Immediately after the Second World War, the flying boat seemed doomed to extinction. By 1948, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) had re-established routes to Egypt, America, India, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan, and a new terminal for flying boats had been built in Southampton. Yet by 1959, Britain was the last nation to use flying boats, and on 20 September, 1958, the last flying boat service left Southampton for very the last time.
Back in 1942, no one realised that the days of the flying boat were numbered, least of all Saunders-Roe1. After all, they were building hundreds for the war effort, and as a company that had started building boats on an island, building flying boats was natural.
The Air Ministry planned on building large flying boats, and after the war ordered Short Brothers and Saunders-Roe to jointly build an aircraft soon known as the Short-Saro Shetland. Two were built (in 1945 and 1946) and although quite impressive and among the largest flying boats ever to be made (50 tons), they were still smaller than Saunders-Roe's dream giant flying boat. They were never a success and were scrapped in 1951.
The Fastest Flying Boat
In 1942, the Admiralty expressed an interest in developing a single-seat jet-fighter flying boat, and in 1944 Saunders-Roe received an order for three prototypes. On 15 July, 1947, the SR.A1 (nicknamed Squirt by the workers) made its maiden flight at Cowes - the world's first, and only, jet flying boat. It is still the fastest flying boat ever built, capable of speeds of over Mach 0.8.
It was quite a large aircraft for a fighter, yet was extremely manoeuvrable. At the 1948 Farnborough air display, it caused a sensation by being flown inverted a few feet off the ground. The residents of the Isle of Wight had by then got used to seeing it upside down around their skies. Three were built, and they were the first British aircraft to be equipped with an ejector seat. However, the war was over and defence budget cuts meant that the Admiralty was unable to afford the aircraft. It remained a warplane without a war.
One survives today and can be seen in the Southampton Hall of Aviation.
The Largest Flying Boat
In May 1946, work began on Saunders-Roe's largest flying boat, the Princess. She was a two-decked, ten-engined flying boat, weighing 154 tons, and three were built. She was designed to carry a maximum of 220 passengers, and on 22 August, 1952, she flew for the first time.
She was supposed to just undergo taxiing trials that day, yet the test-pilot took off after a very short run-up, saying later, 'She wanted to fly, so I let her'. The Princess was the largest flying boat ever made2 and it flew on numerous occasions, including the Farnborough air display of 1952.
However, BOAC, the intended customer, did not want them as its flying boat services had ended in 1950. Another problem were the engines, which were not as efficient as they could be. It had been hoped that Rolls Royce Tweed engines would be installed, but they were no longer available. The alternative, Bristol Proteus engines, were not as powerful as advertised. Despite the engines' shortcomings, the Princess was a practical aircraft. In 1958 the US Navy were considering ordering the construction of a nuclear-powered version, but in 1959 decided to cancel. In July 1967, the last of the three Princess flying boats was scrapped in Southampton.
The Princess was the last flying boat ever built in Britain.
Despite the failure to sell the Princess, Saunders-Roe felt sufficiently encouraged by it to design two other similar aircraft, neither of which were built. The first, known as the Duchess, would have been smaller, jet-powered with six engines, and would have carried 76 passengers at 500mph.
The other was an even larger version of the Princess, larger than any aircraft flying today. Known as the P192 project, it would have been 670 tons, have a wingspan of 313 feet and be 318 feet long3. It was designed in 1955 for P&O ferries, who were interested in the possibilities of flying cruise ships. Nothing further came of this, though.
During this period, Saunders-Roe were pursuing interests other than flying boats. These included buses, outboard engines, the dark class torpedo boats plus many other boat projects. In 1954 they built the world's first hydrofoil, and in 1959 built the world's first hovercraft, the SR.N1.
In 1954, Saunders-Roe started work on a high-speed jet and rocket powered aircraft, and two SR-53s were made. The first aircraft took part in the 1957 Farnborough air display. The SR-53 had a top speed of Mach 2 and a ceiling of 55,000 feet. Its main advantage, though, was its rate of climb - 29,000 feet per minute - out-performing many of today's modern jets. One still exists at RAF Cosford.
Saunders-Roe decided that the production aircraft would need to be larger than the SR-53, taking in the need to install radar and tracking equipment, and so designed the SR-177. This was 30% heavier and had a maximum speed of Mach 2.35. On 4 September, 1956, the Ministry of Supply ordered 27 of the aircraft. However, in April 1957 Duncan Sandys, the Minister of Defence, published a White Paper that said all British fighter aircraft projects should be cancelled as in the future all defence from air attack would be from ground-launched guided missiles.
This White Paper destroyed many of Britain's aircraft manufacturers, and having invested a lot of money in the project, Saunders-Roe were forced to make 1,470 employees redundant. The experience gained, though, was to prove invaluable when Saunders-Roe worked on the Black Knight; the Isle of Wight Space Programme.
In 1951 Saunders-Roe took over the Cierva Autogiro company based in Southampton, which became their helicopter division. They built many helicopters, such as the Skeeter, Wasp and Scout, plus the one-man rotorcycle. These, though, were built in Eastleigh and not on the island, and so aren't Isle of Wight aircraft.
The 1957 White Paper on Defence stated that the aircraft industry should re-organise itself, and so Saunders-Roe, Bristol Aircraft Company and Fairey Aviation all became part of Westland Aircraft, whose helicopter base was at Yeovil, Somerset, UK. Saunders-Roe was re-named the British Hovercraft Corporation, and later built Whirlwind and Wessex helicopters, while all the other types of helicopter were made at Yeovil.