Monday, November 2, 2015

Flying boats and the way to travel by air in the 1950's

There was a time after the Second War when civilian aviation relied heavily on flying boat travel. No need for runways, just find a convenient strip of water (preferably not too choppy) and in can come the sea plane. Nowhere was this more enthusiastically embraced than in the Pacific, and I have just spent the last three days in New Zealand preparing conservation plans for two survivors of this era.

These are the Short and Harland Solent flying boats that flew the Coral Route between NZ, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Whether they were actually a plane that could float, or a boat that could fly (and does it really matter, though they were all formally launched like a ship), these extraordinary machines as large as a two storey house still have the capacity to thrill.

Upstairs a massive flight deck had a pilot and co-pilot with a navigator and radio operator behind and the all-important flight engineer who sat in front of a vast console of dials and levers, spending the whole flight moving fuel between tanks to keep the plane trimmed.

Behind them was a galley with a full cooking oven and a food lift to move food between floors and a cabin for 20 passengers. Downstairs were a further 18 travellers in three cabins plus a ladies powder room and gents toilet. This was luxury travel of a kind not seen again until Etihad introduced showers on their 380s, though I suspect the noise and vibration levels were rather different with four enormous prop engines just outside the window.

And of course landing on water though convenient has some inherent hazards, not least steering in high winds and a strong swell without a rudder. Pilots had to be adept seaman as well as aviators, resorting at times to using sea anchors thrown out each side by crewman to be able to reach the mooring buoy. Then the buoy had to be caught by a crewman leaning out of the front of the aircraft with a boat hook. Not much fun in a rough sea, the record apparently being 37 attempts before the buoy was finally secured. You can see why they did not land at night.

What makes the collection at the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) unique is that they have alongside the Solent, the military version known as the Sunderland. Gone are the internal luxuries and in their place instead a stripped out airframe bristling with depth charges and guns (nicknamed 'flying porcupines' by the U boat crews, who were their primary prey). There are only seven of these aircraft left in the world and to have these two civilian and military examples alongside each other is an amazing experience.

Currently, both flying boats are in the process of restoration, but they will shortly be on display in MOTAT's aviation display hall. Throw in a Lancaster and a mosquito bomber which sit alongside them, and any trip to Auckland should include MOTAT where even a moderate aviation enthusiast will come away enthralled.

In reality, although the 1950's was the prime time for these graceful birds, the Second War had already killed them off due to so many airfields being established and the design of planes that could carry much larger loads. By the late 50s the pressurised Constellations were taking over with twice the number of passengers at twice the speed and half the cost, to be followed shortly thereafter by the first civilian jets, the Comets.

A rare relic of a brief period in aviation history.

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