A Brief History Of British Eagle International Airlines

British Eagle International Airlines was a UK airline that operated scheduled and charter flights from several hubs. It operated in various forms from 1948 and ended service 20 years later. It was an eventful 20 years, though. The airline started with military connections and contracts and expanded to become a successful early private operator in the UK and a translation operator. After losing its transatlantic routes to Cunard, it relaunched itself but suffered quickly from the loss of contracts and limited expansion options.

Formed after the Second World War

British Eagle International Airlines was founded, as Eagle Aviation Limited, by a former World War 2 pilot, Harold Bamber, in April 1948. The airline initially operated just two former wartime Halifax bomber aircraft on cargo flights to Europe out of UK RAF bases. Its early years saw further Halifax aircraft and Avro York aircraft acquired and operated on more freight routes. Eagle Aviation also played a part in the Berlin Airlift between 1948 and 1949, helping supply food and fuel to Allied zones of Berlin.

In 1950 Eagle Aviation moved operations to London Luton Airport (a former RAF but converted to civilian operations). It expanded its passenger charter operations, but freight and military charters remained important. By 1951, Air Ministry contracts had boosted the airline to employ 12 pilots and around 100 staff in total.

Eagle Aviation Limited Avro York

Starting scheduled passenger services as Eagle Airways

Charter services were popular in the early years, especially aerial cruises around the Mediterranean. These operations expanded into scheduled services, resulting in a separate subsidiary company, Eagle Airways, operating these from 1953. Eagle Aviation remained the operator for charter and military troop flights – although these had already seen their peak.

Scheduled services became based out of Blackbushe Airport (another wartime airport located in Hampshire and still in use for general aviation today) and were served by Vickers Viscount aircraft. Early destinations included Munich, Belgrade, and Gothenburg, as well as several UK domestic destinations.

  Vickers Viscount

Growth and expansion through the 1950s

The next years saw Eagle transition from an ad-hoc charter and military contract airline to a leading scheduled and charter operator. Its destinations across the UK and Europe gradually increased, as did the services it could offer.

In particular, it made the most of new regulations permitting private airlines in the UK access to the growing market of package holidays – selling flights and accommodation together as a package rather than separately. Through acquisitions of travel companies Polytechnic Touring Association and Sir Henry Lunn Travel, it formed its own travel agency business (later to branch out as Lunn Poly), competing with other firms, including Thomas Cook.

Its aircraft fleet changed along with this expansion. Most notably, Eagle took on the Douglas DC-6 in 1958 – a shift away from UK manufacturers. This allowed longer-range flights, and the airline eventually took on six DC-6s, retiring the last in 1964 (fleet data is based on information from ATDB.aero).

In another major change to its services, its operating base shifted from Blackbushe to London Heathrow (then London Airport) in 1960 when the former airport was closed to commercial traffic.


Expansion of Eagle Airways in North America

Eagle Airways expanded into North America as well. A separate company, also operating as Eagle Airways, was formed in Bermuda in 1957. Services began between Bermuda and New York in 1958, initially using the Vickers Viscount 800 aircraft. In this way, Eagle Airways went head to head with major operators such as Pan Am and BOAC. Other North American destinations served from Bermuda soon included Montreal, Washington DC, and Nassau. These were low-fare focused services.

Transatlantic services were the aim, though, and these started in 1958, with a DC-6 service between Bermuda and London. Due to licensing, the airline could not service the US to London routes, but these direct flights from the Caribbean competed well against other carriers’ connecting services.

Takeover by Cunard in 1960

Eagle Airways ceased to exist as a brand after March 1960, when the UK shipping operator Cunard bought a 60% shareholding of the airline. This was an attempt by Cunard to diversify and protect itself against the rise in transatlantic air travel. With this, the airline’s name was changed to Cunard Eagle Airways. Founder Harold Bamberg remained with the new company and became aviation director at Cunard.

The DC-6 service between Bermuda and London was quickly replaced with the Bristol Britannia. Rather than the single class DC-6 service, this introduced a first class cabin. From August 1961, it was granted the rights to operate London to New York flights. Soon after, it added routes between other UK airports and Boston and Washington.

Cunard Eagle introduced the Boeing 707 as its first jet aircraft in February 1962, with the type soon starting New York, Bermuda, and Nassau flights. It went on to operate six Boeing 707 aircraft.

Cunard Eagle

The relationship with Cunard was not to last long, however. BOAC became concerned about the new Cunard Eagle operation and formed its own joint venture with Cunard. BOAC provided eight Boeing 707s (at the time, Cunard Eagle was just getting its second aircraft), and Cunard Eagle transatlantic operations were combined with this. By 1966, BOAC had bought out Cunard’s share to become the sole owner of the venture.

BOAC Cunard

Continuing service as British Eagle International Airways

With the Cunard and BOAC events, Eagle had lost its transatlantic routes, but it was not the end for it. The company was left with much of its UK and European operations and still with founder Harold Bamberg at the helm (he initially moved to BOAC Cunard but resigned).

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British Eagle International Airlines Ltd was launched in February 1963 after Bamberg bought control back from Cunard. It continued service with Vickers Viscount and Bristol Britannia turboprop aircraft. It launched Heathrow to Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Belfast services in November 1963. To compete with the dominant state domestic airline, British European Airways, it featured a first class cabin on its daily Britannia services and offered full catering.

Bristol Britannia and Vickers Viscount

British Eagle initially operated the Bristol Britannia and Vickers Viscount. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia

In 1964, British Eagle International Airways took over Starways, a Liverpool-based regional scheduled and charter airline. This further strengthened its position in the UK domestic market. Repeated refusals to allow more frequent flights, however, hampered domestic operations – so much so that services were temporarily suspended from mid-1965 until jet aircraft resumed service in 1966.

British Eagle International Airways also continued with some European routes, short and long-haul charters, and military contracts. This included involvement in the British evacuation of Aden in 1967.

Re-introducing jets in 1966

The new British Eagle International Airways, formed in 1963, operated the Vickers Viscount and Bristol Britannia turboprop aircraft. Jet service had been lost to Cunard, and part of the airline’s revival plan after its struggles in 1965 was to offer a new, domestic jet service.

It did this with the BAC One-Eleven, starting with two leased aircraft from Central African Airways in May 1966. Eagle went on to operate a further five aircraft right up to 1968 and two Boeing 707s from mid-1967.

BAC One Eleven

British Eagle’s jets competed on domestic flights with BEA’s Comet aircraft and British United Airways’ BAC One-Elevens. They also served European routes, including scheduled service to destinations in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, and charter operations with agencies including Lunn Poly.

There were also charters to the Caribbean and plans for a 707 service once again direct to the Caribbean, using a Bahamas-based subsidiary.

The problem, however, lay with longer-haul scheduled routes. British Eagle, along with other UK airlines, repeatedly tried to acquire licenses to operate alongside BOAC on long-haul routes. British Eagle wanted to restart a transatlantic service to New York and the Caribbean and was also interested in services to Hong Kong. Ultimately, by mid-1986, these applications were refused.

Boeing 707

Bankruptcy in 1968

Several situations came together in 1968 to lead to the end of 20 years service (in various forms). Its failed applications for longer haul operations were made worse by the revocation of its Caribbean charter license (following requests from BOAC). The UK charter market also became much harder with new foreign exchange limitations placed on passengers. It also lost its Asian troop contracts.

Slowdowns led to financial problems, and despite making heavy cuts and redundancies from the summer of 1968, the airline ceased trading on 6th November.

Other operators, including BEA, BUA, Dan-Air, and Cambrian Airways, were quick to take up the UK domestic routes. Dan-Air took on two of Eagle’s BAC One-Elevens; others went to Lake Airways and Quebecair. Some of the remaining Britannia aircraft went on the fly with British Caledonian.

British Eagle International Airways, and its predecessors Eagle Airways and Cunard Eagle, have an important place in UK aviation history. Feel free to discuss your memories of the airlines or anything you know about their operations in the comments.

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