November 1951 – The flight of the Princess

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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.

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.