The Giant Flying Boats of the Golden Age

by FliteTest | September 12, 2018 | (3) Posted in Just Fun

Back in the 1930s, huge aircraft flew tiny numbers of passengers around the world in fantastic luxury. This was truly the 'golden age' of flight. 

Competition between the rival giants of the early commercial aviation world resulted in some truly astounding flying machines as early as the 1920s, just a few short decades from the Wright Brothers inaugural flight. These machines traversed the globe and established far-flung networks that would bring the world closer together than ever before.

The Big Rivalry 

During the early origins of the first airline companies, two stood out as contenders to fly the biggest and best aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean and the wider world. The first, Pan American, had the unique vision. It wanted to be the first American airmail service to operate outside of the US. The appeal of flying boats was obvious; landing on water was a great option for those locations where there were no pre-built airstrips but plenty of seaports and docks that could acomadate passengers and cargo. 

The second, Imperial Airways, came about in a slightly different manner. The British government decided to merge existing proto-airlines into one national air service that was state-owned. Several smaller companies and their equipment became Imperial Airways Limited on 31st March 1924. Imperial aimed to go global and connect the British Empire all over the world, including territories across the vast Atlantic Ocean. They started with somewhat flimsy aircraft like the Handley Page W8f, an aircraft similar to the one that was the first to cross the Atlantic in 1919.

The Flying Boats

During the 1920s and 30s, flying boats were all the rage. There were all sorts of designs, large and small, two-engined and-four engined. Some could even take off from the land as well as water. These were called amphibious flying boats. A famous example of a later amphibian is the PBY Catalina. By far the largest flying boat was the German Dornier Do X which used a staggering twelve seperate 524 hp engines!

This machine weighed 56,000kg and had a wingspan of 48m (157 ft 5 in)

During this time, Pan Am built up its fleet. One example of a popular Pan Am aircraft was the Sikorsky S-42, a four-engined high wing aircraft capable of traversing the Atlantic in 15 hours. It was a bumpy and treacherous ride, but they were the first to do it. 

The four-engined Sikorski S-42

Imperial expanded to India but Pan Am went to the Philippines. The Short brothers were tasked with designing a new flying boat for Imperial Airlines to cross conquer the world in style. Twenty-eight Were ordered straight off the drawing board - something completely unheard of at this time. The aircraft would become the Empire Flying Boat, a machine renouned for it's eligance and luxury. 

An Empire Flying Boat named Aotearoa

Compared to Pan Am's S-42, the Empire could cross the Atlantic in just 12 hours. It could also cross it in the utmost comfort. Unfortunatley, however, many were lost in accidents.  

A slightly wacky concept was tested by Imperial Airlines in 1938. This was an idea to 'piggy-pack' an S.20 seaplane on the top of an Empire flying boat - the theory behind this was that both range and payload capacity could be increased dramatically. Together, these were known as the Short Mayo Composite

The impressive Short Mayo Composite

Despite a successful test, the project was sadly canceled due to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. The extended range of the seaplane 'Mercury' was an extraordinary 6,100 miles! Woah. 

After the Second World War, the spread of large, paved runways around the world undermined the need for flying boats. Also, their design, with very large fuselages that compromised aerodynamic efficiency and speed, simply couldn't keep up with new civilian jet aircraft. However, the legacy of the giant flying boats lives on.  

A last 'hurrah', The H-4 Spruce Goose flew in 1947 

If you liked this article, write a comment below suggesting subjects we could cover in the future! 

Article by James Whomsley

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Jackson T on September 14, 2018
Literally anything remotely related to flying could provide a new learning experience and an interesting topic. More how to's, especially on designing planes would be great, as well as more balsa stuff. You are doing a great job and I have learnt a lot from your articles. Keep up the good work!
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Razor7177 on September 21, 2018

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The Giant Flying Boats of the Golden Age