SOUTHAMPTON'S long history as a marine air base came to an end in 1958 when the last commercially operated flying boat to leave the country departed from the city, bound for Madeira.

With the exception of two marine craft, the entire assets of the Southampton based Aquila company were sold and their depot at berth 50 closed.

The purchasers of the three Solent flying boats, engineering spares and other equipment, were a private company which had been formed in Portugal.

Aquila airways had been in existence for about ten years. They had begun operations with Hythe flying boats, but these were later replaced with Solents, built to a BOAC specification for use on the African and Asian routes after the war.

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They were twin-deck aircraft, and in their final years were capable of carrying 58 passengers and a crew of six.

Madeira were so proud of their connection with Southampton that, in 2008, a new museum opened in the capital city of Funchal which told the story of when Southampton was the centre of international flying boat services. At one time the aircraft were carrying at least one third of all holidaymakers heading for the island.

There were two return flights each week between Southampton and Madeira and so comfortable were the aircraft that it was dubbed "the armchair route."

Travelling on the flying boats was an extremely different and far more civilised experience compared to present day mass air travel.

Before arriving in Southampton each passenger was sent a small brochure outlining what to expect on the flight.

“It is not our intention here to dwell on the high standard of comfort afforded by the flying boats,’’ said the brochure.

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“Seasoned travellers will already be aware of this, whilst those making their first acquaintance with this form of travel will soon discover it for themselves.

“The flying boats used by Aquila are descendants of the famous Sunderland, which proved itself so successfully during the war. Two types are in use, the Hythe equipped to carry 31 passengers, and the Solent with accommodation for 42. “A galley furnished with the most modern equipment enables full hot meals to be served in flight while nearly one ton of radio equipment assists in navigation and communication with ground stations and other aircraft.’’

If departure time was at night a flarepath, consisting of eight lighted dinghies, would be stationed either in Southampton Water or at Calshot, depending on the direction of the wind.

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“Immediately prior to take-off you will hear the captain test his engines by running them up in pairs to full power. We tell you this because in the past some of our less knowing passengers have got the impression that the pilot had made two unsuccessful attempts to take-off, and finally made it on the third.

“A lighted sign, Fasten Seat Belts, will be illuminated in each cabin and your captain requires you to be seated with belts fastened. At all other times you may walk about as you please from cabin to cabin, or you may visit the cocktail lounge and bar on the promenade deck.

“Our captains are inclined to be the sedate, solid type. In fact we have often thought that black coat and striped trousers might be more appropriate than orthodox uniform.’

As well as operating to Madeira - to which Aquila carried nearly 70,000 passengers - they also offered services to Marseilles, Santa Margherita, Corfu, Capri, Palermo and other places.

The news that the company were to close came as a surprise and a heavy blow to Aquila Airways staff in Southampton.

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Some of them were absorbed into other branches of the British Aviation Services, some found employment with other airlines and the others were classed as redundant.

As the Solents were the only ones to be operated out of the country at the time, it meant that the departure to Madeira on September 26, 1958, was the last take-off of a commercially operated flying-boat nationwide.

Southampton was actually the first port in the world to have a marine air base. In 1919, Hubert Scott-Paine, then managing-owner of Supermarine Aviation works, built the first flying-boat to be granted an Air Ministry licence for passenger carrying.

The following year the first international flying-boat route between Southampton an Le Havre was opened.

Southampton became the temporary home terminal of Imperial Airways in December, 1936, and the following year, when more flying-boats were added to their fleet, regular passenger and mail services between England and the Empire were opened.