Juan Trippe and the Clipper
rise and fall of the flying boat
Soviet maritime patrol aircraft

the rise and fall of the Seaplane

Although Samuel Langley's ill-fated Aerodrome was catapulted to its doom from a houseboat on the Potomac a few weeks before the Wright's first flight at Kitty Hawk, it was March 28 1910 before an airplane took off from water for the first time. At the controls of the Canard was Henri Fabre, a 28-year old engineer from Marseilles. This was Fabre's first flight. The flight took place at Lake Berre near Martigues on the Mediterranean, where the fifty-horsepower Gnome rotary engine powered the 'hydravion' a 1650-foot distance over water.

The generally accepted father of the flying boat is Glen Curtiss, who flew a series of seaplanes in 1911, developed the first practical float plane in 1912 and produced over 7,000 JN Jenny's in World War I. Curtiss flying boats were the only US-designated airplanes to see combat service in World War I. In 1919 the Navy-Curtiss 4, a huge flying boat, made the first staged aerial crossing of the Atlantic a month before Alcock and Brown's non-stop flight.

In 1912 a French industrialist, Jacques Schneider, announced the Schneider Trophy, a seaplane competition to be held starting in 1913. The first team to win three races in five years would keep the trophy. Schneider hoped various clubs and individuals would enter the competition, but after World War I nationalism became the dominant force and when the series resumed in 1920 aircraft manufacturers' and governments' resources poured into the race and the aircraft took on more of a military nature. Schneiderís dream of seaplane development for commercial travel faded away and speed became the dominant factor. The race became a military testing ground, and in 1931 the British won the trophy outright with the Supermarine S.6B, which was the basis for the Spitfire that saved England in 1940.

The Schneider aircraft were all basically fighters on floats, but although Schneider's dream may have been hijacked by the military, the airlines still saw a huge potential in flying boats for long haul travel. to the building, at Rochester In the late 1930s forty-two Short Bros' S23 C Empire Flying-Boats were built at Rochester, England, to service the last days of the British Empire. The luxurious service, never to be matched, ended in June 1940, when the routes to the Empire were finally severed. In addition to operating with the airlines Imperial Airways, BOAC, Qantas and TEAL the big Sunderlands saw action with Allied air forces.

On the other side of the Atlantic Pan-Am were sewing up the transpacific routes with their equally large and impressive Clipper fleet. In 1935, air travel had begun between Hawaii and the mainland by Pan Am's China Clipper. Flight time from California to Honolulu was about 19 hours with one-way fare of $278. The first two trans-Pacific seaplanes were the Sikorsky S-42 and the Martin M130, but they were superseded by the Boeing B-314. It was delivered to Pan Am in January of 1939, and christened the Yankee Clipper. The largest commercial plane* until the arrival of the 747 some 30 years later, it was a feat of aeronautical luxury, with seating for 74 passengers along with sleeping quarters for 36. There was even a honeymoon suite and separate dressing rooms for men and women. Fresh food was prepared in the galley and served on linen covered tables. Mid-ocean airports were created at Midway and Wake Island, where Pan Am blasted out lagoons and shipped over prefabricated hotels. Sadly, the Clippers' time was short, though - by the end of the war landplanes had established dominance, with their increased range and speed coupled with a world-wide network of airfields. The airlines' most romantic chapter had drawn to a close.

The history of the Flying Boat in Airline Service

The first seaplanes were glider designs and were tested in the early 1900s although most did not fly.  The first flight of a powered seaplane was before the first world war and its military potential was taken up.  The first war brought the seaplane design and engine design along quickly and the multi-engine flying boat was designed and flown for military use.  After the war the airlines began new services... 

Boeing B-1  1919

The Boeing B-1 was the first commercial seaplane but it did not do well commercially due to the large amount of ex-military float and sea planes available.

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Caproni triplane  1919

Possibly the first large flying boat airliner to fly was the Caproni triplane which carried 100 passengers plus 6 pilots and flight engineers and was only 66 feet long.  It had eight engines but crashed into a lake on its second flight and the design was abandoned.

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Levy Flying Boat  1919

Seaplane airline services were started using small aircraft... Ligne Aerienne du Roi Albert (LARA) used a Levy seaplane carrying a 2 passenger load around the Belgian Congo. 

George-Levy 40 HB2 Two/Three-seat Flying Boat with a 280 Renault 12Fe engine

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Curtiss F-5   1919

Aeromaritime Airways used a Curtiss F-5 between Florida and Havana. 

By 1920 American Trans-Oceanic Company used a flying boat out of Miami flying anglers to Bimini.  The aircraft was painted as a giant fish!

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Junkers F-13 - Finnair  1926

Finnair began using Junkers F-13 and Junkers Ju-24 floatplanes from 1926.  Below is a Finnair F-13 floatplane.

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Short Calcutta - Imperial Airways  1928

Imperial Airways introduced their first flying boat, the Short Calcutta in 1928 for its empire routes.  The three engined aircraft flew the Mediterranean to Karachi leg of the UK-India route. 

