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Pan American Airways — a clipper takes flight

30 May 2010

PAA

The flight crew had a strategy. The radio operator telegraphed a message to HQ that they were commencing their take off run. Passengers had enjoyed a layover at the tropical isle, had paid the equivalent of about $20,000US for this trip and were looking forward to a meal in the dining compartment in just an hour or so. The pilot commanded full power starboard engines and slightly less from port. She responded with her engines roaring and propellers grasping the air while a crowd watched — as was the fashion. The aircraft began to accelerate on what would be a mile (1600m) long take off run — the path of which would describe a large circle with a radius of about 900 feet (~300m).

A circle?

Impossible, you might think?

Not in the days of the great flying boats like the ones known as the clippers (the Sikorsky S-42, the Martin M-130 and the Boeing 314 aircraft) flown by Pan American Airways (PAA) — later by BOAC and TEAL using aircraft built by the Shorts Brothers (Sandringhams and Solents). I have forgotten the details of what I read so many years ago, but the crew was facing a take off dilemma curious to seaplanes as the water in the lagoon was flat. Not a ripple, smooth as glass … the sort of surface where even capillary waves don’t form since the tropical setting was then under a high pressure system not allowing so much as a breathe of air to sway a single palm frond. The water’s surface tension under these conditions is high, producing too much drag for the engines to overcome, almost a suction, and the hull fails to get onto its step. Getting onto the step the lumbering aircraft would become a momentous hydroplane and would then more quickly gather more speed until it could fly gracefully away to another exotic locale.

The PAA flight crew knew what to do and it was based on a clever application of basic physics by going  to a quick taxi, creating a wake that would reflect off of the nearby shore. Waves break surface tension allowing seaplanes to get up enough speed to get onto the step, to hydroplane, and eventually lift from one fluid — water — into another fluid — air.

The magic of a seaplane and the luxury of the old flying boats is a magnetic force though most of us could not have afforded to have flown in them since they were more expensive then flying on the Concorde — and by more than 200% a full 75 years later! Each PAA clipper carried about two dozen passengers so the cost per person had to be high. They flew in luxury, though, with sleeping cabins and dining cabins aside from the roomy seats — the food service included linen, china and sterling silver — more akin to an ocean liner than today’s airliners. So much the opposite for those of us fated to fly in economy cabins of today’s world — but we can afford to fly, and transoceanic flights are routine, unlike the world of the 1930s.

Unfortunately, none of the flying boats from the years between the world wars have survived. The Foynes Flying Boat Museum has built a full scale replica of a Boeing 314 “Yankee Clipper” and is the rare but pseudo-exception, and the more welcome for it. The museum lies near Ireland’s Shannon River which the clippers used when on the northern trans Atlantic route.

A handful of large flying boat airliners from WW II and shortly after can be viewed in museums:

It appears that the Short Brothers aircraft survived more successfully over the Boeings, Martins and Sikorskys.

I didn’t list other large flying boats, such as the Kawanishi “Emily”, Martin Mars, the Howard Hughes “Spruce Goose”, or Short Bros. Sunderland since they didn’t serve as airliners — though they can be seen today at various museums (except the Mars aircraft which are still in service as fire bombers in the North America).

* a post was done on MOTAT, just type or paste “MOTAT” into the search box and the link will appear.

** there have been a few posts on Fantasy of Flight, just type or paste “Fantasy” into the search box and the links will appear.

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