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20th Century Passenger Flying Boats

10 October 2021

20th Century Passenger Flying Boats, Leslie Dawson, 2021, ISBN 978 1 52674 420 3, 91 pp.

Leslie Dawson’s superb authorship and more than capable detective work of history has, again, paid off. His previous book—Fabulous Flying Boats: a history of the World’s passenger flying boats—has been extremely well received since it is jam packed with unique photos as well as researched stories giving the flavor as well as the adventure that was the world of flying boats in their heyday.

Fabulous Flying Boats: a history of the World’s passenger flying boats is a fantastic read and required by any who follow aviation history—but it just could not hold all the amazing images brought to light by Dawson. So…20th Century Passenger Flying Boats was written, and happily so. The author has liberated treasures of poignant moments captured on film from many private collections and albums. Another of the author’s talents is relating the reader to the human dimension of this history. Yes, the human dimension—not the dry recitation of numbers and dates, or the description of events with none of their context or feel. It is viscerally telling how, back in the day, men and the women muscled or finessed, whichever was required at the time, these fantastic flying machines through the air and along the water. The stories and photographs are excitingly placed in the backdrop of one of aviation’s most adventurous periods, through the wartime of World War II, as well as after.

My favorite chapter is the fourth one, C-class to Africa. It was such a pleasure to read coming entirely unexpectedly and so brilliantly written in Dawson’s silky hand. Here, the author took me vicariously on a luxurious series of flights aboard a Short Brothers Empire Class Flying Boat. The travel began with the arrival with at London’s Empire Terminal Building for the weighing-in and then hopping onto one of the specially designated last two cars of the train, destination Southampton. My imagined journey into yesteryear was an experience of several plush days of flying, dining and overnighting. Flying first from the historic English waters of Southampton to a final landing in culturally resplendent Durban South Africa—with refueling and rest stops along the way at intriguing, exotic locales. Getting on and off the aircraft—in to and out of hotels of varying types—the food service—the maintenance at stopovers—and, of course flying at vista viewing altitudes in the Empire class flying boat are described so well that I could sense the anticipation and enjoyment of flying as so few were able to afford to do back in the day.

Naturally, post-World War I flying boats begin the book as this is the time when flying boats developed into revenue passenger business vehicles. And Dawson does not solely concentrate on the United Kingdom’s contribution but also those of Italy, the United States, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Norway.

Indeed, the author does not focus on Great Britains passenger flying boats, as could easily be done, but concisely addresses those of other countries in chapter-by-chapter order. The Pan American Airways flying clippers are noted in charming detail, as expected. Though, it is the flying boats produced elsewhere where this book luminesces. For example, the description of France’s magnificent Latécoère 631 and the cockpit illustration of it has to be seen to be believed. It should not be missed. 

Dawson’s recollection of the tremendous international competition to fly across the Atlantic Ocean is excellent and includes both the North Atlantic as well as the South Atlantic. Notably, he did not forget João Riberrio de Barros who piloted the first private non-stop flight spanning the South Atlantic in the Jahú, the wildly beautiful twin hulled Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.55 flying boat (photo included of course).

Pioneering efforts using Short Brothers aircraft in aerial refueling as well as the Short Mayo Composite to transit the North Atlantic were nearly like science-fiction in their day and Dawson gives readers the thrill which existed in the era. Wartime during World War II is ably described as is the post war period. Finally, Dawson leaves readers with an enticing end chapter where the remaining great passenger flying boats can be seen today—whether in museums or in flight. An added bonus is an appendix listing passenger flying boat fleets of the past.

This book will be enjoyed by the casual reader as well as enthusiast for its embracing writing as well as its images, the vast majority of which cannot be seen elsewhere. It is an absolute treasure as are his previous books on flying boats, Wings Over Dorset: Aviation’s History in the South and Fabulous Flying Boats: a history of the World’s passenger flying boats.

20th Century Passenger Flying Boats can be obtained at the Naval Institute Press quite reasonably (even more so when a member which is economical as well as rewarding). Or, you can give your money to Amazon. But it’s, perhaps, best to support book publishers so authors like Leslie Dawson can continue their work producing great books, niche books, intelligent books.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nick permalink
    10 October 2021 21:23

    Great review and am looking forward to Dawson’s book.

  2. travelforaircraft permalink*
    11 October 2021 04:34

    You’ll be happy 🙂

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