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Category: Aviation (Page 1 of 3)

By flying boat across India

In 1941, as war clouds loomed over southeast Asia, a Chicago News correspondent by the name of George Weller flew from Cairo to Singapore on assignment. In Singapore, Weller reported on the British Empire’s ineffectual preparations for an attack that was sure to come from Imperial Japan. When the attack did come, it was not from the sea—as the British expected and were prepared for—but through the jungles of Malaya. Weller reported on the Japanese forces’ astonishingly effective campaign down the Malayan Peninsula and the subsequent doomed defense of Singapore. He was there until almost the very end, when the remaining British Empire forces in Singapore surrendered on February 15, 1942. The following year, he published his firsthand account of the fall of Malaya and Singapore, the engrossing Singapore Is Silent.

Japanese troops parading in Singapore after the fall of the city. [Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD]

Japanese troops parading in Singapore after the fall of the city. [Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.]

Something that I found particularly interesting in Singapore Is Silent was Weller’s account of his flight from Cairo to Singapore. The two cities are a little over 5,100 miles apart by the great-circle route, which runs mostly over the Indian Ocean and only crosses the southern part of peninsular India. A flight like this would be no big deal with a modern long-range airliner like a 787 (even thought it seems that there are currently no airlines offering direct service between Cairo and Singapore). But this was far beyond the range of the airliners of the day.

A Short Sunderland Mk V in military (RAF) service. [Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.]

A Short Sunderland Mk V in military (RAF) service. [Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.]

In Singapore Is Silent, Chicagonews (as Weller calls himself in the narrative) flies to Singapore aboard a Short Sunderland operated by British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). The Sunderland was a flying boat, so it could only take off and land on water. The plane had a maximum range of 1,780 miles, which meant that it had to stop several times to refuel on its way to Singapore. BOAC routed its plane north of the great-circle route, sending it across northern India, where there were plenty of places to stop. Chicagonews’s route across India was this: Karachi (still a part of India at this point), Jaipur, Allahabad, “the narrow upper waters of the Ganges” (no city name specified), and Calcutta.

Karachi is on the coast and Allahabad and Calcutta are on the Ganges (Ganga) river system, but what about Jaipur? It is in arid Rajasthan, with no ocean or large river in sight.

Chicagonews’s plane touches down on “the Rajah’s lake near Jaipur,” where a motor launch takes the passengers to shore. This was clearly one of the artificial lakes around Jaipur. Although I have not been able to find a source to tell me which one it was, I think that it was most likely Jamwa Ramgarh, an irrigation reservoir 15 miles northeast of the city that was built in 1901. With a long axis of about 4½ miles, the lake would have been long enough for the takeoff run of a big flying boat.

Jamwa Ramgarh Tal, as pictured on a 1963 US Army Map Service map. The lake has been dry since 2000. Source: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection.

Jamwa Ramgarh Tal, as pictured on a 1963 US Army Map Service map. The lake has been dry since 2000. [Source: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection.]

The route crossing India by flying boat was a recent development. In the late thirties, Imperial Airways (BOAC’s predecessor) had taken its flying boats only as far as Karachi; for the crossing of India itself, passengers had transferred to landplanes and flown a route of Karachi–Jodhpur–Delhi–Allahabad–Calcutta. When Imperial Airways introduced flying boats for the crossing of India, the route was changed to Karachi–Rajsamand Lake (near Udaipur)–Gwalior–Allahabad–Calcutta.

The age of overseas travel by flying boats was brief. Long-distance routes like BOAC’s Cairo-Singapore were disrupted by Axis conquests during World War II. By the end of the war, land-based planes had become bigger, faster, and longer-ranged, so airliners could make overseas flights with fewer intermediate stops. For example, BOAC adopted the Boeing 377 in 1949, which had a range of 4,200 miles, more than twice the range of the Short Sunderland from just a decade earlier. The Boeing 707, which BOAC adopted in 1960, had a long enough range that it could fly all the way from Cairo to Singapore without making any stops at all in between.

The airport in Jaipur (now a strictly land-based airfield in Sanganer on the south side of the city) is no longer a stopover point for international flights. Long-range planes can simply bypass Jaipur on their way to bigger airports. Jaipur International Airport (JAI) does have direct flights to Dubai, but otherwise its traffic is domestic.

JAI terminal building

The modern terminal building at Jaipur International Airport.

Keeping them flying

If you use an Internet-enabled device (and if you are reading this, you do), you are almost certainly familiar with software updates. These ever-present parts of our daily lives can be annoying, because they come with increasing frequency and always seem to slow down your machine at the most inopportune time. But they do include security updates and other tweaks intended to keep your machine working in the changing digital world.

Software updates are a form of product support, a responsibility of producers to provide continued assistance to customers who have bought their product. In the digital world, product support can represent a long-term commitment. Microsoft provided mainstream support for its Windows XP operating system until 2009 (eight years after its initial release in 2001) and extended support until 2014. But XP running on some embedded systems is still supported even now, and will continue to be supported until next year, eighteen years after the OS’s release.

