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Vought-Sikorsky VS-44A / JRS-1 / PBS

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After a two year construction period the XPBS-1 prototype first flew on 13 August 1937. Initial testing with 1050 hp engines revealed a top speed of 227 mph. Stability problems traced to turbulence generated by the wings resulted in the addition of dihedral to the horizontal stabilisers. After being delivered to the Navy in October 1937, the XPBS-1 began competitive trials with the Consolidated XPBY2-1 in mid-1938. Consolidated won a construction order and the XPBS-1 was assigned to Patrol Wing 5 at NAS Norfolk, Virginia, to evaluate long-range patrol-bomber operations until shortly after the US entered World War II. In the spring of 1942 the aircraft was reassigned to VR-2 out of California for transport duties between the West Coast and Hawaiian Islands. On 30 June 1942, while returning from Pearl Harbor, the XPBS-1 struck a log in San Francisco Bay and sank. All on board escaped safely, the passengers including Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

In December 1939, American Export Airlines approached Sikorsky (then operating as Vought-Sikorsky Divistion) with the proposition of creating a commercial variant of the S-44, with the option of acquiring three aircraft as VS-44As.

The VS-44A was a commercial version of the experimental XPBS-1 patrol-bomber flying-boat, which had been built for the US Navy and flown in 1937. Accommodating 40 passengers over short ranges or 16 with sleeping bunks, it was developed for American Export Airlines. Power was provided by four 894kW Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines.

With war clouds gathering, on July 15, 1940, the new Civil Aeronautics Board granted AEA a certificate to operate between New York and Lisbon, despite protest of Pan American. AEA promptly exercised its December 1939 option on three all-metal VS-44A flying boats, powered by four 1,200hp (895kW) Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines, at a total cost of US$2,100,000.

The aircraft were designed to carry 26 passengers on shorter trips, but only 16 over the North Atlantic in sleeper berths. Passengers would enjoy comfortable seats convertible for sleeping, modern lighting and heating systems, and even a galley where stewardesses could prepare freshly cooked meals. It possessed a 3100 mile range, fully loaded, that would allow it to fly the Atlantic non-stop.

Vought-Sikorsky completed the first of the 'Flying Aces', named Excalibur, in January 1942. A day later, AEAs chief pilot, Charles Blair, eased the flying boat down the ramp and into the icy Housatonic River. Only taxiing tests were planned but, Blair insisted later, the huge airplane "accelerated like a startled greyhound" and lifted off without his permission. Blair brought the willful ship back down, took off again and made a low pass over the Sikorsky plant.

The Excalibur was soon joined by the Excambian and the Exeter, all named for American Export Lines steamships. As the Naval Air Transport Service had taken over the order by then (and contracted with AEA to carry military and government personnel and equipment), the VS-44As were decked out in blue camouflage, with American flags emblazoned on the port and starboard bows to fend off aggressive Allied pilots and anti-aircraft gunners. To maintain them, AEA hurriedly erected a tent city at Port Washington on Long Island to house a temporary base until a hangar could be completed at New York-LaGuardia. Even that would prove inadequate as the Navy's requirements necessitated a larger fleet-one that would consist mostly of Consolidated P12Y-3R Coronado flying boats, which beat out Sikorsky for a Navy contract.
Charlie Blair commanded the Excambian's initial crossing of the Atlantic on May 27/28, 1942, on the first of two survey flights. Those flights were designed to assure safe operations between Port Washington and Foynes, a flying boat port on the River Shannon, with a fueling stop in Botwood, Newfoundland.

When the Excalibur inaugurated passenger service on June 20, 1942, with Blair again in command, the eastbound flight was uneventful. Travellers relaxed as purser Bill Scouler and Dorothy Bohanna, enjoying her role as the world's first trans-Atlantic stewardess, dished up drinks and hot entrees.

On the return flight to the new LaGuardia base two days later, the crew faced strong headwinds and fog that had socked in Newfoundland, the refueling point. Assessing their grim fuel outlook, co-pilot Bob Hixson remarked at one point, "Glad this is a boat." To stretch mileage, Blair brought the VS-44A down to skim just above the waves. When the flying boat touched down on Flushing Bay 25 hours and 40 minutes later, AEA publicists could claim the first Foynes-New York nonstop flight. But only 45 minutes worth of fuel remained.

