by Connie Bond
The year was 1951, and the place was Baltimore harbor- specifically, a mooring in a cove next to Harbor Field, Baltimore's former airport, where the Dundalk Marine Terminal is today. Bobbing at the mooring was a 106-foot-long hull. Sitting topside-on a wooden crate, of all things-was a rotund man, talking with a dozen friends. This man called himself "Master X," and he had a dubious plan. With the help of his son, he told the others, he was going to fix up the old girl and then fly her to Moscow, where he would meet with Stalin and bring an end to the Cold War.
Yes, the self-styled diplomat was going to bring about world peace. And yes, he was going to fly. Because the hull he sat on was not a boat hull-at least not the kind that carries you and me around the Bay. This mysterious Master X, who was actually an eccentric spiritualist from Richmond named Jesse Boland, was sitting on a flying boat-a hull to which wings had been attached and that basically flew itself off the water.
Needless to say, Master X never made it to Moscow for that whole world peace thing. In April a storm sank the craft, and after being pulled up from the harbor floor the following January it was promptly scrapped. It was an ignominious end for a once-noble flying boat named theBristol. Although it had been built by Boeing in Seattle, the Bay had served as one of its homes: During World War II, it had been one of three British-owned planes that carried Winston Churchill, W. Averell Harriman and other leaders between Great Britain and Baltimore harbor for high-level meetings. In a way, the slow disintegration and final sinking of this flying boat symbolized the sad end of flying boats in general, whose heyday was so grand, yet so short-lived.
We're all familiar with seaplanes, which take off and land on pontoons attached to their legs. Even today, they're still useful, as anyone who has gone fishing on a secluded Canadian lake will attest. Although there's a significant history of seaplanes on the Bay [see sidebar], we're talking here aboutflying boats, which took off and landed right on their bellies. Before World War II, there weren't enough airstrips to handle the growing number of planes, and the planes themselves couldn't make it across the ocean without stopping to refuel. Flying boats could land on any good-size body of water. This meant that, for a couple of decades, from the 1930s through World War II, flying boats seemed to have an unlimited future. Some, like the
Bristol, were built elsewhere and flew on and off Bay waters, others were built here, and a few, tragically, crashed here. And on the Bay, as elsewhere, their rich history falls into three chapters-before, during and after the war.
From the mid-1920s on-and especially during World War II, which changed everything-airplane manufacture was the golden opportunity of its time. As the U.S. Navy and Army Air Corps entered the picture, companies sprang up to compete for contracts to build scout planes, bombers and other military aircraft. In 1910 in California, a horseless-carriage salesman named Glenn L. Martin started one of these companies in an abandoned church. He knew his enterprise would succeed the moment he went airborne in the maiden test flight of a 12-hp Curtiss-style biplane he and a handful of mechanics had built (he had to tear off the front of the old church to wheel it out). As Martin's company grew, he moved it first to Cleveland and then, in 1929, to the upper Middle River, just above Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay. Soon, military-patrol flying boats were rolling off the Martin assembly line in A building and over to a launch ramp on nearby Dark Head Cove, where they first tasted water.
"Anybody who was boating around Middle River in the 1930s saw flying boats taking off and landing," says Richard Edwards, whose family's boatyard was across Frog Mortar Creek from the Martin plant. Richard Edwards's grandfather, George, had started the boatyard in 1910, long before the Martin plant opened, and Edwards's father George Albert (who everyone called Albert), and then he himself, grew up working at and eventually running the yard. All three generations witnessed the evolution of Martin flying boats, and even participated at times. "I remember they were constantly experimenting out on the water with different hulls," says Edwards. "We first got involved before the war, when they hired a thirty-eight-foot boat from my grandfather and built a little structure on the front that allowed them to simulate the structure of a flying boat."
