“To me the Flying Boat goes back to an era that is lost. It would be so neat to be able to fly in something like that, to sleep, to stay the night in it, and get up the next morning and prepare for your day just flying. It has to be just such a romantic way of transportation... And I think that aircraft is beautiful, the story behind it is beautiful, the history that this particular airplane has. That becomes my favorite artifact in the museum.”
- Debbie Reed, NEAM Executive Director
The New England Air Museum is home to the last of the “Flying Aces,” the Sikorsky VS-44A “Excambian.” Sikorsky’s work in amphibians preceded his helicopter fame, and in the early 1940s the Sikorsky company produced three VS-44’s: Excambian, Excalibur, and Exeter. Beginning in 1942, the Excambian flew priority passengers and cargo for American Export Airlines back and forth from New York to Ireland over the course of three years. With ticket prices between $300-$400 ($5000-$6000 today), it was luxurious travel. After its use by AEA, the Excambian changed hands several times until eventually being sold in 1967 to former Sikorsky test pilot Charles Blair, who was also the husband of famous actress Maureen O’Hara. The two flew for many years, and after the aircraft acquired extensive hull damage, O’Hara donated it to the National Museum of Naval Aviation, who then transferred the VS-44 on permanent loan to NEAM in 1980.
In 1983, the one of a kind aircraft travelled by barge to Connecticut, and in 1987 the massive restoration project began. The ten year restoration was headed by Crew Chief Harry Hleva, who was a former Sikorsky employee, actually having worked on the assembly of all three VS-44s. Stationed at and supported by the Sikorsky company, the restoration crew included over 100 volunteers, many of whom were former Sikorsky employees. The Excambian was restored only 300 yards away from where the aircraft was originally built, before moving to NEAM for final touches and painting. In 1999, a recommissioning ceremony was held for the sole surviving VS-44, with over 500 guests and Maureen O’Hara present. The VS-44 sits proudly in the Civilian Hangar at NEAM, a testament to Connecticut ingenuity and the astonishing work of restoration volunteers.