The flying boat has a rich history, dating as far back as 1903. In fact, the first known seaplane flight, Samuel Langley’s Aerodrome launched from a houseboat just a few weeks before the famous Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk. Unfortunately, on two separate launches over the Potomac River, the Aerodrome crashed into the river seconds after launch. The pilot, Langley’s assistant, Charles M. Manly, was pulled unharmed from the river after each crash. However, the aviation world saw potential in flying boats, honing the craft until Glenn Curtiss flew short flights in a seaplane in 1914. Improvements to the craft continued throughout World War I and into the 1920s.
Developed to create a seaplane with a greater range than the Short Calcutta, the Short Kent met the needs of Imperial Airways for flights between Mirabella, Crete and Alexandria, Egypt without the need to refuel in Italian territory. Political conflict between Italy and Britain led to the banning of British aircraft from Italian ports. Similar to the Calcutta, the Kent carried the same number of passengers, but had a larger cargo area for mail. Imperial Airways used the flying boat not only for the Mediterranean routes, but to also survey routes in South Africa and Australia. Only three of the planes were built—Scipio, Sylvanus and Satyrus. The Scipio flipped over and sank after a hard landing in Mirabella Harbor, between India and Spinalonga, killing two crewmembers. On November 9, 1935, the Sylvanus was destroyed by fire in Brindisi, and the Satyrus was taken out of service and scrapped in 1938.
The first flying boat used by Pan American Airways, the Fairchild FC-2, travelled the Miami-to-Havana route as well as the Amazon River route. Initially, Pan Am ordered four aircraft, planning to use them along the Amazon and Yangtze, but before the prototype of the plane was complete, Pan Am no longer needed the planes for the China route. Therefore, modifications to the plane allowed them to handle the tropical conditions of Brazil. After delivery of the first two planes, Pan Am cancelled the order for the remaining two, as the two original flying boats met the airline’s needs for the Amazon. Only two more Fairchild FC-2 aircraft were built. The first was used by naturalist Richard Archbold on an expedition to New Guinea and the fourth used by the Spanish Republican Air Force until its capture by Spanish Nationalists in 1938.
Originally designed for Pan Am for use on new Caribbean routes in 1926, the Sikorsky S-34 flying boat was not exactly a success. The seaplane, powered by two 200 horsepower engines, had room for five passengers. During a test flight in November 1927, one of the engines failed and the plane crashed and sank. No one on board was injured, but the aircraft was a total loss.
When produced by the Dornier Company of Germany in 1929, the Dornier Do.X flying boat was the largest, heaviest and most powerful in the world. Powered by twelve engines, the aircraft was built on the Swiss portion of Lake Constance in order to avoid sanctions under the Treaty of Versailles, forbidding Germany to build aircraft exceeding set speed limits after World War I. Only three of the planes were built, as, even with twelve engines, the flying boat was underpowered to carry the 70 passengers it was designed to carry. On its 70th test flight, the plane carried 169 people including production workers, their families, journalists, aircrew and nine stowaways who did not hold tickets for the flight. Passengers were asked to crowd to one side or the other to help make turns and the aircraft flew for 40 minutes, climbing only to 650 feet. The flying boat contained three decks, with a smoking lounge, sleeping quarters and a bar, but never reached the potential that Dornier envisioned.
The successor to the Sikorsky S-34, which sank during a test flight in 1927, the Sikorsky S-38 flying boat enjoyed a much more successful career. The first widely produced seaplane, the Sikorsky S-38 answered the need Pan Am had for their new Caribbean routes, and the airline purchased a fleet of them in 1928. The aircraft also served the U.S. Army and became known as the “Explorer’s Yacht” due to its extensive use by famous private owners such as Howard Hughes, Charles Lindbergh and John Hay Whitney.
Flying boat popularity continued to grow during the 1920s as international flights developed and the use of airmail expanded. For more information on seaplanes, or to learn more about engine repair services we can provide for your aircraft, call Covington Aircraft at 918-756-8320. You can also join us on LinkedIn and Twitter.