An old technology may be about to get a new lease of life
In the run up to Christmas I will be posting a new story every week..
This week it is a recent a piece I wrote for The Economist which you can read in full below or the original by clicking on this link.
ANY flying boat you come across nowadays is likely to be in a museum, yet these amphibious aircraft, which use their fuselage to provide buoyancy, once had a golden age. In the 1930s they were luxurious civil airliners, lake- and sea-hopping through the British empire with well-heeled tourists on board. In the 1940s, during the second world war, they took on a military role, ferrying large numbers of troops over long distances, hunting and destroying submarines, and rescuing pilots who had ditched.
Flying boats fell out of fashion because of one of the consequences of that war. Many of the concrete runways it caused to be built were then pressed into civilian use. Flying boats’ killer app, their lack of need for such runways, thus disappeared. The Saunders-Roe Princess, the last British version, was the largest all-metal flying boat made (it was similar in size to a Boeing 747). But it was cancelled in the early 1950s, after only three had been built.
There have been attempts to revive them, not least in Britain, where researchers at Imperial College, in London, have come up with a design that blends wing and body, and uses modern, composite materials to add lightness to the fuselage without diminishing the strength needed to withstand repeated touchdowns on water. This design could, they claim, carry up to 2,000 passengers with better fuel-economy than existing wide-bodied jets. But, since it would need a completely new and unconventional type of airport to handle it, it is probably a non-starter.
Not all places have airports of any sort, though, and over the past few years territorial disputes in one such area, the South China Sea (see article), have led both America and China to reconsider the use of flying boats. The Chinese, indeed, have gone beyond mere consideration and started to build a new generation of the planes.
The TA-600 Water Dragon (pictured), which is being built by TA-600 of Zhuhai, Guangdong, should take to the skies next year. Reportedly, it is intended to fight forest fires, and it could, indeed, be fitted out to land (as it were), scoop up water and then take off and dump it on burning trees. But it also seems designed to carry out search-and-rescue missions beyond the range of helicopters, and can carry up to 50 passengers for 5,000km. Handy, then, for a holiday in the Paracel Islands. Or possibly the Spratlys.