Featured image: TSRL–British Flight Testing,Tim Mason/Public Domain

5/29/1934: First UK Airmail Service Begins Operations

DALLAS – Today, in 1934, Highland Airways Limited commenced the first regular airmail service in the UK between Inverness and Kirkwall.

Highland was founded on April 3, 1933, and commenced operations the next month from its base in the Scottish city of Inverness (INV).

At its helm from the very first day stands Captain Ernest Edmund «Ted» Fresson, a seasoned and experienced flyer, well known in Scotland for providing joy rides for the public from any available field near large cities, a performance that drew large groups of persons.

de Havilland DH-60 Gipsy Moth G-AAWO at Popham. Photo: Alec Wilson from Khon Kaen, Thailand, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Early History of Highland Airways Limited

Fresson’s aim was to offer travel means able to dramatically reduce the time required to travel by sea, often rough, to reach the Northern Islands or to move between them.

The answer was air travel, and this way of traveling would appeal to many social categories, from businessmen to the military, along with tourists, small farmers, and fishing enthusiasts. Fresson created Highland Airways Limited and became its managing director. The headquarters were established in Inverness at 36 Academy Street, while the operating base was at the city’s brand new and business-sponsored Longman Airfield.

The airline board was chaired by Dr. Thomas Alexander, with member Robert Donald, the director of a local motor engineering company, as an alternate. On the board were also seated a sea navigation company, the North of Scotland, Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Company, and a newspaper, The Scotsman, represented by its owner, George Law. The objectives presented to the board by Ted Fresson consisted of the transport of passengers, mail, and newspapers.

Actual operations began with the deployment of a three-seater General Aircraft Monospar ST-4 Mark II, bearing registration G-ACEW, which flew the run from Longman Airfield to Kirkwall but with one en route stop at Wick, an aircraft fitted with an underbelly wicker-basket used to transport The Scotsman newspaper.

Unfortunately, less than two months later, Ted Fresson crashed G-ACEW into a wall while landing in poor weather at the Wideford airfield that served the city of Kirkwall. Highland Airways Limited continued operations while the aircraft was repaired by using several hired aircraft. The airline established a base at Kirkwall-Wideford airfield, located on a farm bearing the same name, where an engineer was positioned.

Monument to the memory of Ted Fresson at Kirkwallc at Monument at Wideford Farm where his airfield was located. Photo: Bob Jones / Monument at Wideford Farm / CC BY-SA 2.0

Early Operations

Despite the not always clement Scottish weather, Highland Airways Limited acquired a good reputation for reliability reaching scores that would today be in the top ten as they climbed to 97-98%.

Because of the weather and usually windy conditions at the field, Tesson had formed teams of good willing people to stand on the grass runway and grab the wings of the landing aircraft to hold it down while it was secured to a truck. Fortunately enough, the aircraft type and the high landing headwinds made this maneuver possible.

Another anecdote, which depicts well these first days of commercial aviation, is a forced landing on the island of Sanday, in a field in the vicinity of a hotel, While flying a passenger from Thurso to Lerwick. The field became the landing field when regular services to the island were established by Highland Airways Limited.

The carrier’s expansion continued with services to Aberdeen-Seaton aerodrome, Inverness, and the Shetlands. Highland Airways Limited met with its first competition’s issue, its use of Seaton airfield was imposed by Aberdeen Airways’ landing rights refusal at Dyce airport, where the competitor was based.

From this situation stems what we would define as a “traffic agreement”, at times replaced by a “gentlemen agreement” which established that Highland Airways Ltd. would serve the north side of Aberdeen while the eponymous Airways would serve the southern part.

Scottish Airways’ De Havilland DH-84 Dragon. Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0

First Airmail Service in the UK

Highland Airways Ltd. set up an airmail service, the first in the United Kingdom, from Inverness to Orkney, and the first flight, on May 29, 1934, was performed by Ted Fresson himself on board a De Havilland Dragon 84, under the registry marks of G-ACCE, fulfilling all the objectives he had presented to the Board when the carrier was created.

The airmail service expanded to Wick and Lerwick while charter demand started in August 1934 and kept growing. Moreover, in October of the same year, Highland Airways Limited started what we would call today « med-evac » flights as the carrier was awarded a contract from the Orkney County Council for the transportation of patients from the Northern Islands to Kirkwall and, subsequently, also to Aberdeen hospitals.

Captain Ted Fresson was also responsible for modifications of aircraft to improve performance. When he tested a new de Havilland DH-89 Rapide aircraft, he was troubled by the performances of the machine, to be mainly used on short landing fields. He asked de Havilland to add flaps to obtain lower approach speeds – he was probably thinking about his wing-grabbing teams – and so, the DH-89A was born. Previously built aircraft were modified to include this component.

Scottish Airways’ De Havilland DH-84 Dragon. Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0

Final Days

On August 12, 1937, Whitehall established Scottish Airways, a big airline. They collaborated with LMS Railway and David MacBrayne, a Scottish ferry operator that used Western Isles Airways as a vehicle for investment. Highland Airways and Northern & Scottish Airways were merged into the new airline while maintaining their names, allowing Fresson to remain in command of Highland Airways.

Highland Airways lost its identity in August 1938, becoming the Northern Division of Scottish Airways, still based in Inverness and led by Fresson. Highland Airways ran out of money and was dissolved in the summer of 1940.

The featured image shows the prototype General Aircraft ST-4 Monospar. August 1932. G-ABUZ. Public Domain.

Article sources: Webster, Jack (1994). The Flying Scots. Glasgow: Tha Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. p. 24. ISBN 0-9522174-2-2. “Captain Ted Fresson, Robert Donald of MacRae & Dick and G-ACEW”. Am baile: highland history & culture. Retrieved 2 June 2020. “Inauguration of First Highland Air Service”. Moving Image Archive. National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 1 June 2020.

Pre-order the 2025 Airways Calendar