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Foynes Flying Boat Museum celebrates Ireland's aviation heritage

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Today it is a small port city with only 600 residents on the bank of Ireland's mighty Shannon River, but for a portion of the 1930s, Foynes, Ireland was the epicenter of the aviation world in Europe. It was a place where the aviation industry thrived and the legendary American aviator Charles Lindbergh visited.

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In the 1930s, the proposed solution to long distance transatlantic flight was to build and use massive flying boats. Foynes vaulted onto the aviation scene after none other than famed flyer Charles Lindbergh surveyed the area around the Shannon River for the most suitable location for an airport for the large flying boats. Lindbergh recommended Foynes and, soon after, the Foynes flying boat base was in operation.

The plan called for these unique airplanes to land and take off on the water while hauling passengers and freight to and from Europe to the United States. Newsreels from the time trumpeted the test flights of the aircraft and predicted a bright future for the new air service and for the Foynes air facility.

The most popular flying boat of the era was the Boeing 314. It first flew in 1938 and featured four engines, a wingspan of 152 feet and a length of 106 feet. With a top speed of 210 miles per hour, it could carry around 80 passengers. None of the original flying boats survive but the Foynes Flying Boat Museum was able to build a full size Boeing 314 replica based upon the manufacturer's original plans. The replica is part of the museum and can be walked through to see first hand the changes in air travel from today's cramped aircraft to the Boeing 314 which featured roomy seats, elaborate dining areas and spacious sleeping bunks.

Throughout its history, four airlines operated flying boats out of Foynes - Pan American, Imperial, Air France Translantique and American Export Airlines. These airlines flew some of the world's most important VIPs to and from Foynes including royalty from a number of countries, Bob Hope, future president John F. Kennedy, Humphrey Bogart, Eleanor Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway to name a few.

The opening of the nearby Shannon Airport in 1942 was the beginning of the end for the flying boats and for the flying boat base at Foynes, with the last flight arriving at Foynes in 1946.

Today, the museum sits on the banks of the river in the original location of its four-story high control tower - still standing after being completely refurbished. The tower features an outdoor observation area on the fourth level which provides for great views of the Shannon River and the surrounding areas. (There is an elevator available to reach all four floors.) Other floors of the tower tell the maritime history of Foynes.

Displays and artifacts are devoted to freighter traffic on today's Shannon as well as the role Ireland played in the US Civil War. During the war, which lasted from 1861-1865, clothing and uniforms were manufactured for the secessionist Confederate States of America (CSA) in Limerick, Ireland. They were then transported on the Shannon to their eventual destination - the CSA Army in North America.

The museum also includes a 1940s style movie theater which airs a 10-minute video on the history of flying boat base, a showcase of BOAC and Pan Am uniforms, a Boeing 314 simulator, a restaurant and a presentation describing how Irish Coffee was born at the Foynes flying boat base in 1943. The drink originated after passengers complaining of being cold after disembarking from a flying boat flight were warmed-up with a hot coffee served with Irish Whiskey and cream - creating the drink known today as Irish Coffee.

For more information on Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum visit www.Flyingboatmuseum.com.

Anthony Conboy visited the Foynes Flying Boat Museum as a guest of the Irish Tourism Board.

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