2012 Aviation Events

SEP 03 2012
Aviation Events >> Saunders Roe Princess 60th Anniversary

The story of the Saunders-Roe Princess – the largest all metal flying boat ever flown – began in 1945 when the British Ministry of Supply invited the company to bid for the right to design and build a civil flying boat that was capable of flying non-stop across the Atlantic, on behalf of British Overseas Airways Corportation (BOAC). The order received in May 1946, after the Saunders-Roe bid was successful, called for the production of three aircraft, which were to be built in the Columbine Works at East Cowes, Isle of Wight.

The Princess was a real beast, coming in at 42.1m in length, with a staggering 66.9m wingspan and measuring 17m tall. Empty, she weighed 190,000lbs (86,184kg) and had a maximum take-off weight of 345,025lbs (156,500kg) – give or take, that’s the same as a Boeing 767-300.

She was powered by no fewer than ten Bristol Proteus 600/610 turboprop engines, mounted on six axis, with all bar those on the outer stations paired up in a contra-rotating configuration, and would cruise at almost 400mph.

The 105 passengers that the Princess could carry were to be accommodated across two passenger decks inside a pressurised fuselage, and could be transported more than 5,000 miles, non-stop.

By 1951, BOAC – the company whose requirement had prompted the aircraft’s development to begin with - had reconsidered its own position and had decided that there was no place for the Princess in its future plans.

Despite the fact that the aircraft had still not flown, the project wasn’t quite dead in the water however. The revised plan called for the construction and development of the three aircraft to continue, for use as transport aircraft for the Royal Air Force.

The situation had changed again by March 1952 when it was announced that only the first aircraft would be completed, with the other two being set aside until a more powerful engine could be developed.

Despite the setbacks, the prototype, G-ALUN, did eventually take to the skies for the first time on 22 August 1952 with company test pilot Geoffrey Tyson at the controls. It’s reported that Tyson claimed that "despite her size, she handled like a jet fighter". The flight, planned to last between two and three hours, was cut short due to erroneous airscrew-bearing temperature readings.

Three further flights followed over the course of the next week, and she had lodged 46 flights in total, amassing around 100 hours flight time – including a surprise flying display appearance at the 1953 Farnborough Airshow - by the time she was ultimately grounded.

Even then, tremendous efforts continued to make the aircraft viable. Princess Air Transport Company Ltd was created with three quarters of the share capital held by Saunders-Roe and the remainder by Airwork Ltd. Its purpose was to enable the operation of the Princess to be studied and to tender for the aircraft’s services, should the opportunity have arisen.

Following a failed bid from Aquila Airways in 1954, that would have seen each of the aircraft purchased for £1m, the three aircraft – including the two in their unfinished states – were put into storage, with one located at Cowes and the other two on Calshot Spit.

Other bids were received and ideas were thrown around for alternative uses, and the US Navy even examined the possibility of powering them using nuclear means.

None of the proposals tabled were successful until a deal was struck with Eoin Mekie on behalf of Aero Spacelines in 1964, which had intended to use them on a NASA contract associated with the transportation of components for the Saturn V rocket. Sadly, when the protective materials that the aircraft had been covered in ahead of storage were removed, it was found that the airframes had corroded badly, and, as such, all three Saunders-Roe SR.45 Princess – built at a cost of £10m - were broken up for scrap by 1967, generating a rather paltry £18,000.

The Princess 60 celebrations started at 12 noon on 22 August 2012 with a commemorative ceremony introduced by Ray Wheeler on the East Cowes waterfront. The proceedings were formally opened by HM Lord Lieutenant Major General Martin White CB, CBE, JP. Also present was the Mayor of East Cowes, Jane Rann, IoW High Sheriff Nick Hayward, IoW Council Leader, Susan Scoccia, Revd Andrew Wright and IoW MP Andrew Turner. Members of the Princess flight test crew Maurice Mabey and Bob Strath, together with Simon Walker who represented his father Tony Walker, were also in attendance.

At 1228 precisely, John Russell, in Euro Seaplane Services Limited’s amphibious Cessna 182R Skylane G-ESSL, performed two flypasts up and down the River Medina estuary at Cowes, passing by the Columbine Works where the Princesses had been constructed. The first flypast was timed to be precisely 60 years on from when the Princess took off on its maiden flight from the Solent.

The waterfront proceedings continued with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque by Ray Wheeler as Chairman of the IoW Branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society. The plaque reflects the significance of the adjacent Columbine Works as a purpose built flying boat factory and where the Saunders-Roe Princess flying boats were constructed.

After their conclusion at 12.45, an informal reception was held in East Cowes Town Hall where about 120 former Saunders-Roe employees, apprentices and those with an interest in the local industrial heritage enjoyed a talk by Eric Verdon-Roe about the life of his grand-father A.V. Roe.

Related Princess 60 exhibitions in the Classic Boat Museum Gallery and Classic Boat Museum ran on until 25 August and attracted much interest. On 23 August a talk about the life of Sir Arthur Gouge was given by Douglas Lodge, Sir Arthur Gouge’s grandson, titled “Sir Arthur Gouge – Britain’s Flying Boat King”, and on the 24 August Tony Baker gave his talk about the flying boat era titled “The ships that flew”.

In the Classic Boat Museum Gallery, located in part of the Columbine Works, a selection of Saunders-Roe artworks by Cavendish Morton was on show, together with a tribute to Sir Arthur Gouge and models of the aircraft for which he had been responsible during his time with Short Brothers and Saunders-Roe.

In the nearby Classic Boat Museum, located in what was the Saunders-Roe Albany Machine Shop, there were a number of displays depicting the history of Saunders-Roe and the range of capabilities through to the present day GKN industrial activities at East Cowes. Information was also presented about the existence of a number of 'Princess Relics' in various museums and private collections, part of the display included the Princess rudder pedals, the pilot’s map case and one of the few passenger seats installed in the prototype Princess G-ALUN.

Conducted tours of the Columbine Works on Saturday 25 August 2012 courtesy of South Boats Ltd proved very popular. At the nearby East Cowes Heritage Centre their 'East Cowes in the 1950s' themed exhibition also presented displays and memorabilia related to Saunders-Roe and the Princess.

Bob Wealthy, the event organiser, made the following observations: "The Princess 60 event paid tribute to the Saunders-Roe Company and its workforce in bringing this major post-war project into being. Even now it is almost beyond belief that all this was achieved by a relatively small workforce at East Cowes. Such was the British aircraft industry’s capability at the time that the Princess was in all essential respects 'British made'.

"It is fair to say that our Princess 60 event rightly paid tribute to past achievements and drew attention to the legacy handed down to future generations. It hopefully reflected the importance to the local community and the nation’s wellbeing of a thriving industrial capability. This is important to communities such as those on the Isle of Wight and is as important now, if not more so, than it was 60 years ago.

"It is clearly evident that our survival as a nation and the preservation of an acceptable standard of living are highly dependent on the effective application of the knowledge and skills built up from the past, which in turn enable businesses to thrive and grow. A key aspect is a cycle of regeneration whereby career opportunities and learning opportunities are created for succeeding generations of the population who will be inspired to take up the challenge in a career such as the field of engineering, ie making something that works and that can be sold at a profit, as is the nature of business worldwide."

The Solent region has a vast and rich aviation heritage that often fails to generate the recognition it deserves. It’s fantastic to know that there are groups of people out there who are not prepared to forget.

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