A-1 lifeboat

The A-1 lifeboat was a powered lifeboat that was made to be dropped by fixed-wing aircraft into water to aid in air-sea rescue operations. The sturdy airborne lifeboat was to be carried by a heavy bomber specially modified to handle the external load of the lifeboat. The A-1 lifeboat was intended to be dropped by parachute during Dumbo missions to land within reach of the survivors of an accident on the ocean, specifically airmen survivors of an emergency water landing.

Boeing SB-17G of the 5th Rescue Squadron, Flight D
A Boeing SB-17G, an air-sea rescue aircraft modified to carry the A-1 lifeboat


The first airborne lifeboat was designed in the United Kingdom by Uffa Fox in 1943. In the United States, Andrew Higgins evaluated the Fox boat and found it too weak to survive mishap in emergency operations. In November 1943, Higgins assigned engineers from his company to make a sturdier version with two air-cooled engines.[1] Higgins Industries, known for making landing craft (LCVP) and PT boats, produced the A-1 lifeboat, a 3,300-pound (1,500 kg), 27-foot (8 m) airborne lifeboat made of laminated mahogany with 20 waterproof internal compartments so that it would not sink if swamped or overturned. Intended to be dropped by modified Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, it was ready for production in early 1944.[2]

The yellow-painted vessel was supplied with enough food, water and clothing for 12 survivors to last for about 20 days in the ocean. It was provided with sails kept relatively small so that inexpert operators could use them.[3] A "Gibson Girl" survival radio was aboard with an antenna to be lifted up with a kite.[4] Its two engines propelled the boat at 8 miles per hour (13 km/h); if just one were used the speed was 5 miles per hour (8 km/h). The effective cruising range was about 1,500 miles (2,400 km) with some 100 to 150 miles (160 to 240 km) made per day.[3]

Higgins also produced a smaller 18 foot version of the A-1 for the US Coast Guard that could be dropped by PBY Catalinas. This version was half the weight of the A-1. Unlike the larger version for the USAAF, the smaller Higgins air dropped lifeboat was designed to rescue only 8 or fewer persons. While a November 1945 Popular Mechanics article states it was in USCG service there are few public references to this smaller version of the A-1.[5]


The Higgins A-1 lifeboat was to be dropped by an SB-17 traveling at an airspeed of 120 miles per hour (190 km/h) and an altitude of about 1,500 feet (500 m). Precisely as the aircraft passed directly over the rescue target the boat was to be released. The boat dropped free for a short distance, then static lines attached to the aircraft's bomb bay catwalk drew taut, pulling out three 48-foot (15 m) parachutes of a standard U.S. Army design. Under the open parachutes, the boat took on a 50° bow-downward angle and descended at a rate of 27 feet (8.2 m) per second, or about 18 miles per hour (29 km/h).[3] In a manner similar to Fox's airborne lifeboat, upon contact with seawater, rocket-projected lines were automatically sent out 200 yards (180 m) to each side to make it easier for survivors to reach the Higgins lifeboat. The parachutes settled into the water to create a sea anchor holding the boat steady while survivors worked to reach it. Inside the boat, the crew of the aircraft that dropped the lifeboat would have placed a map giving the approximate position of the boat and a recommended compass setting to take in order to facilitate rescue.[3]

The first Higgins airborne lifeboat used in an emergency was dropped on March 31, 1945, in the North Sea, some 8 miles (13 km) offshore of the Dutch island of Schiermonnikoog.[4] In the evening of March 30, a PBY Catalina landed in six-foot (2 m) swells to save the pilot of a downed P-51 Mustang, but one of the Catalina's engines lost its oil in the process, rendering the flying boat unable to take off. Darkness, distance, and poor visibility prevented the Catalina men from making contact with the Mustang pilot who drifted in a raft and was eventually taken prisoner of war. The next morning, a Vickers Warwick located the Catalina and dropped a Fox-designed airborne lifeboat nearby, but after being retrieved the lifeboat began to break up from repeatedly smashing against the Catalina in the increasingly heavy seas.[4]

