Flying Boats

By Don Bedwell, Contributor
June / July 2004

Hundreds of misty-eyed villagers gathered at Foynes’ harbor on October 22, 1945, to watch Capt. Charlie Blair make American Overseas Airlines’ final scheduled flying boat departure from the small seaport that had once been the focal point for air traffic between the United States and Europe.

Today, six decades after those “glamorous days” ended, a Flying Boat Museum reminds visitors that from 1939 through the end of World War II this quiet village of 500 residents in County Limerick served as the major gateway between North America and Europe.

“It was the end of an era, the end of the great and glamorous days for Foynes,” Captain Blair’s wife, actress Maureen O’Hara said, recalling that final flight that signaled the end of what began in the 1930s with Eamon de Valera and his minister for industry and commerce, Sean Lemass. Eager to ally independent Ireland with the United States, they were determined to establish an international gateway.

Pan American Airways (Pan Am) founder, Juan Trippe, was candid about the challenges. Trippe’s flying boats had begun crossing the Pacific a year earlier, but the North Atlantic, with prevailing winds that made westbound flights virtually impossible during the winter, was, he warned, “technically the most difficult operation of any major aerial route.” Yet, at Trippe’s behest Charles Lindbergh flew to Ireland in 1933 scouting sites on behalf of Pan American that would hold both a marine terminal and a facility that could someday accommodate transatlantic land planes. He landed his Lockheed Sirius in Galway Bay with wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh as his navigator. The spot he chose was on the Shannon River, it was Rineanna, which later became Shannon International.

While the airport was being built, an Irish port was needed to serve the flying boats soon to be crossing the Atlantic, and Foynes, with its natural harbor far enough inland to protect it from ocean swells at the mouth of the Shannon, was the perfect spot.

Two weeks after a transatlantic air agreement was signed in Ottawa, and it was announced that Foynes had been chosen to handle inaugural flying boat service, Trippe was eager to test the route. So was George Woods-Humphrey of Britain’s Imperial Airways. Imperial’s Short S. 23 Empire Boat Caledonia arrived in Foynes on July 4, 1937 to embark on the first proving flight to Botwood, New foundland, the Canadian refueling station. Chugging along at 132 mph against the customary headwinds, the aircraft made the 1,900-mile flight in just over 15 hours.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, the pilot Wilcockson passed within 60 miles of a Pan Am Sikorsky commanded by Capt. Harold Gray, heading towards Foynes. The pilots exchanged information about the weather. A few hours later poor visibility forced Gray to fly so low that he had to pull up to avoid scalping a four-masted schooner.

Gray, a dashing man, who made a name for himself on the transatlantic route, was welcomed to Foynes by de Valera and Lemass, who had seen to it that Ireland’s Department of Transport had acquired the Monteagle Arms Hotel, Foynes’ first hotel and public bar. It soon accommodated a waiting room, radio room and adjoining air traffic tower. Eventually it would also house a first-class restaurant where Irish coffee was first served to weary passengers in 1942.

Scheduled flights began to take off and depart regularly from Foynes in July 1939, with travelers paying $337 to fly one way to New York. Through September of that year, Pan Am operated 13 roundtrip transatlantic flights, although prevailing winds sometimes required westbound flights to return to Foynes. A late arrival would send a local horseman galloping from lodging house to lodging house alerting the Imperial ground crewmen who serviced all aircraft.

While Imperial, which became BOAC in 1940, struggled to extend the range of its S. 23 flying boats, Pan Am ordered six of Boeing’s new Model 314s. The first of these planes, The Yankee Clipper flew into Foynes on April 11, 1939.

Excursion trains and buses brought hundreds to watch the landing of the magnificent aircraft. A beauty to behold, the Clipper was so awesome in scale that passengers could dine on seven-course meals, or take a stroll on an internal promenade deck in its vast hull. There was even a private honeymoon suite near the tail.

