The costliest sandwich shop on planet Earth, Part 1

The Mystery Ship, a most remarkable sandwich shop near the airfield located near Bradenton, Florida, circa 1935. Anon., “Uit de Pers.” Het Vliegveld, 9 October 1935, 7.

Greetings, gentle reader and welcome to the wonderful world of aviation and space. Yours truly is celebrating, or not, a birthday this month. Given this event of galactic proportion, I decided to abandon my usual anniversarial approach, if there is such an expression, for this month only of course, in order to pick a topic that tickled my funny bone. The photo above caught my attention a few years ago. I actually found it in two separate magazines, namely the June 1935 issue of the British monthly Popular Aviation and the 9 October 1935 issue of the Dutch weekly Het Vliegveld.

Did one of these intriguing photos come with a caption, you ask, my puzzled reading friend? Yes, indeed. Popular Aviation had this to say:

The mighty fallen! A new use for old flying boats, as practiced in the United States. Once the pride of U.S. naval airmen, now the joy of the “hot dog” merchants, this flying boat stands on the main road between Dradentown and Sarasota, Fla. It still has its engines.

Het Vliegveld, on the other hand, talked about a demoted dining flying boat on the road between Gradentown and Sarasota, in Florida.

Please do not try to locate Gradentown, or Dradentown for that matter, on a map of the great state of Florida. There are no such places. Try Bradenton instead. That town is located half way down the west coast of the Florida panhandle.

Yours truly must admit he had some difficulty identifying the former flying machine portrayed in the photo. I will go out on a limb and suggest that it might, I repeat might, be a First World War vintage Felixstowe F-5L. This very large maritime patrol machine was the final member of a series of flying boats designed in the United States by Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Corporation during the conflict. The first of these actually predated the conflict. Known as the Curtiss America, this large twin engine machine was scheduled to fly across the Atlantic in 1914, to win a sizeable prize. The onset of the First World War abruptly ended that project.

The pilot scheduled to make the journey, Royal Navy Lieutenant John Cyril Porte, convinced his superiors that an improved version of the America could be used to patrol the waters around the United Kingdom. This Curtiss H-4 America, although effective, had shortcomings. These led to the development of the H-8 and H-12 which were soon christened Large America, to distinguish them from the H-4, which was renamed Small America. The H-12s delivered to the United States Navy, on the other hand, were apparently never known as Americas, either large or small. Are you following all this, my reading friend, because things are about to get complicated?

Unhappy with the engines of the H-12, Porte supervised the installation of more powerful British engines on many of them. Convinced that the hull of the Large Americas, deemed to be weak and unseaworthy, could be improved, Porte also supervised the design of a derivative of these flying boats. Tested in 1917, at Felixstowe, England, the site of the Seaplane Experimental Station of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), the air service of the Royal Navy, the Felixstowe F.2 proved highly successful and was soon put in production. Its successor, the larger and more powerful F.3, did not prove all that popular but was produced in some numbers anyway.

Porte then embarked on the design of a greatly improved machine, the F.5, which flew in early 1918. Producing it seemed all but impossible, however, because F.3s were still being made. Faced with a dilemma, the power that be ordered that the F.5 be redesigned to include as many F.3 components as possible. No less than 5 British aircraft makers received contracts to make this redesigned F.5. In the end, this flying boat went into service too late to see action during the war, which may have been a good thing since its performance was actually inferior to that of the F.3. As you may well imagine, the production of the F.5 was seriously curtailed by the signing of the Armistice. This being said (typed?), this flying boat served in squadrons of the Royal Air Force (RAF), the world’s first independent air force, born on April Fool’s Day 1918 from the merger of the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps, the air service of the British Army, for some years after the end of the First World War.

Would you believe that the H-8, H-12, H-16, F.2, F.3 and F.5 operated by the RNAS and RAF were sometimes / often known as Large Americas? And yes, my reading friend, the use of this name has been a royal pain in the posterior to researchers trying to identify the machines visible on photos of the period. To make things worse, a number of British-flown H-12s were actually refitted with F.2 hulls. The horror!

You may be interested, or not, to read that 50 or so F.5s were made in Japan in the early 1920s, by Aichi Tokei Denki Kabushiki Kaisha, and used by the Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kaigun, in other words the imperial Japanese navy.

It is worth noting that, in 1924, a well known British aircraft maker involved in the F.5 production program, Short Brothers Limited, fitted a metal hull of its own design on the wings and tail of an existing F.5. The modified machine, officially known as the S.2 but commonly known as the “Tin Five,” performed so well that the RAF decreed it would no longer order wooden-hulled flying boats.

