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Saro Lerwick: the Infernally Awful Polar Opposite of the American Catalina
Whether intentional or not, military airplanes tend to exude a mystique of badassery about them. There's just something about giant engines and menacing camo paint jobs that can turn even the average cargo plane into a machismo-oozing weapon of war.

Saro Lerwick: the Infernally Awful Polar Opposite of the American Catalina

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But thanks to the brief but eventful existence of the Saunders-Roe Lerwick WWII British flying boat, we know this machismo is not universal. Unlike the American PBY Catalina or the Luftwaffe BV-138 Wiking, the British Lerwick was more lethal to its crewmembers than enemy ships. In short, it was every negative adjective you couldn't in good confidence apply to a Catalina, or indeed any other iconic World War II flying boat.

For those of you who aren't fully up to speed on World War II-era British Aviation, it consisted of a cluster-you-know-what of dozens of different manufacturers. There were the more established monikers like Supermarine and Hawker, of course. But in the background to established giants, scrappy smaller companies like Saunders-Roe, often shortened to its nickname Saro, helped provide a solid backbone to the nation's aerospace sector.

Saro's great contribution to British Aviation largely came from flying boats. I.e., seaplanes with ship-like hulls instead of pontoons or water skies in place of landing gear like float planes. British companies like Supermarine and Blackburn also contracted Saro to build the hulls for their own flying boat designs. They found further work prepping American Catalinas for the Royal Air Force.

The company did indeed make some of the finest flying boats of its era. Icons like the Princess high-capacity airliner prototype surely fascinated the masses before its own unfortunate cancelation. But the Lerwick, named for the small town in Scotland's Shetland archipelago, does not deserve to be mentioned even in the same sentence as the Princess. As military airplanes go, the slab of her majesty's finest British beef that was the Lerwick was hopeless from the word go.

First taking off from the water and into the air in November 1938, the Lerwick more or less elicited the polar opposite response that the American Catalina did. Where the Catalina, while not exactly stellar in the looks department, was an absolute joy to fly, the Lerwick was at an equal and opposite part of the spectrum. With dimensions of 63 ft 7.5 in (19.393 m), 80 ft 10 in (24.64 m), and 20 ft 0 in (6.10 m), and a maximum takeoff weight of 33,200 lbs (15,059 kg), the Lerwick's airframe was positively chunky.

Powering this flying boat with a silhouette like a potato with RAF roundels were two Bristol Hercules II 14-cylinder radial piston engines, cranking out 1,350 horsepower each at 2,750 rpm. The nearest American equivalent to this engine would have likely been a Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp or a Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclone. Undoubtedly a robust engine. But in an absolute chonker of an airframe like the Lerwick, two of them simply wasn't enough.

Couple that with sluggish and vague control surfaces, and you have a recipe for an airplane that you simply can't fly hands off for any extended period of time. That's a risky proposition for an airplane intended to be a maritime patrol and U-boat intercepting machine as its two primary functions. One can only imagine the pilot and co-pilot gripping their flight sticks with both hands as if hanging on for dear life for an entire several-hour-long patrol.

Compared to the Catalina, its respectable maneuverability with buttery, smooth and responsive control surfaces was raved about in every country it served. The Lerwick, on the other hand, was almost repulsively terrible. Oh, and to pile on to its bad points, the airframe was so gosh darn heavy that it couldn't sustain level flight if one of the engines failed. It also had a stall like a boulder being pushed off a cliff and had wing pontoons that fell off on any given Tuesday.

If you think this all translates into a screaming metal deathtrap with wings, you wouldn't be wrong. Of the meager 21 Lerwick flying boats ever built, nearly half of them were lost in accidents. One example even disappeared completely off the face of the Earth, as if un-spawning from a game of Flight Simulator or War Thunder. In a move that will come as a shock to precisely nobody, RAF and Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons unfortunate enough to be paired with Lerwicks instead of something like a Catalina, a Grumman Goose, or literally anything else absolutely loathed them.

To make matters worse, the only time it so much as sniffed a German U-boat, the infernal airplane failed to sink it. Mercifully, these RAF squadrons had all received Catalinas as replacements by 1942

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