Our Aer Lingus flight from Boston Logan Airport (BOS) to Shannon, Ireland (SNN) was short – barely 5 1/2 hours. On the one hand, it was nice to arrive swiftly (well, not counting the time we spent connecting from Dayton to Boston); but on the other hand, it was too short to really get settled and have any semblance of sleep. Nevertheless, after grabbing a bite to eat from the small cafe in the SNN terminal, and some caffeinated drinks, we picked up our rental car and headed out to make the most of the day.
After a chilly start the day was bright and sunny and the short drive from SNN to the town of Foynes was pleasant. I was eager to see the Flying Boat and Maritime Museum, which details the somewhat short-lived, but important part that Foynes played in passenger air travel. “Flying boat” of course refers to the large seaplanes that were among the primary means of trans-oceanic travel at one time – with Pan American Airways – Pan Am – being the most famous operator.
Pan Am holds a special place in my travelling heart. I’ve always had a love for anything with wings and passenger air travel fascinated me from an early age. My first international trip was about 25 years ago on a high school foreign-language club trip to Europe, on Pan Am. That voyage is what got me hooked on wanting to see as much of the world as possible. Around the same time I was working on my Private Pilot license, intending to eventually work as a commercial pilot. While I did later earn my Commercial rating and everything, life got in the way of pursuing that particular career. But as you may have guessed, that didn’t diminish my interest in aviation!
The wide Shannon River Estuary was an ideal spot for flying boat operations, and its location on the western edge of Ireland means, obviously, a much shorter distance to fly over water between the eastern portions of North American. In the late 1930s flight operations began with service by Pan Am and the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). Foynes closed in the mid-1940s, as the opening of SNN and improvements in airliner range made it obsolete. Foynes is said to be the birthplace of Irish Coffee, too! Transportation continues to be important for the town, as it is a major deep-water seaport – and the museum captures that aspect of the area as well.
The museum is housed in the original Foynes air terminal building. Admission was 10 Euros with reduced rates for children, students and seniors – very much worth it in my opinion. After purchasing tickets, there is a short but well done documentary film. I learned that the technical challenges in establishing reliable and economically feasible long distance air travel in those days, were greater than I realized. After the film, one is free to wander about the museum as desired.
Arranged in several rooms are authentic radio, navigational, and other ground equipment from the period, plus aircraft components such as a radial engine recovered from a crashed plane. There is an impressive collection of other artifacts such as maps, uniforms, navigational aids, advertising signs, and such. One room contains a children’s area with a mock cockpit and other activities. I have to admit, I played around with a few of the kids’ displays myself!
The centerpiece of the museum is the full-size replica of a Boeing 314 Flying Boat, all dolled up in authentic Pan Am livery! It happens to be the only one of its kind in the world. All of the original B314 aircraft have sadly been lost to the ages. The replica builders used original Boeing blueprints to ensure accuracy. Except for the lack of actual engines, and full-length wings, it looks and feels just like walking through the real deal. The interior faithfully reflects the passenger accommodations of the era, which I must say are significantly more spacious and comfortable than anything I’ve ever flown on! I really enjoyed just slowly wandering inside and imagining what it would have been like.
After indulging my fantasies of a golden age of aviation (which in reality wasn’t always so golden), we next climbed the stairwell up to the top of the restored control tower with lovely views out over the Shannon and the seaport. On the way back down we stopped at several floors and took in the Maritime section of the museum. I like boats as well so this was interesting. It was a bit jarring to see a display with Confederate States of America uniforms from the American Civil War. This was due to the fact that the Confederates contracted with companies in the UK or Ireland for some supplies, and these often were shipped via the port of Foynes.
Naturally, there is a gift shop and cafe on site as well. It was early morning so the cafe wasn’t open yet, so I can’t comment on the food. There were only a couple of staff members working that morning, but both ladies were quite friendly and helpful – as were almost all the folks we encountered in Ireland, for that matter. I’d allow 90 minutes minimum for seeing the museum, and more if you’re an aviation geek such as myself!