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The History of Flying Boats

Langport & District History Society was treated to an illustrated talk on the history of flying boats by Arthur Spencer at Langport Library on 11 June. The heyday of flying boats in commercial aviation was the fifteen years between 1935 and 1950, and Arthur was a navigator on such services after the end of the War.

After the First World War, the British Government saw the potential in the fledging civil aviation industry, not just for economic development, but as a way of binding Britain's far-flung empire. In 1924, it merged 4 small existing airlines to create what became Imperial Airways. A test pilot, Alan Cobham, devised routes to South Africa, which were better suited for flying boats than for conventional aircraft. Until then, flying boats had been used for routes to various European and Mediterranean destinations. With the introduction of the Short Brothers 'C Class' Empire flying boats in the early 1930s – many of which Imperial Airways had daringly ordered straight from the drawing board – the two main imperial routes to South Africa (5 days) and Australia (9 days) from Southampton, then Poole Harbour, became feasible.

Commercial services were largely suspended during the War, with the planes requisitioned for military use. By 1945, the few surviving flying boats were ageing. BOAC (the successor to Imperial Airways) redesigned RAF Sunderland flying boats for commercial use, renamed 'Hythes'. They carried around 23 passengers, served by 7 stewards, in conditions of relative luxury very different from today's budget services, though at a cost of about £450.

Arthur then described his experiences on the Eastern Route to Australia. He was a licensed air navigator, having flown with RAF Transport Command, but unlike military flying, navigators did not then have the aid of radar. Navigation was rather basic, but luckily most flights were in daylight and in good weather! Again unlike the RAF, civilian crews were not fixed teams, so Arthur would constantly have to work with different colleagues.

He took the audience through a complete trip from Britain to Australia, first from the perspective of a passenger, then from the crew's viewpoint. One of the navigator's duties in these times was to keep the passengers informed of the flight's progress by way of an hourly information sheet. Other less pleasant duties involved walking along the wing to ensure one float was submerged for turning while in harbour. The many stops en route were varied, from the delights of Augusta in Sicily and Cairo to the heat and humidity of Calcutta, but provided many opportunities for recreation and shopping for the crew.

These commercial flying boat services ceased in 1950 because they were so uneconomic and slow. Arthur's presentation gave the audience – some of whom had links to the flying boat industry – a vivid flavour of a glamorous and exciting period in British aviation.