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Archive 42

Flying Boats

"I will design boats that fly rather then aeroplanes that float." So said Noel Pemberton-Billing, eccentric founder of Supermarine, whose name will always be associated with the immortal 'Spitfire' fighter of World War 2 fame. Supermarine will also be remembered for its pioneering construction of flying boats, such as the 'Southampton'.


O
n the south coast of England, Southampton is well-known for its transatlantic ocean liners. But, in the late Thirties, and later the early post-war years, the area was renowned for luxurious flying boats that matched the liners in almost every respect, with the added advantage of being a faster means of travel, if you could afford the fare! Catering was prestigious 'silver service' and long haul flights were often restricted to daytime flying with overnight stops en-route at first class hotels.

   Flying mostly over water, the view from the observation ports on the promenade deck was said to be spectacular at a cruising height of 1,000 feet or less. But what brought this novel means of transportation into being in the first place? General unreliability of aircraft engines at the time was probably one of the reasons (it was safer to ditch on water and be towed into port if an engine failed) and, of course, lack of suitable runways in many parts of the world for large long-distance aircraft. The 'free' availability of 'water runways' across the globe solved these problems at a stroke.

   Much earlier, in 1919, Supermarine had made several attempts to introduce a flying boat service from Southampton to Bournemouth, and even Le Havre on the other side of the channel, but each service was discontinued after only a short time. No further commercial attempts were made until a Supermarine subsidiary company (The British Marine Air Navigation Company - BMANC - jointly owned with Southern Railway) opened a weekly service to the Channel Islands and Cherbourg. This service operated until 1929 using Supermarine Sea Eagle flying boats.

   1924 saw four small British airlines: Instone Airlines, Daimler Airways, Handley Page Air Transport and the aforementioned BMANC, join forces after the British Government offered a 1m subsidy for them to merge into a single national airline and so, in March of that year, Imperial Airlines (IAL) was born. IAL made little impact on the international scene for the next ten years until the Government announced the 'Empire Air Mail Scheme' with Southampton and flying boats an important part of this strategy. The cost of the venture was underwritten by the Board of Trade with a hearty subsidy being paid to Imperial Airways.

 
A typical scene in the late 1940s as this flying boat
gradually gains height.

   The following year (1935) IAL commissioned Shorts to design and deliver 28 Imperial (Empire) 'C' class flying boats to replace their aging fleet of landplanes. Each flying boat was given a name beginning with 'C' and the new aircraft were to carry a cargo of mail and passengers in splendid luxury. In July 1936, the first Empire flying boat 'Canopus' emerged from Short's Seaplane Works at Rochester on the Medway. Forty-two Empire flying boats were built by May 1940 (the last being 'Cleopatra') and consisted of thirty one S23, eight S30 and three S26 'G'. An S25 variant later entered service with the RAF as the legendary 'Sunderland'.

   The Empire Air Mail Service operated between Southampton, Durban in South Africa, India and Sydney, Australia - later to Auckland, New Zealand until 1950, but was suspended for the duration of the Second World War. Routes were also opened to Alexandria, Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as other outposts of the old British Empire.

   Flying boat operations were initially run from Berth 101 in Southampton Western Docks, later moving to a new terminal at Berth 108. IAL also rented Supermarine facilities at Hythe on the western shore of Southampton Water for use as a maintenance base until the service was axed in November 1950. Today the buildings at Hythe remain, as does some of the old terminus in the Western Docks.                                               To be concluded.

 

 

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