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The Saunders Roe SR.A/1: The flying boat fighter [Wingspan]

From the Planes You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of Department of Wingspan, we bring you the Saunders-Roe SR.A/1.

UK Government photo

World War II in the Pacific presented challenges to the operation of aircraft that weren’t faced by pilots in Europe. Most notable was the fact that much of the the action took place over the open ocean, far from land bases. Large bombers possessed the necessary range for long-distance missions, but fighters did not. Japan addressed this problem by modifying the famed Mitsubishi A6M Zero by adding floats so it could operate from any smooth patch of water. However, the floats caused a considerable amount of drag and rendered the A6M2-N “Rufe” unable to tangle successfully with Allied fighters. But the idea of a waterborne fighter remained attractive, and the British firm Saunders-Roe tried to overcome the problems suffered by a float plane fighter by eliminating the floats altogether and replacing the propeller engine with a more powerful turbojet. The result was the SR.A/1, unofficially nicknamed the Squirt, the world’s first jet-powered flying boat.

Photo author unknown

Outwardly, the SR.A/1 resembled most flying boats of the era. It had a boat-like hull with a high shoulder-mounted wing, and a tail raised above the water. Where it differed significantly was in its power plant. Instead of traditional piston engines, the Squirt was powered by two turbojets housed in the fuselage and fed by a large air intake in the nose. The Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl turbojets were the first to be designed with an axial flow compressor and, by the time they had been further developed and installed in the third SR.A/1 prototype, the Beryl had become one of the most powerful turbojets of its era, providing the Squirt with a top speed of 512 mph. The Squirt featured retractable outer stabilizing floats and an automatic mooring system so the pilot could dock without assistance and without getting his feet wet, as well as long beaching gear which allowed the fighter to taxi onto dry land. The single pilot was placed in an ejection seat high on the fuselage, but this severely hindered his visibility, and this deficiency was exacerbated when the clear canopy was replaced by reinforced canopy that all but eliminated rearward visibility. Though armament was never fitted, Saunders-Roe planned for four 20mm cannons in the nose and up to 1,000 pounds of bombs or rockets housed internally.

The third prototype TG263. Note the reinforced canopy. (Mike Freer via Wikimedia Commons)

The Squirt’s maiden flight took place on July 16, 1947, and while it showed good handling for such a large, thick-winged fighter, there was one insurmountable problem: the war had ended, and there was simply no mission for a flying boat fighter. Also, production of the engines had ceased when Metrovick left the gas turbine engine business, so there were very few engines on hand. Testing of the prototypes continued, but, with no role to play, the project was eventually shelved. It was resurrected briefly in 1950 during the Korean War, but by then there was only one SR.A/1 remaining, the others having been lost to crashes, and the project was officially retired the following year. The sole remaining Squirt now resides at the Solent Sky aviation museum in Southampton.

The Squirt, with its beaching gear extended, showing the nose-mounted air intake (Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons)

But some ideas are hard to die, and the demise of the Squirt was not the last hurrah for a water-based jet fighter. Convair made an attempt with the F2Y Sea Dart in 1953, but, like the SR.A/1, the difficulties of flying a small jet fighter from the surface of the water, and the compromises in performance, consigned the Sea Dart to a similar fate.

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