BEA. The Power and the Glory

It was Europe’s biggest and most powerful airline, an operator with no competitors to speak of which prided itself on its professionalism even it if was, perhaps, a touch arrogant. And we owned it.

British European Airways was created by Act of Parliament on August 1, 1946, It had operated briefly as the BEA division of the nationalised British Overseas Airways Corporation but once formally constituted it was given the job of «providing civil air services in various parts of the world and in particular Europe (including the British islands).’’

Northolt and Liverpool

Initially it was organised into two divisions, continental based at Northolt and UK at Liverpool’s Speke airport, The first true BEA service was probably the 08,40 Dakota departure from Northolt on August 1 for Marseilles, Rome and Athens, Further services went to destinations like Amsterdam, Brussels, Lisbon and Madrid.

BEA soon established a network of routes which criss-crossed Europe from Stockholm to Gibraltar and from Belfast to Istanbul.

Ten smaller airlines were absorbed into BEA but the independents that remained were banned by the Civil Aviation Act from running scheduled services other than under «associate agreements.»

Equipment was a mixed bag, The ex-Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 52s were soon superseded by DC-3s but in the early days it was the de Havilland DH,89 twin-engined biplane which formed the backbone of BEA’s fleet.

The most successful early type was the twin-engined Vickers Viking of which BEA was to operate 83 examples, Copenhagen, on September 1, was its first destination, followed by Amsterdam, Oslo, Stockholm, Gibraltar and Prague, But DC-3s opened new routes to Berlin and Frankfurt, A Northolt-Prestwick service was launched on its behalf by Scottish Airlines.

Conditions at Northolt were fairly primitive, BEA staff worked from tents and even the backs of covered lorries until buildings were erected on the airport’s south side. Old barrack blocks on the north side were also pressed into service.

Yet by 1950 Northolt was the busiest airport in Britain, if not Europe, handling a quarter of UK flight., BEA ended its first year with over 5,700 staff but it also posted a £2 million loss. The government showed its disapproval by sacking chairman Gerard d’Erlanger: His replacement was Lord Douglas of Kirtleside.

Heading to Heathrow

Peter Masefield was appointed managing director in 1950, His arrival signalled tighter cost control and aggressive and innovative pursuit of revenue. BEA offered budget fares: the £ 10 off-peak night return fare to Paris compared with the daytime fare of £ 14,40 BEA had a sales force of over 7,000, leading The Economist to comment that there was «a strong smack of the supermarket in BEA retailing.» Sales offices were established in the USA and a loss equivalent to £30 per passenger in 1946/47 was transformed into a consistent profit. Monthly earnings reached £1 million in 1950 and by 1952 BEA was carrying its millionth passenger. Tourist class services came in 1951 and 49 Vikings were converted to 36-seater Admiral class aircraft. By 1954 they were operating domestic flights to Manchester, Edinburgh, Renfrew (Glasgow), Aberdeen and Belfast.

But Northolt was being wound down in favour of the new airport at Heathrow. BEA had launched its first services from there in April 1950 with two daily flights to Paris. Operations were progressively transferred to Heathrow in 1954. By October only the domestic services were at Northolt and on the 30th BEA’s last scheduled flight, operated by DC-3 G-AHCZ, departed for Jersey. Since 1946 over 3,7 million BEA passengers had passed through the airport. BEA initially shared a central London terminal with BOAC but soon moved to Kensington. In March 1953 it occupied a new building near Waterloo and four years later established the Cromwell Road terminal. By 1955, 60 per cent of passengers flying from Heathrow were using town terminals.

Positive reaction

In 1952 BEA introduced the Airspeed Ambassador; known as the Elizabethan class. The last major piston-engined type to join the fleet, it brought new standards of speed and comfort, especially when re-configured with 40 first-class seats for the luxury London-Paris Silver Wing service. Included in the £15.90 return fare was a gourmet lunch with champagne. «This is one of the most luxurious ways of travelling in the world,» the airline claimed.

