Painful Truth: War doomed elegant aircraft age

Last month I went through a metal detector, took off my shoes, and had everything I was carrying X-rayed.

Then I sat in a steel tube for a couple of hours and was flung through the skies, thanks to a controlled explosion of jet fuel.

Of note is the fact that I took off and landed on a concrete runway. History might have turned out very different for aviation, if the Second World War hadn’t intervened.

The dominant type of passenger airplane in the 1920s and 1930s was the flying boat. Almost all of the early sizeable aircraft for both long-range passengers and mail delivery were built to land on and take off from the water.

Why? Economics. The world already had plenty of harbours, but very few runways. A flying boat service could be set up far more cheaply than a land-based aircraft service.

Not all the early experiments were successes. The Caproni CA-60 Noviplano was a 1921 attempt to crossbreed a houseboat and a triplane. It featured three sets of triple wings attached to what looked a giant shoebox with windows. It flew – sort of. The pilot survived the wreck, anyway.

Other experiments were more successful, and by the late 1920s, there were several airfleets using a wide variety of flying boats.

One of the early large passenger flying boats was the Dornier Do.X, which flew in 1926 and even made an around-the-world trip before taking up service with the (pre-Nazi era) Lufthansa. It was massive for its age, with three decks, sleeping quarters, a smoking deck, and a bar. This was the era when the main method of long-distance travel was the steamship, and aircraft – both planes and airships – tried to compete with them on luxury. It didn’t hurt that the tickets were so expensive only the rich could afford long trips, anyway.

Various other Dorniers and Sikorskys were developed through the late 1920s and early 1930s, and Short Brothers of the United Kingdom also got into the game. The Martin M-130 was built for Pan Am in 1935 and inaugurated the era of the China Clipper, linking San Francisco to Asia.

The last truly massive flying boat ever made for commercial use was the Saunders-Roe Princess. It may have been named for a dainty figure out of fairy tales, but in practice, it strongly resembled a blue whale with wings:elegant and graceful, perhaps, but not in the same way as a Disney cartoon heroine.

The Princess was built in 1952, and never carried passengers. All three prototypes rusted away in hangars.

Why let an efficient mode of air travel pass away? As with many other things, blame the Nazis.

Even before the war, there had been land-based aircraft, of course. But the cost of building an airport with paved runways near major cities was tremendous. With the war, every major economic power in the world built numerous airfields. They also ramped up their production of land-based bombers, which were a lot easier to load with equipment and weapons from nice, stable terra firma. After the war, the many wartime cargo planes were available cheap, and the runways were already there. Mail delivery and small-scale passenger service switched rapidly to land-based planes, with flying boats only hanging on in the developing world for a few more years.

Eventually, no matter what, flying boats would have lost ground. Too many destinations are inland, and convenience would have won out. But the war warped that history, changed it faster than mere economics would have. Without the war, flying boats might have hung on for another decade or two, or perhaps might still have their elegant niche.

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