Published March 17, 2015
By Thomas C. Van Hare
These days, it seems that the only connection between cigarettes and aviation are signs in aircraft lavatories reading, “NO SMOKING”. Smoke detectors are fitted to enforce the rule. In fact, almost every airline today flies with a clear No Smoking policy.
Even from the early days, there was a real fear that cigarettes might ignite the fabric and wooden struts of the first airliners. Later, this fear evolved to address the risk of setting fire to possible fuel fumes in the cabin. Only years later, after World War II when jet transports began to rule the skies, were cigarettes commonly approved on board. Suddenly, it seemed that every airliner seat even had an ashtray on the armrest!
Just a few decades later, however, anti-smoking sentiment became commonplace and cigarettes were once again outlawed. This time, however, the reason was not so much for flight safety as for public health!
The Era of Cigarette Cards
Despite the early risks of cigarettes on airplanes, there was still a connection, however, though in a surprising way. Advertisers saw an opportunity to use aviation and famous aviators to sell more cigarettes. Already, cigarette cards were quite popular, featuring everything from railway locomotives to animals, racing cars, and gardening tips. With the rising popularity of aviation, WD and HO Wills published their first set of aviation cigarette cards around 1910.
As an incentive, every pack of cigarettes included artwork on a small card — and among the most popular were aircraft and famous aviation events. Presumably, smokers would want to stick with the same cigarette brand while they collected the entire set of cards.
The first set by WD and HO Wills included everything from the Montgolfier balloon, Blériot’s crossing of the English Channel, the Wright Flyer, Lilienthal’s glider, a German Zeppelin, and even military and non-military dirigibles from the United States, Great Britain, Italy, Germany, and France.
Dozens of sets followed from a wide range of publishers, including Wills, British American Tobacco, United Tobacco, Ardath, John Player, and Carrera among others. When World War II began, cigarette cards were already featuring Spitfires and Hurricanes as well as badges and ranks of the RAF.
Today, these cigarette cards are once again collectors’ items. To our knowledge, no cigarette manufacturers still feature aviator cards in each pack. However, the vintage ones are in high demand. Many are traded, bought, and sold through online forums, at special events, and even on eBay. For those who love aviation, it is an affordable and interesting collector item, though we recommend you don’t seek out the rare and expensive finds out there. A mint condition Wills card can fetch a pretty penny.
Once Upon a Cigarette
As mentioned, despite the popularity of cigarette cards through the first half of the 20th Century, smoking on airplanes was sharply limited or even outlawed. Illustrating the matter, the March 26, 1936, issue of Flight, contained a report about a court ruling that happened 79 years ago today in aviation history. An English court set the precedent on the first case of a passenger smoking in an airliner’s lavatory:
For smoking in Heracles [the name of an Imperial Airways airliner], Rupert Belleville has been fined £10, with £2 3s. costs.
Note however, that the matter of smoking was not simply viewed in terms of endangering the flight, but as one of establishing the rights and authorities of an airliner’s captain. By 1936, airliners were not truly in much danger from passengers smoking cigarettes on board. The January 23, 1936, issue of Flight, highlighted Mr. Belleville’s unfortunate “smoking incident” in a very different light, as follows:
Much interest has been aroused by the case of alleged smoking in an Imperial Airways machine homeward bound from Paris, when, it is said, a passenger refused to obey the steward’s hint and smoked on four separate occasions, even though interviewed by the captain himself. It is said that there is to be a prosecution — some people think by the Air Ministry under the provisions of the Air Navigation Act — but others, more logically, it would seem, think that it is the part of the operating company to prosecute. If nothing is done, then goodbye to all control in this matter.
Thus, it was quickly clear that the issue wasn’t so much the smoking itself but rather a question of the authority of the pilot-in-command, i.e., the “captain of the ship”. The writers at Flight were particularly harsh in their opinions on the matter, making the claim that a captain of an airplane should have the same rights as a captain of a ship to punish those who do not respect their authority and rules:
It would be useful if the position of the captain or commander of an air liner having wheels — in other words, a land plane — could be clearly defined and definitely established. It appears that if a pilot is in command of a flying-boat or seaplane, he is in charge of a marine craft, and has the same powers as any other ship’s captain. He can, presumably, put a passenger in irons, and, for all I know, “yard-arm” or “keel-haul” him, to say nothing of causing him to wing-walk, the modern equivalent of walking the plank. The same pilot in charge of even the biggest air liner that ever landed on wheels has, apparently, no powers whatsoever, and it may be that if he landed en route to put off a refractory passenger he could be sued
As it turns out, there are two sides to every story. Mr. Rupert Belleville, who was of White’s Club, St. James Street, and a close friend of Earnest Hemingway, was something of an adventurer and free spirit. He was actually a pilot and had his own aviation adventures to boast of — of all people, he knew the rules of flight and what the real risks were. As an example, he once took the famed British high society damsel Venetia Montagu on a flight across Russia and the Middle East in a Gipsy Moth biplane, a feat he had accomplished in 1931!
As it happened, despite the legitimacy of his claim that his cigarettes hadn’t posed any risk to the safety of the flight, Mr. Belleville pleaded guilty to the offense. The case might have been a victory for Mr. Vincent Evans, Esq., prosecuting, as there were notices posted on the aircraft prohibiting smoking and Mr. Belleville had clearly seen those, been advised of the rule and so forth — as such, it seemed inarguable.
Further, despite having his cigarettes taken away by the steward, Mr. Field, and having been talked to personally by the pilot, Captain Rogers, Mr. Belleville had continued to light no less than four cigarettes in all between Paris and Croydon. His fourth and final offense pushed the crew and the airline to make a formal legal complaint.
His guilty plea may have been designed to minimize his fines, but it also became a precedent-setting legal case that remains with us even to this day. In a sense, whenever you see a NO SMOKING sign on an airplane, you can tip your hat to Mr. Rupert Belleville, pilot, adventurer, and then future fighter pilot who helped found RAF 601 Squadron, the so-called “Millionaire’s Squadron”, that flew during the Battle of Britain.
A Final Thought
If you think today’s anti-smoking rules on airliners are excessive, bear in mind the original suggestion on the matter! “Madam, if you do not refrain from smoking in the lavatory, the captain will make you ‘walk the wing!'”
For our part, we’ll avoid smoking on airplanes anyway. It is rather more fun to stick to collecting cigarette cards and maybe publishing a photo feature about Wills’s cards in the near future….
On that, does anyone have a collection they’d like featured?