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Airborne Lifeboats

Post-war trials and SAR with airborne lifeboats

Catalogue number 113009

US Air Force A3 airborne lifeboat

It happened that after several hours adrift in a rubber dingy, survivors were exhausted and had difficulty climbing over the gunwale of the early models of lifeboat. To make boarding easier, the A3 lifeboat included a fold-out ladder with an easy-release mechanism fitted into the side of the boat.

24.2cm x 19cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: Rudy Arnold


Catalogue number 109043

Launching an A-3 lifeboat

The A3 airborne lifeboat was an American post-war development and is shown here under the tail of a Boeing SB-29 Superfortress (registration n° 46167). Note the bulge forward (an ejectable cover to protect the propeller when the boat hit the sea) and the dihedral wing to assist the disengagement of the boat when released from the aircraft.

Verso: “Radio guides lifeboats…..13.3.51. Dayton, Ohio….The U.S.’s Air Force’s big A-3 lifeboat dropped by parachute in air-sea rescue operations, is now radio controlled. - The radio controller, operates from the plane which drops the lifeboats, brings it up to the survivors, allows them to board and then sets the boat on course. The A-3 itself is of all metal construction, is thirty feet long, and is designed to carry 15 men. - It is powered by a four-cylinder, water cooled engine housed in a watertight compartment. U.S. Airforce mecanics attaching the A-3 lifeboat prior to the tests.”

24.3 cm x 19cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: U.S.A.F./International News Photos


Catalogue number 109044

Release of the lifeboat

Here, the lifeboat has just been released and the pilot chute is being pulled out by the static line.

Verso: As for above

25.3cm x 20.5cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: U.S.A.F./International News Photos


Catalogue number 109045

Deployment of the 30m parachute

The 30m diameter parachute is deploying and we can see the pilot chute fully open. The boat is turned to one side but this is not a problem as it is self-righting when in the sea.

Verso: As for above

24.3cm x 18.8cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: U.S.A.F./International News Photos


Catalogue number 113008

A3 lifeboat underway

The A-3 lifeboat is shown underway during trials. The fore and aft shelters are fully inflated and would give some cover from the wind and spray as well as providing a self-righting capacity.

24.1cm x 19.4cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: Rudy Arnold


Catalogue number 113014

Flying Fortress of the ARS

This may be a photograph of an early B-17 conversion to a search and rescue role as neither the aircraft nor the lifeboat have any markings. There is however, the characteristic yellow band on the rear fuselage for SAR aircraft and there is a search radar under the nose. Note how the lifeboat fits close up to the fuselage.

21.3cm x 15.9cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: Temple Press Ltd.


Catalogue number 113011

A successful mission, 1949

The crew of a Air Rescue Service B-17 gather round their aircraft after a successful rescue mission. A B-29 flying from California to the U.K with a stop-over in Bermuda encountered engine problems so the captain ditched the aircraft and the crew took to the dinghies. Note the seal between the lifeboat and the fuselage to maintain the aerodynamics.

Verso: “A.C. signted survivors. This is the crew of the B-17 which sighted the survivors of the B-29 Superfortress that crash landed in the ocean about 320 miles northeast of Bermuda, 16th November 1949. They are:…Sgt. Ralph E. Hawes of Ashville, North Carolina, the man who first sighted the survivors;…… The eighteen survivors out of a crew of twenty were rescued on 19th November 1949, by the HMCS Haida, a Canadian destroyer, under the command of Lt. Commander E.T.G. Madgwick of Ottawa, Canada.”

Credit: Official Department of Defence photo

24.2cm x 19.4cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 113010

Mysterious disappearance despite intense SAR activity, 1951

Just back in Shannon airport, this Boeing Flying Fortess of the Air Rescue Service was out searching for survivors from a U.S.A. Airforce Douglas C-124 Globemaster that ditched in the Atlantic Ocean on 23rd March 1951. The aircraft has a surface search radar under the nose and is carrying a mk II lifeboat, note the two guarded propellers projecting from about mid-hull. The wire guards were to prevent parachute lines from fouling the propeller. Survivors were seen at the site of the ditching but when help arrived less than 24 hours later, the aircraft and men had disappeared. There was speculation that the survivors had been recovered by a Soviet vessel.

Verso: “This B-17 has just touched down at Shannon Airport, today, Mar, 25, after a fruitless search for the missing USA Globemaster plane belived to have come down in the Atlantic about 600 miles from the Irish coast with 53 USA airmen aboard. It was on a flight from USA to Britain. Beneath the plane is slung a rescue launch which could be dropped to the sea if any survivors were sighted. Behind the B-17 is an Albatross plane which flew from Tripoli to join the giant hunt. Another Albatross will join it there shortly.

Credit: The Associated Press

25.6cm x 20.4cm Gelatin silver print

Catalogue number 113007

652 Air Rescue Service trials

This Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (registration n° 337652) of the 652 Air Rescue Service has released a early mk 1a/mk 2 lifeboat.