Eastbound flights were almost always easier, with nonstops of 3,000mls (4,800km) possible in 20 hours or less. On one flight, with the help of hurricane-driven tailwinds, Blair crossed from New York to Foynes in a record 14hr 17min. To avoid winter headwinds on westbound crossings, crews had to detour far south of the favored Great Circle route. After mid-October, the Sikorskys sometimes flew a circuitous South Atlantic track, via Bathurst, a West African port near the equator much farther from New York than Foynes, their departure point.
When they crossed the Atlantic westbound, crews often flew as low as 500ft (150m) to avoid higher-altitude headwinds. "There were times when we flew so low that the windshields were spattered with salt spray," Blair recounted in his book, Red Ball in the Sky. While low flights made for slow trips, they sometimes afforded spectacular views. Pan American Captain Mike Craig, whose father Jim succeeded Blair as chief pilot of AEA, once noted that passengers and crew members "often had memorable flights viewing such sights as seals bathing in freshwater pools atop icebergs a scant few hundred feet beneath their windows."

AEA's flightdeck crewmembers, all Naval reservists, dressed in civilian uniforms to avoid problems in neutral countries. Like Blair, the other eight original captains had abandoned secure jobs with domestic carriers such as Eastern and United for the challenge of flying the Atlantic in some of the world's most exciting aircraft. They were joined by a number of co-pilots who had flown Curtiss P-40 fighters in China with the American Volunteer Group.

The second VS-44A, Excambian, was delivered in May 1942, and the third, Exeter, in June. Shortly after all three became operational, they were formally impressed into the Naval service designated JR2S-1.

Excalibur was lost soon after it entered service in a setback to the new airline. A relatively inexperienced pilot, trying to take off from Newfoundland's Bay of Exploits, forced the reluctant flying machine into the air, causing it to stall and plunge back into the bay. Eleven of the 37 on board were lost, along with AEA's beloved flagship.

AEA's two surviving VS-44As would make more than 400 trans-Atlantic crossings before the war ended.
As early as 1942, when the first VS-44As were being delivered, the CAB had agreed with Pan Am that the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 prohibited shipping lines from starting or acquiring airlines. American Export's airline division would have to be sold, although the ship line could retain a minority interest.

Determined not to let his airline be swallowed up by its arrogant competitor, John Slater, executive vice president, sounded out American Airlines executive Ralph Damon about acquiring AEA. Damon advanced the idea with AA's wartime president, Alexander 'Ned' Kemp, who announced in March 1944 that AA had contracted to acquire control of AEA through a stock purchase. The deal was contingent on government approval, and would be argued along with a case to sort out which US airlines could fly trans-Atlantic routes after peace was restored.
In the debate that followed, both the Board and Congress rejected Juan Trippe's efforts to establish Pan Am as the sole US flag carrier for all international service.
On July 5, 1945, the CAB gave American permission to purchase 51.4% of AEA's capital stock from the steamship line for $3 million.
AEA's last flying boat service departed from Foynes on October 22, 1945, with Blair again in command. Both flying boats were sold in 1946 and flown to South America. In mid-1947 Exeter was destroyed during a night landing on the Rio de la Plata River in Uraguay operated by Skyways International, loaded with guns  and ammunition intended for Paraguayan rebels, leaving only Excambian.

Blair, still restless, leased that survivor for charter work with his Associated Air Transport, while he flew for American Overseas Airlines. AAT used the VS-44A in summer 1947 to support the construction of the US base at Keflavik, Iceland, flying on one occasion to Stockholm.
After retiring from Pan Am, which ultimately acquired AOA from American in 1950, Blair created Antilles Air Boats, a Caribbean commuter service in the Virgin Islands. With business booming for his 'Streetcar Line of the Virgin Islands', Blair purchased Excambian in January 1968 from Catalina Air Lines (formerly Avalon Air Transport) of Long Beach, California, for $100,000 to handle the traffic between St Thomas and St Croix.
The aircraft was so severely damaged in a landing just a year later that it could not be economically repaired. It remained beached for years at St Thomas until Blair reluctantly turned it over to the National Museum of Naval Aviation at Pensacola, Florida, in 1976. However, as the Excambian was never technically a Navy aircraft, officials waffled about restoring it. It was still vegetating outdoors at the base when Blair died in September 1978 in an aircraft accident.
Maureen O'Hara, who stepped in to take command of Antilles Air Boats after Blair's death, knew something had to be done to save the aircraft. She finally asked the Navy to turn Excambian over to the Bradley Air Museum (now the New England Air Museum) on a permanent loan basis. Sikorsky veteran Harry Hleva mobilized some 130 volunteers to restore the derelict to like-new condition at the Stratford plant where it was born.
With the restoration accomplished over an estimated 200,000 man-hours, Sikorsky trucked the aircraft in parts to the museum's civil aviation hangar. Even in that cavernous building, the giant nearly touches the ceiling.

 

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