hidden europe 61

Crossing the Med: A Flight of Fancy into Pre-Jet Times

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Imperial Airways plane refuelling in Semakh. The image was taken in 1931 and is part of the G Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-matpc-03063).


Staying close to home during the pandemic, we had plenty of time to explore our magnificent collection of old timetables. We look at flights in the Adriatic and Mediterranean region in the 1930s when the governing principle of civil aviation was ‘stay close to land and stop often.’

Staying close to home has given us plenty of time to plan future journeys and to plot imaginary journeys of yesteryear. Sometimes the latter reveal a treasure trove of historical delights. We’ve been exploring the past patterns of air services in the Mediterranean and Adriatic region, and it has turned out to be a real feast of time travel.

It’s easy to forget how the advent of the jet engine led to passenger aircraft being able to make much longer hops. Back in 1934, there were very few non-stop flights across the Mediterranean linking Europe with Africa. The weekly Imperial Airways flight from London to South Africa had an unusually long cross-Med leg, flying non-stop from Athens to Alexandria, a distance of over 800 km. But that was an exception.

Air France’s flying boats in the early 1930s could not manage such long hops, so the 800- km route from Marseille to Algiers required an intermediate touchdown in the Bay of Alcúdia on the north-east coast of Mallorca. In a similar manner, the daily flight from Marseille to Tunis had a half-hour stop at Ajaccio in Corsica — which was surely welcome on a trip in a small aircraft which took over seven hours. An Italian airline called SAM (Società Aerea Mediterranea) offered three flights each week from Genoa to Tunis, with en-route stops in Rome, Naples and Palermo. The flight time from Genoa to Tunis was 10 hrs 30 mins.

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