Flying boats or aircraft that took off and landed on the water were the mainstays of international aviation transport for many years – but then one day, they vanished and were no longer popular. Why did aviation switch to land-based aircraft? Let’s explore this forgotten slice of history.

Why flying boats are fantastic

Airports are expensive. Not just in terms of dollars to build, but land needed for long runways too. Airports also need to be as close to the destination city as possible otherwise it defeats the purpose. At some point, a city will need to make a comprise when building an airport (or even go as far as to spend $25 billion making an artificial island).

But what if there was another way? A significant number of cities around the world are near waterways, be it rivers or harbors. All that water offers the perfect landing zone for amphibious aircraft.

There are several advantages to this. Water doesn’t require the construction of large runways, and boats can use the space when a plane isn’t landing (you can’t use an airport for anything else). Plus, the runway direction can change depending on the wind.

Several cities benefited greatly from flying boats, such as New York, Wellington, and Sydney.

What happened to flying boats?

Everything changed after World War II. During the war, various militaries spent great expense building many airfields around the world, significantly improving land-based infrastructure. With so many available airports, airlines found that they could now operate long routes (like the Kangaroo route, for example) without having to use seaplanes.

Without a need to land on water, aircraft designs could now steam ahead towards streamlining and improving aerodynamics (flying boats were not very fluid in the air). With the inclusion of jet engines in the 1960s, aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing did away with water based designs and embraced as much speed as possible.

The difference in speed was the final nail in the coffin for passenger flying boats. Without the speed, flying boats could not compete with land-based jet aircraft.

Flying boats still play a role

The flying boat still had a role to play around the world. Several airlines operated the type well into the 1970s as a means to connect destinations that lacked an airport. Today, flying boats (more often just seaplanes) offer flights to remote areas in Alaska and island states, as well being used for fire fighting.

Also, the U.S. Air Force prototyped a jet-powered flying boat called the Martin P6M SeaMaster. It could fly at a speed of Mach 0.9 (1,100 Km/h), and as a strategic nuclear launcher, it could easily carry passengers. Had the program gone ahead, likely we would have seen the concept shifted to the passenger market as well – a total gamechanger for the aviation industry.

Alas, the aircraft competed for funding with aircraft carriers (if it can land anywhere, then it doesn’t need a boat) and, in the end, was canceled.

Flying boats played a pivotal role in the development of aviation around the world, bringing aircraft to places that didn’t even have room for an airstrip, let alone an international airport. We will not forget their place in history as we march towards a future of non-stop long-distance flights.

Courtesy of Nicholas Cummings from Simple Flying