Recollections and reflections — a seasoned reporter’s view of aviation history
There’s something about aircraft flying from water that exerts a strange fascination. A strange fascination on me, that is, although I know from several friends that I’m not alone in this.
My first flight in a flying boat was in summer 1977, when Charles Blair brought his Sandringham, VP-LVE Southern Cross, to the UK, basing it on the south coast to undertake a short season of pleasure flying from the Solent. A classified advertisement appeared in Flight’s issue of 3 September 1977: “Short Sandringham Flying Boat Pleasure Flight — 20 and 45 minutes at £13 and £19.50, ex Calshot from September 1 to 7”, giving a Blandford, Dorset ‘phone number.
Charles Blair, who ran Antilles Air Boats in the Virgin Islands, had a distinguished wartime piloting career. Post-war — and at the same time as being a Pan Am captain with some 17,000 hours in his logbook — he purchased Paul Mantz’s P-51C Mustang N1202, christening it Excalibur III. On 31 January 1951, he flew this aircraft non-stop from New York’s Idlewild Airport to London’s Heathrow at an average speed of 446mph. Later that year, he piloted it from Bardufoss, Norway to Fairbanks, Alaska, a solo flight over the North Pole. Alongside many other aviation claims to fame, he married actress Maureen O’Hara in 1968.
A press facility flight was arranged to fly in VP-LVE, and I was told to report to a New Forest hotel early in the morning. My fellow passengers were a couple of specialist aviation journos (one of whom you’ll find today on the Aeroplane masthead; who could be senior enough?) and a few less specialist representatives from Fleet Street. The latter professed little interest in flying boats, wanting only an answer to the question, “Is Maureen O’Hara here today?”
We headed to Calshot, the flying boat base on a spit to the west of Southampton Water. Our Sandringham pilots were the legendary Capt Charles Blair and Ron Gillies, a veteran with 36 years’ experience of Sunderlands and Sandringhams. After we’d been ferried out to the aircraft by tender, Blair started engines and taxied out into the Solent. Even in the late ‘70s, this was packed with everything from small pleasure craft to large cargo vessels, and it took some time for the pilots to find a suitably long, clear, into-wind stretch of sea from which to take off. Then it was off at low level, flying along the south coast and around the Isle of Wight.
“However memorable the Sandringham flight was, I didn’t appreciate its significance. Charles Blair was to die little more than a year later”
However memorable that flight was, it’s fair to say that I didn’t appreciate its true significance at the time. Charles Blair was to die in the crash of an Antilles Air Boats Grumman Goose little more than a year later. His wife would take over as president of the company, but both VP-LVE and Sunderland N158J — then the last airworthy examples of four-engine Short boats — would soon be sold and ended up in museums.
I had several subsequent trips in flying boats, particularly Chalk’s Grumman Turbo Mallards from Miami Seaplane Base. Sadly, this ‘last of its kind’ operation came to a sudden end with the crash of Turbo Mallard N2969 off Miami Beach on 19 December 2005. Today, you can fly as a passenger in various floatplanes from many locations around the world, with Vancouver Harbour being a particularly busy hub. But if there is anywhere you can get airborne in a true flying boat — with a hull — I’d surely like to hear of it.