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When Boats Had Wings: The Golden Age of Flying Boats

Jeffrey Syken

It was a golden age in aviation history, when oceans could be spanned in comfort and luxury in a “boat with wings,” a period beginning in the early 1930’s and culminating by decade’s end. Flying boats would prove their worth during WWII as patrol bombers and air-sea search and rescue planes in all theaters of the war, particularly over the wide expanses of the Pacific. However, by war’s end the world had changed and the need/uses for flying boats diminished rapidly. Airplane design/propulsion had improved dramatically over the course of the war, increasing range significantly and the many airfields constructed during the war now served as airports where none had existed before. Combined, it left the flying boat a relic of the pre-war world, bested by land planes in speed and convenience. Flying boats would still have their uses in both military and civilian aviation in the post-WWII world, but their glory days were behind them.

The story of flying boats follows the story of aviation itself closely since landing on water made a lot of sense, especially in the early days of aviation whereby suitable landing fields were few and far between. The fact that most large cities are situated near large bodies of water and heavier loads could be lifted (since water provides an infinite runway for takeoffs) added to the appeal. Aviation pioneers like William E. Boeing, Glenn H. Curtiss, Igor Sikorsky and Glenn L. Martin recognized this potential and exploited it. It would be flying boats produced by Curtiss – the famous “Nancy Boats” (NC for “Navy-Curtiss”), that would first conquer the Atlantic in 1919. Though it took nineteen days and two of the three flying boats didn’t make Portugal, NC-4 did despite the many problems and hardships of the flight. The Boeing 314 (preceded by the Martin M-130 and Sikorsky S-40/42) “Flying Clippers” immortalized the flying boat as a means of transoceanic travel in the pre-WWII era.

In the interwar years, better designs with more reliable engines would make flying boats a practical reality for transoceanic travel. The Caribbean would be the proving ground with first the South Atlantic then the North Atlantic conquered. By the mid-1930’s, even the vast Pacific Ocean could be crossed in a week rather than the month required by steamship using natural island “stepping stones” (Hawaii, Midway, Wake and Guam) to China. Flying Boats reached their apex with the creation of the “Spruce Goose” – Howard Hughes’ enormous H-4 “Hercules” heavy transport flying boat. Conceived to bypass the Atlantic U-Boat menace, her design and construction was so technically challenging and innovative that by the time she was ready for flight testing, the U-Boat menace had long since passed and the war was over. She flew only once, in November 1947, and is now a permanent part of aviation history. She was, in many ways, the “last hurrah” for a bygone age when boats had wings.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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