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November 1951 - The flight of the Princess

The history of British civil aircraft is dotted with magnificent failures. The industry’s ability to design awe-inspiring vehicles that didn’t make any money was in itself an impressive feat. This year saw the 60th anniversary of the launch of one of the most noteworthy blunders: the Princess flying boat.

In November 1951, The Engineer published a report on the preparation for the flight trials of this double-decker leviathan, which was originally intended as a luxury transatlantic passenger plane, designed with ‘spacious and comfortable accommodation for over 100 passengers with sleeping berths, cocktail bars and almost every known flying luxury’.

Unknowingly anticipating the plane’s future difficulties, the article noted that in the five years since the government commissioned the aircraft, its builders Saunders-Roe had already been compelled to adapt it into a troop transporters for the Royal Air Force, but referred only to ‘circumstances’ to explain why.

The Engineer then went on to detail the structure of the craft and the process by which it was being prepared for launch at the Saunders-Roe facility in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, noting the ‘1469 square yards of plating and some three million rivets’ used to construct it.

Newsreel footage detailing the sad history of the Princess flying boat.

What it doesn’t note, however, is that by the 1950s the use of flying boats was already in decline. They were an obvious design choice for the first half of the century when a lack of airports made landing on ground difficult, especially for large civilian aircraft. However, as the civil aviation industry developed – and runways became bigger – their use declined.

The Princess turned out to be one of the largest and most advanced flying boats ever constructed, but of the three that were actually built, only one took to the air and none were sold. Several re-engineering proposals were made including plans to turn them into rocket component transporters for NASA, but by this time they had corroded so badly that they were scrapped.

Readers' comments (7)

  • should that not be 1951?

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  • This seems like an incredibly advanced project for the November 1851 date of the title...

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  • I used to see these when they were mothballed & parked on Calshot Spit when on a ferry to the Isle of Wight in the 50s & 60s, then they were towed up the Itchen, moored at what had been the Supermarine factory at Woolston & dismantled in about 1966

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  • The Princess has been labelled a failure here but that isn't at all how it was viewed at the time. The project was overtaken by events but it fullfilled its design brief and more. The Princess was not really built for tranatlantic journeys, more for Empire routes where it was often more convenient to use a body of water rather than construct a hard runway. A glance at the map of Africa, for instance, shows how many large lakes are available. Also, it was not envisaged that the 'common people' would be able to afford air travel so the Princess was constructed and equipped to a very luxurious specification.

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  • Regardless of the 1851/1951 error, I reckon that 60 years on from November 1951 would have been November 2011 -- which I believe was a year ago!

    But us engineers are always looking to the future; maybe we're a year ahead of everyone else!

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  • 1951 was the year The Engineer's article on preparations for the flight trials was published. The launch was the following year, making 2012 its 60th anniversary.

  • Thanks for this. The flying boats and seaplanes of WW2 era served a huge purpose - including the one that spotted the Japanese fleet just before the Midway battle in 1942. Still a number, mostly amphibians and float planes, in remote/wet" parts of the world.

    Now, please do an article about the Bristol Brabazon, I think it was, which would have (they said) reduced the cost of flying to 1 old penny per passenger mile! Perhaps a good thing not, as mass flying is now far too cheap.

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  • Lovely video clip, especially of winching the engines into place - "proper grafting them boys, that!" as Guy Martin would put it. Great glimpses of the SR A/1 jet-powered flying boat too, and then the huge queues of people waiting to see inside the Comet.

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