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The Sikorsky VS 44 Flying Boat

By Bruce M. Curtis
August 28, 2005

Bruce Curtis takes us on a nostalgic trip on the Sikorsky VS 44 flying boat, and through a lively history of this unique and rare bird. With this thorough and fun article, Curtis helps us remember and celebrate this aviation gem, which is still impressive, even today.

Blue ocean, a big seat, front-row at a big window, and great slanted swaths of Pacific Ocean fly past in an upward V as if a bank of fire hoses embraced the big plane, that’s most of what I remember. I can’t tell you the exact moment we lifted from Long Beach harbor because memories from age four have been dimmed by the five decades since, but the sensations and the emotions are still remarkably vivid. My father, mother and older brother and I were aboard N41881, the last of the last. As we passed over the seven-mile-long rock mole that protected the harbor, we could see fishing boats that looked like little toys. My mom, always a nervous flyer, felt relieved that the Catalina Channel below offered almost continuous runway, should we lose power.

The year was 1959 and we were flying on Excambrian, the only one left of three VS 44’s manufactured by Sikorsky in 1942 for American Export Airline. An arm of a steamship line called American Export Lines, AEA ordered the planes to compete in the transatlantic air travel trade.

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N41881 "Excambrian"
Photo © Mel Lawrence


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N41881 "Excambrian"
Photo © Del Laughery


My dad woke us early for the hour ride from home in Hollywood to Long Beach, where Avalon Air transport (AAT) operated Excambrian several times a day during the summer to Catalina Island. The over-ocean distance was considerably shorter than Excambrian’s previous job, flying 40 or more passengers across the Atlantic, but by then the great ship flew a mere 26 miles from Long Beach Harbor to Avalon, perhaps in deference to her advancing age.

We made the trip because my dad ran an ad agency and had a regular radio show in Hollywood. The station broadcast from Catalina Island, and since it was common for radio stations to trade services with advertisers, it wasn’t long before he came home with complementary tickets from AAT for ad work he had done.

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It seems like every phase of history has its golden age; art had a renaissance, cinema had Hollywood’s ritzy 1930’s. For great numbers of those unemployed by the Great Depression, relief could be found just inside the neighborhood movie theater, where ornate surroundings spoke of the glamour and riches of celebrities in their long automobiles, chauffeur-driven Lincolns and Packards, purring through twelve pipes. America laughed, dreamed and found an escape, if only for a few hours. In 1936, one of those movies, China Clipper, introduced us to the moneyed elite, who were the vanguard, the pioneer air travelers winging their way nonstop across a mighty ocean. In the film they flew under the expertise of Humphrey Bogart and Ross Alexander. Pat O’Brien played the airline CEO, a thinly disguised Juan Trippe, along with silent film veteran Henry Walthall as the embattled flying boat designer. The film was rough on Walthall and Alexander, and both would be dead within six months of China Clipper's release; Walthall from influenza and Alexander from a suicide. Bogart went on, of course, to become rich and famous, just as those he’d portrayed. Whether he actually flew aboard the real Boeing 314 or Martin 130 Clippers is not known.

Transportation advances seem to first favor the rich and famous; the haute style and speed of transatlantic clipper ships which cut the transit from six weeks to a mere ten days. Later, steamships delivered added luxuries, like more space and fine dining, made possible by refrigeration and a further-shortened 5-day passage. Following the Lusitania came the Normandie, the Queen Mary, and the United States, reducing transatlantic travel to under four days.

And that was that; hull speeds and fuel capacity meant that oceanic travel had reached its limit. Then an Ohio minister’s two kids went into the bicycle business and soon designed a huge powered kite that flew under its own power, in sight of the heaving gray Atlantic. Less than two decades later Alcock and Brown breached the Atlantic barrier, followed by Charles Lindberg. Such rapid progress promised that the day of cramped wood and fabric machines would soon give way to real passenger service. The ‘boats were the perfect way to build passenger confidence in a fledgling industry; they were big, comfortable, metal and if a problem occurred, you could always land in the water.

