Short Shetland – A Pioneering Flying Boat

The Short Shetland Flying Boat was developed as a flying boat during the Second World War to meet a specification from the British Air Ministry for a maritime reconnaissance plane with a very long range.

The Short Aircraft company had already seen success with their earlier Sunderland flying boat which successfully performed long-distance roles for commercial and military purposes.

Although the Sunderland was playing a crucial role with Allied forces in the Atlantic, the Air Ministry opted to replace it with a more advanced flying boat in 1941.

Short entered a tender competition with the Saunders Roe aerospace manufacturer to produce a replacement.

As the British armed forces were demanding a near-constant flow of equipment to help the war effort, the Air Ministry made an unusual move of requesting that Short and Saunders Roe work together on creating the new design.

An agreement was reached with both companies building different components. Although a remarkable collaboration that produced two prototypes of the Shetland, the initial test results of the first prototype were subpar.

The war also finished before the project could reach the production stage and attempts to find buyers on the commercial market never came to fruition.



Prior to the Second World War, flying boat technology and designs had evolved substantially during the 1920s and 30s in the commercial sector. Flying boats overcame many of the previous limitations of civilian aircraft.

They enabled passengers and cargo to reach different corners of the globe in a shorter time than an ocean liner could manage by combining elements of boats and aircraft.

The general development of the flying boat reached its height during the war when flying boats became used extensively for long-distance transport, anti-submarine warfare and search and rescue.

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The Short Brothers aircraft manufacturer had developed the successful Short Sunderland flying boat at their plant in Rochester, Kent which saw extensive civilian use in the pre-war era.

After the war broke out, a number of Sunderland units were pressed into or retrofitted during manufacturing for military service.

Short Sunderland flying boat.
Short Sunderland flying boat.

It became an iconic symbol of the ocean theatres of the war and played an important role during the Battle of the Atlantic.

However, in 1941 the British Air Ministry launched a specification calling for an updated replacement for the Sunderland. The new flying boat design would have to feature an increased speed and heavier armaments compared to the Sunderland.

It should be able to play the role of a maritime patrol aircraft and protect British and Allied shipping from German U-boats, as well as transport troops and goods over long distances.

It was also projected by the Air Ministry that the new flying boat would use either the Bristol Centaurus radial or the Napier Sabre inline engine units.


Short responded to the specification and began working on their new design by making improvements to the existing Sunderland airframe.

The rival Saunders Roe aircraft manufacturer also responded to the specification and proposed entering a tender design contest with Short to see who could produce a winning concept idea.

Saunders Roe had previously attempted to design a flying boat and released the Saunders Roe “Saro” Shrimp in 1939.

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Although only one example had been built, Saunders Roe used it as a basis for new designs and the Shrimp would go on to be used as a test platform by the British Ministry of Aviation.

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For the contest to replace the Sunderland, Saunders Roe proposed their S.41 design which drew heavily upon the Shrimp.

Saunders Roe Shrimp.
The Saunders Roe Shrimp flying boat.

The Air Ministry considered both proposals. But with the war raging and the demand for new military equipment running at an all-time high, the Ministry instead asked both Short and Saunders Roe to combine their designs into one and work together.

The different parts of the new aircraft would be divided between the manufacturers before the final assembly.

An agreement was eventually formed where the design detail was mostly handled by Saunders Roe who drew upon their Shrimp concept. The Shrimp would form the basis for the new plane’s hull shape and wings.

Short would then build the tail, and hull and then fit the aircraft together at their factory for the final assembly.

As the new flying boat took shape, it was determined by Short and Saunders Roe that it would carry a crew of eleven, comprising of pilots, navigators, gunners, a radio operator and a bombardier.

The power plant would consist of four Bristol Centaurus VII engine units (one of the engines initially proposed by the Air Ministry) that were capable of producing up to 2,500 horsepower each.

The projected maximum speed of the aircraft would be 263 miles per hour.

Bristol Centaurus on stand.
The 18-cylinder Bristol Centaurus radial engine.

