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The Speedbird

Updated: Oct 20, 2019

BOAC's iconic logo was first used in 1932.

An extract from BOAC and the Golden Age of Flying

In 1932 Imperial Airways approached Theyre Lee-Elliott, one of London’s leading graphic artists and painters, and asked him to create a symbol which they could easily reproduce on their posters and luggage labels. Lee-Elliott had been strongly influenced by the avant-garde work of Edward McKnight Kauffer, and his designs echoed Kauffer’s angular bird forms in his 1918 poster for the Daily Herald. Other notable works by Lee-Elliott include posters for the London Underground and the Airmail logo. Many of his paintings and original artworks can still be seen at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Lee-Elliott came up with a minimalist, simple, linear design representing a stylised bird in flight which soon became known as the Speedbird. In time it would become the best-known airline logo in the world and remains widely recognised, even to this day. (At the time of going to press, British Airways had reintroduced it on one of their 747s.). By 1938 it was appearing on the nose of aircraft, which was unusual in an era where most airlines, including Imperial Airways, kept their aircraft in a bare-metal finish with minimal signwriting. With the outbreak of war, BOAC aircraft had to be painted in wartime camouflage without titles, but most still sported a Speedbird on the nose.

In the 1950s the Speedbird was prominently featured on the tail, initially in blue on a white background, and later in white on a dark blue background. As air traffic control developed, so ‘Speedbird’ became the call sign of BOAC flights and it is still the call sign of British Airways.

When Giles Guthrie was appointed Chief Executive in 1963, he decided to completely redesign the livery of BOAC aircraft, feeling that the 1950s scheme was now looking dated. He specified, however, that the Speedbird must remain on the tail. The result was a new, modern look with a gorgeous dark blue tail and cheatline, and a much larger Speedbird emblazoned on the tail in shining gold. It was an eye-catchingly beautiful design and in an era of strong airline logos it stood out at every airport that BOAC served. The new gold Speedbird, which the airline retained until the merger with BEA, helped define BOAC as a visible icon of the 1960s and it has rarely, if ever, been bettered by any airline.

In 2019, as part of their 100th birthday celebrations (remember AT&T in 1919), British Airways painted a Boeing 747-400, registered G-BYGC, in the same magnificent colour scheme; it will remain in this livery for the rest of its service with BA. As the Chairman and CEO of British Airways, Alex Cruz, put it: ‘So many British Airways customers and colleagues have fond memories of our previous liveries, regularly sharing their photos from across the globe, so it’s incredibly exciting to be re-introducing this classic BOAC design. Our history has shaped who we are today, so our centenary is the perfect moment to revisit our heritage and the UK’s aviation landscape through this iconic livery.’

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