But BEA had been watching Vickers development of the turboprop Viscount. Compared with the Ambassador; Masefield noted, «it promised to give its passengers a ride almost 100 mph faster and so smooth that they could stand coins on their edges on the seat back tables.»

In 1950 BEA became the first airline to offer fare-paying services by turbine-powered aircraft when the government-owned Viscount 630 prototype was used in a month-long trial. The first flight was to Paris but thereafter the aircraft shuttled between London and Edinburgh. In all 838 passengers were carried on 88 flights and, said Masefield, «reaction was all we had hoped for.»

BEA preferred the enlarged 47-seat Viscount 700 and 20 were ordered in August 1950. They entered service on the London-Cyprus route in April 1953 and made a substantial impact. In 1953 BEA received 16 Series 701s which it operated as the Discovery class. BEA had a further 34 700 series aircraft, the final pair being leased in during I960.

In February 1954 Viscounts replaced Elizabethans on the London-Nice-Rome route. By April they were operating from Manchester and Birmingham. Soon they had become Europe’s favourite aircraft.

The first dozen of the bigger 66-seat 800 Series was ordered in 1953 with deliveries beginning in February 1957. By the following year BEA had 77 Viscounts in service. A total of 19 were transferred to British Airways after the merger.

Pilots’ perspective

Gil Gray was a DC-3 second officer and he recalls that in the 1950s most of his fellow pilots were ex-military. Most captains had served in the war; «They were great guys,» he says. «But I have to say their abilities varied. The best were undoubtedly stars but it would have been better if some of the others had had another occupation.»

BEA was still a hierarchical organisation a decade later. Peter Jarvis, who joined the airline from the RAF in 1967, recalls being told during training with other would-be second officers that they need salute their captain no more than once a day! «We rejected that,» Jarvis recalls. «I never saw anybody saluting their captain but it was indicative of the level of respect that was being engendered.»

Graham Goodwin joined BEA in 1964 and became a Viscount first officer. «In those days,» he recalls, «first officers did all the instrument flying and the captains did the landings. The aircrew were all ex-servicemen and there was a strong esprit de corps throughout the airline.»

Turbo powered

The Viscount’s success led BEA to believe turboprops would remain competitive into the foreseeable future. In 1953 Masefield and Vickers’ George Edwards had started talking about a bigger replacement. BEA wanted seat-mile costs about 10 per cent lower than the Viscount 800 Series. The result — albeit somewhat delayed — was the Vanguard.

Although problems with the Rolls-Royce Tyne engines delayed the Vanguard’s introduction until I960 the aircraft was soon heavily committed to domestic trunk routes. There were six round trips every weekday between London and Glasgow, Traffic increased by over 20 per cent on Scottish routes and in 1962 Vanguards were flying nearly half the services to Belfast, Edinburgh and Glasgow. They were also used on services to destinations like Malta and Barcelona. Vanguards were still in service at the end of the decade.

Going into the 1960s BEA had been riding high. It was the western world’s fifth biggest airline in terms of passengers carried and quite comfortably Europe’s premier operator. Airline historian Ron Davies attributed this to «brilliant and far-seeing technicians and wise leadership.» Being based at the continent’s biggest city didn’t hurt.

By 1961 BEA’s route network extended to Moscow, North Africa and as far east as Kuwait and Doha. It held stakes in other airlines such as Aer Lingus, Cyprus Airways, Jersey Airlines and Gibraltar Airways. But a threat to BEA’s hegemony was just around the corner in the elegant shape of Europe’s first short-haul jet, the Sud Caravelle. It soon put the Viscount in the shade. Ron Davies wrote: «The Caravelle was in the 1960s what the Viscount was in the 1950s,»

Comet stop-gap

BEA’s confidence in the supremacy of turboprops had been undermined and in 1958 it issued a specification for a jet able to seat 100-plus passengers over short and medium-haul routes. It selected the de Havilland DH.121 with three rear-mounted Rolls-Royce Medway engines and capacity forlll passengers. BEA was so impressed that it ordered 24.