The total wingspan of the plane was around 150 feet and the height of the plane was 37 feet.

Once the design was complete, Short constructed two prototype models and it was christened the Shetland in keeping with Short’s tradition of naming aircraft after British towns and cities.

During the latter stages of the design, the Air Ministry revised its requirements for the flying boat and requested it to be a transport aircraft. Short accordingly chose to omit the gun turrets from the first prototype and the second prototype was designated as a commercial aircraft.

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By this stage, the end was getting in sight for the war in Europe and the threat of German air and sea superiority was beginning to dwindle as Allied forces made significant advances against retreating Nazi units.


The first Shetland prototype was named the Shetland I and rolled out of the Short factory with the serial registration DX166. It was sent for its initial test run on the 14th of December, 1944.

The test flight was done under the control of Short’s chief test pilot John Lankester Parker accompanied by Geoffrey Tyson as his co-pilot.

The test runs found that the Shetland could possess a potential rate of climb of 900 feet per minute and had an average cruising speed of 183 miles per hour.

Once the initial proving run was complete, Short then sent the first prototype to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment (MAEE) in Felixstowe, Suffolk in October 1945.

The MAEE had acted as a proving ground for previous flying boat designs where engineers would meticulously examine new designs for any flaws.

Short Shetland flying.
The first Shetland prototype in flight.

The second round of tests with the MAEE exposed certain weaknesses in the flying boat’s design: water takeoff and landing found that the stabilising floats were fitted too low under the wings and did not offer enough ground clearance for the plane to take off with the maximum load.

Engineers noted that if the flying boat was fully laden with passengers and cargo, the risk of a crash by the Shetland failing to get airborne and striking a wave was high.

Further tests by pilots and engineers also detected issues with responsiveness from the controls and the longitude stability of the aircraft when flown in certain directions.

Short considered improving the design and resubmitted it, but by this stage, the war had drawn to a complete close.

Shetland on ground
The first Shetland prototype on land, giving a good perspective of this aircraft’s enormous size.

Testing continued until the immediate aftermath of the war, with Short drafting various ideas on how to make the design safer and more functional.

However, before any further tests and modifications could take place, the first prototype was unfortunately written off after an onboard fire on the 28th of January, 1946.

It was believed the fire began in the plane’s galley and it gutted much of the Shetland’s airframe as it was moored. Although no one was killed, it put an end to the test career of the Shetland I.

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Short opted to continue with the second prototype example and present it to the MAEE.

As the war had now finished and the demand for heavy military aircraft was subsiding, it was intended by Short to sell the next prototype as a model that could work for the civilian market.

The second Shetland prototype.
The second Shetland prototype.

The second prototype was named the Shetland II and given the serial number DX171. Short envisaged the second model as a long-range passenger aircraft, similar to how the Sunderland and other flying boats had been used to carry passengers to far-flung locations around the world, and it would have the capability of transporting up to 70 passengers.

The maiden flight for the Shetland II was completed on the 17th of September, 1947.

It was only fitted with 40 seats and berths as opposed to the promised 70. Unlike the Shetland I, there were no documented incidents during the test period and the maiden flight was completed without any incident.

After testing the Shetland II was transferred to the Short factory in Belfast, Northern Ireland to await what would happen next.


Although Short had hoped the Shetland would prove successful on the commercial market, no orders were placed by any airlines for the aircraft.

The Sunderland had continued to be the flying boat of choice for commercial passenger and freight transport, even though the Shetland had been intended to replace it.

Short Shetland take off.
The second prototype was scrapped in the 1950s.

The advancement of turboprop technology for aircraft rendered many older piston-driven examples obsolete. Then the incoming jet age for commercial and military planes cut long-haul journey times further. The flying boat concept now no longer held the same economic or marketing attraction for airline companies.

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The Shetland was designated as a limited test aircraft and continued to perform flights in this function until it was withdrawn in 1951 and later broken up for scrap.