Seaford man’s high-flying record breaker

A Short seaplane Kevin Gordon
A Short seaplane Kevin Gordon

We are approaching the 150th Anniversary of the record-breaking flight made by Henry Coxwell (1819-1900) of Seaford, who made an extraordinary ascent to seven miles in a balloon. I am sure that the Short brothers will have known Coxwell as they were interested in aviation and named one of their aircraft “Seaford” – where he had built a balloon factory.

Museum member David Clark has kindly provided me with information about the Short Brothers and the “Seaford” seaplane. Seaplanes or flying-boats were built within a few years of the Wright brothers making their first flight in 1903. Flying-boats do not need expensive runways to operate making them versatile.

Brothers Eustace Short (1875–1932) and Oswald Short (1883–1969) started making balloons in 1902 and won an order for three balloons for the British Indian Army in 1905.

In November, 1908, they joined with their brother Horace (1872–1917) and set up a partnership under the name Short Brothers. Short Brothers became the first aircraft manufacturing company in the world when, in 1908, the Wright brothers granted Shorts the British rights to build Wright Flyers. An initial order for six aircraft was taken up by members of the Aero Club (later the Royal Aero Club). The Short Brothers’ initial factory was in Battersea, London. In 1909 they then moved to land recently purchased for the use of the Aero Club near Leysdown-on-Sea on the Isle of Sheppey, in Kent. In 1910 Shorts and the Royal Aero Club, moved a short distance to larger premises at Eastchurch.

In 1913 Shorts built their factory at Rochester on the Medway. In this factory Short Brothers built a number of seaplanes and flying boats, including the ‘Short Sunderland’ (its most successful aircraft) and the Short Seaford.’

The Short Brothers’ Seaford flying boat was a development of the more famous Short Sunderland. Two prototypes were built, the first flying in 1944. Thirty production versions were ordered, but in the end only eight were built. These were given the RAF serial numbers NJ200 to NJ207.

The Seaford had a crew of between eight and eleven - two pilots, radio operator, navigator, engineer, bomb-aimer and three to five gunners. It was 27m (88 feet) long with a wingspan of 34m (112 feet) It was powered by four Bristol Hercules engines which gave it a maximum speed of 242 mph and a cruising speed of 155 mph. It had a range of 3,100 miles and could reach an altitude of 4,300 m (14,000 feet)

The aircraft had four Browning machine-guns fitted and had a payload of 2,250kg (4, 960 lb) of bombs and depth charges.

The RAF carried out military trials of these aircraft in April and May 1946, but the RAF decided not to adopt the Seaford.

One of the production Seafords was loaned to BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) for civilian trials (December 1945 to February 1946).

As a result BOAC ordered twelve civilian versions of the Seaford from Shorts. The loan Seaford was returned to the RAF. It was eventually sold (as a Solent Mk. III) to Aquila Airways. (a UK Flying Boat operator).

David has painstakingly researched the fate of the few production Seafords. Most were scrapped or succumbed to weather or accidents but one of them (RAF number NJ203) had a fascinating history, travelling to some exotic locations and even starring in a film.

After the military trials it was converted to a civilian aircraft at Short & Harland Ltd of Belfast. It was given the registration G-AKNP and named “Sunderland” but this was changed the “City of Cardiff” when it was leased to BOAC where it was based in Hythe, Kent. In 1951 the plane was sold to an Australian airline who renamed in “Star of Papua” and in 1952 it moved to the USA. The plane was purchased by South Pacific Airlines and was renamed “Isle of Tahiti” and was used to transport passengers between Honolulu, Christmas Island and Tahiti”

In July 1958 the plane had its last commercial flight and was transferred by barge to California where it languished for many years, at one stage being purchased by millionaire and aviation enthusiast Howard Hughes.

She was later renamed “Halcyon” and shipped to the Oakland Aviation Museum, Oakland, California, USA where it can be seen to this day. This was the aircraft that famously appeared in the 1981 film “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

The Shorts company is still going. It is based in Belfast and is now owned by Bombardier and produces components for the aviation industry.

The Short seaplane NJ203 at Oakland Museum has had many names but remains a Seaford at heart.