But the airline was losing market share on key routes to Air France and the Trident’s development was delayed partly it has to be said, by BEA’s uncertainly about what sort of aircraft it really wanted. It was therefore obliged to consider a stop-gap. The Comet 4B appeared ideal and in March 1958 BEA ordered six for delivery in I960. It was eventually to operate 18, the last of which flew on until the early 1970s.

«I loved the Comet,» Pete Jarvis told Jets. Gil Gray liked it too. He found it «overpowered and over-fuelled — fun for the people at the front but not so good for the accountants.» The four-Avon Comet was uncompetitive in terms of revenue generation so it was hardly surprising that the airline had high hopes for the Trident. After all, hadn’t it been designed to suit BEA’s requirements? But by now it had been scaled down with a trio of Spey engines in place of the bigger Medways.

Trident conversion

Gil Gray told Jets: «BEA suffered a small-down turn in its profit margin and the board said that the original aircraft was too big, too powerful and carried too much fuel. The Trident 1 might have been a wonderful aeroplane but it suffered from far too many limitations in its capability in comparison with the competition.

I flew all the variants and preferred the Trident 2, which was starting to get somewhere near the original DH.I2I with longer range, more powerful engines and more fuel.»

Peter Hunt joined one of the first Trident conversion courses in 1964/65. Coming from the Scottish division’s propeller-driven Heralds and Herons it made a big impression on him. «To me it was the queen of the skies,» he recalls. «I thoroughly enjoyed it.» He, too, was to fly all three variants. «The 2E was probably the best,» he says. «It had the power, the range and the performance and it didn’t have the additional boost engine. Occasionally you taxied out for take-off in a 3B and found the blessed thing [the boost engine] didn’t work so you had to come back. But you didn’t have that problem with the older ones,»

Eric Poole joined the airline just after the war and he was appointed flight development manager of the Trident fleet. Working with Smith’s Industries and Hawker Siddeley, Poole was responsible for the development and introduction of the Autoland system on BEA aircraft. On June 10, 1965 he was in command when Trident G-ARPB made the world’s first automatic landing by a scheduled flight. «I used Autoland on plenty of occasions,» says Gil Gray, «It was enormous fun to use something that was so technically advanced and we were the only airline in the world to be using it.»

Money matters

Yet by the mid 1960s BEA was becoming exasperated by the high cost of what it saw as its support for Britain’s aircraft industry. Its 1962/63 annual report highlighted the £6 millior cost of introducing the Vanguard and Comet 4B, which it called «a heavy financial burden.»

The corporation had now discovered that the Trident was too small for its needs. It sought government permission to buy Boeing’s 150-seat 727 whose three-engine layout was similar to the Trident’s. It also fancied the smaller Boeing 737. But the Labour government refused to sanction either purchase and after much delay also declined to provide development funding for the 208-seat BAC 2-11 in which the airline was also interested.

When BEA later repeated its request to buy 727s the government responded with instructions to order the stretched Trident 3. In 1968, therefore, BEA ordered 26 Trident 3s at a cost of £83 million. It was, the airline said in an apparent change of heart, «an excellent aircraft from the passenger’s point of view but it was basically too small.»

But at the same time it accused the government of acting for purely political reasons. This, observed Prof Martin Staniland of Pittsburgh University, «was a remarkable statement for an airline which was in the process of placing the largest order ever received by a British aircraft constructor.» And it was remarkable, too, coming from an airline which had originally rejected something not too different from what it now wanted.

Super One-Eleven

In January 1967 BEA ordered 18 BAC One-Eleven Series 500s seating 97 passengers in a single-class cabin. The airline had seen the type as a jet-powered Viscount replacemen., It was to be known in BEA service as the Super One-Eleven, «The light, bright spacious interior of the Super One-Eleven helps make it a brilliant new addition to BEA’s jetliner fleet,» cooed the airline’s publicity.

In November 1968, One-Elevens started scheduled operations on the internal German routes and also on Manchester-London. The decision to base the fleet at Manchester reflected the need to win traffic lost to faster rail services following electrification.