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Short Kent - Imperial Airways  1929

Imperial Airways introduced an improved Calcutta style flying boat alongside the Short Calcutta.  The four engined Short Kent flying boat flew the Mediterranean to Karachi leg too and G-ABFB is shown here.

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Fairchild FC-2 - Pan American Airways

Pan American Airways (PAA) introduced its first flying boat type on a new Miami to Havana route after it won the Foreign Air Mail Route No.1.  PAA leased a Fairchild FC-2 for this service from 1920.


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Sikorsky S-34  1926

PAA used five Sikorsky S-34 amphibians on load for testing from Sikorsky for possible use on their new Caribbean routes in 1926.  These were returned to the manufacturer after the trials.



Dornier Do.X -  DLH  1926

Dornier had early ambitions at the trans-Atlantic large flying boat and it flew the Dornier Do.X in 1926 on a world-wide tour before it briefly flew with Deutsche Luft Hansa.  The Do.X had twelve Bristol Jupiter engines but was still underpowered for its target 70 passengers on long-haul.  It could only cruise at 135mph and had a disappointing range of 1000nms.  But for 1926 this was amazing even if it was not quite what Dornier had hoped for!  The aircraft had three decks with smoking lounge, sleeping quarters and bar.

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Pan American Airways' Miami base

PAA had a main flying boat base for operations to Latin America at Miami in Florida. 


Sikorsky S-38 (and S-41) -  PAA  1928

PAA decided that the S-34 was too small and underpowered for its needs and when the Sikorsky S-38 twin engine amphibian (picture) came along it purchased a small fleet of them in 1928.  Sikorsky S-41s (modified S-38s) were also purchased.  

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Consolidated Commodore  1928

The first S-38 operator was NYRBA (New York, Rio and Buenos Aires Line) who also used the Consolidated Commodore flying boat on flights to Rio and Buenos Aires.  In 1939 NYRBA was acquired by Pan American Airways and the S-38 and Commodore seaplanes were transferred to PAA's fleet.  The Commodores opened up new long-haul over-ocean routes for PAA with Charles Lindburgh flying most of the proving flights.

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Savoia-Marchetti Sm-66  1928

Savoia-Marchetti built the Sm-66 airliner for trans-Mediterranean airline services.  It carried nine passengers and was used from 1928 by Aero Expresso Haliano, ALA Littora and Sociata Aerea Mediterranean - SAM. 


Sikorsky S-40 'Flying Forest' of PAA

In 1931 Pan American Airways introduced the Sikorsky S-40 to fill the gap while the Martin M-130 was being built.  The S-40 was given the name 'Flying Forest' because it had struts everywhere!  These were part of a new design philosophy by Sikorsky to make safer airplanes.  It flew 32 passengers on average over about 1000nms.  The S-40 was the first Pan American aircraft to be given the 'Clipper' name and the first S-40 was named 'American Clipper'.  It inaugurated the Miami - Panama route but it had to avoid night flying due to lack of navigation aids and instrumentation.

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Sikorsky S-42 of PAA  -  1934

The sleek Sikorsky S-42 was introduced by Pan American Airways in 1934 on the Buenos Aires route and quickly made ten new records for altitude and for payload flights.  It also carried 32 passengers on an average flight and had a longer range than the S-40.

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DLH ship-to-shore mail flights -  1931

Deutsche Luft Hansa flew single engine seaplane mail operations from 1931 using Heinkel He.12 and He.58s.  They were used on cruise ships and allowed the ship's mail to arrive on-shore days before the ship actually arrived.  These aircraft were replaced by single-engine Junkers 46 floatplanes.

Heinkel He.12

Breguet Br.350 of Air France

In 1934 Air France flew the Breguet 350 Saigon flying boat on a trans-Mediterranean service from France to Mediterranean points.


DLH mail flights in the South-Atlantic

With the success of the ship to shore catapult mail flights DLH began trans-Atlantic mail flights from the mid 1930s from Europe to Latin America with a stop mid-Atlantic.  The Dornier Wal flying boat was used for this operation and it was met by a converted cargo ship called a launch platform, picked up and refuelled.   It then departed on the launch ramp enroute. The Wals were replaced with Super Wals.  A Super Wal is on the Westfalen launch platform in this photo.

The Super Wals could deliver mail from Germany to Brazil in three days.  When the ship headed back to Brazil it would bring mail from the Gambia.   In 1936 Air France joined DLH in these services rather than try to compete.

Dornier Do.26 of DLH - 1937

The Luft Hansa trans-Atlantic mail run saw new aircraft from 1937 with Blohm und Voss Ha-139s, Junkers Jumos and the sleek Dornier Do.26.  The Dornier Do.26 was s sleek four-engined seaplane with retractable floats for extra speed.  The engines were set inline with two facing front and two facing back.  Do.26 'Seeadler' D-AGNT is shown here at V2 with the floats deployed.  The rearward facing engines are not easily visible.

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Sikorsky S-43 feeder airliner of PAA

In 1934 PAA decided it needed a feeder seaplane for short routes and low-passenger routes and the new Sikorsky S-43 was the chosen type.  The S-43 was also used by PANAGRA and Panair do Brazil and the photo below shows a PAA aircraft.

