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The bright future of flying boats in 1954


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Hi,

today I came across this 1954 advertisement by Saunders-Roe which tried to convince "Flight"- readers that flying boats had a bright future ahead of them:

http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1954/1954%20-%203309.html

In fact, most of the so-called false assumptions about flying boats that the advertisement tried to disprove turned out to be true and very few new flying boats have been built after the 1950s. Most interesting is the claim that flying boats would be best suited for nuclear propulsion because an aircraft with a reactor onboard will be very heavy. As flying boats are not limited by the length of available runways, such a very heavy nuclear aircraft would be best built as a flying boat, the advertisment argued. This might be true, but the nuclear plane remained a pipe dream (and for good reasons, one might add). In addition, the company pointed at the ongoing work on flying boats in the US.

Well, with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to make fun of this. And of course Saunders-Roe had a vested interest in gaining public support for its flying boat projects. I just found this interesting to read. It reminds us how difficult it is to predict the future course of technological developments when there were still seemingly sound arguments in favor of flying boats in 1954.

Ole

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Thanks for that - makes fascinating reading. As you say, S-R had a vested interest in pushing the flying boat - at the time they had a couple of Princesses to sell and no interested buyers, nor any prospect of seeing a return on the not inconsiderable investment they had already made in getting the aircraft to that stage.

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Very interesting read, thanks for sharing !

It is very fascinating to look at predictions like these. With the benefit of hindsight it's easy to see where SR were wrong. At the same time it's interesting to notice that others got it right even back then, so maybe SR did not do their homework right when it came to predicting the future of air transport. I find the point about the "prohibitive cost of artificial runways" particularly interesting. In 1954 for example the B-52 was already flying and this sure needed long runways. The B-47 was in service and this too needed long runways that the US did not find particularly difficult to build.

In that same 1954 Boeing launched the 367, the father of that 707 that became the most succesful first generation jet airliner... someone back then definitely had a clearer vision of the future

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It took a lot of time and enterprise (and a lot of KC 135 A's) to turn the -80 into the 707. Boeing had to persuade the airlines to buy it and consequently had to listen to & respond their objections. Too many manufacturers had the attitude " build it and they will come" without asking the customer what they wanted. Witness the Brabazon (and Princess.) Market research was for timid clerks not entrepreneurial visionaries. I recall a remark by Bill Gunston that at the time 'bigger really did seem better" pointing the XC 99, Lockheed Constitution, & C124

And don't forget that other monument to paths not taken the "Spruce Goose".

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The Brabazon was not a result of the manufacturers building what they wanted and hoping to get customers. Its specification was laid down as an act of public policy by the Government committee charged with such things. The clue is in the name.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brabazon_Committee

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I totally agree with Giorgio N: many people in the industry obviously had a clearer vision than Saunders-Roe. Otherwise such a PR-campaign wouldn't have been necessary. Maybe, Saunders-Roe even knew in 1954 that time was not on their side. Wisely, the company had not put all their eggs in one (floating) basket, but also worked on the mixed rocket- and jet-powered SR.53 interceptor. Well, it looked like a promising idea at the time.

It is nevertheless remarkable how long people stick to outdated concepts like flying boats. After the war, the US built at least the HU-16 Albatros (first flight 1947), the P5M Marlin (1948), the fighter-jet F2Y Sea Dart (1953), the R3Y Tradewind (1954) and the jet-powered P6M SeaMaster (1955). There were also some Soviet designs.

Fire-fighting/water bombers and search-and-rescue are, of course, special roles where flying boats persisted much longer, especially the Canadian CL-215/415.

I guess one additional problems with flying boats in the post-war era was that their logistical requirements grew just like those of land-based aircraft. It became increasingly difficult to operate them from lakes or bays with little shoreside facilities or with the support of only a seaplane tender (although the USN did that surprisingly long). More complex flying boats needed onshore hangars, tarmacs and launch/recovery ramps. In the end, I suppose, such a base for sustained flying-boat operations turned out so complex and similar to a conventional airport that adding a runway made little difference.

The whole story somehow reminds me of the VTOL-craze of the 1960s (Mirage IIIV, P. 1154, VJ-101, Do-31, VAK 191B, ...) (I hope, I am not infuriating the Harrier-Fan Club here ...). In both cases, it was all about doing without supposedly expensive, vulnerable, not-available runways, but ultimately most air forces preferred building, maintaining and defending conventional runways over accepting the performance penalty and additional costs that came along with flying boats or VTOL-designs.

Still, like biplanes, Zeppelins and paddle steamers, flying boats and floatplanes have something romantic about them...

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There were also some Soviet designs.

Beriev Be-6, Be-8, R-1 (Jet), Be-10(Jet), Be-12, Be-42(Jet) and the current jet-powered Be-200.

The latter is currently aiding the Indonesians in their search for the crashed airliner.

Don't also forget the Japanese Shin-Meiwa anf the Chinese Harbin SH-5 designs, both currently in service.

Ken

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Hmm. Well, there’s flying boats, and there’s flying boats. They’ve kept going longer than you might have expected in basically two roles: maritime military, and fire-bombing. The countries that have kept building them for maritime use either have large sea areas to patrol (eg Japan) and/or have large land areas where building runways isn’t practical (eg Russia). And even then it’s notable that they’ve also used land-based aircraft, and have tended to concentrate their flying boats on rescue work. Fire-bombing, well, the advantages speak for themselves.

 

The fate of the flying boat has to be seen in context. Its biggest problem is basically drag: vast amounts of it while on the surface, and a lot more than necessary in the air because of the need for a buoyant hull. This produces compromises that have made it progressively less competitive as engines and systems have got lighter and more efficient. In the civil field, the old plus point was that you didn’t need a runway and there was loads of water to land on. What no-one mentioned was that, while 70% of the Earth’s surface is water, people don’t live on the wet bits. You need to be able to land in coastal waters or on a big lake, which have a nasty habit of having lumps in them, and even then you need your customers to live near enough to the water to be practical. It was inevitable that improving technology would make the land-based airliner the winner. Much the same applies to maritime patrol. The long careers of the Albatross and the Marlin show that it took a surprisingly long time for landplanes to take over, but it was always going to happen.

 

The availability of surplus landplanes of all types, most recently airliners, has then worked against the fire-bombing amphibian, despite its advantages. I’m amazed Canadair succeeded with the CL-215/415 for so long. The continued success of floatplanes shows that there is a place for aircraft that land on water. But their size shows that it’s quite a tight little niche.

 

Of course, it’s not always technology that does for something. The VC10 was built round an assumption that it would have to use the short, high runway at Nairobi. Extending the runway seems not to have occurred to the Ministry of Supply. That’s one reason why there were twenty times as many 707s as VC10s.

 

I do like the idea of a flying boat being ideal for nuclear power because you have a long "runway". If your problem is weight, you need more speed to generate lift. Where is that speed going to come from if you’re pounding along a surface that’s a thousand times as dense as air? And you’d need a huge reach of glassy smooth water - I wouldn’t like to try for lift-off speed in any significant sea state. I suspect a nuclear Princess would effectively have taxied from port to port, never quite getting daylight under the keel. At that rate it hardly seems worth attaching the wings. You could put the rudder and the propellers under the water and then …

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It sure took Boeing time to persuade the airlines and the 707 was the result of many changes on the original 367-80 design... but the Dash 80 already contains in its design most of the features we see in today's airliners ! It was an aircraft designed following principles and assumptions that history has proven to be correct. This is probably not surprising considering that Boeing had been heavily involved in designing and building airliners before the war.

Expanding the subject a bit, it strikes me how British companies in those years failed to understand the way the world was evolving. Most designs were aimed at fulfilling the needs of a world that was often already part of the past, with very little grasp of the developments under way.

Now the flying boat concept per se was not doomed in 1954 and a number of types continued to operate with success. However they were types specialised in operations for which back then the flying boat was a good solution. The Albatross is a good example as it was produced in large numbers and operated alll over the world. Its main role was ASR, a role for which land based planes had limitations. And they still have, so much that the Albatross was mainly replaced by helicopters, a machine that in the '50s was still not capable as it has become.

Maybe SaRo should have focused on something for that kind of mission

Edited by Giorgio N
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Don't forget the proposed SARO P.192 (which I think may have been given unofficial title of 'Queen' at the design stage) which would have been powered by 24 R-R Conways and had space for 1,000 passengers. :yikes:

...makes an A380 seem tiny!

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And yet despite the demise of the civilian flying boat, there IS still a place for passenger floatplane services - the Croatian islands, now being served by European Coastal Airlines with their floaty Twotters:

http://www.ec-air.eu/en/

Many of those islands don't have airfields, and ferry facilities aren't set up to service tourists. ECA is filling a niche, but the upshot is that you can still take off and land on the water as a passenger!

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My greatest regret has always been missing out on a trip to Lord Howe Island in a Sandringham. I had it almost organised to go on one of the last, but then work required me to be elsewhere and I couldn't reorganise things before the service ended. Now, of course, Lord Howe has an airstrip and Ansett Flying Boat Services is a thing of the past.

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