Martin didn't build only flying boats. In fact, during the 1930s the B-10 bomber, a land plane, was the company's "meat and potatoes," as Martin historian Stan Piet puts it. But the design that really put Martin on the map during that decade was the Martin Model 130, a flying boat-actually three flying boats-built for Juan Trippe of Pan American Airways, who wanted to build the first worldwide network of passenger routes. These were the legendary "China Clippers" (Pan Am called all of its transoceanic planes Clippers).
In addition to the three Martin planes, 10 were built by Sikorsky Aviation in Connecticut. The Sikorsky-built Clippers, with a shorter range than the Martins, primarily flew Latin American routes, although in 1936 one of them began flying a regular route between Baltimore harbor and Bermuda. The three Martin-built Clippers-theChina Clipper,
Philippine Clipper(all three of them were called China Clippers by an enchanted public)-carried passengers on the longer Pacific routes, all the way from San Francisco to Manila. Sure, only rich folks could afford to fly on these romantic, luxurious "ocean liners of the sky" equipped with sleeping berths, china and crystal table settings and the latest issue of
Timemagazine, but who knew how long it would be before everybody could fly?
Microgravure sections of newspapers and movie newsreels breathlessly reported on every detail of this first generation of globetrotting passenger planes. With their four Pratt and Whitney engines and streamlined aerodynamics, the Martin-built China Clippers were the first to cover the longest over-water air route in the world-2,410 miles between California and Hawaii, an 18-hour trip. When they flew on from Honolulu to Manila, they stopped at Midway, Wake and Guam. That 60-hour trip was spread out over five days so people could get out and stretch their legs. And all three of them were born in A building at the Martin plant (which still stands, its original wooden floors well scuffed). They were all launched in Dark Head Cove and taxied down the length of Middle River before lifting off for their maiden flights over the Chesapeake Bay.
In 1936, Pan Am decided to expand its fleet of Clippers, and Glenn Martin was so confident he'd get the contract that he built a huge new addition at the Middle River plant. But to his shock, Pan Am instead chose Boeing, in Seattle. Three years later in early 1939, when nine Boeing 314 flying boats took to the skies as Pan Am Clippers, the publicity was unremitting. The christening of the Atlantic-boundYankee Clipperin Washington, D.C., was typical. For days, the Baltimore
Washington Postchronicled the event with stories and photographs as though it was a royal wedding. There she was, they trumpeted, winging her way from the West Coast, then landing in Baltimore harbor, then making a long, slow pass over the nation's capital; and finally sitting on the Anacostia River for her christening. She was pulled up at the Anacostia Naval Air Station, with the handsome backdrop across the river of the domed, red-brick building at Fort McNair, a familiar landmark to every D.C. boater. As hundreds of spectators looked on, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt smashed a bottle over the flying boat's bows-a bottle filled not with champagne, the papers reported, but with water from the seven seas! Juan Trippe, standing next to the First Lady, was in seventh heaven. Within months, Pan Am was offering regularly scheduled routes from America to Europe (leaving from Port Washington, Long Island, N.Y.).
But then war came, and the party was over. In 1940, Pan Am sold three brand-new Boeing 314s to the British, who were already at war with Germany and needed long-distance carriers. During the war, these three planes-theBristol, the
Bangor-flew between Poole, England, and Baltimore harbor, where British Overseas Airway Corporation (BOAC) maintained a base; as noted earlier, they often ferried Allied leaders back and forth. Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and by the end of that month the U.S. government had acquired many of Pan Am's Clippers. The china, crystal and other Clipper frippery was now of little use as the flying boats served critical transport missions in the Pacific and Atlantic theaters of war.
Meanwhile, back on the Middle River, the Martin plant churned out much-needed planes for the war effort. Although the boss's nose had gotten out of joint over the loss of the second Clipper contract, he had quickly recovered, landing military contracts to build the B-26 Marauder bomber (which provided support during the Normandy invasion), and the extraordinarily successful PBM Mariner (PBM stands for Patrol Boat/Martin), a versatile flying boat that would be used for antisubmarine warfare, air-sea rescue and transport.
