Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Sandringhham in the Solvent at Southampton

Today is another lazy day to recharge our batteries. It's just so nice to stop, reflect and just enjoy some quiet time. However, Michael decides to visit the Solent Sky Aviation Museum, here in Southampton, which is conveniently just around the corner.

I had gone around to the museum yesterday, which was regrettably closed and would reopen Sunday at midday. However, I peered through the front glass doors and within the dimness of the interior I made out the profile of the hull of a flyingboat - a large flyingboat! Now, the information board at the museum's entry door explained the museum is dedicated to RJ Mitchell, the designer of the now infamous Supermarine Spitfire. This flyingboat appeared too large for either of the flyingboats designed by Mitchell - the Stranraer and the Walrus? I would just have to be patient!

On arriving at the museum today it was obvious it was being well patronised. The building is not large by aircraft museum standards, although I had a feeling I was not going to be disappointed. As I greeted the fellow at the reception and paid my entry fee, he said; "Ah, you're from Australia; so, you've come to see your aeroplane?" Driven by my puzzled expression, the fellow motioned for me to look around the partition.

I felt as though I had been thrown back through time, for there before me was this magnificent Sandringham flyingboat. Why thrown back in time? Well, the aeroplane was in its original livery of the Ansett Flying Boat Service. Whether it was this particular 'boat or one of it's sisters, my brother and I would watch these graceful craft being piloted from Rose Bay in Sydney and take off from Sydney Harbour! The last of Ansett's Sandringham's service ended in 1967, and on that day my family and I went into Sydney and caught the Manly Ferry hoping to witness the end of an era.

We weren't disappointed (...well, not the least my brother and I) and as we were on the ferry, the pilot vessel marshaling the flyingboat sounded its siren in warning. All the vessels on the harbour stopped, the four engines of the Sandringham opened up and we watched the last flight take to the air. Maybe this was a fortuitous day for us, not only did we see the last flight but the 'boat passed over our ferry! What a sound - just reminiscing this experience gives me goosebumps! As the 'boat flew overhead, the reverberation from its four radial piston engines set all the windows vibrating!

Anyhow, that was then and we are in the now...well, almost. The fellow whom I had paid my fee too, and who also discerned my excitement, is also the curator. He explained to me the museum is indeed dedicated to RJ Mitchell, however the museum has attempted to provide a snapshot on the history of aviation. Upon his suggestion, I commenced my investigation with the display to Mitchell.

The display to RJ Mitchell comprises of a Supermarine Spitfire Mk.XXIV (I began to experience violent shivers..) and a Supermarine S.6 speed racer (...tremors at this point) which won the Schneider Trophy for the United Kingdom in 1931 at Calshot Spit, here in Southampton. A life size wooden sculpture of Mitchell is at the display's centre, and a quarter scale model of the Spitfire's prototype - the K5054. Proudly displayed behind glass is a Battle of Britain Memorial lace presented to the museum by the IWM. (I returned to this display several times.)

Moving from RJ Mitchell and onto the flyingboat, I had to get this out of my system...well, temporarily. Fortunately for visitors to this museum, access is made available to sit in some of the aeroplane cockpits, and it is quite a hands-on museum. As for the Sandringham, access was only permitted within the hull - the flight deck was forbidden. (The Spitfire was definitely a no-go-zone!) At this point, just to stand-up-close-and-personal to any of the exhibits (especially the Sandringham) would have been enough for me. However, to actually enter the passenger saloons and sit in the plush chairs was a privilege. Passengers certainly travelled in style, the flyingboats may have been slower than their modern cousins but at the advantage of leg room, room to move and comfortable seating.

After taking many photos of the flyingboat's interior, I made my way down the gangway where I was met by the curator. Greeting me with a broad smile, he said: "Are you ready to see the flight deck of your aeroplane?" My only reply to him was: "Is the Pope a Catholic?"

Now gaining access into the flyingboat's flight deck is a feat. I can now appreciate the difficulty John Glenn had in climbing into his capsule, Friendship 7, through the small access panel.
One has to climb a narrow ladder directly below the pilots cockpit, then lean forward as you slip through the 1 metre by half metre aperture leading into the flight deck. Scoff if you will, but I felt as though I had entered a sacred place...

For the flyingboat's size, the flight deck is rather small; considering it was required to accommodate the pilot and second officer, radio operator, navigator and flight engineer. I was ushered into the first officer's seat, which took me all of my resolve not become a drivelling mess. My host sat in the second officer's seat whereby he explained the controls and handling qualities of the type. After various questions and concise answers, I was given a history of this flyingboat.

This flyingboat was built in Belfast, 1943, at the Short Brother's works. It was originally built as a Short Sunderland flyingboat for the RAF Maritime Patrol. (As I am typing this, an air-raid siren is beginning to sound from the docks area, and as it reaches its crescendo Maria and I look at each other...) After seeing service with the RAF, it was sold privately to Charles F Blair Jnr the husband to actress Maureen O'Hara. Blair was a transatlantic pioneer who at one time was the Chief Pilot to Pan Am. My host directs my attention to a seat on the flight deck which is very much out of place. This particular seat is directly behind the first pilot and in front of the radio operator's position. This seat, my host explains, was especially (...the 'all-clear' siren has just sounded....this absolutely true!) installed for Maureen O'Hara who preferred the confines of the flight deck! My host also indicates to the cup holder especially fitted for O'Hara for her Gin and Tonic and a specially installed ashtray!

Ansett gained ownership of the flyingboat as part of its 'Flying Boat Fleet'. After modifications it was converted into the 'Sandringham' passenger flyingboat, and eventually moored at the ex-Catalina Flyingboat Base at Rose Bay, Sydney, New South Wales. As for Ansett and its Flying Boat Fleet and this they say, the rest is history.

The remainder of the exhibits in the museum are absolute gems, and some extremely rare indeed. This includes the sole surviving example of a Saunders Roe SRA1 the only British flyingboat jet fighter. I could go into further detail as to the exhibits of this museum, however, I suggest you follow the link. Should you ever visit Southampton, you should make this museum a must see on your itinerary (whether you're into aviation or not).

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