The great air-liner of the future

The Sphere, 19 September 1925, 24-25

Following a thread provided by John Ptak on Twitter led me to the above image of 'The great air-liner of the future', published in The Sphere (London), 19 September 1925, 24-25. I agree with John: it's an unusually fabulous image of the future of aviation, and I'd add unusually optimistic for Britain (though not uniquely so).

Here's the caption:

In his address to the British Association at Southport Mr. Oliver Simmons outlined his theories of what the great transatlantic air-liners of the future would probably be like. This is a subject which allows endless possibilities for discussion, and to judge by articles which frequently appear in the press, is one which is very much in the mind of all scientific thinks at the moment. One of the problems which future aircraft designers will have to solve is that of enclosing the engines and providing ample space for mechanics to adjust any faulty mechanism whilst actually in the air, so that engine-trouble will not necessarily mean a descent in mid-flight. In his carefully-thought-out drawing, reproduced here, Mr. Hill gives his version of the future air-liner. All parts of it are enclosed, engine-rooms as well as saloons. Its engines all work independently, and it has space for some hundreds of passengers, travelling in the same luxurious manner as on the great ocean liners of to-day.

The Sphere was not very careful with its facts. The British Association meeting that year was at Southampton, not Southport; and the speaker's name was Oliver Simmonds, not Simmons. His talk was not primarily about 'the great transatlantic air-liners of the future'; rather, judging from the extensive summary in Flight, it was on 'Recent progress in flying-boat design'. However, Simmonds -- who in the war had flown Bristol Fighters in the RFC and was now an aeronautical engineer at Supermarine working on, among other things, the soon-to-be-Schneider-Trophy-winning S.5 -- did touch on the topic of airliners at the end of his talk:

I shall certainly feel that progress has been inordinately slow if we have not constructed a boat of 100,000 lbs. gross weight by the end of the next decade. Supposing this boat to be for commercial purposes, I am inclined to think this machine will be an all-metal monoplane boat of some 6,000 sq. ft. wing area, and 220 ft. span. The power units will be housed in engine rooms built into the thick wing some 30 ft. out from the hull, and the output of each room at full revolutions will be some 3,000 b.h.p. The engines may well be arranged either side of a central propeller shaft, the drive being through bevel wheels with a separate clutch to each unit. In the event of the failure of any block this will be automatically cut out and the mechanics could then consider its repair. Once the boat were in the air, it could fly comfortably on 60 per cent, of full power, and the fear of a forced landing might, therefore, be dismissed.

The hull will be arranged in two decks and provide spacious accommodation for 100 passengers. The speed will exceed 100 knots, and the boat could undertake flights up to 1,500 miles without alighting. By slightly reducing the number of passengers, therefore, such a boat could fly from Europe to America with only one stop at the Azores, and accomplish the whole flight in 36 hours.

So while The Sphere's illustration took some inspiration from Simmonds' talk, particularly the idea of engines that could be fixed in flight, he was talking about flying boats which this clearly is not, and on a slightly more modest scale, a hundred passengers rather than hundreds.

Some of the differing details may be due to the imagination of the artist, Roderic Hill, who was also a technically-accomplished former RFC pilot and in fact a current RAF officer, commanding 45 Squadron based in the Middle East. Eventually he became a very senior officer indeed, rising all the way to air chief marshal after commanding the RAF Staff College, 12 Group and Fighter Command; after retiring he was Rector of Imperial College and Vice-Chancellor of London University. It might seem like he wouldn't have had the time to moonlight as an artist, but in fact he'd been illustrating for Flight even before 1914, and he's even previously turned up with a futuristic vision of civil aviation on this very blog. It's hard to believe that Hill thought his great airliner of the future could actually fly, but it's so gorgeous I don't care and, probably, neither did he.

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