Eighty years ago a handful of passengers boarded a biplane for the first leg of a 10-day journey which would pioneer an air service that today still links South Africa and the United Kingdom.
The flight which departed from the London Borough of Croydon on 27 April 1932 was operated by Imperial Airways, British Airways predecessor, and was its first passenger service to South Africa.
It followed an experimental extension of the Imperial Airways’ Central African service on 9 December 1931, to deliver Christmas mail to Cape Town. That journey took 12 days, with the aircraft used on the last sector, DH66 G-AARY, City of Karachi arriving in Cape Town on 21 December.
On 20 January the next year, Imperial Airways opened a mail-only route to Cape Town, paving the way for the passenger service three months later.
By today’s standards the trip would have been long, daunting and uncomfortable. For the equivalent of R1600 in 1932 money, passengers left London in a Handley Page HP42 before boarding a train for the next stage.
Different aircraft were used for each part of the journey including a Kent Flying Boat, Armstrong Whitworth Argosy, a Calcutta Flying Boat and finally a De Havilland DH66 Hercules.
On 2 June 1937, Imperial Airways started the first flying boat service to South Africa. The route was by no means straightforward departing Southampton for Marseilles, then onto Rome, Brindisi and Athens before crossing the Mediterranean to Alexandria. Then it went to Cairo, Wadi Halfra, Khartoum, Malakal, Butiaba, Port Bell, Kisumu, Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, Lindi, Beira, and Lourenco Marques before arriving in Durban.
During the war the route over Europe was cut and Imperial Airways’ successor, BOAC, began a weekly ‘Horseshoe’ route from Durban to Sydney via Cairo and Karachi. A few months later a flying boat service was started linking Poole and Lagos and then on to Durban.
Post war BOAC, as Imperial Airways had then become, started a weekly London to Johannesburg cargo service using Lancastrian aircraft. Soon afterwards passenger services were introduced. The Short Solent flying boats on the route filed a slightly less torturous flight plan than their predecessors, departing Southampton then flying to Augusta, Cairo, Luxor Khartoum, Port Bell and Victoria Falls before landing on the Vaal Dam.
The next significant development was on 2 May 1952, when the world’s first commercial passenger jet service began, with a BOAC Comet flying from London to Johannesburg, via Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingstone. The 23-hour journey between London and Johannesburg nearly halved the previous flight time.
In 1957 BOAC introduced Bristol Britannia aircraft on the route. These flew to Johannesburg and then on to Sydney.
By the 1970s BOAC’s successor, British Airways had begun operating Boeing 747s and these soon became the mainstay of the longhaul fleet. When it began direct 747 services to Cape Town in 1984, Capetonians soon dubbed the aircraft the ‘Friday night jumbo’.
In 1996 aircraft in British Airways livery started operating on South African domestic routes, after the airline signed a franchise agreement with Comair. These domestic services were later extended to include regional destinations.
Today British Airways offers 17 flights a week between London and Johannesburg and daily flights to Cape Town. Over the busy Cape Town summer season the schedule increases to double-daily.
"It’s amazing to think that 80 years ago we were operating bi-planes that could carry seven passengers and the journey took over a week. Today we have up to five flights a day that do the journey in about 11 hours,” says Daniel Bainbridge, British Airways strategic commercial development manager South Africa.