The Pan Am press junket on 9 July 1939 was something to write home about. Propelling themselves into aviation history, 11 executives from America’s major newspapers and broadcasters boarded the luxurious flying boat, the Yankee Clipper, in New York for the first transatlantic passenger flight into Foynes, Ireland. What a cub reporter wouldn’t have given to be a fly on the wall…
In the 14-seater dining room of the Boeing 314 (B314), its tables laid with crisp linen, these high-flying media execs had 20 hours to swill champagne from crystal glasses and dine out on stories of their encounters with politicians, royalty and Hollywood stars.
Today, 75 years on, the Yankee Clipper’s inaugural transatlantic crossing is remembered for putting the village of Foynes on the map as “the centre of the world”. In a long list of firsts, aviation would also give this picturesque spot on the River Shannon in County Limerick other claims to fame as the birthplace of the whiskey-laced Irish coffee and duty-free shopping.
In a delightful segue, Foynes’ first hotel, the Monteagle Arms, became the airport terminal building and the first headquarters for aviation in Ireland from 1939 to 1945. Today it houses the Foynes Flying Boat Museum, the only one of its kind in the world, which has as its patron the veteran Hollywood star Maureen O’Hara.
The collection covers all bases, from navigators’ log books and radio communications receivers, to a Tyne Brand continental cake that travelled around the world on the flying boats but was never opened. Glass cabinets filled with aviation artefacts are flanked by vintage posters promoting flights to Hawaii, Havana and even surf-loving Australia.
The museum’s centrepiece is the world’s only full-scale replica of a B314. The original, the Yankee Clipper, was one of a dozen B314 flying boats built for Pan Am to facilitate long-range flights over the Atlantic Ocean in the wake of the Hindenburg disaster, which had tarnished the golden age of transatlantic airship travel. Designed to land on water, flying boats were also an answer to the lack of runways around the world, even in the major cities, before World War II.
From the outside the B314 looks like an unwieldy metal box with wings. However, stepping on board and into the spacious passenger areas, I’m reminded of a time when cattle class wasn’t an option and leg room was a given. Still mentally choreographing Pam Ann and the Pam’s People dancers, I ascend the stairs to the flight deck’s sprawling navigation and radio room, where I enter nervous territory.
These were the days before satellite navigation, when the crew would climb into the celestial observation turret at the top of the aircraft to check the flying boat’s position according to the sun, moon and stars. Or they would toss a flare from the aircraft and observe the drift of the smoke to determine the strength and direction of the wind. Provided visibility was good, of course.
Unpredictable and treacherous conditions over the Atlantic Ocean could force a flight to turn back halfway, necessitating pleasant diversions for passengers at the Foynes terminal while they waited out the weather.
One such night in 1943 led to the invention of Irish coffee when a group of damp, travel-weary passengers returned to Foynes 10 hours after take-off. Called back to the terminal, the airport’s chef, Joe Sheridan, thought they could well do with a drop of whiskey, so he added it to their coffee. It’s said a surprised American passenger asked, “Hey, buddy, is this Brazilian coffee?” to which Sheridan famously replied, “No. That’s Irish coffee.”
The beverage was an instant hit. And just as well. Only the nabobs could afford to hobnob in midair at the time, as a return airfare between Foynes and the US was half the average annual salary. Having paid for a flight that didn’t deliver, the passengers were imbibing a very expensive coffee, indeed.
We round off our visit to the museum with an Irish coffee demonstration and tasting. Where better to learn the tricks to the perfect Irish coffee than in the airport terminal where the first Irish coffee was made? The key is in the spoon action, or lack thereof, to be sure. (Try the authentic Irish coffee recipe yourself.)
Misty-eyed nostalgia for Foynes’ heyday increases with every sip and it’s almost easy to forget that World War II was constantly playing in the background like a black-and-white newsreel. Surprisingly, the war didn’t stop the flights into Foynes, although the flying boats were soon transporting more VIP military personnel and wartime politicians than civilians, including Australian Prime Minister John Curtin.
While Ireland was officially neutral during the war, Foynes of course secretly assisted the Allies by providing flights for Royal Navy and US Navy officers, transporting USO entertainers, relaying messages to the British Embassy in Lisbon, Portugal, and deciphering coded weather data – all the while taking pains to maintain the semblance of neutrality.
In addition, “What most people do not realise is that Foynes became a vital escape route for refugees from the war in Europe,” explains the museum’s website. “If they could get on a flight in neutral Lisbon, they would be flown into Foynes and await a seat on a flight to America to begin a new life.”
When the war ended, so did the era of the flying boat. Most of the B314s were subsequently scuttled or scrapped, with the notable exception of the original Yankee Clipper, which had crashed in 1943 on approach to Lisbon, killing two of the seven USO entertainers on board.
After the war, with the development of aircraft that could take off and land on solid runways, operations moved across the estuary from Foynes to Shannon Airport, where the world’s first duty-free shop was established in 1947. Change was afoot. As Maureen O’Hara’s aviator husband Charles Blair once wrote, “The sky is full of new frontiers.”
On that note, Richard, you know where to send my inaugural space flight invitation.
On 5–6 July 2014, the Foynes/Shannon 75th Anniversary Airshow celebrates the first commercial transatlantic flight to Foynes and the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Foynes Flying Boat Museum.