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An excerpt from BOAC and the Golden Age of Flying - The Pilots

O P Jones in Imperial Airways uniform

BOAC shone a spotlight on their pilots, and some of them became household names. When Captain Oscar Phillip Jones (better known as O P) retired in 1959, his career was featured on This is Your Life, a very popular BBC television programme of the day. O P had been a veteran of Imperial Airways and a pioneer of the Empire routes from Cairo. With his military bearing, carefully trimmed beard, cheroot in the corner of his mouth and cap at a jaunty angle, he personified the cool, steady and imperturbable airline pilot in publicity shots from the 1920s onwards. He regularly captained royal flights and when BOAC was promoting their new first class Monarch service, O P was often photographed at the bottom of the steps of a Stratocruiser, welcoming passengers aboard.

Another famous BOAC pilot was Captain J C (Jack) Kelly-Rogers, who flew Churchill across the Atlantic in 1943 and later became Churchill’s personal pilot for all transatlantic flights. He had previously commanded Imperial Airways’ entire fleet of flying boats and even tested the first inflight refuelling of a flying boat. As late as the 1960s BOAC would continue to feature pilots in their advertising. A television commercial for the VC10 featured a chief steward with the bearing and manner of a senior NCO. He was played by an actor, but the charming captain in the cockpit was played by a real BOAC pilot, Norman Bristow. To the strains of Kiss me goodnight Sergeant Major, BOAC projected itself as an airline run with soldierly precision.

The military image was closer to the truth than many realised. Following the Second World War, BOAC had recruited heavily from former armed services personnel who were then being demobbed in large numbers. As might be expected, the majority of pilots, including Norman Bristow, came from the RAF, but many of the ground staff were ex-Army. BOAC, with its uniforms, rank insignia, clear hierarchy and strictly enforced rules was a little like the military and had a similar structure. Senior ground staff were called duty officers, captains were called sir by their crews and practically everyone used military jargon to describe BOAC’s operations. Most of the flight deck crews had medal ribbons on their jackets and it was not unusual to see DSOs, DFCs, and other important decorations beneath BOAC pilots’ wings. Occasionally, you might see a second set of wings which denoted a former Pathfinder pilot. Don Bennett, who had commanded the RAF’s elite Pathfinder force, had been the first Managing Director of BSAA and had hired many former Pathfinders as pilots. Most of them transferred to BOAC in 1949.

By the 1960s the supply of experienced, former military pilots was slowing, and BOAC and BEA responded by opening their own pilot-training school at Hamble, near Southampton. The new breed of pilots would be civilians who had chosen airline flying as their career from the outset, rather than RAF men who had drifted into it as their military service came to an end. The Hamble graduates were not always welcomed by older crews, and a joke circulated that they had really been hired as sex therapists, having often be told: ‘If I want your f*****g advice I’ll ask for it!’ Ex-747 Captain Dave Grace had an early experience before he had even reached BOAC: ‘In 1968, as a Hamble cadet, I was asked to address the annual technical meeting of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators in London. The subject was, “Will today’s college-trained pilots be ready for command when their turn comes?” It was a very daunting experience for a young cadet, made no easier by having Captain O P Jones glowering at me from the front row!’

In 1970, BOAC co-operated in the making of a television documentary: Airline Pilot, which followed a young Hamble cadet, Stephen Radcliffe, through his pilot training up to his first flight as a second officer on a VC10. At the time he was the youngest pilot in BOAC. The documentary was popular but the 1970s marked the end of an advertising policy based largely on human crews. In the following decades, as technology improved, so the pilots became less visible.

Trainee pilot Stephen Radcliffe (right) was featured in the documentary 'Airline Pilot'

A marketing innovation which paid huge dividends for BOAC was the Junior Jet Club, a working example of the Jesuits’ maxim: ‘Give me the child and I’ll give you the man.’ From 1957, children on BOAC flights (myself included) were given a set of gold and enamel pilot’s wings, and a Junior Jet Club logbook. The books were beautifully finished in dark blue and gold leaf, and all your flights with BOAC were recorded in them and signed by the captain. Looking similar to real pilots’ logbooks, they showed date, aircraft type and registration, departure city, destination city, flying hours and miles. On the flyleaf was a photograph of BOAC’s most famous pilot with the message:

Dear Club member,

I should like to welcome you as a joining member of the Junior Jet Club and hope you will be pleased with your own personal logbook. My fellow captains will look forward to meeting you on many future flights and will be delighted to help you build up your BOAC mileage.

We should like you to complete the enclosed Enrolment Card and hand it to your steward or stewardess to enable us to keep in touch with you from time to time.

Yours sincerely,

Captain O P Jones

Captain O P Jones welcoming passengers aboard a Stratocruiser

It was marketing magic, try telling a twelve-year old boy that he’s missed out on several thousand miles in his logbook because you’re not flying BOAC! Parents soon discovered they no longer had any choice of airline; they had either to book BOAC or travel with bitterly disappointed kids.

Some children accumulated colossal mileages. BOAC was an exclusively long-haul airline and an important part of its business was flying the children of expatriates to and from the mother country. One of BOAC’s specialities was the service it provided for ‘Unaccompanied Minors’, i.e. children travelling without their parents. This was an era in which British diplomats, armed forces personnel, and overseas managers in British companies often had their children’s school fees and travel costs paid as part of their salary. In every school holiday period, thousands of children under the age of eighteen would be chaperoned on BOAC flights by ‘Aunties’ (female ground staff who volunteered for the job). Such was BOAC’s reputation that parents across the world were happy to have their children delivered to London Airport into the sole hands of BOAC, knowing that they would arrive safely at their destination, and be taken back again when the holidays were over.

Retired BOAC captain Ray Howell recalls: ‘In an era when carrying children was fairly unusual, I was delighted when I used to be presented with their logbooks. It became a fashion for cabin crew to sign on behalf of the captain, but I liked signing them myself. I saw no reason to use obscure signatures – what point is a completely illegible scribble? I used to sign so my name could be read.’

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