Incidentally, Bombardier Incorporée acquired Short Brothers Public Limited Company, as the company was called by then, in October 1989. The discussions surrounding the purchase of this perennially insolvent crown corporation seemingly involved some rather heated exchanges between the individual responsible for the file, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, John Major, and the British Prime Minister, Margaret Hilda Roberts Thatcher, who disliked some / many of the demands of the Québec giant. In the end, Bombardier got a very good deal. Short Brothers is known today as Bombardier Aerospace, Belfast, but I digress.

As development of the Felixstowe flying boats proceeded in the United Kingdom, the engineers at Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor were not twiddling their thumbs. Their greatly improved H-16 served with the United States Navy and the RAF, both during and after the First World War.

And yes, the Air Board, the quasi ministerial organisation then responsible for aviation in Canada created after, received 2 H-16s and no less than 11 F.3s after the First World War. These flying boats were the largest of the 112 flying machines donated to Canada by the United Kingdom at the time. The British government hoped that this Imperial Gift would keep the Canadian Air Force within the orbit of the RAF and the empire. The other overseas Dominions, that is Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, received comparable if somewhat smaller gifts.

It looks as if only 8 of the flying boats, one of them an H-16, actually flew in Canada, between 1921 and 1923, mainly in Manitoba, on forestry patrol flights. The truth is, they did not fly often. These huge machines were simply too hard to maintain in the bush. This being said (typed?), an F.3 was one of the aircraft used during the first trans-Canada flight, organised by the Air Board, which took place in October 1920. Its crew flew from Rivière-du-Loup, Québec, to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

If I may be allowed to pontificate for a moment, the Air Board ceased to exist in early 1923 when Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie « Rex » King created the Department of National Defence, to bring under one roof all military forces in the country, in order to save money. The Canadian Air Force, renamed Royal Canadian Air Force in April 1924, thus became responsible for civil aviation in Canada. This peculiar situation lasted until November 1936, when the Department of Transport came into existence, but back to our story.

As satisfied as it was by its H-16s, the United States Navy was intrigued by the performance of the F.5, quite possibly the original prototype. As a result, it sponsored the design of an Americanised version powered by American engines. A prototype flew in mid July 1918. While no less than 590 of these F-5Ls, or F-5-Ls, were ordered, the signing of the Armistice, in November, meant that only 225 were delivered by the Naval Aircraft Factory, an organisation controlled by the United States Navy, Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor, and Canadian Aeroplanes Limited. One has to wonder if the management of Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor was amused, or not, by the idea of building a foreign version of one of their own machines. Before I forget, the Naval Aircraft Factory also delivered 2 slightly improved F-6Ls. This writer does not know if this designation can be linked to a version of the F-5L intended for overseas delivery under its own power.

Canadian Aeroplanes may, I repeat may, have received the first production order, for 50 F-5Ls. The signing of the Armistice meant that it only delivered 30 of these huge machines, the largest flying machine produced in Canada until the second half of the 1930s. Oddly enough, the first Canadian-made F-5L, completed in mid July 1918, was test flown at the Naval Aircraft Factory in late August or early September. Indeed, all the flying boats were shipped to the United States, in crates, without so much as a test flight in Canada.

Did you know that Canadian Aeroplanes was one of the 7 National Factories set up in Canada by the Imperial Munitions Board, an organisation formed by Canadian businessmen to look after British orders of war equipment in this country? It was created to produce training airplanes for the flying schools set up in Ontario by the Royal Flying Corps. One of these trainers, a Curtiss JN-4 Canuck, is on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario.

Devoid of contracts as a result of the Armistice, Canadian Aeroplanes closed its doors in early 1919. Its Toronto factory, one of the most modern and efficient in North America, or so many American aviation experts said, was bought by Columbia Graphophone Company in late 1919. This British subsidiary of Columbia Phonograph Company, one of the giants of the record industry, moved out in 1921. What happened to the factory after that date is unclear, but back to our story. Again. Sorry.

After the war, several American and, perhaps, Canadian-made F-5Ls were sold as war surplus and turned into airliners. Aeromarine West Indies Airways Incorporated was one of the earliest and most famous operators of these converted machines. Civilian F-5Ls flew until the late 1920s or very early 1930s. The last military one, on the other hand, was taken out of service around 1928. By then, several / many of these F-5Ls were flying with newer wings and engines. The only large piece from one of the great flying boats derived from the Curtiss America is the partly covered hull of an F-5L, built for display purposes, in the custody of the National Air and Space Museum of Washington, District of Columbia. This priceless artefact has seemingly been in storage for a great many years.

Actually, why don’t we end the first part of this article right here? We can deal with the winged sandwich shop the next time you visit this website.

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Rénald Fortier