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May 25, 2009

Big Is - or Was - British

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The huge, new Airbus 380 has been in service for a few months now. It has two full decks for passenger seating, unlike the Boeing 747 which has one main deck plus a smaller upper-deck area available for seating or other uses.

I recall my first 747 flight: Christmas Eve, 1970, from Chicago to San Francisco on American Airlines. The plane struck me as huge (747s still do). Although the cabin floor is flat, there was for me the optical illusion that it curved upward ahead of me and behind. I was half-amazed when the plane actually flew.

Although many people are shocked by large airplanes, large oil tankers, large container ships and large cruise liners, size does make economic sense provided that lots of passengers or other cargoes are lined up ready to be transported.

Monster aircraft are nothing new. The German firm Dornier created the Do X in 1929. It was a flying boat powered by 12 (!) motors of 610 horsepower each. Three were built and some did operate in commercial service.

Dornier Do X

The Do X emerged during the awkward age of aircraft design where the goal was often simply to get something to fly and perform certain tasks. This is why the aircraft has the look of a Jules Verne era contraption. Refinements related to efficiency and task performance came later, and refinement is why I find the two planes I'm about to discuss to be of more interest. In other words, I'm more interested in things resulting from an effort to make them function well as opposed to efforts directed toward making them function at all.

As it happened, it was post-World War 2 Britain where giant, essentially modern passenger transport planes were created. (Some "large," if not "giant," transports that appeared around 1940 were the Boeing 314, and the Latécoère 522 and 631 -- the latter approached the size of the subjects of this posting).

During the war, in late 1942, Lord Brabazon (having been forced out of his position as Minister of Aircraft Production) set up a committee of government and airline officials with the task of planning post-war transport aircraft (information on the Brabizon Committee can be found here). One of the proposed airliner types was a transatlantic airliner actualized in the form of the Bristol Brabazon.

Bristol Brabazon

The Brabazon was powered by eight Bristol Centaurus (18 cylinders, sleeve-valved) motors of 2,190 horsepower each. The motors were paired into four nacelles, each with contra-rotating propellers. It was anticipated that later Brabazons would be powered by turbine engines. The project required construction of a new "assembly hall" (as Bristol termed it) because existing factory structures were too small to house the aircraft. Also too small was the runway at the Filton facility, so it was extended by around 50 per cent; casualties of the construction were a newly-built highway by-pass and the hamlet of Charlton.

After significant delays, a Brabazon was built and flown in 1949. A few others were partly constructed, but abandoned after it became apparent that no airline wanted to buy any due to economic considerations.

Saunders-Roe Princess

The Saunders-Roe Princess was under development during the same time frame as the Brabazon. It was a flying boat powered by four coupled (meaning that there were eight of them and four sets of propellers) Bristol Proteus turboprop engines. Mounted farther out on each wing was a solitary Proteus, making ten motors and six sets of propellers in all. It was the Proteus that was intended for later Brabazons. The Princess was not one of the projects proposed by the Brabazon committee, being the initiative of the small "Saro" company based on the Isle of Wight that shelters Portsmouth harbor. Even though it lacked the Brabazon imprimatur, the concept of a huge passenger flying boat appealed to the Ministry of Supply, so Saro received a contract for three examples.

One Princess finally flew in 1952, making a number of demonstration flights; the other two planes never left the water. Like the Brabazon, the Princess was commercially unacceptable by the time it flew. Its size and cost aside, flying boat liners were no longer viable after World War 2. That was because the war caused many long, concrete runways to be built around the world. Before the war, such runways were rare and flying boat builders could claim that the planes could operate anywhere where there was a body of water two or three miles or more long. (Actually, matters were more complicated. Seaways or lakeways for flying boats had to be free of boat traffic and floating hazards such as semi-sunken logs. Moreover, the aircraft couldn't operate when the water was either too glassy or stormy.)

Here are a few size comparisons.The Brabazon had a wingspan of 230 feet, a length of 177 feet and might carry 100 passengers. The Princess had a 220 foot span and 148 foot length with a similar passenger capacity. (The Do X's span was 157 feet and its length 134, while 60-100 passengers might be carried.)

An even larger aircraft from the same era was the famous Hughes H4 "Spruce Goose." I don't discuss it here because it was intended as a military transport.

When the Brabazon and Princess were conceived, the largest widely-used passenger liner was the four-motor Douglas DC-4. Its span was about 118 feet, its length 94 feet and it could carry a maximum of 86 passengers, though many were configured for 60 or thereabouts. By the time the British entries flew, economical DC-6s and Lockheed Constellations dominated long-range commercial aviation.

The current high-capacity passenger aircraft in widespread use is the Boeing 747. Its wingspan is 200 feet (plus or minus a little, depending on the model), but the wings are swept back, making a direct comparison with the Brabazon and Princess impossible. The 747s came in several fuselage lengths, but 231 feet feet is most common. Typically, 747s carry 400-500 passengers, the actual amount depending on seat configuration.



posted by Michael at May 25, 2009


Just curious -- how can water be "too glassy" for a flying boat to operate?

Posted by: David Fleck on May 25, 2009 11:35 AM

Don't leave out the Russians when it comes to big airplanes.

Some of those in the link are artist's conceptions, but there are some genuine photos as well.

Posted by: Chas Clifton on May 25, 2009 11:23 PM

David -- My understanding is that flying boats that are large & laden require some chop to get up "on the step" of the bottom of the hull/fuselage. Otherwise, they tend to stick.


Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 26, 2009 2:20 AM

Chas is exactly right about the Russians. I was able to get on board a couple of Antonov An-124s back in the 1990s

It's also my understanding that they have brought the even bigger An-224s back into service in recent years

Posted by: Reid Farmer on May 26, 2009 2:56 PM

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