airline in 1919 and were first to carry multiple passengers on scheduled flights, still flying to Bimini in the Bahamas. That was their only destination for seventy years – the airline remained in business until 2007.

(I have been unable to figure out what type of aircraft were first used by Chalk’s. An article in Smithsonian Magazine incorrectly states that the airline operated their first service with a Stinson Voyager seaplane, but this can’t be true – the Stinson company didn’t start making aircraft until 1925, and their first model was the Detroiter. Chalk’s did use Voyagers later, but not until the late 1940’s. If anyone can enlighten me regarding the earliest aircraft used by Chalk’s that carried multiple passengers, I’d be obliged.)

Chalk’s never served meals during their entire existence, nor did any of the airlines that started in Europe between 1917 and 1919. Most used open-cockpit aircraft, which meant that no food could possibly be served, and the first closed-cabin aircraft from Junkers seated only three people plus the pilot. It wasn’t until 1920, when KLM, Handley-Page Transport and Air Union started service using modified First World War bombers, that passengers were inside a cabin and inflight beverage service became possible.

There was one interesting might-have-been. The famed Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille was an aviation enthusiast who built an airport at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, which he modestly named DeMille Field #1. In 1918 he started an airline called Mercury Air Service, and from their 1919 brochure you can see that he had big dreams:MercuryAviationAd1920DeMille wanted to operate regular passenger flights, but at the time only two-seat Curtiss Jenny aircraft were available, so Mercury operated charter service and sightseeing trips for two years. Air ace Eddie Rickenbacker delivered a closed-cabin Junkers in 1920, and soon thereafter Mercury Aviation offered scheduled flights to Bakersfield, Fresno, San Francisco, San Diego, and Catalina Island. This made them the world’s first airline regularly serving multiple destinations. Over 25,000 passengers flew the carrier, but it was never robustly profitable and was shut down in 1922. I haven’t been able to find out what food and drink was served aboard their aircraft, but with a showman like DeMille in charge, I can only assume it was the best that could be arranged.