Perfecting the hydrodynamics of the PBM hull required a lot of experimenting out on the Middle River. Because of its intended purpose, this flying boat would need a short takeoff, but the trick was that the hull had to be designed so that it wouldn't "porpoise." Before a flying boat becomes a plane, before it lifts off the water, it really is a boat-it's a hull speeding across the water, and a surface tension develops between the water and the hull. If you want that boat to fly, at some point the hull has to get its nose up so that the wings can get the necessary lift. If the wings can't get that lift, the plane will hop across the water like a porpoise. To get that necessary angle, the hull has to be stepped down at just the right spot to break the surface tension. Then, bingo, up she goes.
"We needed to break the surface tension so the plane could take off, and Mr. Martin wanted to find out where to put the step so it could have the shortest takeoff possible," says Lloyd Klein, who joined the company as an inspector four days after graduating from nearby Kentwood High School in 1939. "So he got this wild idea to build a three-eighths scale model, and he arranged it so they could move the step forward and backward in order to find the optimal place." After many runs on the river, they found that optimal place, and, as Klein puts it, "they made their mark on Hitler's subs." In all, 1,367 PBMs were built, and of 29 enemy subs sunk by American patrol aircraft during the war, PBMs sank 10.
Very few flying boats built anywhere in the country have survived, but that 3/8 -scale pre-prototype of the PBM, officially called the Mini-Mariner but nicknamed the "Tadpole Clipper," is one of the few that did. In 1986 it was sitting, outdoors and ignored, at the Silver Hill facility of the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum, when a group of visiting volunteers from the Museum of Industry in Baltimore spotted it. One of the fellows in the group, Roy Shine, who had worked for Martin before and after the war (during it he was a flight engineer on a patrol bomber), had helped build the plane. "I knew immediately what it was," Shine says today. The volunteers got permission to restore the miniature plane, a task that took almost six years and a combined total of 10,000 hours of labor. "The most unusual thing was the engine," says Frank Garove, another of the restorers. "It was in almost hopeless shape-a Martin Chevrolet engine, and there were maybe only a dozen or so manufactured. But there was a man on the West Coast who had cornered all the spare parts for it and he was able to furnish everything necessary." Now on indefinite loan from the Smithsonian, a Tadpole Clipper hangs on display at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. "When you look up on the plane's starboard side," says Klein, "you can see the restorers left the skin off so you can see the wooden 'formers' to which the movable step could be attached" (the formers inside an airplane are equivalent to the ribs inside a boat).
Other Martin flying boats had more mixed wartime success. Martin's largest flying boat, the Mars, had a wingspan of 200 feet. This 140,000-pound behemoth with retractable turrets and a 10,000-pound bomb load was supposed to be a "flying battleship." But even before the first Mars lifted off over the Chesapeake in July 1942, the military had realized that it would be a sitting duck for enemy carrier fighters. So it was back to the drawing board to rethink it as a transport plane, and by war's end only six out of an original order of 20 were built.
Toward the end of the war-with planes coming out of their ears-the Martin plant built a second launch ramp at Strawberry Point on Frog Mortar Creek. There, PBMs and other planes were lined up in long rows for final detailing, awaiting their trip down the ramp. It was loud and it was nonstop.
"During the war, you had those ramps out there where they would run engines up all night long, with three shifts operating, and the planes would take off from the airport, and they'd be coming out of the ramps, I mean, they'd be everywhere," says Piet. "But Martin put up all the housing around here, too. It was like Bethlehem, almost a company town. You could get a trailer at trailer town, or you could hotbed it-sleep for eight hours. Everybody was trying to win the war, so people were tolerant of the noise."
Martin wasn't the only big outfit building flying boats, it was just the only one on the Bay. As the war raged, flying boats of all stripes became common sights beyond the Middle River-in Baltimore; on the Patuxent, where they operated as transports for the Naval Air Transport Service; at Norfolk, where they flew in and out in patrol, transport and other capacities; and on the Severn, where they were used for pilot training.
