The Forgotten History of New York’s “Flying Boats”

New York’s LaGuardia Airport is making headlines for its glamorous new Terminal C. At 1.3 million square feet, Delta Airlines’ new home features floor-to-ceiling windows and a combination of modern lounges, baggage claim and restaurants. However, in the 1940s, LaGuardia Airport was the global hub for another short-lived luxury aerial technology: the flying boat.

Vintage photo of the first seaplanes circa 1919. Photo via Wikimedia Commons user story

Seaplanes, also called seaplanes, were aircraft that could only land on water, but instead of using pontoons like a modern seaplane, the seaplane had a specially designed fuselage that gave it enough buoyancy to land aircraft. thousands of pounds of steel in the open. ocean. The first seaplanes were designed at the beginning of the 20th century, shortly after the The Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. At a time when paved airport runways were virtually non-existent, the seaplane’s ability to land in water made it the premier form of air travel. While the first successful seaplane takeoff and landing took place in 1910, the technology only gained popularity during World War I for its usefulness in hunting submarines from the air.

seaplane 1925
British seaplane in 1925. UK Government photo by Wikimedia Commons

The end of World War I and the economic boom of the 1920s further increased the popularity of seaplanes. The war helped refine flight technology to the point where passenger planes could rival ocean liners for luxury transatlantic travel. Although transatlantic passenger flights for the general public only became the norm in the 1950s, by the 1930s seaplanes were a realistic option for the super-rich. Traveling to places like Ireland, Portugal or Hawaii, which took several days in a steamboat, took less than 24 hours by seaplane – if you could afford the ticket price of $675 (equivalent to $13,000 in today’s dollars).

The Pan American “Yankee Clipper” seaplane in 1939. Photo by Library of Congress.

One of the largest and most luxurious seaplanes was Pan American’s Yankee Clipper. Built by Boeing in 1938, the Yankee Clipper was a double-decker aircraft equipped with 36 rooms for sleeping at night. The aircraft also had an onboard lounge and dining area where passengers were served five- and six-course meals prepared by chefs from 4-star hotels. Before dinner, men and women had separate changing rooms and were served by stewards in white coats. It goes without saying, but the level of luxury seen on seaplanes like the Yankee Clipper has rarely been matched by an airline since.

As the popularity of seaplanes skyrocketed in the late 1930s, cities around the world rushed to build seaports to attract luxurious seaplane passengers. New York City was no exception. With the completion of the LaGuardia Airport Marine Terminal in 1939, New York City suddenly became a major hub for transatlantic seaplane travel. The airport has even served Pan American’s Yankee Clipper. Although the maritime terminal was completed at the height of its popularity, the “The Golden Age of Flying Boats” was about to come to an end.

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SI Neg. 2004-41701. Date: na.

One-half right front aerial view of Pan American Airways Boeing Model B-314 ‘Yankee Clipper’ (r/n NC18603; c/n 1990) at anchor at the LaGuardia Marine Air Terminal, New York, NY, circa 1940.

Credit: Hans Groenhoff (Smithsonian Institution)

" data-medium-file="" data-large-file="" loading="lazy" data-src="" alt="Yankee Clipper docked at Marine Terminal" class="wp-image-577598" width="610" height="814" data-srcset=" 767w, 225w, 768w, 560w, 800w" sizes="(max-width: 610px) 100vw, 610px">
Yankee Clipper docked at Laguardia Marine Terminal in 1940. Photo by Hans Groenhoff (Smithsonian Institution) of Wikimedia Commons

The outbreak of World War II forced existing seaplanes to be used only for military purposes. By the end of the war in 1945, paved airstrips had become commonplace and modern jet aircraft could fly the route of a seaplane in half the time. The cheap cost of gasoline also made flying accessible to the middle class, which diverted airlines’ attention from luxury travel to speed and efficiency.

maritime terminal at LGA
Marine Air Terminal in 1974. Photo by HAER—Historic American Engineering Record New York images of Wikimedia Commons

Although the golden age of the flying boat is certainly over, the technology is actually still in use today. Modern seaplanes are mainly used to fight forest fires or transport goods to distant archipelagos. Their large hulls make them more efficient at carrying large amounts of supplies than the typical jet aircraft, and their ability to land in water remains a key advantage. As for the LaGuardia Marine Terminal, it was closed for passenger service in 1952 and fell into disrepair, but it survived long enough to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and restored shortly thereafter. Today it houses the restored mural from 1942 Flightwhich depicts the history of mankind’s fascination with the sky and prominently displays the Yankee Clipper below.

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