Posted in Aviation History, Fashion History, TV Programme, Vintage

High Flying Adored – Falling in Love With Vintage Air Travel

The Beachcomber Flying Boat, Solent Sky Museum, Southampton

I am delighted that BBC 2 is continuing to air the brilliant US series Pan Am. At the end of last year, devotees of this celebration of vintage air travel were left in ‘mid air’ as the episodes ceased airing halfway through the season, with no confirmation of a return transmission date from the BBC. I am hooked and with only a few more episodes left in the series, I am going to ensure that I savour each 43 minutes spent in the company of Colette, Kate, Laura, Maggie, Dean and Ted!

The production values on Pan Am are high, the acting spot-on, sets superb and costumes gorgeous. High praise must also go to Jack Orman, whose scripts are sharp, witty and intelligent. For devotees of vintage clothing, such as me, it is so refreshing to see the classier side of 1960’s fashion, classic cuts and tailoring, instead of mini skirts and disposable dresses.

Glamour Corselette L3007 by What Katie Did Vintage Shapewear.

However, if you want to want to wear 60’s couture make sure you invest in some decent shapewear. Muffin tops and fatty crenulations are a no no here! I acquired my girdle from the shapewear specialists What Katie Did (details below) located in Portobello Green Arcade in London. These vintage lingerie and hosiery experts recently provided underwear for the film My Week With Marilyn. Staff are extremely knowledgeable and friendly, so you will feel at ease if you have never visited a specialist outfitter such as this before. Just make sure you cross your legs before you step into the girdle. Snug just doesn’t come close to describing the tight fit obtained from this type of foundation garment. As I stood in the changing room hoping the girdle would glide smoothly over my haunches, I can fully understand how the Pan Am stewardesses must have felt having to wear such an item, day in and day out, for long stretches and in hot climates. The dress code for Pan Am stewardesses was extremely strict with regular weight and girdle checks.

The Pan Am series also inspired me to visit the Solent Sky Museum in Southampton, Hampshire. I was particularly charmed by the flying boat exhibit on permanent display there. The short S.25/V, Sandringham 4 (VH – BRC Beachcomber) coincidentally has a strong connection with Pan Am by way of Brigadier General Charles F. Blair (1909-1978). Blair was a senior pilot at Pan Am from 1950 until 1969, piloting the Boeing 707 on the company’s round-the-world routes. After reaching the age of 60 he decided not to retire from flying and instead purchased a Grumman “Goose” sea plane which was being sold as Navy surplus. He founded and was President of Antilles Air Boats Inc. which operated from St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands. He was a clever businessman and saw a niche in the commercial aviation market. He established a flying boat service from New York to and throughout the Caribbean. In 1974 he brought two Sandringham flying boats from Ansett Flying Boat Services (formerly Barrier Reef Airlines of Australia), one of which was the Beachcomber that is on display at Solent Sky Museum. Blair was married to the Hollywood actress Maureen O’Hara from 1968 until his tragic death ten years later. On the 2nd September 1978 Blair was flying the Grumman Goose from St. Croix to St. Thomas when the aircraft developed engine trouble, crashed and killed him instantly.

Lower Deck interior The Beachcomber Flying Boat.

Flight Deck of The Beachcomber.

The Beachcomber was originally built as a Sunderland MKIII, in July 1943 by the Short Bros. in Rochester, Kent. Delivered from Southampton to Waitemata Harbour, Auckland on the 29th October 1947 and henceforth servicing the 1,300 mile Sydney-Auckland route. In May 1950 it was sold for £2,000 to Barrier Reef Airlines and underwent a name change from ZK-AMH to the Beachcomber. The Beachcomber is the last commercially operated short S-25 MK 4 Tasman Class flying boat in the world. A few stats on the Beachcomber:

  • it has 4 engines;
  • span 112ft 9in;
  • length 86ft 3in;
  • empty weight 41,000lbs;
  • range 24,000 miles;
  • max speed 206 mph.

It carried 42 passengers and took-off from Rose Bay in Sydney Harbour and would touch down in Lord Howe’s stunning lagoon just 3 hours later. The flights were timed to arrive at the Island exactly one hour before high tide. Departures could only take place on the full tide, this was due to there being a lot of large coral heads in the lagoon.  The latter meant that departures would often take place in the early hours of the morning. The pantry was situated on the upper deck against the wing centre section of the bulkhead. The Beachcomber had a traditional flying boat cabin layout. On the Lower Deck were cabins A to D, which seated 28 passengers and on the Upper Deck was cabin E, which seated 14 passengers. During Blair’s ownership a chair was installed on the flight deck for his wife to use whenever she accompanied him on flights.

Maureen O'Hara's chair on the flight deck of The Beachcomber.

O’Hara has had a long association with the Foynes Flying Boat Museum, Co. Limerick, Ireland. In 1945, Blair flew the last scheduled flying boat from Foynes to New York. Foynes has an interesting history in relation to flying boats. Pan Am airlines commissioned Charles Lindbergh to find a suitable base in Ireland to service the New York-Ireland route and Foynes on the Shannon Estuary was chosen. Foynes welcomed the first commercial transatlantic passenger flight by flying boat in 1939, Pan Am’s Yankee Clipper.

The history of civil aviation is a fascinating subject. It is full of glamour, sophistication and romance as well as danger and excitement. If you want a British perspective on life as air stewardess then Libbie Escolme-Schmidt’s Glamour in the Skies – The Golden Age of the Air Stewardess will be of particular interest. Libbie’s publication is a celebration of the British Airways stewardess between 1936 and 1980.

Interesting Links

What Katie Did shop in Portobello Arcade, London.


Social historian, based in the UK.

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