Verso: “SB-17 used by MATS* Air Rescue Service. Note “Flying Dutchman” lifeboat slung underneath fuselage and being parachuted to survivors of “ditched” aircraft.” in light pencil (Editor’s note: MATS Military Air Transport Service, in service from 1948)

Credit: Red rubber-stamped Dept. of Defence (Air Force - MATS)

24.3cm x 19.3cm Gelatin silver print


Part 1

Catalogue number 111039

Another Fairey Barracuda with lifeboat

The Barracuda is carrying a mark II airborne lifeboat and we can clearly see the special bilge keels designed to provide handholds should the boat have to be righted. In the bomb racks under the starboard wing are what appear to be two smoke floats and on the upper surface, we can see part of the radar aerial.

Verso: "British Official Photograph (Admiralty). Lifeboat dropped from the air. Lifeboat taken at Lee-on-Solent during a demonstration of the Navy's airborne lifeboat 17ft. 9 in. long, when it was dropped by parachute to an air crew who were supposed to have forced landed in the sea. The lifeboat, self-righting and self-baling is equipped with sails and an outboard engine which gives it a range of 120 miles at 4 knots. It contains special water (sic), purifying units, first aid outfits, rations and cigarettes. Photo shows - Naval Barracuda carrying the lifeboat before the drop. 8th Sept. 1945

19.5cm x 14cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: Crown Copyright


Catalogue number 111036

US Air Force Boeing B17 with an A1 lifeboat

This photograph shows a Boeing B-17 of the U.S. Air Force Air-Sea Rescue unit (note the yellow and red identification band on the fuselage just forward of the tail) in 1946. It is carrying a Higgins Boat Company A1 lifeboat - 8 meters long, 1,400 kgs and two engines. The drive shaft of each inboard engine passed vertically through the botton of the hull to the propeller and we can see one protected by a wire cage just forward of the port tyre. The lifeboat is carried fixed to the fuselage and aerodynamics are ensured some degree by a rubber skirt between the lifeboat and the fuselage. After the A-1, the Americans went on to built the A-3 shown below.

Verso: "Boeing B-17H with boat. Air-sea rescue unit. Converted B-17G-95-DL. Apr 1 1946

10cm x 6cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: William Larkins


Catalogue number 109042

US Air Force Boeing SB-29 with an airborne lifeboat

The propeller and rudder of the A-3 airborne lifeboat was enclosed in a metal cover which improved the aerodynamics of the aircraft and lifeboat during flight as well as protecting this part of the boat when it hit the sea before being jettisoned. One problem with airborne lifeboats was that often the ditched airmen were weak from exposure and unable to swim or paddle their life raft over to the lifeboat. It was envisaged that A-3 would be radio-guided to survivors by a controller in a circling Boeing SB-29.

24.5cm x 19cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: Rudy Arnold


Catalogue number 109046

Launching an A-3 lifeboat

Here we can see the early stages of the release of an A-3 lifeboat during trials.

Verso:"To demonstrate new airborne lifeboat. This photo sequence shows how the new A-3 airborne lifeboat will be launched from a B-29 in its first public demonstration, Aug. 11. The 30-foot, all-metal boat, weighing nearly two tons, is the largest yet developed for air-sea rescue operations and will greatly extend the scope of aerial search. After the huge boat falls clear of the aircraft; a 100-foot parachute opens automatically, lowering it gently to the sea. Fins stabilize the boat in flight and may be jettisoned after landing. The craft is made by the Edo Corporation, College Point, N.Y. 8-6-48” “Boat Away. – A sequence of photographs showing the release of the new all-metal A-3 lifeboat from a Superfortress of the USAF. Made by the Edo Corporation, of New York, the boat is 30ft long and weighs nearly two tons. The release of the pilot drogue which drags out the main supporting parachute with a 100ft diameter canopy, can be seen in the lower picture. The dihedral tailplane is for flight stabilising and is jettisonable.”

16.3cm x 21.1cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: ACMS photo


Catalogue number 110014

An A-3 airborne lifeboat after dropping.

This photograph shows an A-3 lifeboat in the sea during trials, the men are attempting to free the parachute lines. The dihedral tailplane can be clearly seen and will be jettisoned before starting up the boat’s engine. The fore and aft shelters have inflated, to right the boat if necessary. The U.S. Air Force asked for lifeboat-carrying Boeing SB-29s to follow bomber formations attacking North Korean and circle over the coast ready to assist any aircraft that had to ditch in the sea. Although no lifeboat was ever launched, their presence provided a moral boost for the bomber crews.

