Academic journal article Air Power History

Floatplanes, Flying Boats and Oceanic Warfare, 1939-1945

Academic journal article Air Power History

Floatplanes, Flying Boats and Oceanic Warfare, 1939-1945

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Aircraft that could operate from, or over, water were just one aspect of naval commitment to extend the scope of aviation technology in World War I. (1) In the Adriatic, relatively tranquil and richly endowed with sheltered bays, single-engined flying boats, Lohners and Macchis, skirmished throughout the forty-one months of the Austro-Italian conflict: Linienschiffsleutnant Gottfried Banfleld was ennobled for his various exploits as a Lohner pilot. In the North Sea, Oberleutnant zur See Friedrich Christiansen of the German Kriegsmarine was credited with shooting down eight British flying boats and two floatplanes * while piloting a Hansa-Brandenburg floatplane. Later he was second only to Hermann Gering as the World War I ace who enjoyed the greatest prominence in the Nazi era. German floatplanes also carried out successful torpedo attacks on British merchant shipping, off Southwold and Harwich, in May and June 1917. British flying boats and floatplanes were responsible for much the greater part of air patrolling over the North Sea in the war against German submarines. In 1917, of 168 sightings by British aircraft of German submarines, twenty-eight were by naval airships, sixty-eight by flying boats, sixty-six by floatplanes, and only six by landplanes. (2)

By the end of the war, at least six German submarines had been sunk by British flying boats, as compared to one by a landplane. In addition, French flying boats had shared with a torpedo boat in the sinking of a German submarine in the Ionian Sea and had driven another German submarine ashore at Cartagena, in neutral Spain, where it was interned, and two Austro-Hungarian flying boats had sunk a French submarine in the Adriatic. (3) A floatplane, lowered into the water for takeoff from the seaplane tender HMS Engadine, had detected the German cruiser screen at the opening stage of the Battle of Jutland, and other British floatplanes had given good service in the eastern Mediterranean. (4)

However, the flying boat and the floatplane had most clearly proved their limitations. The sea in northern latitudes was rarely calm enough for floatplanes to be lowered into the water from ships out at sea. Floatplanes and flying boats making sorties from coastal bases were, from the nature of their construction, fatally inferior in speed and maneuverability to landplanes flying from bases a little further inland. The increased reliability of airplane engines cancelled the somewhat illusory advantage of aircraft that could land on water if their engines failed. It was "somewhat illusory" because they could not touch down without smashing up if the sea was rough, and could only take off again after field repairs if the sea was dead calm. Floatplanes operating with the fleet at sea were increasingly seen as less practicable than landplanes flown off from short flight decks on specially converted warships. The Short floatplanes based at Dunkirk, Britain's first line defense against the U-boats operating out of Zeebrugge, were replaced by De Havilland DH 4 landplane bombers in January 1918. (5)

Growing international interest in the prestigious Schneider Trophy, awarded to the fastest aircraft that could take off from water, had the surprising result that between 1931 and 1935 the world air-speed record was held by floatplanes. However, this did not disprove the disadvantages of the floatplane concept. The 37-1itre V-12 engine of the Supermarine S.6B, which won the Schneider Trophy and held the air-speed record from 1931 to 1933, and the 50.25-litre V-24 engine of the Macchi M.C. 72, which held the record from 1933 to 1935, consumed prodigious amounts of "hot" fuel (60% benzol, 30% methanol, 10% acetone in the case of the Supermarine S.6B) but hot fuel burned out the engine out after a couple of hours. The enormous torque of the engine made the aircraft almost unmanageable, especially when taking off and landing. And the thin wings and the upper parts of the floats had to be used as radiators not simply to avoid the drag of a projecting radiator, but because a projecting radiator would not have been large enough to void the tremendous heat generated by an outsized engine burning hot fuel. …

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