Posted by: travelrat | August 16, 2020

The Flying Boat

I came upon this old picture while looking through my slide collection for something else. It’s Calshot Spit, which was a flying boat base during the war. Although the RAF are long departed, the flying boat slipway remains intact, and is still used occasionally. The aircraft on it is either a ‘demilitarised’ Short Sunderland patrol bomber, or a Solent, the civilian version of the Sunderland; I couldn’t stop and ask, because I was on a ferry to Cherbourg when I took the photo. But, either way, it’s probably the last flying example of the type.

Quite often, for my Sunday Slot, I have a look back at something historical. Today, I’ll combine that with a touch of ‘what might have been’.

Between the wars, if you wanted to fly long-haul, you’d usually go, not to London, but Southampton. Here, after checking in, you’d board a boat, which would take you to your aircraft, a flying boat. These were the mainstay of the old Imperial Airways, forerunner of the British Overseas Airways Corporation … later, simply British Airways.

They would, of course, take several days to get where they were going; even a transatlantic flight would take some time. But, however leisurely the pace, it was still faster than going ‘deep sea’.

All changed after WWII. There were plenty of former Royal Air Force airfields to choose from. The flying boat, however, clung on for a short time. I think the last operator was Aquila Airways, who flew flying boats to Madeira, because there was no airfield there. This, of course, ceased when they finally built a runway. But, even today, when you say ‘Funchal’ to me, my mental picture includes a flying boat, moored in the harbour.

In the 1950s, I read an article that suggested the flying boat was still the way to go for airline travel. It made a lot of sense … you wouldn’t need to buy land for your runways; you’d need minimal maintenance and you wouldn’t need to close for snow clearance and such. There were military consideration, too; it would be extremely difficult for the Ungodly to put your ‘runway’ out of action!

Round about that time, Saunders-Roe brought out the ‘Princess’ flying boat airliner. This was massive compared with airliners of the day; nearly 150 feet long, powered by ten engines, it could carry 200 passengers, and had a useful range of 3000 miles. However, only three were ever built, and only one ever flew. The other two were ‘cocooned’, to await the development of more powerful engines … even ten Bristol Proteus engines proved inadequate. And, of course, that never happened. Not as far as the ‘Princess’ was concerned, anyway.

Is it really ‘nostalgia’ to wish for an age that happened before you were born? I’d love to have lived in the times when those aircraft flew the airways. With the proviso, of course, that I was wealthy enough to afford to fly in them!  

Saunders-Roe ‘Princess’

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