Here is one of the landmarks of air transport, the Sikorsky VS-44, one of the last flowerings of that giant of the skies, the flying boat. During the 1920s and 1930s two major centres of aviation activity, the U.K. and the U.S.A. had a need to link far-flung possessions, one across the Pacific and the other across the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and the Timor Sea. Yes, the U.S.A. wanted to link San Francisco and Shanghai in China (via Honolulu, Wake Island, Guam, Manilla and Hong Kong) and Great Britain needed to reach Australia – and, ultimately, New Zealand (via Genoa, Alexandria, Basra, Karachi, and Singapore to Darwin, Australia).
With the volume to carry passengers and the all-important mail, large quantities of fuel for long stages and a water-planing hull which made them independent of expensive, difficult to construct runways, the answer for both maritime nations was the flying boat. As well as the ‘Eastern route’ for the U.K. and the ‘Western route’ for the U.S.A. both nations wanted to dominate the Atlantic! The Europe to U.S.A. route was where the passenger traffic and mail volume was – although dominated in the 20s and 30s by the luxury liner. As war in Europe loomed, Pan American World Airways was using the new Boeing Model 314A on its trans-Atlantic routes from La Guardia Marine Air Terminal; Imperial Airways was struggling, as its ‘C’ Class Shorts S.23 Empire flying boats didn’t have the range, without risky air-to-air refuelling. Its ‘G’ Class Shorts S.26 was just to late- the first one flew only 8 weeks before WW2 broke out.
Sikorsky had hoped to get the contract for the trans-Atlantic flying boats eventually won by the Boeing Model 314A. Juan Trippe, the President of Pan American World Airways decided not to buy the successor aircraft to their fleet of ten Sikorsky S-42 Clippers, which had served him well on routes out of San Francisco and New York.
Sikorsky tried to sell their design to the US Navy, and one example was acquired as the sole XPBS-1 patrol bomber, which had an undistinguished career, being lost in a landing crash at NAS Alameda (Admiral Chester W Nimitz, USN was a passenger on this flight, but was only slightly hurt in the accident). NC41881, ‘Excambian’ is one of three VS-44 aircraft which were derived from the XPBS-1, and purchased by a new airline, American Export Airlines out of New York. These were named ‘Exeter’, ‘Excambrian’, and ‘Excalibur’. Equipped with smaller engines (4 x Pratt & Whitney R-1830-S1C3-G of 1,200 hp) than those of the Boeing 314A (4 x Wright R-2600-3 of 1,600 hp), the VS-44 had a 500 mile range advantage, and successfully transported passengers and priority freight across the Atlantic and on other routes throughout the war, with the military designation of JR2S-1. ‘Exeter’ and ‘Excalibur’ were lost, and as the sole survivor, ‘Excambian’ was disposed of when American Export Airlines became American Overseas Airlines post-war and switched to large landplanes, as the rest of the world did (thanks to the massive runway building programme, driven by military needs during the conflict).
After passing through many hands (Tampico Airlines, Avalon Air Transport, Antilles Air Boats) she was eventually damaged off the U.S. Virgin Islands and beached as being beyond repair. Retrieved and donated to the Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, she was placed in the New England Air Museum, and fully restored as a VS-44.
If I have ANY problem with the VS-44, it is that it is completely surrounded by a random selection of smaller exhibits, making it impossible to fully appreciate its sweeping lines and the scale of this large flying boat. What it needs is its own separate exhibition hangar (as NEAM have done with their B-29) where objects are placed around the periphery of the display space – apart from smaller scale displays – and the story of the flying boat era could be properly told by the use of a themed exhibition (N.B. NEAM need only ask, and I’ll write the ’gallery brief’ at a substantial discount!)