Every day, hundreds of British Airways flights depart and arrive from London’s Heathrow Airport, a common occurrence for the better part of the last half-century. For those passing through Heathrow or London itself, the British Airways Speedbird Heritage Centre, located at British Airways’ headquarters, is a little-known resource to learn about the history of Britain’s flag carrier.
The tour begins just outside the museum at a painting showing the very first commercial flight in Great Britain a century ago on August 25, 1919. The flight was operated from London to Paris by the British Aircraft Transport and Travel Company using a de Havilland 4A.
The next stop on the tour is the airline’s early history, focusing on Britain’s early airlines including Handley Page Transport, Instone Airlines, Daimler Airway and British Marine Air Navigation. Those airlines were eventually taken over by the Government of the United Kingdom and consolidated to form Imperial Airways, the chosen vehicle to develop routes to the British Empire. Imperial Airways was also tasked with transporting mail, a critical aspect of improving communications between the United Kingdom and its interests abroad.
A highlight of this section of the museum is learning about Imperial’s use of the Handley Page H.P. 42, a large biplane airliner with a cabin designed to be similar to a luxury railroad car. The tour guides offer an insightful look at how Imperial used this aircraft to connect London with the world, including how it was used for Imperial’s flights from London to Cape Town.
Slowly advancing towards the present day, you’ll learn about the airline’s operations in the days leading up to World War II and the airline’s operations during the war. One of the highlights is learning about the “Ball-Bearing Run,” a flight operated by BOAC to Sweden using the de Havilland Mosquito in order to pick up ball bearings, a vital item for the war effort. The flights were operated over enemy territory and were extremely risky.
As most aviation enthusiasts know, the modern-day British Airways was formed with the merger of British European Airways (BEA) and the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1974. The Speedbird Centre’s post-World War II section goes into great detail describing how BEA came on the scene in 1946 and highlighting BOAC’s use of converted Lancaster bombers for passenger service. This section of the museum houses several items from when Elizabeth II returned to the U.K. after the death of her father in 1952, making her the new Queen of England.
The next stop is the jet age where the museum has a wealth of information about the various jets the airline has operated over the years. From the early jets such as the Comet to the modern-day heavies like the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380, a model of just about every jet one can think of can be found here. Including, of course, an impressively large model of the Concorde.
At the end of the journey through British Airways’ history, the Speedbird Centre features several cabin mock-ups. The gift shop also has many unique visitor cards and posters available for purchase. But perhaps most important, once the tour is finished one will see that the Speedbird Centre is operated by a group of volunteers who are incredibly passionate about what they do and truly enjoy sharing the history of British Airways.
The Speedbird Centre truly is Heathrow’s hidden gem and is well worth a visit when London. Although open to the public, prior contact with the museum is required ahead of time to arrange a visit.
Jordan focuses his writing on innovations in commercial aviation, aviation history, and other interesting topics he feels are worthy of discussion in the community.