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Martin M-130 of PAA

In 1935 PAA introduced three Martin M-130 long-range flying boats with a range of 3500nms at 150mph.  The first one delivered was called 'China Clipper' and the PAA Martin 130 was known from that point as the China Clipper although the other two Martin boats had different names.  In 1935 this type along with the S-42 began trans-Pacific flights to China (San Francisco - Honolulu - Midway - Wake - Guam - Hong Kong with a stop at Manila after PAA won the Foreign Air Mail Route 42 for the Philippines.  Regional services were flown on the Chinese coast with Dolphin flying boats.

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Douglas Dolphin of PAA - 1935

Linking with the above San Francisco to Hong Kong flights were a small fleet of PAA Douglas Dolphin amphibians flying feeder services on the Chinese coast.   These flights stopped in 1939 at the start of the US-Japanese war.

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Short S-23 Empire of QANTAS - 1934

The British Empire routes were served by TEAL (New Zealand), Qantas (Australia) and Imperial Airways (Britain) during the 1930s with the Short S.23 Empire 'C' Class flying boat.  The Qantas Empires had names which began with 'C' to reflect the aircraft's class.  'Cooee' is shown below.  The Imperial Airways S.23s were ordered when the Empire Air Mail Scheme came into force so that postage between points in the British Empire would be cheap.  These flew alongside the QANTAS Empire boats.  They flew a joint route from Southampton to Brisbane. 

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Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina  1937

Many airlines used amphibian flying boats for flexible operations.   The Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina was a military aircraft that was used by many airlines during the war years.  QANTAS, Cathay Pacific and Panair do Brazil (shown below) are just three of the airlines using it.

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Short Mayo Composite aircraft - 1939

Imperial Airways tried an amazing experimental long-range mail service to Canada in 1939.  A Short S.21 and a smaller floatplane were piggybacked to form a 'composite' aircraft called a Short Mayo.  The S.21 flying boat 'Maia' would be a launch platform for the smaller 'Mercury', taking it up to its cruising altitude before returning to Ireland.  The smaller 'Mercury' then flew on to Montreal non-stop.

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Short Empire of Imperial Airways- 1939

The British Empire flying boats were used by Imperial Airways (with a fleet of 26).  In 1939 Imperial Airways pioneered in-flight refuelling experiments took place over the English south coast from Ford airfield.  The photo below shows one of these flights with Empire boat 'Cambria' (G-ADUV) being refuelled by an Armstrong-Whitworth AW.23 bomber.  In 1939 Imperial introduced the Short S.26 flying boat on trans-Atlantic long-haul flights.

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Boeing model 314 of PAA - 1939

PAA ordered the new Boeing model 314 in 1939 and flew it from New York to Lisbon in 27 hours.  It carried 74 passengers in two decks.  BOAC (formally Imperial Airways) also introduced three of the aircraft.  The prototype Boeing 314 is shown in this beautiful photo...

Prototype Boeing 314


PAA Boeing 314

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Short Solent of TEAL  -  1946

The Short Solent was a civil conversion from a military type, as was the Short Sandringham.  It was used by BOAC and by the New Zealand airline, TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways Ltd) and the picture below shows a TEAL aircraft.

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Vought-Sikorsky VS-44   1942

The Vought-Sikorsky Vs-44A was used by American Export Airlines (later known as American Overseas Airlines) until 1949. 


AEA's Vs-44A flying boats were sold to Avalon Air Transport and one remained in airline service with this carrier until 1967.  The Avalon VS-44a is shown un-sticking in this photo...


Hughes HK-1 Hercules (1930s)


The HK-1 was originally for military use but was offered to the airlines  as the H-4 when the military contract didn't come up which is why it is featured here. If the trend toward landplanes had not happened the Hercules may well have become part of the PanAm or TWA flying boat fleet.

Made of Spruce wood and the largest aircraft of its time it was called Spruce Goose by those who built it. Howard Hughes flew the 'Spruce Goose' for a low-level first flight but it never flew again.

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Saunders-Roe Princess  1952

The Saunders-Roe Princess flying boat was the last of the large flying boat airliners to be designed and along with the Spruce Goose in the USA it was out of time.  This beautiful photo of the prototype Princess gives some idea of where airline flying boats were going when the landplanes came of age.  It was destined for BOAC on the trans-Atlantic route from Southampton to New York carrying 105 passengers.   Its ten Bristol Proteus engines were housed in six engine nacelles with the outer nacelles having only one engine in each.  It didn't go into production and was scrapped in 1967.

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The End of an Era

The end of the flying boat airline era came after the second world war.  The flying boats were designed because there were originally very few long runways that could handle a large airliner.  Also the navigation aids of the time were minimal and bad weather often meant that planes had to land with a cross-wind.   The flying boat overcame all of these things neatly with ready made water runways available all over the world.

After the war the world had a large amount of landplanes (ex bombers and transports) and lots of concrete runways on ex-military bases so it was natural that the airlines should restart airline services with the DC-3s, DC-4s and DC-6s that were to be purchased from the USAAF cheaply.  Most post-war airlines restarted with the Douglas C-47 (DC-3) Dakota in this way.