Today, we ask what became of flying boats. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The problem of finding clear
space for takeoffs and landings dogged airplane
builders from the start. Several people tried to
use water instead of land, even before the Wright
brothers; and they took off from a pair of rails.
The first person who actually flew off water was
Henri Fabre. In 1910, he flew his flimsy seaplane
for a mile and a half in a harbor near Marseilles.
Three years later the first commercial flying
service was started, and it used an early seaplane.
Twice a day it made the 20-mile flight between
Tampa and St. Petersburg in Florida. There was only
one passenger, and the trip cost him five dollars.
Twenty years later, commercial flying boats were
the biggest things in the sky. It felt safe to
cross the ocean in a flying boat, and that's where
they were used. Pan American began service down to
Central America with a 10-passenger Sikorsky
seaplane in 1928. By 1934 these seaplanes were
being replaced with big flying boats, like the
Martin M-130. It had a 3000-mile range and could
carry 40 people.
The grandest of the successful flying boats was the
Boeing 314, nicknamed the Yankee Clipper. Pan
American used them between 1941 and '46. It had
almost the wingspan of a 747, and it could carry 70
people over 4000 miles.
Several perfectly enormous flying boats were built
after the Yankee Clipper, but they came at the
wrong time. The biggest of them all was the Hughes
Hercules -- better known as the Spruce Goose. Its
wingspan was half again that of a 747, and it was
designed to carry 700 people. In 1947 Howard Hughes
flew it 30 feet into the air over Los Angeles
Harbor. Then he put it back in its hangar, where it
sits today -- in mute and perplexing testimony to
his convoluted thinking.
But I wonder if Howard Hughes didn't simply see
what was coming. When big propeller-driven
airliners, and then jets, came into service after
WW-II, seaplanes lost their advantage. These
land-based planes could fly the ocean, and there
was no profit in using one kind of airplane over
water and another over land. Furthermore, seaplanes
where inherently large-bodied, high winged machines
-- ill-suited to near-sonic speeds. Of course,
their large bodies made them wonderfully spacious.
They typically had two- or three-story interiors.
They looked not unlike whales.
Little seaplanes are used today in Canada and
Alaska, where lakes are a lot easier to find than
landing strips. But the big flying boats had a
rather brief day in the sun. And the last of them
represented a terrible misreading of the way the
technology of flight was actually headed.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds