Tuesday, 17 February 2009

John Porte and the Flying-Boat

One of my interests is aviation history. At the moment I'm researching the life and work of a man named John Porte. Here he is, standing in front of the Curtiss 'America' flying-boat during the summer of 1914.

Maybe you could help. I'll give you a brief summary of where I've got to so far.

During the First World War, Lieutenant-Colonel John Cyril Porte - to give him his final rank - brought dogged determination and unrivalled experience which fundamentally contributed to Britain’s battle against Germany’s U-boats.

Porte was born in 1884 in Bandon, County Cork in Ireland. In 1898 he joined the British Royal Navy. He developed a keen interest in the emerging submarine service, for which he volunteered in 1908. A great follower of technology, while still in the Navy he began to explore a new enthusiasm which would stay with him for the rest of his life - the possibility of designing and building a flying machine.

Ill-health caused him to leave the Service, but he learned to fly and joined a succession of aircraft companies, the first in 1911. From these experiences, he gained a great deal of knowledge on aeronautical matters. Despite his lack of formal engineering training, Porte found he had a natural flair for both aviation design and development. Through contacts in the aviation community, he met the earliest flying-boat designers: he came to view the potential of this water-based type of aircraft with great enthusiasm.

At the onset of the First World War, despite his health problems Porte rejoined the Navy, which he encouraged to invest in flying-boats for maritime patrol and anti-submarine activities. Early flying-boats were primitive and unreliable, but Porte felt the expertise he had acquired could be used to improve them. He was given free rein by the Navy to conduct experiments with this object in mind; these were carried between 1914 and 1916, at Felixstowe in Suffolk. The work was empirical, often round the clock, and performed by a small, close-knit team under Porte. The result was a new design, the prototype of which was tested successfully, and found to be much improved compared with the flying-boats then operated by the Navy. A production programme was hurriedly established, and the Porte flying-boats began to enter service in early 1917.

Between 1916 and 1918, hundreds of Porte-designed flying-boats were built. They were known as the Felixstowe 'F' series, and were manufactured both in Britain and the United States. Many technical advances and revisions were incorporated as each new type emerged. Porte would test-fly the new models as well as designing them, a rare combination of abilities that helped him greatly in refining his aircraft as he went.

The flying-boats fought a determined campaign against Germany’s U-boats, airships and fighter floatplanes, and were deployed widely around the British coastline, covering particularly the Channel and the North Sea. Hunting the submarines was much the most urgent task, because the potential of the U-boat to influence the course of the war by depriving Britain of critical maritime trade was profound. Porte’s aircraft contributed fundamentally to the deterrent vital in keeping Britain’s sea lanes free, and preserving the flow of merchant shipping. The principles he established became enshrined in flying-boat design and development.

Post-war, Porte joined the civil aviation industry and pursued ever larger and more complex flying-boat designs including a four-engined biplane enormous for its day. However, over the summer of 1919 he became seriously ill, perhaps as a result of over-work: he died in October of that year.

If you have any information you feel able to share on John Porte or his flying-boats, I'd love to hear from you.

1 comment:

Alex Norton said...

Porte got into some serious legal trouble over allegations that he was paid secret commissions from the sale of Curtis Flying Boats to the British military during World War 1, a serious no-no for a serving officer. Eventually his co-accused was convicted and the prosecution entered a stay of proceedings against Porte, and no further action was taken. Flight magazine reported on the trial and its archives can be searched for these reports. I know of 4 of them and could send them to you off line.