It also brought a morale boost to BEA’s Manchester staff who had felt themselves overshadowed by their colleagues at Liverpool. In a 1971 re-internal organisation the Super One-Eleven division saw it assume responsibility for all international services from Manchester as well as domestic operations, apart from those to the Channel Islands. It became responsible for the German internal services. After nearly five years of unspectacular; trouble-free operations all 18 Super One-Elevens continued to fly on in British Aiways livery.

Success and failure

As the decade ended BEA was celebrating another good financial performance. It had sold tickets £126 million-worth of tickets during 1969/70 and made its biggest profit to date. At £6,5 million it was nearly double the previous year’s figure, BEA was now the world’s seventh biggest airline and the largest outside the USA.

«By the early 1970s we were very successful,» recalls Gil Gray, «We still had no effective competition within the UK. But the most serious disadvantage was that we were directed to buy British products, which, although in many ways technically excellent, did not have efficiency up to Boeing standards.»

In 1972 he was appointed assistant flight manager of the Trident fleet. But a few months later; on 18 June, the unthinkable happened, Trident 1 G-ARPI, Papa India, crashed shortly after take-off from Heathrow on a scheduled flight to Brussels. All 114 passengers and crew were killed in Britain’s worst aircraft accident.

The cause was traced to premature retraction of the leading edge «droops.» Gil Gray recalls: «The droop lever had been raised instead of the flap lever in the first stage of the take-off. That instantly put the stalling speed up by something in the region of 40 or 50kts, It stalled immediately and couldn’t be recovered.»

It shook the airline to the core. «We thought we had a very good training set-up and our pilots were among the best,» says Gray. «There was a training impetus to make sure people were fully aware of the droops and the flaps and we were trained to be ultra careful before making the selection. A baulk on the droop lever prevented it from being raised before the flaps.»

BA Merger

Bigger changes were in prospect. In the late 1960s the government appointed a committee of enquiry under Prof Sir Ronald Edwards to consider the shape of Britain’s air transport industry in the 1970s. In its 1969 report the Edward Committee called for a single board to supervise the activities of the two nationalised airlines.

Even so a merger seemed unlikely, BEA’s recently appointed chairman, Sir Henry Marking, ridiculed the idea, It had been raised so many times that «one has learned to discount it.» In 1971, marking re-organised BEA with ten divisions intended to act as profit centres: BEA Mainline, Super One-Eleven (including Manchester operations and the German network), Scottish Airways.

Channel Island Airways, BEA Cargo, BEA Helicopters, British Air Services (two subsidiaries, Northeast Airlines, formerly BKS, and Cambrian Airways), Travel Sales, BEA Airtours and Sovereign Group Hotels. Yet despite Marking’s scepticism BEA and BOAC did merge to form British Airways on April 1 1974. Nobody is quite certain which was BEA’s last-ever service but it’s likely to have been flight BE943, a Trident operation from Dublin which landed at Heathrow at 2330hrs on March 31. Graham Goodwin believes his BAC One-Eleven service to Manchester was the last on the route to have the old Bealine call sign.

BEA passed into history under the provisions of the Air Corporations (Dissolution) Order 1973. Even though the name had disappeared, the merger was regarded as inevitable. Gil Gray recalls: «There were many ways in which our operations were beginning to overlap.» Capt Graham Goodwin says: «It was a logical move but the new airline did become dominated by people who felt that the only place in the world where aeroplanes should take-off and land was Heathrow.»


In its three decades BEA had pioneered the use of turbine-powered airliners, the Autoland automatic landing system and scheduled helicopter operations. It had also operated its own holiday outfit and run lifeline services in the Scottish highlands and islands.

Gil Gray, who went on to manage British Airways’ Boeing 757 and 767 fleets, reflects on the airline that was BEA. «We regarded ourselves somewhat arrogantly as very professional operators. Our operational performance was extremely good but we had a lot to learn about customer service. Perhaps we’d become complacent because, really, there was no effective competition.» But, he adds: «We had a great airline.»

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