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Classic Flying Boats

November 18th, 2010 Comments Off on Classic Flying Boats

In 1969 my great friend William H. Dyson III, found a job as captain aboard Charles J. Owens, of Owens Yacht Corporations, personal yacht, Oceanus, a 50′ Bill Tripp designed, carvel planked sloop. With Will’s wife Evelyn as first mate, the job was to maintain the vessel and keep it ready for Chuck and Marge to go out on short notice. Berthed at Owens’ recently acquired yard, Port Owens, on Stony Creek, Oceanus required constant upkeep and since I was a regular visitor, I would help out. In the fall, they traveled south to Christianstead, St. Croix to its winter birth at Chandlers Yacht Yard.


Will, a lifelong sailor, had earned college money delivering yachts to the Islands, and was familiar with the ICW and open ocean sailing. In 1971, he invited me to join them aboard Oceanus to stay for a month, while Chuck and Marge were in Europe.

What an exciting opportunity! Of course, I had heard all about the Islands from Will but never dreamed I’d be able to go. Even more exciting, Dick Newick and his crew were building an ocean racing trimaran, which they hoped would better their previous record, winning the Single Handed Trans-Atlantic Race. I flew down on Eastern, the Wings of Man; at age 25, it was my first international flight.


The seventies was a time of dreary, rainy, cold winters in Maryland and when I landed, the world exploded into hot summer sunshine! The sun was so bright I had to squint, just to see.
Everything about St. Croix and Christianstead was so new it was a relief to see the familiar boat and get settled. Then in the distance there was the thundering of engines and roaring and spray. What is it? Antillies Air Boats, the Grumman Goose, taking off. It was the most exciting, most breathtaking thing I’d ever seen in my life. Like a giant twin engine speed boat, going faster and faster and then taking off and soaring along, higher and higher, until it disappeared in the distance. I couldn’t wait until the evening, so I could see it again.


Every morning and evening was punctuated by these breathtaking takeoffs and landings. So magnetic were the thundering sounds and flashing silver reflections, that for a whole month, I would stop what I was doing, 4 times a day, to watch. When the plane would come to the ramp, the pilot would put down the wheels, hit the throttles and drive it up the ramp, to the ticket station. Up to twelve people and assorted cargo would be unloaded and in a half hour, they would start up, idle down to the water, put the wheels away, and give her the gas. As the plane built up speed, it gave off stereo thundering twin engine sounds and the most magnificent white wakes, on the blue water. First the hull and wing pods all made wakes, then just the hull, then if it was heavily laden it would kiss the water, for the longest way, finally breaking free and starting a great circle, as it headed off to a dreamy, unknown, destination. The air was so clear you could still see it until it was only a tiny dot, twenty miles away.

Out at the airport, off to one side, there was a run down seaplane with the Antilles Airboats name on it. We went out there to have a look and asked a lot of questions. It was an old English, Sunderland from about 1945, the last of its breed and too costly to maintain or use. They didn’t know what was going to become of it. Wow, it was so compelling to see that thing sitting there all dusty and dead looking, nearly abandoned.


Seaplanes and our favorite classic boats developed along similar lines. As more powerful engines became available they improved the designs for more speed. The Schneider Trophy encouraged record setting achievements after WWI, with 200 mph. bi-wing seaplanes increasing speeds each year, up to `34 when the Italians topped 400mph with a sleek mono-wing creation. Our U.S. Navy, 1919 Curtis bi-wing flying boat made the first trans-oceanic flight powered by 4 400hp Liberty engines. So much fuel was required for these early long flights the runways were not long enough, so sea planes were used. German designer Claudius Dornier revolutionized air travel from 1922-30 with his Wal (whale), aluminum monoplane powered by 2 300hp Hispano-Suiza engines, in tandem. Made in Spain, Holland, and Japan, they featured seaworthiness, reliability, and ease of maintenance; fourteen passengers could fly in comfort in two staterooms. Records were set for long flights all over the world, even Amundsen made an attempt to fly to the North Pole! A giant version was built in 1929 that carried 66 passengers, with twelve Curtis- Wright engines arranged in tandem along the wingtop, it took one year to fly around the world.


The thirties were the hey-day of seaplane travel. The British 1935 Imperial Airways Empire Boats flew a nine day, twenty nine landing, first class, London to Sydney route, with many other routes linking the USA, Canada, India, Africa, and Europe right up to WWII.


Pan American Airways began in 1927 with a Key West to Havana route. In a few years Pan American Clippers linked much of the Pacific and the Philippines. Atlantic Clippers connected five US cities with five European cities, the Azores and Bermuda. In 1938 Pan Am’s new Boeing 314, powered by 4 Wright Cyclone 1,600hp engines, cruised the North Atlantic route with mail, 74 passengers, and 10 crew at 188mph over a range of 3,685 miles. As the thirties came to a close the globe was criss-crossed with hundreds of regular seaplane service routes.


With the onset of World War II, flying boats provided critical transportation for government and military service personnel. Hundreds of different makes and models participated in sinking submarines, picking up downed flyers and convoy escort. Of the many that contributed so ably to the war effort the Consolidated Pby Catalina stands out. Designed in 1935, it was first configured to carry 4- 50 cal. machine guns and 4000 lbs of bombs; 3,290 were made by the USA, Canada, and Russia. They were so reliable, seaworthy, and tough; many saw continued use in South America up until the late 80’s.

In Maryland, Glen L. Martin Co., beginning in WWII, produced nine different models; The Mariner was the first seaplane to sink a German U boat; then later picked up 42 survivors of a ship, sunk by a U-boat. They saw service in Korea and then government contracts gradually diminished; the flying boats were replaced by a variety of other planes and the far more versatile, helicopters.


Yet, the old time sea plane remains in use all around the globe, where small “bush” airlines are needed. Antilles Airboats was established in 1962 and became the largest Downtown Seaplane Airline, in the world, until about 1989 when the majority of the planes were destroyed by Hurricane Hugo. The big seaplane we saw was too expensive even for the Puerto Rico route and was flown back to England, restored, and it is on display in the Southampton Aircraft Museum. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is accessible by Grumman Mallard seaplanes. In remote regions of the world, the west coast of Canada, the Bahamas, and South America, small airlines are still using seaplanes. So if you travel and have a chance, take a flight in one. You are guaranteed to have the fastest, most exciting “boat” ride you ever had!


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For you armchair travelers, read Wings over Water – A Chronicle of Twentieth Century Flying Boats, by David Oliver, 1999 Quintet Publishing Ltd. Available at Borders Books, and Seaplanes at War, a magazine, provided the inspiration, information, and pictures for this article.

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