HOLLYWOOD legend Gracie Fields was greeted by a large group of dock workers as she boarded the Aquila Airways luxury flying boat City of Funchal.

She was among those leaving for Capri on the proving flight of Aquila’s new service from Southampton Eastern Docks in May 1954.

But if one Hampshire company’s ambitious plans had, literally and figuratively, taken off the ground, Southampton would likely have seen many more Hollywood stars pass through after transatlantic travel by flying boat.

During the 1930s and 1940s, it was thought that the Southampton-to-New York route would be better served by the seaplanes.

Across the pond the Hughes H-4 Hercules - more commonly known as the Spruce Goose - was already in development and so the Isle of Wight company, Saunders Roe, set about designing and building the Princess in 1945.

It was a continuation of Imperial Airways’ pre-war efforts to cross the Atlantic non-stop, and the Cowes-based company began developing what they hoped would become the new transatlantic airliner.


Princess flying boats

Princess flying boat

Despite an initial cost estimate of £2.5m, the final cost of three aircraft increased to five times that amount.

On the day of the flying boat’s maiden flight, there was a great deal of excitement, particularly among locals in the Solent.

However, it was met with disappointment as bad weather forced the crucial take off to be postponed.

Finally, on Friday, August 22, 1952, the 140-ton Princess flew for the first time at 12.23pm, less than 15 minutes after slipping her moorings.

Princess flying boats

Princess flying boat

For just 35 minutes, with test pilot Geoffrey Tyson at the controls, the Princess flew to a height of 2,500 feet and at an average speed of 250mph over Southampton Water, Hythe and the Isle of Wight.

The historic moment when the Princess took to the sky for the first time was described by the Daily Echo at the time.

“A crew of 12 went aboard in the middle of the morning and there was no sign of life until 11.35am, when a short puff of black smoke from the port coupled engine, and the contra-rotating propellers began to spin faster and faster,” the paper reported.

“Then one by one, at two minute intervals, the other engines began to cough into life. Shortly after mid-day the Princess’ turbo-prop had roared up for chief test pilot, Geoffrey Tyson to make the decision to taxi.

Princess flying boats

Princess flying boat

“In a fog of white spray, she had almost disappeared down Cowes Roads towards Spithead when she turned, gathered speed and lifted easily from the water. She was soon over Hythe pier and the New Forest, then making a wide-left hand circuit over the Isle of Wight.

“She disappeared into haze and billowing white cloud towards Portsmouth, to reappear 20 minutes later over the Channel.”

Even on the day of the maiden flight, questions were being raised about the Princess’ future.

Initially, Princess No. 1, was used for experimental flights by Saunders-Roe and the Ministry of Supply but problems with the engines and gearbox were of major concern and meant she saw very little flight time.

Princess flying boats

Princess flying boat

Her two sisters, one on the concrete apron of the factory and the other still in the hangar, never flew. Although at first airlines showed interest in the Princess, eventually the orders were cancelled as land-based aircraft became the chosen form of travel.

The flying boats became a familiar sight stored at Calshot Spit and eventually, in 1967, were broken up for scrap.

The Princess flying boat is credited as being the largest all-metal flying boat of all time.