24.4cm x 19.1cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: Rudy Arnold


Catalogue number 109041

Avro Shackleton mark 3 with a Saro airborne lifeboat

The mark 3 was the last in the series of Avro 696 Shackleton maritime reconnaissance aircraft and WR972 (delivered 1956, to dump in 1973) is shown here equipped with a Saro mk3 airborne lifeboat for air-sea rescue. Between 1952 and 1957, about 50 such light alloy metal lifeboats were built by Saunders-Roe although they were never used in operations and from the mid-50s onwards, the lifeboats were replaced by Lindholme gear. This was made up of five canisters, one of which contained a self-inflating raft and in the others were all the necessary survival kit. The Saro mk3 had a tail plane fitted (see just forward of the radar tub) because on release, the bow of the lifeboat had a tendency to tip down and the stern to kick up with the risk hitting the aircraft’s fuselage and tail plane. Note the Avro Vulcan landing in the left background.

Verso:"Avro P172 (sic), August 10, 1956" and "Shackleton MR.3

24.4cm x 19.3cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: Paul Cullerne, A.V. Roe & Co. Ltd


Catalogue number 109041

Avro Shackleton maritime reconnaisance and Air/Sea rescue

The Shackleton was first designed with 20 mm Hispano cannons on each side of the nose and in a twin 20mm cannon dorsal turret with two 0.50-inch machine guns in the tail. Subsequently the cannon and machine guns were removed only to reappear in the mark 3. During the war, machine guns and 20mm cannons in long range patrol aircraft had shown their worth when attacking submarines that wanted to fight it out on the surface. Although guns on post-war submarines were to disappear, it was decided to keep the two 20mm cannons as they could be useful in forcing a submarine to dive and then become prone to attack by depth charges. It was also considered that an armed Shackleton could be useful in colonial policing. The guns were remote controlled from the gunner position above the twin mounting. We can see the bilge strakes that served as handrails to right an upturned lifeboat and also to give a foothold for climbing into the boat.

19.1cm x 24.6cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: Paul Cullerne, A.V. Roe & Co. Ltd


Catalogue number 109041

Pilot's instrument panel of a Shackleton mark 3

This photograph shows the layout of the front and roof instrument panels of a Shackleton mark 3. Maritime reconnaissance and air/sea rescue involved long duration patrols over an often monotonous sea and to maintain vigilance, care was taken to make the Shackleton comfortable for the pilots and crew – ten in all.

24.6cm x 17.7cm Gelatin silver print

Credit: Hawker Siddeley Aviation Limited


Catalogue number 31020

Fairey Barracuda with an airborne lifeboat

There had been several occurrences of the crew of a sunken ship being found far out in the sea sailing the ships' cutter back to Britain or another friendly coast. Also, there was concern at the loss of valuable aircrew when downed in the sea. The well-known dingy designer Uffa Fox was approached to come up with an airborne lifeboat that could carry up to ten men with all the necessary emergency equipment and stores to assure their survival and radios to assist a rapid recovery. This photograph shows an airborne lifeboat fixed under a Fairey Barracuda (mk 2 or 3, see ASV radome just aft of the lifeboat). The aircraft, maybe MX613, is on an aircraft carrier - note the arrestor wires - and it would appear to be very cold - mittens, gloves and fur-lined hood are the order of the day.

The following information was taken from a similar photograph showing the same aircraft and crew: "H.M.S. Vengeance prepares for Artic Circle. 31.1.49. Preparations are going ahead aboard H.M.S. Vengeance in readiness to lead an experimental force on a cruise in the North Atlantic and Artic to study the effect of very cold weather on ships and crews. The aircraft carrier will carry jet planes and an air group specially equipped for artic flying. Two of the seamen in thier artic kit, swinging the propellor of a Barracuda aircraft, on board H.M.S. Vengeance today. (L to R). Leading-Airman F. Whitehead, Liverpool, and wearing an Anarak (sic) flight-deck suit, and Able-Airman K. Owen, Lodon, wearing an oil-skin flight deck suit.

18.1cm x 13cm Gelatin silver print

Source: Agence Intercontinentale


Catalogue number 30045

A Vickers Warwick adapted for air-sea rescue

The mk 2 lifeboat was usually carried by a Vickers Warwick ASR mk 1 and came into service in the summer of 1943. The strong-hulled lifeboat was dropped by parachutes into the sea and then rockets fired lifelines out from the lifeboat to help ditched airmen reach the boat.

13.3cm x 8.5cm Gelatin silver print

Catalogue number 31021

An Avro Shackleton for marine reconnaissance

This Avro 696 Shackleton MR mk 2 is doing a low flypast with the props of three engines feathered and an airborne lifeboat in the modified bomb bay. When on loan to A.V. Roe & Co. Ltd., WL796 gave a such a demonstration at the 1953 Farnborough air show with a Saunders-Roe aluminium-hulled mk 3 lifeboat fitted. The twin 20 mm cannons can be seen in the nose housing with the flat window of the bomb aimer below. In its maritime reconnaissance role, the Avro Shackleton could stay on station for a considerable number of hours - 18 hours for the mk 3 and up to 24 hours in special circumstances.

20.2cm x 14.8cm Gelatin silver print

Source: A.V. Roe Co. Ltd.