The leviathan of the skies

By Richard Wright

Published on Friday, August 10, 2012 - 11:17


The leviathan of the skies

The prototype Princess emerges from the Saunders-Roe hangar at East Cowes.

WIGHT LIVING TO THOSE who know little of aircraft, there appears to be striking similarity between Howard Hughes’s ill-fated Spruce Goose and an equally unlikely looking plane of the 1940s produced on the IW.

Both clocked up precious few flying hours and when on the ground or in the water both had the appearance of lumbering leviathans.

One was not at home in the air either. Spruce Goose lifted off to a maximum height of just 70ft on November 2, 1947. It was on its brief third — and last — test flight.

The largest aircraft ever constructed was designed as a seaplane cargo carrier. Made of wood (hence the nickname), it was a heavy beast.

Two years before Spruce Goose took off, Saunders-Roe at East Cowes had been contracted by the Ministry of Supply to build a long-range civil flying boat designed to be operated by the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) across the Atlantic.

The company would draw on some of its experience of wartime construction of Supermarine Walrus and Sea Otter amphibious aircraft.

But this was an entirely different kettle of fish and the aluminium aircraft, the biggest then made, was to become an equal can of worms to Spruce Goose.

The Saunders-Roe SR.45 flying boat, known as the Princess, would have done all that was asked of it. Sadly, for the workforce who struggled against the odds to produce it, the project had been overtaken by a fast-changing industry.

By the 1950s, flying boats were in the shade of their land-based counterparts thanks to rapid airport development.

Disappointingly, that made the seaplane’s biggest advantage of being able to take off and land on water — with minimal infrastructure — largely redundant, which was a shame for those already conjuring up the romantic notion of Transatlantic travel.

Contained within the bulbous fuselage of an aircraft not much smaller than a Boeing 747 were two decks for a total of 105 passengers, who could have been flown across the Atlantic in great style and luxury.

But by March 1952, the need for a passenger seaplane had been re-thought. It was now envisaged the Princess would be used as a transport aircraft — and the other two prototypes, which had been partially constructed, never flew. The fuselage of one became a familiar landmark close to the Floating Bridge at Cowes until 1967.

On August 22, 1952, the prototype G-ALUN took off from The Solent on the first of its 46 test flights.

And, to mark the anniversary of that day, a seaplane flypast is planned for 12.28pm, off East Cowes — 60 years after that maiden flight.

The Princess 60 celebrations start at noon on Wednesday, August 22, with a commemorative ceremony on the East Cowes waterfront by the Island’s Lord Lieutenant, Maj Gen Martin White.

Following that and the flypast, an informal reception will be held in East Cowes Town Hall. It includes a talk by Eric Verdon-Roe about the life of his grandfather A.V. Roe, of Saunders-Roe.

Organisers say the exhibitions that have been assembled for the Princess 60 event give some idea of the remarkable achievements of Saunders-Roe in those few years from 1945 until 1959, when the company was acquired by Westland Aircraft — and Saro, as the company was known, faded from view.

Running until August 26 will be related exhibitions in the Classic Boat Museum Gallery and Classic Boat Museum at Columbine Works — the famous Union Jack hangar where the Princess was built.

On Saturday, August 25, courtesy of South Boats, there will be tours of the major part of the old works where the company is based.

Organisers say a small charge will be made for the tours and bookings should be made in advance at the Classic Boat Museum Gallery.

East Cowes Heritage Centre will also be presenting displays and memorabilia related to Saunders-Roe, a company at the leading edge of innovative, if not money-making, design in the 1950s.

The company developed a rocket-propelled aircraft and later rockets for ballistic missile research and satellite launch vehicles.

As the Saunders-Roe division of Westland Aircraft, the East Cowes works became heavily involved in hovercraft development and was then to regain some autonomy as the British Hovercraft Corpora-tion, which was set up to exploit that new transportation technology.

After Westland was bought by GKN, the East Cowes works concentrated on development of composite materials and production techniques for aircraft structures.

In a sense it was full circle, the capability traceable back to the Sam Saunders-patented 'Consuta’ process of more than 100 years ago.

The exhibition includes details of the large-scale manufacture of plywood carried out by Saro Laminated Wood Products at Folly Works during the Second World War.

Later, the company led the field in the development of various types of plastic materials, including glassfibre-reinforced plastic, for a wide variety of transport, building and consumer products.

Today, the most recent manifestation of investment in an expanding industrial capability is the GKN and Rolls Royce joint venture to pursue the research, development and production of composite fan blades and casings for the next generation of jet engines.

This is the most modern echo of old Saro.

One of the Princess 60 organisers, Bob Wealthy, said: "It is fair to say our event rightly pays tribute to past achievements and draws attention to the legacy handed down to future generations. It hopefully reflects the importance to the local community, and to the nation’s well-being, of a thriving industrial capability.

"The Princess was the largest all-metal flying boat ever produced. It was, and still is, regarded as an outstanding engineering achievement of which all involved can be proud.

"Even now, it is almost beyond belief all this was achieved by a relatively small workforce at East Cowes. Such was the British aircraft industry’s capability at the time, the Princess was, in all essential respects, British made.

"The Columbine Works and memories of the Princess are symbols of past initiatives and industrial endeavours stretching back 100 years.

"It is gratifying to see that it is today in use by South Boats and is a hive of activity — much as it would have been 60 years ago."

• Information on the Princess 60 event can be found on the East Cowes Town Council website:


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