IT IS SAID THAT LIFE BEGAN IN THE OCEAN, AND SO DID COMMERICAL AVIATION. Aircraft that operated on water included two broad categories: flying boats, which lack wheels and can only land on water, and amphibians, which have wheels and can set down on either water or land. With more than 70 percent of Earth's surface covered by water, such aircraft had a huge advantage over land-dwellers.
In the 1930s, when postal service contracts first sent aircraft across oceans and continents, few substantial airports existed. But the aerial yachts of the day could operate from rivers, reservoirs, lakes, and oceans. Initially, passengers were boarded only if the weight of the mail allowed for extra cargo.
The United States’ Pan American Airways and Great Britain’s Imperial Airways pioneered the world’s seaplane routes. Throughout the 1930s, Imperial flew from England to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India, Asia, and on to Australia. (Imperial claimed the world’s longest air route, some 13,000 miles from Croydon, England, to Brisbane, Australia.) Pan Am, having staked a claim on the Pacific in the mid-1930s, had also commanded the Caribbean, South America, and the north Atlantic by the end of the decade. France forged a link across the narrowest stretch of the south Atlantic, from Dakar, Senegal, to Natal, Brazil, in 1930, as did Deutsche Lufthansa from Berlin to Brazil in 1934 (and on to Buenos Aires via landplane). During World War II, most aircraft were pressed into military service, and at war’s end, with landplanes having grown more capable and airfields sprouting around the world, the elegant seaplanes faded into obsolescence. The evocative images presented here are excerpted from renowned maritime artist Ian Marshall’s latest book, Flying Boats: The J-Class Yachts of Aviation (Howell Press, 2002).