Flying Boats Made Shediac Bay an Air Hub

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Boeing 314 Clipper at Pointe du Chene wharf, probably in June 1939. Photo from Mac Irwin Album. Photographer unknown.

In 1939 sailing enthusiasts from Prince Edward Island were given another good reason to visit Shediac. In June of that year the harbour became one of the links in a chain that crossed the Atlantic and giant flying boats landed and took off from the sheltered bay. It was the wonder of the age. The photo above was probably taken on the occasion of the first flight.

For a few brief years in the late 1930s it looked as if the future of trans-Atlantic transportation lay in both the sea and the air, and Shediac was near its centre.  The flying boat, with its promise that any relatively calm body of water could serve as an airport, trumped the limited range  of the aircraft of the day. Shediac had been one of the ports of call of the Italian “airmada” which brought 24 Italian air force flying boats across the Atlantic in 1933 and when trans-Atlantic passenger flights were planned Shediac was positioned on the arc of flight which saw flying boats leave Long Island Sound near New York, fly up the Atlantic coast, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence  to Newfoundland and then take the long flight to stop in Ireland before reaching Southampton, England. The boats could have easily flown directly from New York to Newfoundland but the Canadian government demanded a landing in Canada in exchange for the rights of overflight.

Postcard view of Pan Am Clipper at Shediac 1939

Postcard view of Pan Am Clipper at Shediac 1939

The port did have some advantages in addition to the political trade-off. Besides its sheltered harbour Shediac was also close to the railway leading to central Canada and still had rail links to New England. Canadian mail could be added to the cargo during the brief stop. While the region was generally referred to as Shediac it was the wharf at Pointe du Chene on the east side of the Bay which served as the air harbour and a customs house, passenger terminal, maintenance facilities and administration offices were constructed. The first schedule saw the Clippers leave New York on Saturday morning, touch down briefly at Shediac, for another stop in Botwood, and arrive in Ireland on Sunday.  By 1945 the service operated three flights per week.   Poor weather could result in overnight stays in Shediac, the inaugural flight was held up there for three days owing to fog in Newfoundland.

The route which included Shediac, Botwood Newfoundland and Foynes Ireland as intermediate stops between New York and Southampton had been tested in 1937 but it was not until 1939 that the service was inaugurated. The first flight carrying mail left New York on 24 June 1939 and the passenger service began on 8 July. The delay had allowed Pan American Airways to use the latest aircraft and peak of flying boat design, the Boeing 314 Clipper, on the route.

The Boeing Clipper was a huge for its time, 106 feet long with a 152 foot wingspan (3/4 that of a 747). It could cruise at 188 miles per hour and had a range of almost 3,700 miles. Pan Am’s “Clippers” were built for “one-class” luxury air travel, a necessity given the long duration of transoceanic flights. The seats could be converted into 36 bunks for overnight accommodation. The 314s had a lounge and dining area, and the galleys were crewed by chefs from four-star hotels. Men and women were provided with separate dressing rooms, and white-coated stewards served five and six-course meals with gleaming silver service. The standard of luxury on Pan American’s Boeing 314s has rarely been matched on heavier-than-air transport since then; they were a form of travel for the super-rich, priced at $675 return from New York to Southampton (comparable to a round trip aboard Concorde). Transatlantic flights to neutral Lisbon and Ireland continued after war broke out in Europe in September 1939 (and until 1945), but military passengers and cargoes necessarily got priority, and the service was more spartan.  While in the deluxe sleeper layout there were 36 beds and a private suite the planes could carry up to 74 passengers along with a total of 10 crew.

b-314-cutaway-interior-174-webThe Clippers in theory could land in the Atlantic in case of mechanical problems but more intriguing was the fact that any of the four engines could be serviced or repaired in flight as engineers had access to the engine compartments through walkways inside the wings.  It was not uncommon for in-flight engine repairs to be carried out by flight engineers.

The winter icing-up of the harbours in Shediac and Botwood made the service a seasonal one. Pan Am maintained a number of southern routes via Bermuda and the Azores, or down to South America and across to Africa and back up the coast, both routes terminating in Lisbon. The shorter North Atlantic route had the time advantage but prevailing headwinds had a negative impact on cargo capacity.

Although flying boats were near the peak of aeronautical technology in 1939 rapid advances were made during the war. The ferrying of more than 9000 land-based long-range aeroplanes  by RAF Ferry Command led to practical use of such planes for passenger service and by war’s end the flying boats with their relatively low capacity and high cost had been made obsolete.  By 1946 when the last Clipper was taken out of service, 455 trips had passed through Shediac. However with the closure of the Pan Am flying boat service Shediac’s role in aeronautical history came to an end.

