COLUMN: It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a humongous ‘flying boat’

The Cambria, a Short Empire Flying Boat, seen at Hamilton, Ont. in 1938. Photo courtesy of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada

Phil Egan

It was an early autumn day in Sarnia with only a slight haze in the air.

Across the city of 18,000, students hurried outside from classrooms. At Sarnia Collegiate, the campus was crowded with teens gazing skyward.

Aboard the ferryboats on the St. Clair River passengers craned to get a better view and hundreds gathered on the waterfront.

And suddenly, there she was. Surprisingly quiet, the big four-engine Imperial Airways seaplane Cambria soared through the morning sky.

It was Thursday, Sept. 23, 1937, and many in Sarnia and Port Huron were thrilled by a glimpse of the famed trans-Atlantic flying boat.

For five minutes Cambria flew low over both cities, part of a Western Ontario tour organized by Lambton West M.P. Ross W. Gray.

At one point during the flight, three training aircraft from Selfridge Field in Mount Clemens escorted Cambria as she circled the city. She then headed south and within an hour was tied up at a buoy near Windsor.

Short Empire Flying Boats, as they were called, were built during the 1930s by the Short Brothers of Belfast, Northern Ireland. The seaplane was designed to specifications set by Short’s main customer – Imperial Airways. This was Britain’s principal international air carrier, operating from 1924 to 1939.

That year, the airline merged with British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), which later merged with British European Airways Corporation in 1974 to form British Airways.

Imperial Airways aircraft, including the flying boats, carried both passengers and cargo, serving the British Empire posts in South Africa, India, Hong Kong and the Far East. Imperial Airways and its successor companies operated 31 of the Short Empire C-class flying boats like Cambria between 1936 and 1947.

Described as a “giant luxury liner of the air,” the 18-ton Cambria carried 24 passengers and a crew of five. She had four 900 horsepower engines, a speed of 200 miles per hour, was 88 feet long.

Its wingspan of 114 feet was nearly as wide as the first Boeing 737 airliners built three decades later.

With a range of 760 miles, Cambria and her sister airships were said to resemble “flying whales.” Two of the C-class flying boats, Cambria and Caledonia, were lightened and equipped with long-range tanks in order to make the Atlantic crossings.

These were the golden years of the world’s nascent airline industry. It was an exciting time for air travel, and the flying boats represented a fascinating new development. They offered travel that was seaworthy, as well as airworthy.

Cambria’s appearance over Sarnia on that beautiful fall day was a sight that would long be remembered.