Long-term product support predates the software industry by decades. Car manufacturers provide support for their models, as do aerospace companies. In 1948, back when aerospace was only aeronautics, the Lockheed Star (the company newspaper of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation) reported on the activities of the Inactive Models branch of the company’s Service Engineering Group:

Among the diversified activities of Neil Harrison’s Service Engineering Group, supervised by Nels Griffith, is Inactive Models, a misnomer according to several in the department, since the so-called obsolescent type airplanes such as the Model 10, 12, 14, 18, PV-1, PV-2, and P-38 are anything but inactive.1

The engineers in Inactive Models provided technical data and specifications to the Spare Parts department to produce replacement parts for out-of-production aircraft designs being flown by assorted foreign and domestic operators. The major domestic airlines operated newer designs, as did many of the prestigious flag carriers of other nations. But second- and third-tier domestic feeder airlines used older aircraft, many of which had been bought secondhand when their original owners upgraded to newer planes. Demobilization after World War II created a glut of used planes, which had to be supported by Lockheed or other companies with spare parts. (Failing to anticipate the secondhand market, Lockheed built a prototype feeder airliner, the Saturn, but it was a flop and never entered production.)

In addition to supporting spare parts, the Lockheed Inactive Models branch designed upgrades of designs. One such upgrade was the design and installation of fire-protection features for National Airlines’ Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar fleet. Although the airline had pressurized Douglas DC-6 planes by this time, its older Lodestars were still in operation and needed safety upgrades.

Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar flying the "Buccaneer Route" of National Airlines. (Source: Bill Larkins on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar flying the “Buccaneer Route” of National Airlines. (Source: Bill Larkins on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Other projects of Inactive Models included structural repair of a Model 10 Electra (a design of the mid-thirties) belonging to a foreign customer, and winterization of F-80 Shooting Star fighter jets.

Product support—whether it be of Windows operating systems or Lockheed planes—is a form of maintenance, which has always been a key aspect of technology. As David Edgerton argues in The Shock of the Old (2007), we need to pay attention to the use of technology across time—including its maintenance—not just the development of new things. The development of a technology is the beginning of its story, not the end. And for some technologies, like National Airlines’ Lodestars, that story can be a long one.

  1. “Engineering Highlights,” Lockheed Star (California Division), August 5, 1948. []

A new airline for a new nation

While reading through six-decade-old issues of The Lockheed Star, the fortnightly newspaper of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, for a research project, I came across an article that had nothing to do with my topic of research, but I found it intriguing and got distracted reading it. (This is an occupational hazard for historians.)

The article, which appeared on the front page of the February 4, 1954 issue, is about the official handover of the first Lockheed Super Constellation airliner to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), the national airline of Pakistan. The handover ceremony took place at Lockheed Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California). On hand to receive the Super Constellation—a sleek, attractive airliner produced by Lockheed at its Burbank factory—was Ambassador Syed Amjad Ali.

A Pakistan International Airlines Lockheed Super Constellation at London-Heathrow. (Source: RuthAS on Wikimedia Commons.)

A Pakistan International Airlines Lockheed Super Constellation at London-Heathrow. (Source: RuthAS on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.)

The Pakistani ambassador was greeted by the daughter of a Lockheed design engineer, attired in a Shirley Temple-esque stewardess (flight attendant) outfit. The Lockheed Star reported: “Six-and-one-half year-old Sharon Owen—who is exactly the same age as Pakistan, born on Aug. 14, 1947—was on hand to dramatize what a young country the dominion is.” (A picture of little Sharon shaking hands with the ambassador appears on the PIA history webpage.)

The article goes on to note that Pakistan International Airlines would start service around mid-April 1954.

In fact, at this point, Pakistan International Airlines did not exist just yet. The airline was officially established by the Pakistani government on January 10, 1955, eleven months after the handover of the first Super Constellation. On its establishment, PIA absorbed Orient Airways, a quasi-national private airline that had been founded in 1946.

National airlines played an important, if largely symbolic, role in nation-building for many countries that gained independence in the decade or two after World War II. As Jeffrey Engel notes in his book Cold War at 30,000 Feet (2007):

It is little exaggeration to say that countries established during this period [the early Cold War] required three things before they could claim true sovereignty: an army, a flag, and an airline.

Pakistan certainly needed to prove itself in the early years after independence. A nation in two parts, with the enemy India in between, Pakistan looked to its new national airline as a way to link the two wings of the country and promote connections with friendly nations in the West. PIA’s first international destination was London, by way of Cairo and Rome. The Lockheed Constellations, of course, were from the United States—a country that also began supporting the Pakistani armed forces with large amounts of military aid at this time.

The Lockheed Star reported that the deputy general manager of PIA claimed that flexible seating arrangements in the Super Constellation cabin would allow the airline to offer low-cost coach class for the country’s masses. But air travel—international or domestic—remained out of the reach of the majority of Pakistani citizens. PIA was a luxury enjoyed by the prosperous, educated, English-speaking elite. The airline’s official name is “Pakistan International Airlines” in English. The logo is simply “P-I-A” spelled out in Perso-Arabic script.

By the way, just as Pakistan established an airline after independence, Bangladesh wasted no time in setting up its own national airline after seceding from Pakistan in 1971. Biman Bangladesh Airlines began operating less than three months after independence.

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