Giant in the skies

FLYING BOATS were popular in the decades before World War II. They were easy to operate, large capacity and required only a body of still water to land and take off. There was no need to build sprawling airports and a vast transport road and logistics system to support them. It is surprising that after the war, air carriers did away with them. Today, as planes get larger, they need longer runways and even more complex support systems just to operate them.

One of the largest flying boats was the Wiking, which was commissioned by Lufthansa in 1938 to be a luxury passenger plane. By the time the prototype was ready for sea trials, war had broken out and the Wiking was converted into a transport plane.

As a schoolboy growing up in the 1960s, I was fascinated by flying boats, and one of my dreams is to ride in one of them in Alaska where they are flown for sightseeing. While browsing in a specialised magazine shop in Serangoon Garden one Sunday afternoon in September 2015, I saw a pictorial magazine called Giant Warplanes Collection. That particular issue was devoted to the Wiking and comes with a diecast model of the BV222 V2, all for $11.90.

Here're some facts I read in the magazine:

The Blohm & Voss BV222 Wiking flying boat was the result of the low-key, unhurried engineering efforts of a persistent design team headed by Dr Ing Richard Vogt. When designers began at their drawing boards at the Blohm & Voss plant near Hamburg, the goal was a passenger-carrying flying boat that Vogt called big and spacious. Passengers were expected to enjoy plenty of room during long, loud journeys in this robust aircraft.

The intended customer was Deutsche Lufthansa. Pre-war Germany’s civil air carrier agreed to buy three of the big flying boats. The plan was for the BV222 to carry 16 passengers on long journeys and 24 passengers on shorter ones, riding in near-luxury and at great leisure across the North and South Atlantic. It was expected to fly from Berlin to New York in 20 hours.

To give an idea of just how comfortable a traveller inside a BV222 would have been, the aircraft could have been configured to carry 92 passengers instead of the planned 16 or 24.

Delays in construction of the aircraft and the outbreak of war altered plans by the time Flugkapitän Helmut Rodig piloted the seaplane on its maiden flight on 7 September 1940. By then, the world was at war. In the end, only the first prototype entered civil service. The remainder became freight transports for the air force and several were modified for maritime reconnaissance duty. Later examples were powered by six 1,000hp Jumo 207C in-line diesel engines that turned out to be more practical than radials.

The BV222 was useful as a transport plane only so long as the Luftwaffe controlled the skies. Once the Allies won command of the air, the big bird became a large, slow and inviting target for Allied fighters.

Service life of the 13 Wikings

The first Wiking, the BV222 V1, began life with the civil registration D-ANTE and generally performed well in early flight trials, although engineers saw some need for minor modifications.

It became a military freight hauler, carried supplies for the Afrika Corps, and was re-registered as X4+AH. After many months of duty, in mid-February 1943, it sank after a collision with a submerged shipwreck while landing at Piraeus harbour in German-occupied Greece. It was the first of 13 flying boats.

The BV222 V2, registered as CC+ER, made its first flight on 7 August 1941. After a change to military call letters X4+AH, it received two rear-facing wing-mounted turrets with dual 13mm (.51-calibre} MG 131s machineguns that a crew member could reach by crawling through the tubular wing spar, which was a mere 3ft 3in (1m) in diameter. The British scuttled the BV222 V2 after the war.

The BV222 V3 first flew on 20 November 1941 and was the last of the initial trio of prototypes. Every aircraft in this threesome was powered by BMW-Bramo 323R Fafnir radial engines. The BV222 V3 was destroyed in an air battle in France in June 1943.

Blohm & Voss built five more airframes that were labelled BV222 A-0 models (BV222 V4 to V8). The V4 flew supply missions in the Mediterranean and was retrofitted with a new tail plane design. The  V5 too served in the Mediterranean.

The BV222 V6 was in the same theatre but not for long. On 21 August 1942, Malta-based Bristol Beaufighters shot it down near the island of Pantelleria.

The V7 was the first to use diesel engines. After a maiden flight on 1 April 1943, it served on the Atlantic front. The V8 had a brief service life before being shot down by Beaufighters on 10 December 1943.

The final series of five flying boats out of the total of 13 wore the generic label of BV222 C-0 versions (V9 to V13). These had in common the Jumo 207C diesel engine, revised defensive armament, and rocket devices for power-boosted take-offs.

The BV222 V9 was destroyed at its mooring in Travenninde (on Germany's northern Baltic coast) by British Hawker Typhoons in 1945. Reportedly, an engine was set afire, the fuselage broke in two and the aircraft sank, with the wing still over the level of the shallow lake.

The BV222 V10, similarly, went down when it was attacked by de Havilland Mosquitos in 1944.

The BV222 V11 fell intact into American hands at war’s end but it is not known what happened to it.

The of BV222 V12 was captured by the British and served in an RAF squadron no.201 before it was scrapped in 1947.

The BV222 V13 is listed in some sources as having fallen into US hands but, in fact, the disposition of the 13th and final Wiking is not known.

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Wiking BV222 transport plane during World War II