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.
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. The wharf at Pointe du Chene 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.
The 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: