The Short Empire was a short-medium range four engine all-metal flying boat originally designed for the "Empire Air Mail Programme", a 1930s British plan to develop an efficient passenger and air mail service between Britain and its colonies/dominions in Africa, Asia and Australia.

Entering service in 1937, a total of 42 Empires were built. Most were operated in civil service by Imperial Airways (from 1939 B.O.A.C.) and some by Qantas. With the advent of World War 2, a few aircraft were taken over for military duties for the R.A.F., R.A.A.F and R.N.Z.A.F. but B.O.A.C. continued civil services with the Empires during the war.

Biggles and the Short EmpireEdit

The "Capricorn" which took Biggles and 666 Squadron from Britain to Malta and on to Alexandria in Biggles in the Orient was most likely a Short Empire. While in service with Imperial Airways and B.O.A.C., the type was known as the "C-class" and each aircraft had a name starting with C such as "Caledonia", "Cassiopeia" and "Canopus", just like the Biggles' aircraft. There was actually a "Capricornus" but this crashed in 1937.

Interestingly, the Imperial air mail "horse shoe" route did include a leg from Alexandria to Lake Habbaniyh, Baghdad with a refueling stop at Lake Tiberias.[1] However Biggles took a Wellington for this leg in the book.

Stead- flying boat-Biggles in the Orient

This illustration by Stead found between pages 16 and 17 of the 1st Edition shows that Stead had the same idea that the Capricorn was a Short Empire. His drawing is accurate, right down to the number of windows. Registration letters beginning with "K" are correct for British registered aircraft at that time.

The Short Empire shows up again in Sergeant Bigglesworth C.I.D.. Biggles is on the trail of a gang of jewel robbers. Two of the villains, Carlos Scaroni and Max Grindler book seats on a Short Empire out of Alexandria for England. They hijack the aircraft, kill the pilots and beach the flying boat on a beach in Libya and then make off with a case of jewels belonging to an Indian maharaja. The Short Empire in this case was the Calpurnia. This aircraft actually crashed in Iraq in 1938. Where something bad happens to an aircraft, Johns usually took care to use a fictional aircraft or one that no longer existed, presumably just in case some readers get superstitious and refuse to travel in the real one. In the French graphic novel adaptation, Le cygne jaune, the Calpurnia became the Cordelia, G-AEUD, which did survive the Second World War and served briefly thereafter on passenger runs.

Empire boat-cygne

The Short Empire in Le cygne jaune. The registration G-AEUD refers to the Cordelia. The name is seen clearly on the nose. Bergèse probably chose Cordelia for greater authenticity as Calpurnia had crashed in 1938.


The Short Empire was designed for the Imperial air route with many stops in Africa and Australia where no leg exceeded 500 miles. As such, the first and most numerous variant of the Empire, the S.23 only had a range of 767 miles (1270 km). This would not be enough for the flights from Britain to Malta nor from Malta to Alexandria which Biggles took. But this was wartime, and additional fuel tanks could have been fitted and overload conditions could easily have been attempted.

(A note: I should think a Britain-Malta scheduled flight would make stops in Lissabon and/or Gibraltar. Fred Leander)

Some S.23s were fitted with larger tanks, giving ranges between 1240 to 1750 miles (2000 to 2820 km). These could have covered the distance.

A later variant, the S.30, was fitted with more efficient engines and a strengthened airframe, pushing the ranges to 3170 miles (5110 km).[2]


  • Length: 88 ft (26.82m)
  • Wingspan: 114 ft (34.75 m)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 40,500 lb (18,370 kg)
  • Engines: (S.23) 4 Bristol Pegasus radial engines, 920 hp. (S.30) 4 Bristol Perseus, 890 hp.
  • Maximum speed: 200 mph (322 km/h)
  • Cruise speed: 165 mph (265 km/h)
  • Range: 767 miles (1,270 km), later variants up to 3170 miles (5110 km)
  • Service ceiling: 20,000 ft (6,100 m)
  • Accommodation: 4-5 flight crew, several cabin crew, 17-24 passengers


  1. Brian Cassidy, Flying Empires: Short C Class Empire Flying Boats, (Bath, U.K., Queens Parade Press, 2004), 154.
  2. Cassidy, 167.

See alsoEdit

Wikipedia:Short Empire