Three months after its first landing at Foynes, The Clipper, under Capt. A. E. LaPorte, returned with 17 passengers to record the first commercial scheduled transatlantic crossing.

The Clipper’s flight out a month later, however, was to be Pan Am’s last for three years. Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, triggering World War II, and Pan Am discontinued service not only to Foynes but to Southampton and Marseilles.

Imperial/BOAC kept the Foynes-Botwood route open under hazardous conditions. Although the operations at Foynes were clearly helping the war effort, Ireland maintained its official neutrality. Passengers, including high-ranking officers, wore civilian clothing. Forged passports were common. The strained neutrality puzzled even those staffing the station. As one Irishman put it, “Sometimes we weren’t sure who we were neutral against.”

England’s Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, traveling as “Mr. Anthony” made an Atlantic crossing from Foynes but on landing at Botwood he accidentally stepped off the boat into water up to his neck. He managed to preserve both his aplomb and his briefcase.

In May 1942 America joined the war and Pan Am, drafted into U.S. government service, resumed service to Foynes, flying 314s, painted in camouflage colors and emblazoned with American flag markers. Similarly, the Navy claimed three long-range VS-44 flying boats that American Export Airlines had been awaiting from Sikorsky Aircraft. The so-called “Flying Aces” were all-metal behemoths designed to fly the Atlantic nonstop with passengers and cargo. The Naval Air Transport Service contracted with AEA to carry critical military and government personnel and equipment. Like Pan Am, the airline respected Ireland’s neutrality; its pilots, though military reservists, wore civilian uniforms and traveled unarmed.

AEA’s flagship, Excalibur arrived in Foynes after its first transatlantic crossing on June 21, 1942 under the command of Captain Charlie Blair. The return westbound flight on the following day turned out to be a historic nonstop to New York City, though it wasn’t planned that way. Blair had planned to refuel in Botwood but found both that station and an alternate socked in, so he descended to skim the ocean swells to stretch his fuel, and flew nonstop to New York, the first time for an airliner with passengers and mail.

Blair would fly into history with numerous record-breaking flying boat trips across the Atlantic. He made the fast solo flight across the North Pole in May 1951 in a Mustang fighter plane, earning the Harmon trophy.

With his wife, Maureen O’Hara, Blair operated a Caribbean airline called Antilles Air Boats until he died in a 1978 crash, at which time his wife took over the business and became the first woman president of an airline.

AEA’s flagship Excalibur died young, the victim of unfortunate piloting by an aviator who tried to force it into the air from Newfoundland’s Bay of Exploits with improperly set flaps. The flying boat plunged back into the bay killing 11 aboard, including Blair’s favorite Irishman, flight engineer Mike Doyle. Excalibur’s sister ships, Excambian and Exeter, went on to serve AEA and the war effort well in the following years, logging hundreds of transatlantic flights, sometimes carrying celebrities including Queen Wilhelmina, Bob Hope, Gracie Fields and Humphrey Bogart.

Nonetheless, time was running out for the flying boats. Faced with U.S. government rulings that a shipping company could not own an airline, American Export Airlines agreed to be acquired by American Airlines as the European war neared an end in 1945. Under the name American Overseas Airlines, it would serve post-war Europe with a fleet devoid of flying boats. Pan Am and BOAC were also eager to replace the ponderous flying boats with faster and more efficient land-based aircraft. The war had accelerated the reliability of those aircraft, even as, in Charlie Blair’s words, “they paved the world with concrete.”

Even though charter flights would occasionally operate into Foynes into the late 1940s — and the Blairs would return in a British flying boat for a nostalgic visit in 1976 — its glory days ended when the flying boats left in October 1945.

O’Hara captured the villagers’ emotional mood as her husband made his final departure, when she wrote: “The Port of Foynes, with tears in its eyes, watched him ride the west winds off the Atlantic, higher and higher, until it could see him no more.” ♦

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