The Solent was an ideal location for the development of Seaplanes in the early 20th century, as it is effectively a long sheltered sea runway. Of the 26 aeroplane factories that sprung up around the Solent at this time, one of the most successful was Supermarine Aviation, developing Noel Pemberton-Billing’s flying boat, the PB1. When the company was sold to Hubert Scott-Paine during WWI it flourished and with the help of designer R.J. Mitchell, Supermarine won Britain the famous Schneider Trophy permanently, having won three times in five years between 1926 and 1931, beating the U.S. Navy on the Solent, with the planes averaging 340mph.
Naval aviation began at Lee-on-Solent on 30 July 1917 when the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) opened the Naval Seaplane Training School as an extension to the seaplane training station at nearby Calshot. The Calshot station was originally established on 29 March 1913 by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC),as Calshot Naval Air Station, for the purpose of testing seaplanes for the RFC Naval wing. On 1 April 1918, the RNAS combined with the RFC to form the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Lee-on-Solent Naval Seaplane Training School became an RAF station. Naval aviation training continued throughout the 1920s under the RAF with both Calshot and Lee-on-Solent providing training in operating seaplanes.
The rush in seaplane technology between 1929 and 1931 lead to the development of the famous Spitfire fighter plane by Supermarine in time for WWII, which defended Britain from German Invasion. R.J. Mitchell’s masterpiece was designed and built at Woolston, with the first flight from Eastleigh Airport taking place in 1936. Around a fifth of the 22,000 Spitfire and Seafires built were built in the Solent region.
Seaplanes grew popular for mail and luxury passenger crossings from terminals in Woolston and on Southampton Water to the Channel Islands and to far away destinations including New York, Australia and South Africa. The terminal at Woolston was the first to officially bear the now common name of an “Air Port”. Atlantic crossings by Air rather than sea lead to the decline of the shunned antique Ocean Liners from Southampton, which in turn caused its decline as a major passenger port.
Saunders-Roe produced the final 3 luxury seaplanes, the ill-fated “Princesses”, built at the Columbine Hanger in Cowes. The pioneer of these first took flight in 1952, by which time the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) had stopped operating seaplanes, and they were already redundant. After many years of being cocooned the planes were towed to the River Itchen in 1967 where they were beached and scrapped at the location where Billing had set up his workshop around 50 years previously.