Funny, though, how life goes sometimes. Once the war finally ended, those elegant flying boats that had contributed so much to the effort were suddenly antiquated. Technology and infrastructure had taken great leaps forward during wartime. Engines had advanced to the point that planes could cross the oceans in one hop, even with the extra weight of landing gear, and new airstrips had been paved all over the world. Except for a few specialized applications, flying boats suddenly were white elephants floating around in that big pool known as "government surplus." Pan Am didn't want the Clippers back; its new generation were land planes. Thus began the downward spiral. Some crashed. Some were scrapped-"turned into beer cans," as Martin aficionado Gil Pascal puts it. Some knocked around for a few years. That was the case with Master X's dream machine, the Boeing-builtBristol. From 1946 to 1948, it flew a Baltimore-to-Bermuda run, and then, after changing hands a few times, was sold to the spiritualist at a sheriff sale.
And yet, up on the Middle River, Glenn Martin still hadn't given up on flying boats. "He just couldn't let go of them," says Piet. His last hurrah, the P6M SeaMaster, with four jet engines, was really a flying jet boat. It took to the water in the mid-1950s, when the Cold War was in full swing. "I called it the Middle River Sea Monster," says Piet, coauthor ofMartin P6M SeaMaster. "The idea was to build a nuclear-capable bomber disguised as a minelayer that could land on the ocean, refuel from a submarine, and then fly over Russia and drop a bomb." Whew. Because the aircraft was so fast on the water, Martin needed a special chase boat. So the company's man in charge of testing, F. O. "Fuzz" Furman, went to Edwards Boatyard and asked Richard Edwards's father, Albert, to build one. Edwards built a 28-footer out of mahogany, with two Chrysler hemi-head engines. It went about 55 knots, but they wanted something even faster. So he built a second one of cedar, a lighter wood, which went 60 knots. "Those boats were screamers," says Piet. Named
Fuzzy II, they were like two mascots among the planes on the river.
But the SeaMaster program was jinxed by two major crashes. The first was in December 1955, just off Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac. The pilot and crew were killed when the plane, in a gradual turn at .85 Mach (647 mph), broke up in flight. (In an eerie coincidence of history, a popular comic strip called Buz Sawyer had run a strip only two months earlier in which a Cold War spy plane called "the Spook" broke up on a test flight.) The second time, a year later over Odessa, Del., the pilot and crew were able to eject from the plane (it happened so fast that, as the flight-test engineer's chute was opening, he realized he was still holding on to his pencil). Glenn Martin was spared these sad disappointments, since he had died three days before the first crash. Although the SeaMaster program hung on, it was finished by the end of the decade.
Fuzzy Isurvived, though. A few years ago it was restored at Edwards Boatyard and is owned by Bill Filling, a retired dockhand. Now in Baltimore harbor, it has served as a safety boat in recent years during the parade of lights. "The only thing I've changed on her," says Filling, "is the home port, from Middle River to Fells Point."
The old flying boats have not fared as well; only a handful have survived. There's the restored Martin Mini-Mariner-the Tadpole Clipper-in Baltimore. There's a Martin PBM Mariner at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Ariz., on loan from the Smithsonian. There's also a Martin PBM-probably the only flying-boat wreckage that remains in Bay waters-lying in the Choptank River off the mouth of Broad Creek. "It's on the fishing charts," says Buddy Harrison, owner of Harrison's Chesapeake House Restaurant on Tilghman Island. "It's in about twenty-two feet of water and you can catch a lot of rockfish there. A group of fishing captains dumped a load of wrecked cars on top of it in the late sixties, but I dove on it a few times and the tail section is still sticking about six feet up above the whole mess."
There's one Sikorsky four-engine flying boat (a VS-44A, built in 1942) that rattled around Harbor Field for years; it has been restored and is on display at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Conn. But the China Clippers and Boeing 314s are gone. They either crashed, were scrapped, or-as the Pan Am news bureau manager wrote in a 1951 letter to the BaltimoreEvening Sun, "ended up as hot dog stands and diners somewhere along the highways of America."
