I am no stranger to aircraft museums, but I’m about to announce my new favorite: the Foynes Flying Boat Museum in County Limerick, Ireland. Never before has the history of flight been brought to life for me in the way it was at Foynes, where a full-scale replica of a Boeing 314 has been reproduced to explore.
Mary, our guide, greeted us at the door and took us into a small screening room where we watched footage from the late-1930’s when Foynes was the center of the aviation world. I’m not sure why we don’t know this. It’s a huge piece of history that I haven’t encountered at other museums. Foynes was the landing spot of the Pan Am Clippers after their trans-Atlantic flights. Yet, there is no runway at Foynes; it’s a small terminal building near the coast. The “runway” was the sea across the road.
It’s amazing to me that the earliest trans-Atlantic planes were actually built to land on water. While it makes sense, I can’t help but think it terrifying. What faith those pilots and passengers had in aviation engineering! To me, it seems the flying boats could have sunk just as easily as they stayed afloat. (Perhaps this only illustrates what little mechanical/engineering knowledge I possess.)
But there’s more to the story than just the mechanics of the flying boats.
Imagine this: the sky is pitch-black. There are no street lights in those days, and no lights out on the water. A message is telegraphed to Foynes that a plane will be coming in to land within the next few hours. The Horseman Crier is alerted and he rides into the countryside, blowing his bugle and waking the team of villagers who will help guide the plane into port. They collect down at the water’s edge and go out onto the black water in their boats, setting off flares to create a makeshift runway that the plane will see from the sky. I rode the elevator to the observation deck of the museum (only a few stories high) and looked out toward the water, trying to imagine what that must have been like. So incredible to me.
Because of the limitations of early aviation, there were also many times that planes set out to cross the Atlantic, only to have to turn back because of bad weather. It was an occasion such as this that lead to the creation of the Irish Coffee. Foynes was the birthplace of this delectable treat, which we were introduced to via a holographic film.
The characters on the screen played the scene out for us. Here’s the story:
Late one night in the winter of 1943 a flight departed Foynes for Botwood, Newfoundland. After flying for several hours in bad weather conditions, the Captain made the decision to return to Foynes and await better conditions. A Morse code message was sent to the control tower at Foynes to inform them of their return. Staff were contacted to return to work and when the flight landed they were brought to the Airport Restaurant for food and drink to warm them.
When Joe was asked to prepare something warm for the passengers, he decided to put some good Irish Whiskey into their coffees. One of the passengers approached the Chef and thanked him for the wonderful coffee. He asked Joe did he use Brazilian Coffee? Joe jokingly answered, “No that was Irish Coffee!!”
You can find that recipe here.
The Irish coffee capped off what was one of my favorite museum visits ever. I’m still marveling at the fact that I’d never heard anything about these flying boats or Foynes before. But now my knowledge of aviation history is a little more complete.
*Special thanks to Failte Ireland for taking me there.
Have you been to a museum where you learned something that you were surprised isn’t more well-known?