Instead, the six aircrew lashed three of their own inflatable rubber dinghies together and abandoned the aircraft in ten-foot (3 m) swells. Another Warwick dropped another Fox airborne lifeboat some distance away, but its parachute didn't open and it was destroyed upon striking the water. An SB-17 flying in the 35-mile-per-hour (56 km/h), 40 °F (4 °C) breeze dropped its load—Higgins Airborne Lifeboat No. 25—from an altitude of 1,200 feet (370 m) to land about 100 feet (30 m) from the men. As it hit the water, one of the lifeboat's tethering rocket lines snaked out over the junction of two of the dinghies, making an ideal shot. The six airmen transferred to the Higgins lifeboat where they huddled down and waited for three days in the worst North Sea storm of 1945 before two more Fox airborne boats were dropped with gasoline and supplies on April 3, the lifeboats either swamping or breaking up upon hitting the water. On April 4 in continuing rough seas, the airmen were picked up by two Rescue Motor Launch (RML) boats, and the Higgins A-1 lifeboat, unable to be towed, was intentionally sunk by gunfire.[4]

In the last eight months of World War II, Dumbo operations complemented simultaneous United States Army Air Forces heavy bombing operations against Japanese targets.[6] On any one large-scale bombing mission carried out by Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, at least three submarines were posted along the air route, and Dumbo aircraft sent to patrol the distant waters where they searched the water's surface and listened for emergency radio transmissions from distressed aircraft. At the final bombing mission on August 14, 1945, 9 land-based Dumbos and 21 flying boats covered a surface and sub-surface force of 14 submarines and 5 rescue ships.[6]

Coast Guard

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) operated Dumbo flights along the West Coast in the early 1950s, using the PB-1G, a B-17 variant. Such a flight is depicted briefly in the 1954 film The High and the Mighty.[7] Further Dumbo flights were conducted jointly by the USCG and the U.S. Navy during the Korean War.[8]

The A-1 lifeboat was joined and then succeeded by the A-3 lifeboat from 1947. The A-3 lifeboat was used until the mid-1950s,[9] after which winch equipped helicopters had become commonplace enough to be used to lift survivors instead of dropping a lifeboat to them.


  1. ^ Strahan, 1998, p. 193.
  2. ^ Strahan, 1998, pp. 208–209.
  3. ^ a b c d Lloyd, 1983.
  4. ^ a b c d Legg, David. The Catalina Society. History of 44-33915. The Cat's New Colours—The Background Story. May 2006. Retrieved on September 10, 2009.
  5. ^ Hearst Magazines (November 1945). "Eight Parachutes Float Rescue Boat Down to Sea". Popular Mechanics. Hearst Magazines. p. 26.
  6. ^ a b Morison, 2007, pp. 510–511.
  7. ^ Hardwick, 1989, p. 66.
  8. ^ Ostrom, 2004, p. 81.
  9. ^ National Museum of the US Air Force. Fact Sheets. Boeing SB-29 Archived 2012-10-09 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved on September 6, 2009.
  • Crocker, Mel. Black Cats and Dumbos: WW II's Fighting PBYs. Crocker Media Expressions, 2002. ISBN 0-9712901-0-5.
  • Hardwick, Jack; Ed Schnepf. The Making of the Great Aviation Films. General Aviation Series, Volume 2. Challenge Publications, 1989.
  • Lloyd, Alwyn T. B-17 Flying Fortress in Detail and Scale, Volume 11: Derivatives, part 2. Fallbrook, California: Aero Publishers, 1983. ISBN 0-8168-5021-6
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: The struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942 – February 1943. University of Illinois Press, 2001. ISBN 0-252-06996-X
  • Ostrom, Thomas P. The United States Coast Guard, 1790 to the present: a history. Elderberry Press, Inc., 2004. ISBN 1-932762-15-9
  • Strahan, Jerry E. Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats That Won World War II. LSU Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8071-2339-0

External links

A-3 lifeboat

The A-3 lifeboat was an airborne lifeboat developed by the EDO Corporation in 1947 for the United States Air Force (USAF) as a successor to the Higgins Industries A-1 lifeboat. The A-3 lifeboat was a key element of "Dumbo" rescue flights of the 1950s.

Airborne lifeboat

Airborne lifeboats were powered lifeboats that were made to be dropped by fixed-wing aircraft into water to aid in air-sea rescue operations. An airborne lifeboat was to be carried by a heavy bomber specially modified to handle the external load of the lifeboat. The airborne lifeboat was intended to be dropped by parachute to land within reach of the survivors of an accident on the ocean, specifically airmen survivors of an emergency water landing. Airborne lifeboats were used during World War II by the United Kingdom and on Dumbo rescue missions by the United States from 1943 until the mid-1950s.

