Flying First Class before World War II

Two recent reminiscences on what it was like to fly first class in the 1970s and 1980s aroused my curiosity about the very earliest days of commercial air travel, and I did some research.  Going point to point by air instead of by train (and as opposed to joyriding for the thrill of flying)  gradually took off (no pun intended) after World War I in the 1920s as the public began to perceive that it was generally safe.

A number of commercial airplanes contributed to winning the public’s confidence in the Roaring Twenties, probably none more so that the Ford Trimotor.  Affectionately nicknamed the Tin Goose, the Trimotor gained trust in part because it was made by Ford, a brand the public equated with reliability.

It wasn’t exactly First Class flying, but it wasn’t coach, either.  That distinction had not been made yet because flying was expensive compared to ground transportation, and only the well-to-do could afford it.  The high cost associated with flying came with the expectation of not just safety and speed, but exceptional service.  Essentially, therefore, all early commercial flights were First Class.

Thanks to the reputation of the Trimotor, flying became thought of as safe and comfortable.  199 were built 1925-1933.

Ford Tri-motor

My research on the early days of commercial flight didn’t distinguish classes of flying.  I was helped in my quest for examples of First Class flying by the serendipitous arrival of two emails from friends who love traveling by air and have logged many millions of air miles around the globe.

The first message was called “Flying Aboard The Handley Page HP-42. Imperial Airways 1931 to 1939.”  What a magnificent aircraft the HP-42 was!  It took the experience of commercial flight to a whole new plane (again, no pun intended).  The HP-42 was not only safe–in ten years of service, there was never a crash–but it provided luxurious comfort.

Flying then was a lot more fun than now.  Aircraft speeds were slow by comparison to the jet age that we now take for granted, and the on-board comfort and service for the mere 26 lucky passengers was stupendous.  English carrier Imperial Airways HP-42 planes had three compartments: the first class saloon, the bar and cocktail area, and the smoking section. They were reputed to have been very comfortable in seating, in leg room, and in service–comparable to a railroad Pullman first class compartment.  Hot meals were served on bone china with silver cutlery, and the finest wines and liquors were poured.

The HP-42 flew only in daylight and fair weather, as this predated instrument flying.  Overnights were in the very best hotels. There was no waiting in lines, and everyone was well dressed.  It was a truly relaxing experience.  Since the plane cruised at just a few thousand feet at speeds of 95 to 100 mph, one could see interesting features passing below and appreciate the earth’s panorama.

Of course 100 MPH wasn’t fast.  Flying an HP-42 from London to Cape Town took four days to a week, depending on headwinds and weather.  En route passengers flew only about four hours a day, staying at the best hotels in Europe, Cairo, Khartoum, and Victoria Falls (then South Africa, now Zimbabwe).  Old-fashioned well-mannered ideas of behavior, such as dressing up for evening drinks on the balcony and never being in a hurry, were observed.  Below are a series of photos and captions from my friend’s message that give us a flavor for what the airplane and its passenger experience was like.

Handley Page HP-42-02

The HP-42 “Hanno” at Samakh, Lake Tiberias in Palestine, 1931. Biplane aircraft like the HP-42 could land anywhere there is a stretch of grass.

Handley Page HP-42-03

A 1930 flying magazine’s view of the new HP-42 airliner. Note crew member as the radio operator. The Bristol Jupiter engines were initially 450 hp and later bumped up to 550 hp.

Handley Page HP-42-04

The crew of an HP-42. The Captain almost certainly would have flown in the First World War (love his cigar).

Handley Page HP-42-05

Imperial Airways advertisement of the day.

Handley Page HP-42-06

Khartoum, Sudan. Boarding for the flight south. Only one more overnight and then they will be taking in the sights of Lake Victoria.

Handley Page HP-42-07

There was only one class:  First Class.  This is the forward saloon.  Note the gentleman’s pith helmet in the rack. Airspeed indicator and altitude displays are on the bulkhead.

Handley Page HP-42-08

Cabin of an  British Imperial Airways Handley Page HP-42 in 1931.

Handley Page HP-42-09
The cockpit of a Handley Page HP-42 airliner. London, 1931. No powered controls here.

Handley Page HP-42-10

HP-42 airliner ready for a night flight. London’s Croydon aerodrome, 1931.

Handley Page HP-42-11

HP-42s at Croydon in London. Part of the Co-Pilot’s duties was to stow the flag before take-off. The Bristol Jupiter engines are warming up.

Handley Page HP-42-12

HP-42 over London. Cruise speed was 100 mph or 87 knots. Maximum speed was 120 mph or 104 knots. No airline passenger was ever killed in one of these machines in 10 years of service. They flew all over the UK and Europe and down to South Africa on a regular basis.  They also conducted regular services to India via many places en route. There were occasions, flying down to Cape Town, when the strong headwinds from the south reduced the ground speed to such an extent that the crew turned the airplane around, landed, and tried again the following day.

Handley Page HP-42-13

A KLM DC-2 and an Imperial Airways HP-42 at London’s Croydon Airport, 1933.

Handley Page HP-42-14

Imperial Airways at Cairo. 1932. Note the refueling equipment, including the ladders resting on the upper engines.  Also note the modest terminal building.

Handley Page HP-42-15

RAF Hendon Airport, London, 1937. Royalty arrives: King George VI, center, and Queen Elizabeth on the aircraft’s steps.

Hope you enjoyed these remarkable photos of luxurious flying in the 1920s and 30s.  Next week we will take a look at the famous Boeing 314, known as the Clipper.  It’s the flying palace that PanAm (Pan American World Airways) used to conquer the world.

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