That wasn’t quite true, but the perception stuck, so when in the 1930’s the first tickets were sold on British Overseas and Pan American World Airways, the elite flocked aboard the great Pan Am China Clippers where a year’s wages bought VIP service with just a dash of daring. Imagine crossing the ocean in a mere 22 hours!

While they were never produced in great numbers, the big four-engine flying boats built by companies like Consolidated, Boeing, Short, Breguet, Latecoere and Dornier soon established the legitimacy air travel craved. At first, long flights meant small payloads, giving passengers a sense of airborne freedom as they walked from smoking lounge to dining room, to sleeping compartment on these flights. Freedom of movement and more of the ultimate luxury, speed. Today’s airborne comforts pale in comparison.

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A Pan Am Consolidated Commodore
Photo © Ruth Straw


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A Boeing 314 Clipper
Photo © Colin T. Ebert


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A Dornier Do-X
Photo © Wouter Sikkema


But as engines became more reliable and war produced long concrete runways, the speed and efficiency of landplanes overtook the flying boats, figuratively and literally.

Russian immigrant Igor Sikorsky always had a love for large aircraft and built his first, the four-engined Ilia Mourometz, in Russia. The Marxist revolution exiled Sikorsky to the United States and once he landed, he immediately set out to raise money to build a new airplane. But his vision wasn’t just an airplane—it was a seaplane. He reasoned that large US cities of the late 1920’s lacked airports, but they were usually located on large, sheltered bodies of water, so seaplanes made sense. Long reaches for takeoff under heavy loads were ideal. Pan Am founder, Yale-schooled sophisticate Juan Trippe bought into the idea of being an international air travel pioneer. He operated Consolidated Commodores, acquired when Pan Am took over NYRBA, the New York, Rio and Buenos Aires Line. The planes were modern, but utilitarian, with military roots, so when Trippe encountered Sikorsky’s sleek S-38 he added soundproofing and rich cabin furnishings to rival any cruise ship. Following the S-38 was the larger S-40, then the sleeker, low drag S-42. The future had arrived and soon Pan Am was opening the skies to South America and beyond.

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"Sikorsky’s sleek S-38"
Photo © David L. Friedmann


The S-42’s could have flown the Pacific, but then Russia blocked Trippe; Soviet aviation authorities wouldn’t let Pan American World Airways operate the northern route and refuel in Siberia, so they had to go directly across, from California via Hawaii. That was an astronomical distance, so Trippe looked for an airplane with more range. Even as PAA Sikorskys surveyed the new far-east routes, the Glenn Martin Company had built the stylish new 130, which had an incredible 3,200-mile range. Sadly, Sikorsky’s proposal for an updated S-42 didn’t resonate with Trippe. Of course not even Glenn Martin’s 130 could fly more than a handful of passengers over such distances, but the die was cast, and Trippe sent a flotilla of company ships out to establish waypoints of civilization on remote Pacific islands from which the aerial clippers would hopscotch. Fuel was cached, prefab hotels and kitchens were set up in an operation reminiscent of Fred Harvey’s restaurants along the first transcontinental railroad. The public was eager and soon Trippe was ready to buy Boeing’s faster, longer-legged 314.

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"The stylish new 130" (a replica)
Photo © Rafal Sczcypek


Based on a stillborn bomber prototype, the XB –15, Boeing’s 314 was made by grafting a deep, stepped hull onto the XB-15’s efficient wing and twin row Wright radial engines. The result was a two-deck seaplane that boasted a loaded range of 3,500 miles, lounges, dining rooms, opulent bathrooms and recliners—even a honeymoon suite.

But Sikorsky had not forgotten the sting of Trippe’s decision, so by 1940, Sikorsky, now merged with Chance Vought under the umbrella of United Aircraft, produced the VS 44. A single deck seaplane with two-row Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasps rated at 1,200 horsepower each, the new aircraft was 80 feet in length and weighed in at 57, 500 lbs for takeoff. Boeing’s 314 Clipper was larger and boasted more powerful Wright Twin Cyclones of 1,600 HP, but the VS 44 was 30 MPH faster and could fly an average payload more than 4,000 miles, outdistancing the big Boeing by 500 miles and earning bragging rights with the longest full-payload range of any aircraft in the world. The VS 44 brought home several new world records after it went into operation.