Aircraft in fiction

Aircraft in fiction covers various real-world aircraft that have made significant appearances in fiction over the decades, including in books, films, toys, TV programs, video games, and other media. These appearances spotlight the popularity of different models of aircraft, and showcase the different types for the general public.

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress

The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is a four-engined heavy bomber developed in the 1930s for the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC). Competing against Douglas and Martin for a contract to build 200 bombers, the Boeing entry (prototype Model 299/XB-17) outperformed both competitors and exceeded the air corps' performance specifications. Although Boeing lost the contract (to the Douglas B-18 Bolo) because the prototype crashed, the air corps ordered 13 more B-17s for further evaluation. From its introduction in 1938, the B-17 Flying Fortress evolved through numerous design advances, becoming the third-most produced bomber of all time, behind the four-engined B-24 and the multirole, twin-engined Ju 88.

The B-17 was primarily employed by the USAAF in the daylight strategic bombing campaign of World War II against German industrial and military targets. The United States Eighth Air Force, based at many airfields in central, eastern and southern England, and the Fifteenth Air Force, based in Italy, complemented the RAF Bomber Command's nighttime area bombing in the Combined Bomber Offensive to help secure air superiority over the cities, factories and battlefields of Western Europe in preparation for the invasion of France in 1944. The B-17 also participated to a lesser extent in the War in the Pacific, early in World War II, where it conducted raids against Japanese shipping and airfields.From its prewar inception, the USAAC (by June 1941, the USAAF) promoted the aircraft as a strategic weapon; it was a relatively fast, high-flying, long-range bomber with heavy defensive armament at the expense of bombload. It developed a reputation for toughness based upon stories and photos of badly damaged B-17s safely returning to base. The B-17 dropped more bombs than any other U.S. aircraft in World War II. Of approximately 1.5 million tons of bombs dropped on Nazi Germany and its occupied territories by U.S. aircraft, over 640,000 tons were dropped from B-17s. In addition to its role as a bomber, the B-17 was also employed as a transport, antisubmarine aircraft, drone controller, and search-and-rescue aircraft.

As of October 2019, 9 aircraft remain airworthy, though none of them were ever flown in combat. Dozens more are in storage or on static display. The oldest of these is a D-series flown in combat in the Pacific and the Caribbean.

Dumbo (air-sea rescue)

Dumbo was the code name used by the United States Navy during the 1940s and 1950s to signify search and rescue missions, conducted in conjunction with military operations, by long-range aircraft flying over the ocean. The purpose of Dumbo missions was to rescue downed American aviators as well as seamen in distress. Dumbo aircraft were originally land-based heavy bomber aircraft converted to carry an airborne lifeboat to be dropped in the water near survivors. The name "Dumbo" came from Walt Disney's flying elephant, the main character of the animated film Dumbo, appearing in October 1941.By extension, "Dumbo" became the unofficial nickname for any air-sea rescue aircraft, including flying boats that had less need to drop heavy lifeboats since the aircraft could land on the water and perform rescues directly. "Dumbo" was also an unofficial nickname for any variant of the PBY Catalina patrol bomber which operated in a wide variety of roles including anti-submarine warfare against German U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic.After the 1950s with development and greatly increased use of helicopters for air-sea rescue operations, the Dumbo aircraft were retired and the term was no longer used.

Higgins Industries

Higgins Industries was the company owned by Andrew Higgins based in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. Higgins Industries is most famous for the design and production of the Higgins boat, an amphibious landing craft referred to as LCVP (landing craft, vehicles, personnel), which was used extensively in the Allied forces' D-Day Invasion of Normandy. Higgins also manufactured PT boats, and produced the first American airborne lifeboat, the model A-1 lifeboat. The company also had a subsidiary architectural firm that designed manufacturing buildings - most famously the Michoud Assembly Facility.

Andrew Higgins also owned the New Orleans-based Higgins Lumber and Export Co., and Higgins Aircraft, which contracted to provide aircraft for the US military during World War II.

List of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress variants

The following is an extensive catalogue of the variants and specific unique elements of each variant and/or design stage of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber. For a broader article on the history of the B-17, see B-17 Flying Fortress.

Uffa Fox

Uffa Fox, CBE (15 January 1898 – 26 October 1972) was an English boat designer and sailing enthusiast.

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