Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Age of the flying boat

READY FOR TAKE-OFF The thrill of a take-off from water was one of the high points of clipper travel. Here, a Pan American Airways Sikorsky S-40 is shown taxiing for take-off from Miami, Florida, on its way to Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The failure of airships left air-passenger transport over the world’s oceans exclusively to flying boats. In the 1930s these glamorous machines enjoyed a brief golden age as the aristocrats of long-distance aeroplane travel. The ascendancy of flying boats made sense in the conditions of the time. Although they were not necessarily capable of alighting safely on the open sea, they were, understandably, considered safer for transoceanic flight than land-planes. They could operate services to far-flung exotic locations without the need to build and maintain a chain of airfields. And their boat-like hulls lent themselves to more spacious and luxurious accommodation than contemporary land-based airliners. This allowed the flying boats to come closer in style to the luxury ocean liners with which they competed on most routes. It was no accident that flying-boat crews dressed in nautical fashion, or that those of the most famous fleet, operated by Pan American, were dubbed “clippers” after the fastest ships of the age of sail.

As in other areas of aviation, the United States lagged behind the Europeans in the development of commercial flying-boat services in the early 1920s, even on what the Monroe Doctrine had defined as its home turf – Central and South America. In August to September 1925, two German Dornier Wal flying boats carried out a demonstration flight from Colombia across the Caribbean to Miami, Florida, and offered to set up an airmail service linking the US with the Caribbean islands, and coastal states with South America. Stung in its national pride, the United States refused to play ball, but the incident highlighted the need for America to develop an overseas airmail system. The result was the Kelly Foreign Air Mail Act of 1928. As with US domestic commercial aviation, government-awarded airmail contracts were the springboard for the development of US international passenger services.

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