That's about it. Oh, except for two of those giant Martin Mars flying boats [see sidebar]. Incredibly, they are still alive and flying. Based on Sproat Lake in British Columbia, Canada, they earn their keep as airborne forest-fire tankers. Bet even Superman couldn't do that at age 59.
History Under Hangar Five
Out Eastern Avenue above Baltimore is a neck of land on the upper Middle River, bordered by Dark Head Creek on its south side and Frog Mortar Creek on the north. This is Glenn L. Martin country. A modern blue-and-white Lockheed-Martin sign identifies a sprawl of buildings along the highway. Just past that sign, a right turn onto Wilson Point Road takes you down the length of the neck. On your right, you pass Dark Head Cove Road. Dark Head Cove is where the earliest Martin flying boats were launched before the Strawberry Point ramp was built on Frog Mortar Creek during the war. Farther down the neck is the Martin State Airport, which serves light aircraft. There, tucked in on the ground floor below Hangar Five, is the Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum.
Though small, with only one room of exhibits, the Martin museum is packed with photographs, artifacts and, most of all, hope. The photos, with accompanying text, trace in detail the history of the Martin planes. Elegant wooden wind-tunnel test models, copies of company newsletters from World War II, even the crumpled piece of thePhilippine Clipper(it crashed in California in 1943, killing all crew and passengers) provide a sense of immediacy to the sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic history. The museum also sponsors free monthly lectures by such varied authorities as Gary Powers Jr. (son of the pilot whose U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960), NASA scientist Dr. Jeffrey Masek and Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed-Martin. In the archives down the hall, scores of filing cabinets and shelves bulge with an astonishing 250,000 original negatives, 3,500 film reels and thousands of drawings. Outside, the museum has 10 aircraft, although none of them are flying boats.
Board chairman Gil Pascal and archive director Stan Piet have big plans for the little museum. They hope to raise enough funds to expand it into Maryland's first major aerospace museum-and to build it on a piece of Middle River waterfront where a flying boat could be tied up.
They've set their sights on one of the two remaining 120-foot-long Martin Mars planes, the largest flying boats in the world that are still operational. Originally designed as bombers, they are now "water bombers" in British Columbia, where they help to fight fires for a consortium of timber companies. In March,Air & Spacemagazine reported that last year the two Mars aircraft logged a record 293 hours fighting 66 fires. But at 59 years old, these vintage planes can't go on forever, and the guys at the Martin museum wait, and hope, with open arms. "If we had a Mars flying boat sitting out front, I think boaters would love to come," says Pascal with understatement. "Flying off the water is just neat; it's neat to aviators, it's neat to everybody."
The museum is open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. For more information, including the lecture schedule and expansion plans, call 410-682-6122 or visit the museum's website atmarylandaviationmuseum.org.
Doolittle Rocks the Bay
Before there were flying boats, there were seaplanes, those spindly seabirds that take off and land on pontoon-equipped legs. They're still around, of course, since they're perfectly suited for specialized jobs like ferrying fishermen to remote lakes in Canada. The Chesapeake Bay hosted one of the most historic early seaplane races, the 1925 international Schneider Cup Trophy Race. It was held on October 26 near Baltimore at Bay Shore Park, where three pylons had been placed in the Bay to mark a triangular course of 31.07 miles; each plane would fly seven laps for a total distance of 217.5 miles. Five thousand amazed spectators crowded the shore. The U.S. Navy entered two planes, the U.S. Army one, the British two and the Italians two. In his single-seat Curtiss, reportedAviationmagazine, Army Lieutenant James Doolittle (later Colonel Doolittle of the famous bombing raid of Japan) "cut the pylons at almost a vertical bank with his engine apparently running full-out." Doolittle's win set a world speed record of 232.57 mph. A thrilling day was had by all, reported the magazine-except for representatives from the Navy, who left dejected.