From the Planes You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of Department of Wingspan, we bring you the Short SB.6 Seamew.
The Short SB.6 Seamew was not the only aircraft to bear the name of what most people would recognize as a common seagull. The first was the Supermarine Seamew, a biplane flying boat that took its first flight in 1926. Problems with handling and poor performance limited production to just two aircraft. The second was the Curtiss SO3C Seamew, an aircraft that was meant to replace the earlier Curtiss Seagull. Though the SO3C was built in large numbers, it too displayed poor flying characteristics and never achieved great success. Like the albatros hung around the captain’s neck in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the name Seamew continued to be a weight around the neck of lackluster aircraft, and the ungainly Short Seamew proved that the third time is not always lucky.
By the end of WWII, maritime patrol aircraft had transitioned from merely spotting surfaced submarines to finding both surfaced and submerged U-boats with radar and magnetic anomaly detectors. By 1951, the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy began looking for a replacement for its aging Grumman AS 4 Avengers which had been outfitted with detection equipment to serve in the antisubmarine warfare (ASW) role. Short Brothers of Belfast responded with the Seamew, an oddly shaped aircraft that was intended to fly from both the Royal Navy’s considerable fleet of leftover WWII escort carriers and from land bases. While the Seamew would never win a beauty contest, its looks were the least of its problems.
Rather than use a piston engine, the Seamew’s designers opted for an Armstrong Siddeley Mamba turboprop which provided a much smoother ride than the mighty Merlin engine they had originally planned to use. This was important, since the pilot and observer were placed in tandem directly above the engine in a tall, narrow fuselage. This perch provided the crew with good visibility, but also placed them at a considerable distance above the ground when coupled with the long, fixed landing gear that was necessary to protect the propeller and the radar housing (the gear could be jettisoned in the event of a water landing). At at time when tricycle landing gear were becoming standard on carrier aircraft, the tail-dragger configuration seemed decidedly dated. The broad, thick wings, which could be folded for carrier storage, accommodated a wide assortment of sono buoys, bombs, depth charges or a single torpedo.
Like its ill-fated namesakes, the Seamew proved to be quite difficult to fly. Only one pilot, Short test pilot Wally Runciman was capable of getting the most out of the awkward aircraft, and he was killed in a crash while demonstrating the Seamew at an airshow in 1956. Despite efforts to improve the handling by modifying the wings and tail structures, the Seamew remained a handful. In the end, shifting priorities in defense expenditures and a reassessment of the need for a slow ASW aircraft in favor of helicopters meant that the Seamew was only produced in small numbers. Just 26 were built, and all were retired just four years after the Seamew’s maiden flight. The aircraft were scrapped, and all that remains of the Seamew is a single engine preserved by the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust.
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