the Supermarine Southampton at Hendon

You don’t always expect to see a flying boat in a museum in London, but the RAF Museum at Hendon has, among many other seaplanes, a Supermarine Southampton, a type which, between the two wars, was an extremely successful aircraft in Royal Air Force service:

The Southampton was designed by the famous R J Mitchell and it immediately brought Mitchell’s name to the fore as an aircraft designer. At the same time, it also gave Supermarine an enormous amount of publicity, affording a much greater chance that their later designs might be approved:

The first 18 examples of the Mark I were made completely of wood. They were delivered in August 1925. The RAF, however, was now beginning to express a growing preference for metal aircraft and when the Mark IIs were delivered, they were made entirely of metal. They were much preferred to the older wooden Southamptons which, from 1929 onwards, were all gradually converted to have metal hulls:

The aircraft was amazingly durable and reliable and each one had an average service life of around eleven years. One source of their fame was a series of long distance formation flights to many different parts of the world. In 1927-1928, the “Far East Flight” travelled from Felixstowe to the Mediterranean and then on to India and Singapore, a total of some 27,000 miles:

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The museum aircraft is a Mark I, N9899, from the very first ever batch of Mark Is which were numbered N9896-N9901. It was used by No.480 (Coastal Reconnaissance) Flight at Calshot in Hampshire. Here’s a general view. Not many aircraft have a ladder. At least, not on the outside.:

On September 7th 1925 the crew had an engine failure just off Wicklow Head in Ireland and had to be towed more than one hundred miles over the sea to Belfast Lough by HMS Calliope. On November 23rd 1928 N9899 was one of three Southamptons moored near Portland when it broke loose from its moorings in a gale and crashed violently into a breakwater. Only its engines were salvageable. In 1929 it was purchased privately so that its fuselage could be used as a houseboat, one of five flying boats to suffer such a fate at this time. N9899 then seems to have been towed to Felixstowe where it remained until the RAF bought it back and began a restoration scheme in the late 1960s.

What struck me about the aircraft was its vast collection of amazing old fashioned rivets and apparently heavy ironwork. Here is a closer view of the hull, revealing just how many rivets are holding the aircraft together. I haven’t bothered to count, but I bet there must be the best part of a couple of thousand. It’s a good job Mitchell’s most famous design, the Spitfire, was not too much like a Southampton!:

Notice the beautiful flowing lines of that tight, superbly graceful, bottom, or perhaps “hull” would be a better word. The museum still has that purple light to stop excessive fading of fragile old colours. I would think that aviation experts will see in the Southampton much of the design that Mitchell took forward to the Walrus.

This photograph shows a view from the rear, with the squadron letters of QN. I have the distinct feeling that every one of those silver metal panels might have a few rivets. The section around the gun turret, above the roundel, certainly does:

Here’s my final view, with the wheels used to bring the aircraft into the museum still in situ. They are not part of the aircraft because the Southampton was a flying boat, rather than an amphibian like the Consolidated PBY Catalina, which had its own undercarriage:

Notice behind the Southampton a Lockheed Hudson of the Royal Australian Air Force. Can you spot the kangaroo? Here’s a better view:

The Japanese used the Southampton as well as the RAF. Here’s a photograph of a modern day Polish construction kit:

I think that “IJNAF” stands for “Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force” (or something very like it.)






Filed under Aviation, History, Personal, Science

18 responses to “the Supermarine Southampton at Hendon

  1. More fascinating aviation history

  2. It is a well-liked aircraft. I’m surprised it lasted in service so long. It was obviously well-made.

    • I think it must have been. The design was good too with the engines well clear of the water like a Catalina, and a graceful shape to the hull. The metal made it strong and the rivets kept everything in shape. The interwar years produced some beautiful flying boats with superb lines, even though they were biplanes.

  3. Another place I need to visit. I love to see that up close.

    • Yes, it really is an extraordinary aircraft in many ways. It’s as if the men who designed it were all ship designers from the nineteenth century, familiar with the ironclads and dreadnoughts of a previous era. The most similar look we have nowadays is “Steampunk” although I don’t know if this fashion exists in the US.

  4. Those planes don’t look as though they have the right to fly!

  5. Well, their tours to the Far East were quite outstanding at the time, but they were not necessarily very quick.
    I can remember seeing an old advert which said, more or less, “Singapore in less than a month” with others offering “Egypt in a week”, but I suppose back then, the only people who flew were the very, very rich, who didn’t have jobs and could take their time when they went somewhere. I don’t think too many people nowadays would want to fly to Australia at a mere 130 mph with two huge and noisy piston engines just fifteen feet above their heads.

  6. Its an interesting example John, and nice to see one at Hendon. It’s quite an ungainly aircraft, resembling a banana with its ‘hooked’ up tail! The wings too are set very high, making it all look a bit unbalanced to me. Then I’m not RJ Mitchel and I didn’t design the spitfire!

    • At that time they put the engines as high as possible so that they weren’t soaked by sea spray as the aircraft taxied before takeoff. In some cases, such as the Walrus, the powerplant would be a pusher type, again to avoid spray.
      I think that as far as the designer is concerned, Mitchell produced as beautiful a plane as anybody was likely to, given the constraints he faced of what the aircraft had to do, such as land/take off in, probably, quite choppy seas, fly long distances, protect the crew against bad weather and so on.
      The bit of the Southampton that is most Mitchell-like for me is the streamlined nose and the lines of the hull, seen from the front, and then from the rear further down, where, again, he is trying to give it as much as possible of his trademark “smooth lines”.

  7. A-MAZING, John! Fantastic history lesson. Thank you!

    • My pleasure, Amy! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s such a pity we don’t have flying boats nowadays. You’d be able to fly 500 miles, land on a deserted lake in Canada, swim, eat lunch and then make your leisurely way home in time for your evening meal..

  8. Chris Waller

    I have to confess I had never heard of the Southampton until now. It looks like something from Jules Verne. What an amazing aircraft!

  9. It certainly is. I mentioned “Steampunk” above to Andrew Reynolds, but your use of Jules Verne was probably even more accurate. I was actually a little disappointed that there wasn’t a walkway on the top of the fuselage for the hardier souls to go out for a breath of fresh air.

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