The fabulous flying boats of the Solent Sky museum
Some boats can fly. And some planes can float. This bizarre museum in southern England is home to both, and here's the full tour.
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
In a small, simple building near the water in Southampton, England stands the Solent Sky museum. Dedicated to flying boats and other aircraft built in the Southampton and Solent area, like the Supermarine Spitfire and the razor-thin Supermarine S.6 seaplane racer, it's a unique slice of aviation/nautical history.
The highlight, a Short Sandringham (the civilian version of the military Short Sunderland), is a step back in time to a golden age of flying boats -- fixed-wing seaplanes with a hull, allowing them to land on water. The Short Sandringham "Beachcomber" on display here is an amazing example, and one of the few antique planes you can explore top to bottom.
If Southampton isn't on your itinerary in the near future, here's a look inside the museum.
Sail the friendly seas -- er, skies -- in the Solent Sky museum's flying boats
The Solent Sky museum is a short walk from the Southampton train station. The corrugated metal sides to the small(ish) building provide little hint of the big machines within. The first plane you can see upon entering is a Saunders-Roe SR.A/1 seaplane, one of the few that was jet powered.
But as soon as you move closer to it, the true focal point of the museum can't be ignored. The Sandringham Short, converted from one of the Sunderland military flying boats previously operated by the Royal Air Force, dominates the hangar. It's barely smaller than the museum itself. Most of the museum's collection sits comfortably under the wings of the Short. Others hang from the ceiling, or are on the partial floors above that act as additional museum space as well as viewing platforms of the aircraft.
Before you board the Short, a look around is in order. It's an interesting mix of planes. A de Havilland Vampire sits across from a Sea Vixen. A Spitfire sits next to a S.6 racer. A propped-up space suit stands across from two training cockpits, one for a Supermarine Swift and one for a Harrier.
Upstairs there's a mix of uniforms and dioramas of various aspects of military and aviation life.
It's the Short, though, that makes the museum worth the trip. I love flying boats, they're just so bizarre, and evoke such a romantic (and largely apocryphal) interbellum period. Movies like "Temple of Doom" come to mind, as do TV shows like my beloved "TaleSpin."
This particular example was owned by Charles Blair, Jr., third husband of Maureen O'Hara. When he owned it, it was called "Southern Cross," though before and after, it was named "Beachcomber." Up the stairs and inside, it's a fascinating step back in time. A tiny bathroom wouldn't look out of place in modern aircraft, except for the window (why don't modern planes have windows in the bathroom?).
The seats, facing each other in small rooms, look about the same size as coach on current airplanes, just far more padded. The big oval windows have amusing instructions would seem out of place on anything but a Boeing 787.
Upstairs, a galley looks like a cross between one you'd find on a boat, and one on a plane. Fitting, that.
The cockpit is only accessible if someone from the museum guides you up, largely because it's not easy to access. A narrow hatch at the top of a narrower ladder gets you up to the flight deck. It's the same level as the galley, which you can see through a window if you look aft. Some vestiges of the aircraft's former life as a military aircraft remain, including a radio operator and a hole where the bubble turret was once mounted.
You can sit in the seats, and look out, letting you (OK, me) imagine hopping from island to island in the South Pacific, hauling cargo or people, having adventures that almost certainly would never have happened.