FLYING-BOATS were very much of their time.

Their strength lay in the fact that they could land or take off on the sea with no runway and no airport.

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That was very handy during the war years but post-war, things were different.

Passenger air travel boomed but peacetime travellers didn’t want to land on lakes or seas in inaccessible places — they wanted a nice airport at the end of their journey, one with restaurants and duty-free.

Isle of Wight County Press:

This particular Princess was the only one of the three to actually fly. © East Cowes Heritage/Sarah Burdett.

The writing was on the wall for flying-boats but it didn’t stop the government ordering three of them in 1946.

Called the Princess, they were to be made at East Cowes by Saunders-Roe in the sheds now occupied by GKN.

It all sounded great — they would have a wingspan of 200 metres and, powered by ten 3500-h.p. engines, they would whisk up to 100 passengers through the skies at 350 mph. At least, that was the plan.

The problem was it took six long years to build the first Princess, and by the time it was finished the miracle jet engine had arrived.

Even before it took to the air the Princess was obsolete and its first test flight confirmed it — the engines were found to be hopelessly underpowered.

It was the kiss of death. BOAC, a potential buyer, cancelled their order and with that, the Princesses became expensive white elephants which nobody wanted.

While a decision was made about their future they were cocooned; eight tons of dessicant was placed inside each Princess and the hulls were sprayed with nine tons of plastic.

Isle of Wight County Press:

The Sleeping Princess remained on the hard-standing at Medina Road, Cowes, throughout the 50s and 60s. © Alan Stroud/County Press.

Two were taken to into store at Calshot and one stayed at Cowes where it became a familiar landmark for years.

In 1961 the government tried to sell them but no-one was interested.

Two years later they tried again. In December 1963, the County Press reported: “If some of the proposals for their future use materialise, the “sleeping” Princess flying boats are in for a rude awakening.”

“The three giant planes, which were never put into use, cost nearly £11 million in the early 1950s, and have been in protective cocoons for eight years.

“The War Office has now offered them for sale but they are only expected to fetch scrap prices. They were open for inspection by prospective purchasers last week and about a dozen interested persons were shown round the Cowes plane.

“Several had plans to scrap the 140-ton giants — Mr. D. Tailby, a car dealer of Leicestershire, said he planned to take one back to his home town, set it in a sea of concrete, to become a restaurant.

“The Bachelors, a “pop” singing group were interested in making one into a floating jazz club and coffee bar for teenagers, moored in the sea off Brighton.”

None of the schemes came to anything and it seemed it was the end for the Princess — but wait! In 1964 agents for NASA expressed an interest in buying them to use as transporters for components for the Saturn Five space rockets.

Quick as a flash the cocooning was removed. It was bad news — the dessicant hadn’t worked — corrosion had set in and the airframes had deteriorated beyond repair.

It was the end — there was nothing for it but the breaker’s yard.

And so it was that in the small hours of a dark and windy night in April 1967 the Princess made her final journey, a tow across the Solent to a Southampton scrapyard.

The operation was carried out in pitch darkness, supervised by well-known Cowes rigger, wit and raconteur, Harry Spencer.

In typical Harry fashion he directed affairs in Indiana Jones style, standing on top of the Princess, 60 foot above the dark stormy waters below.

The County Press reported, “On Tuesday the Princess was winched down to the water’s edge at the British Hovercraft Corporation’s slipway at East Cowes in readiness for floating into the river on high water at 1 a.m.

“Soon after midnight final preparations began, but the 140-ton flying boat stubbornly refused to become seaborne until 2am.

“The difficult task of manoeuvering the unwieldy craft, with its 220 ft. wingspan, through the harbour in pitch darkness was accomplished without incident.

“In the bitterly cold conditions and heavy rain, Mr. Spencer directed operations standing on top of the 58ft. high hull.

“As the three towing launches started turning the Princess off the Royal Yacht Squadron, the huge hull was buffeted by a force 4 north-easterly wind and this swept the plane tail-first down the choppy west Solent for nearly a mile, dragging the launches with it.

“They finally gained control of the runaway Princess just beyond Egypt Point.

“Later in the morning launches assisted a tug to complete the tow to the flying boat’s final destination on the River Itchen.”

And that was that.

A few months later nothing was left of the Princess but memories of what might have been and a very expensive pile of scrap.

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