Taking off on water
In the pioneer period of flight, aircraft engines were not considered the most reliable and if a hasty landing was the answer to this, a ditching into water was a softer option than on land. Flying boats were being developed worldwide. Southampton Water and the surrounding area had a large part to play in Britain’s history of marine aviation and in the founding of the first British national airline.
Flying boat and Town Quay
Manufacture of aircraft in the South began seriously in the shipyards. In 1913 two shipbuilding firms at Cowes on the Isle of Wight produced the first significant developments in floatplanes and exhibited them at the Olympia Aero Show that same year. The manager of John Samuel White boat builders, Edwin Carnt, set up an aircraft department and hired Howard T.Wright to design a seaplane. The first plane produced was a large two-seater biplane on floats. Although it crashed and sank on the first flight this was due to the inexperienced pilot, namely the designer, rather than any fault in construction. It was quickly rebuilt to be displayed at the exhibition at Olympia.
S.E. Saunders Ltd, another Isle of Wight boatbuilding firm also became interested in aviation. Saunders already had a reputation for building fast hydroplane motorboats, the company developed and patented a method of laminating wooden boat hulls to keep them waterproof. The innovation proved useful for producing watertight flying boat hulls. One of their first designs was the 'Bat Boat', an air-sea hybrid built in partnership with Sopwith Aviation Co Ltd. In 1914, as a result of the successful collaboration Thomas Sopwith decided to open a small department on the banks of the River Itchen at Woolston in Southampton to carry on the maritime side of his aviation business. This however only lasted a few years. By 1916 he had returned to concentrating on land planes and the works at Woolston were used by another company. S.E. Saunders continued to produce hulls for flying boats but this new field of engineering was growing out of the shipyards to become a separate industry. It was another local company called Supermarine, that took marine aviation on to new heights and gained an international reputation for the aircraft it produced.