Tuesday 6 March 2018

Maia carries Mercury

Like most children growing up in a christian country, I acquired a god-father, an old friend of my parents. Every birthday and christmas, he'd send me 10/- [ten shillings = half a pound]. In the mid-1960s, that would buy 10 litres of petrol or 3 litres of beer, if 10 year old me had any use for such commodities. One year, instead of folding money, he sent me a 1:72 scale plastic assemble-it-yourself model of a Short Sunderland aircraft. It was a mixed blessing because to get any use out of the gift required some hours of work. Then again, I suspect that work was part of his godfatherly training in the protestant work ethic. I was born less than 10 years after the end of WWII, so the paraphernalia of that conflict were still 'in the air' although my mother and father never talked about their participation in uniform. As she approaches her centenary, my mother is much less silent about her back-story and every time I visit, I come away with another crop of anecdotes. 

I was over in England on a brief visit and she started talking about the school she attended in the late 1930s in a town called Ashford, about midway between Dover and London. The head-mistress of the school was a charismatic women who wanted to open the world of science and technology to her senior girls . . . as well as fitting them to be able to hem a skirt, iron a shirt and hold up their end in dinner-table conversation. One afternoon, she arranged for a handful of 17 year olds, including my mother, to visit the Short Brothers factory at Rochester. What they saw was an extra-ordinary flying combination called the Short Mayo Composite, the only example of which is shown above and was on display in Rochester than day in 1938.  If it looks like two sea-planes bolted together, that's because it is two sea-planes bolted together.

The whole concept hinged on the idea that getting a plane to operational height required a disproportionate amount of fuel, while cruising there was comparatively much more fuel efficient. It was the brain-child of Robert Mayo, the technical manager at Imperial Airways and it was hoped that the combination would serve the North Atlantic route as a mail carrier even if it wasn't efficient enough or big enough to carry a significant number of passengers.  And it was so: on 21st July 1938  Maia and Mercury took off from Foynes in the Shannon estuary and after separation Mercury bumbled across the Atlantic at 230Km/h arriving 20 hours later in Montreal, Canada. It was the first non-stop commercial East to West crossing of the Atlantic.

But when non-stop was weighed in the balance against pay-load, the former was sacrificed and the Boeing 314 Clipper became the standard mode for cross the North Atlantic until WWII effectively wrapped up commercial aviation routes as too hazardous. Their route was Southampton - Foynes -  Botwood, Newfdl - Shediac, NB - NY, NY. 

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