Tag Archives: flying boat

Italians land in Victoria

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Savonia Marchette S.55X flying boat on beach at Victoria P.E.I. July 1933

Look! … There in the sky… Is it a bird?… Is it a plane? … Is it a boat??? … Well actually it was a plane and a boat   And not so much a boat as a catamaran. And what was it doing flying into Victoria?

Normally Victoria P.E.I. was a quiet little harbour with the odd schooner picking up a cargo of potatoes or oats, or the  S.S. Harland making its regular run between the port and Charlottetown. On the morning of 26 July a number of aeroplanes were seen flying over the Island. One group was spotted in the skies above Georgetown while another came in high above Governor’s Island and passed over Charlottetown.   At about 9:30 am one of the flight over Victoria circled and instead of passing north over the village drifted down into the harbour and landed in the shallow waters of the bay.  As the craft drifted to a stop and threw out an anchor the crew, under the command of Captain Umberto Rovis, emerged, apparently unconcerned about their unscheduled stop in a strange port. Victoria resident C.P. Miller untied his motor boat from the wharf and towed the strange craft into the beach. Although Italian speakers were scarce or entirely absent from Victoria the story gradually emerged with detail being added after the arrival of A.P. Ceretti, master diver for the CNR ferry service at Borden who acted as translator for the five Italian Air Force members aboard the flying boat.

The Italian seaplane was part of a large fleet of seaplanes which was returning from staging a display of aeronautical capability which was unmatched anywhere in the world up until that date.  In the 1920s and early 1930s the Italians played a leading role in the development of long-distance flight.  In 1925 an Italian seaplane was flown from Italy to Australia and Japan. In 1930-31 a fleet of 12 flying boats flew from Italy, across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, north to New York, and back.

Time magazine cover with Italo Balbo

Time magazine cover with Italo Balbo

That flight had been led by General Italo Balbo, Minister of the Air Force and in 1933 he personally conducted another exercise to demonstrate the superiority of Italian aeronautical engineering.  A group of 25 flying boats left Italy, stopping at Amsterdam, Reykjavik,  Cartwright, Labrador, Shediac and Montreal before reaching the destination of Chicago to attend the Century of Progress Exposition. The trip was completed in just under 48 hours of flying.  Balbo received many honours including the cover of Time magazine, a Distinguished Flying Cross awarded by President Roosevelt and promotion to the specially created post of Marshal of the Italian Air Force. The return route was planned with stops at New York, Shediac (the only place with stops both coming and going) , Shoal Harbour Newfoundland, Valentia Ireland, Marseilles France  and Rome. The air fleet was supported by ships of the Italian Navy at many of the their stops.

Balbo's air fleet at Montreal 1933. The cockpit was located inside the wing between the hulls

Balbo’s air fleet at Montreal 1933. The cockpit was located inside the wing between the hulls and just under the engines

The planes were all Savonia Marchette S.55X models.  This was a unique and stylish design with twin flying boat hulls bridged by a cantilevered wing.  The cockpit was located inside the wing between the hulls. Two engines were mounted back-to-back above the wing and drove counter-rotating propellers.   The wingspan was almost 75 feet and the craft was 55 feet in length.  There were several model variations but all together more than 230 of the design were built. The craft had a maximum speed of 173 miles per hour and a range of more than 2000 miles. The plane was adopted for use as a civilian aircraft in the Soviet Union and by the military in Italy, Brazil, Spain and Romania.

Captain Rovis had been in radio contact with the support team in Shediac and half an hour after the Italian flying boat arrived, a second seaplane, this time the R.C.M.P. flying boat from the Canadian Preventative Service arrived, having flown in carrying the head of the Italian technical contingent at Shediac.  The Italian plane was diagnosed as having a broken water pump which was causing the engines to overheat and the R.C.M.P. plane returned to Shediac for parts. However, a replacement pump was not available and one had to be brought in from Montreal.  In what would still be considered prompt delivery time a new water pump was delivered by air from Montreal to Shediac and then to Victoria arriving at 4 p.m. the same day. The replacement equipment was installed and tested by 8 p.m. but by then the tide had fallen and the plane was stranded on the shore. It was towed off the beach at midnight when the tide was high but the crew elected to wait for daybreak before leaving to catch the rest of the formation which had safely landed in Newfoundland earlier in the day.

Route of Balbo Air Armada 1933

Route of Balbo Air Armada 1933

Balbo’s fleet was held up in Newfoundland by bad weather and faced with continued forecasts of poor conditions the route was changed. Rather than head across the Atlantic to directly Ireland the planes were diverted to route via the Azores, Lisbon and then to Rome. The new routing was slightly longer but it also had the advantage less distance over water between stops.

Today there are only a few memorials of the pioneering flight; a display in the Italian aeronautical museum; Balbo Drive, formerly Seventh Street in Chicago; a column presented by Mussolini to the City of Chicago and Rovis Beach Lane in Victoria P.E.I., named for the captain who fetched up there on 1933 owing to a faulty water pump.

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Flying Boats Made Shediac 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. 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.

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: