Earlier this month, a Boeing 747 — 747 G-BYGC, to be exact — touched down at Heathrow airport painted in the livery of the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). As BOAC ceased to exist as an entity over 40 years ago, passing plane-spotters might have been forgiven for thinking the company had successfully invented time travel. Definitely one to buy shares in, then.
Sadly, not so. To celebrate its centenary, the company that BOAC became part of — British Airways — is repainting four of its aircraft with liveries from its heritage airlines. (How BA can be celebrating its centenary when it was only born in 1974, I’ll leave to the PR branch to explain.)
(The repaint I’m looking forward to is the one rumoured to be in the works for an airbus: BEA.)
For a short while then, BOAC is back. The British Overseas Airways Corporation started life as a state airline. When it was formed in April 1940, it was under the control of the Air Ministry. From then on, it had a colourful history. Some highlights:
During the second world war, BOAC aircraft operated what became known as the “ball-bearing run” between Stockholm in Sweden and Scotland. The Norwegian government in exile in London set up this route to transport its nationals who had escaped from Nazi-occupied Norway. One critical passenger to make use of the route was the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, who flew to freedom in a de Havilland Mosquito in 1943. The flight got its nickname because it also carried that component most vital to the military: ball bearings.
BOAC had planes bombed by German aircraft during a daylight raid at Whitchurch in 1940.
In 1943, the Luftwaffe shot down BOAC Flight 777 over the Bay of Biscay, ending the life of passenger and movie idol Leslie Howard.
BOAC flight attendant Jane Harrison is one of just four women to have been awarded the George Cross for heroism. She helped passengers to safety from the burning Flight 712 after an engine caught fire at Heathrow Airport in April 1968. She is the only woman awarded the medal for gallantry in peacetime. As the citation for her award records, she was “a very brave young lady who gave her life in her utter devotion to duty.”
In 1971, Flight 600, instead of continuing serenely to London from Montreal, had to divert to Denver. An anonymous person called BOAC to announce that there was a bomb on the plane. It would explode if the aircraft went below 5,000 feet. The airport at Denver is 5,300 feet above sea level. (There was no bomb and the caller never got the $250,000 he was demanding.)
BOAC is also the only airline to be referenced in a Beatles song: Back in the USSR.
In the 1970s, the British government merged the state-owned airlines, BOAC and British European Airways (BEA) and British Airways rose like a phoenix from these ashes. BA stopped being state-owned in February 1987 when its shares were floated on the London Stock Exchange.
In January 2011, BA merged with Spanish airline Iberia, creating the International Airlines Group (IAG), a holding company registered in Madrid. After 23 years, British Airways ceased trading independently on the London Stock Exchange, its place taken by IAG instead..
The BOAC design will remain on the Boeing 747 until the craft moves out of service in 2023. You therefore have plenty of opportunities until then to celebrate the future by… going back to the 1970s.