In a collection of photos belonging to the Bentley family additional photos of the clipper visit to Shediac were located. Thanks to Eric Bentley for permission to post these shots:

 

 

9 thoughts on “Flying Boats Made Shediac Bay an Air Hub

  1. rona878

    Hi Harry,

    Continue to really enjoy your ‘Sailstrait’ blogs.

    Further to the latest “attached” on flying boats/Shediac, etc..

    I note reference to the Balbo 24 flying boat tour in 1933, from Rome to Chicago, that had a scheduled stop in Shediac.

    You may well know a lot more about this than I, but my dad often told the story of one of those flying boats, in August of 1933, having engine problems and landing in Charlottetown Harbour for repair. He went down to see it and had a picture of it on the waterfront here (perhaps from Mac Irwin because they were good friends).

    I don’t know whether dad took it, Mac took it, or even if it is here?? I’ve never tried to authenticate it, but I have the picture and will scan it and send it to you.

    There must be a news story about it??

    Ron A.

    A bird perched on a branch is never afraid of it breaking,

    because it’s trust is not in the branch but in its own wings.

    sailstrait posted: ” In 1939 sailing enthusiasts from Prince Edward Island were given another good reason to visit Shediac. In June of that year the harbour became one of the links in a chain that crossed the Atlantic and giant flying boats landed and took off from the sh”

    Reply
    1. sailstrait Post author

      I think that the incident relates to a Savoia-Marchetti S.55X flying boat of Marshall Italo Balbo which was one of the fleet of 25 from the Royal Italian Air Force.  One of the fleet had to carry out an emergency landing near Victoria, PEI, where it was examined and repaired and caught up with the others which had made it to Shediac as scheduled. I have seen a photo and the location is definitely Victoria as the plane was hauled up on the beach to the west of the wharf. I would still love to see the photo that you have as I have spotted no references to the plane visiting Charlottetown.

      Reply
    2. sailstrait Post author

      The article was in the 27 July 1933 issue of the Charlottetown Guardian. The problem was a broken water pump and a new part had to be brought from Montreal. The fleet was flying from Shediac to Newfoundland when it happened and it was definitely Victoria. Might do a full write-up in a future blog.

      Reply
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  4. Chuck Steeves

    The historian needs to re-write and correct this piece as thy Flying Boats did not go to Shediac as the Pointe-du-Chene Wharf is in Pointe-du-Chene an unincorporated community separate and not part of the Town of Shediac. Likewise, the railway began & ended at ‘Land’s End’ rail station on the mainland of The Wharf in Pointe-du-Chene. The seaside community of Pointe-du-Chene was home to a number or inns and hotels in those years, and it also is the home of the famous Parlee Beach (originally Gould Beach & Belliveau Beach).

    Reply
    1. sailstrait Post author

      Mr. Steeves is technically correct that Pointe-du-Chene is a different community from Shediac. However, notwithstanding local patriotism the common usage is to the Shediac area. For example, long after the building of the wharf at Pointe-du-Chene the press referred to the steamers from Summerside to Shediac and the rail line from Moncton was described as the Shediac branch even though it terminated at Pointe-du-Chene. In more recent times the 50 year sailing race in Northumberland Strait was described as the Shediac to Charlottetown race even though it began at Pointe-du-Chene. Pan Am Clippers in their route descriptions noted New York to Shediac and Shediac to Botwood as the two first segments of the trans-Atlantic service. Airmail service on the Pan Am flight bore a Shediac postmark. I stand by my use of Shediac in the article as it reflects the common usage of the period discussed. However, I will amended the title of the piece in deference to Mr. Steeves’ concerns.

      Reply
      1. Chuck Steeves

        Your acknowledgment is appreciated. In fairness, the larger community of Shediac created the narrative in their favour from the early decades to their tourism promotions of today. Consequently, research and reference points are overwhelmingly to Shediac. As well, with the two adjacent communities on the shores of Shediac Bay, it would be easier and at once descriptive to state “Shediac”. Thank your for your blog and your kind response. C F (Chuck) Steeves, Chair Local Service District of Pointe-du-Chêne, Director Pointe-du-Chêne Harbour Authority.

  5. SirleyPrice

    I doubt there are many still around who watched one of these clipper ships landing and taxiing up to the wharf on Shediac Bay but I am one of them. It was in 1939 just before my father joined the Army.

    Reply

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