American Export Airline (AEA), responded with an order for three VS 44’s, dubbed ‘Flying Aces’ and named Excalibur, Excambrian and Exeter, and by 1942, they were operating between New York and Foynes, Ireland. AEA had grown out of a steamship line, so naturally these planes gave nothing away to cruise ships. Sikorsky’s standard of luxury boasted full-length beds, dressing rooms, full galley, snack bar, lounge and fully controlled ventilation.

World War II had begun, though, putting civilian transatlantic air service on hold. Air power sewed the seeds that would end the glamorous, but brief golden age of flying boats. The allies built long concrete runways in Europe and throughout the Pacific Islands, so faster and lighter landplanes could serve the transoceanic routes after victory was won.

The first VS 44, Excalibur crashed on takeoff in 1942, ending her life early. AEA’s two other VS 44’s continued flying between New York and Foynes, but now under a Navy contract carrying passengers, freight and war materiel. After the war, the big Sikorsky ‘boats continued to fly until 1949, for the airline, which had renamed itself American Overseas Airlines. AOA, operated by American Airlines, sold Excambrian and Exeter. Exeter went down in the Uruguayan jungle, while ferrying arms to rebels, after the line merged with Trippe’s Pan Am.

A short-lived effort to restore the only remaining VS44 to run freight in the Amazon came to naught, leaving the former AOA ‘boat stranded in Ancon Harbor, Peru.

But Excambrian seemed to live a blessed existence, avoiding disaster or scrap more than once. By the late 1950’s, two Southern California businessmen had gotten wind of the old girl’s plight and had her ferried to Long Beach, where restoration work began. Dick Probert and Walt von Kleinsmid had been running Avalon Air Transport, (AAT) when they heard about her, and thought the big VS 44 would be perfect for the Catalina tourist trade. AAT named her Mother Goose, to complement the line’s Grumman amphibians, and plans were made to utilize her to meet summer travel demands. In the winter, N41881 would undergo maintenance.

I encountered Excambrian when she wore AAT livery, white with navy blue accents and a splash of red here and there. Excambrian was strictly a seaplane and the only wheels available were simple detachable beaching wheels for maintenance, so we boarded via a long dock jutting out from Pier J. After arriving from a lengthy, pre-freeway jaunt from Hollywood, we boarded through an aft door on the left side, via a short stair on the floating dock. Walking forward through the unusually tall cabin we felt like we were descending, which was true because the cabin floor stair-stepped down as it followed the slant of the hull. We made our way to our seats on the right side. The old seats reminded me of a theater, they were large and comfy, well worn, but heavy duty and well made, with muted dark fabrics and window curtains. As a young child, the atmosphere was spacious and gracious, if lacking AEA’s cabin service and formal dress. By then, Probert, looking not much different from Gilligan’s Island’s Skipper in a jaunty yachtsman cap and casual shirt, had passed through the cabin, mounted the flight deck and taken the left seat. Probert’s demeanor stood in stark contrast to the VS 44’s former buttoned-down formality, but the aircraft was simple and solid, with few systems to adjust or go wrong.

The short flight seemed a lot longer as experiences do when you are young, and although I didn’t really understand the historical importance of this last-of-a-kind aircraft. Riding the huge flying boat for fifteen minutes to Catalina felt more like an adventure, an ocean passage.

Touching down smoothly outside Avalon brought another shower of spray that obliterated any view of the island until the VS 44 gently rocked back off a plane to taxi in among the yachts moored nearby. Probert delicately drifted us up dockside at the old Avalon T-pier right in the middle of the island’s moon-shaped harbor. I seem to recall it took some doing to get the big bird tied up safely.

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Excambrian carried thousands of passengers for AAT until 1968 when it looked like she had come to the end of the road. Once again her apparent blessed status saved her, though, when Charles Blair entered the picture.

Blair, a pioneering airline pilot and former Air Force Brigadier General foresaw the need for air service throughout the Caribbean, where far-flung islands made boat trips lengthy. Tourists on short holidays would pay to fly to these island jewels, he correctly surmised. Blair picked up a Navy surplus Grumman Goose and founded Antilles Airboats. At 60, he retired from Pan Am and soon built Antilles Air Boat’s fleet to a handful of Grumman Geese and several Short Sunderland flying boats. When Excambrian joined his St. Croix based-fleet, Antilles Airboats was flying 120 trips a day. Blair married Maureen O’Hara—veteran actress of films like Miracle on 34th Street and Wild Irish Rose—who donated the VS 44 to the Naval Aviation museum in Pensacola, Florida. Blair died tragically piloting an Antilles Grumman Goose between St. Croix and St. Thomas in 1978 at the age of 69. As For Excambrian, she was heavily damaged in a landing accident and once again the future looked bleak, until Maureen O’Hara Blair donated the VS 44 to the Navy.

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An Antilles Airboats Grumman G-21 Goose
Photo © William W. Sierra


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An Antilles Airboats Short Sunderland
Photo © Caz Caswell


Since the plane was primarily a civilian craft, in the late 1970’s the US Navy put the plane on permanent loan to New England Air Museum, which enlisted the help of United Technologies’ Sikorsky Helicopter personnel and museum volunteers who embarked on a full restoration. The work was done by 1998, and an interior was added shortly thereafter. Excambrian was repainted in her original AEA livery and remains on display today at the museum at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut.

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During my return trip late in the day, the VS 44 flew smoothly, almost stately, and although we were experiencing a part of the past—Boeing’s new 707 had gone into service just months earlier—the sensations were one of a kind, just as was Excambrian.

Vought Sikorsky had hoped for a renaissance, but couldn’t even recoup the VS 44’s development costs. At least the company didn’t lose as much as the UK’s Saunders & Roe who built the ill-timed ten-engined Princess seaplanes. The tax funded giants arrived in 1950, after BOAC had abandoned flying boats for Boeing’s B-29-based Stratocruiser. Just the same, Excambrian must have been designed well, for she continued to make money for her various owners, well into four decades after her maiden flight.

For months after our flight, my dad would tuck us into bed, reenacting the takeoff with an actor’s flair and sound effects as we pretended to again ride aboard Igor Sikorsky’s last big flying boat. I grew up and had kids of my own, and even though they have seen and touched the last two Martin Mars at Sproat Lake in British Columbia, they’ll most certainly never travel by flying boat.

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The Last Two Martin Mars (C-FLYL)
Photo © Andreas Barowski


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The Last Two Martin Mars (C-FLYK)
Photo © Peter Heeneman


Even though I have family in the Eastern US, and I get back there from time to time, I haven’t visited Excambrian. Someday I will, and until then, it’s nice to know she’s safe and sound indoors, telling visitors, most of whom were born long after she was, of an era when air travel was something to be experienced instead of endured. Where passengers dressed for dinner, and a flight from London would include lunch, dinner and breakfast the next day, where turned down Pullman berths invited weary travelers to be lulled to sleep by the reassuring drone of engines from a company founded by a Wright brother.

Today we fly the Pacific in 10 to 14 hours for the price of a week’s wages, and cross the Atlantic in the space of a workday. I have flown from Los Angeles to Korea and Manila, but I never would have been able to afford the tariff for even a single trip on a Pan Am China Clipper. I have gotten close enough though to taste the sights, sounds and smells and I can at least imagine, even dream.

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N41881 "Excambrian"
Photo © Mel Lawrence



Sources:

catalinagoose.com

Ryan, Bill. "Final Trip for a Venerable Flying Boat." New York Times, 25 May 1997.

sikorskyarchives.com

speakeasy.org

Written by
Bruce M. Curtis

Bruce Curtis had the chance to fly the VS 44 at the age of five, and has been a flying boat enthusiast ever since. He is a freelance writer with an ATP certificate, and has an FAA Gold Seal CFI, and a seaplane rating... naturally.

1 User Comments:
Username: Alessandro [User Info]
Posted 2005-09-23 21:02:20 and read 32768 times.

Thank´s for sharing, I really like these birds and the ones found
on www.beriev.com

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