Uffa Fox’s great and lasting memorial – the Airborne Lifeboat

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Uffa Fox airborne lifeboat rigged for sailing

Uffa Fox’s Airborne Lifeboat rigged for sailing – image
from Wikipedia Commons via Ian Dunster

Keith Muscott recently wrote this entertaining short history of Uffa Fox’s Airborne Lifeboat for members of the excellent Yahoogroup Openboat, and has been kind enough to give me permission to publish it here. Many thanks Keith!

‘Uffa Fox became obsessed with the notion of a ‘droppable’ lifeboat following the capture of his stepson Bobbie Sach after a ditching. His first idea was a folding boat that could be dropped straight from a low-flying aircraft. He soon realized the impracticality of this, and moved on to consider parachuting it into the oggin. It was to be made of small panels of plywood, which would be opened up by the parachutes as the whole parcel descended. Legend has it that he dropped the first model from a top floor window and converted the drinkers in the Duke of York to teetotalism when they saw it float down. Folding plywood panels were soon discarded in the light of experience.

‘That idea was dropped in favour of carrying the complete craft in the belly of a plane, which was to be an American Hudson (already in use for air-sea rescue). Subsequently they discovered that the bomb door jacks took up too much room for the boat to be carried in the bomb bay, so it was back to the drawing board to design a boat which was streamlined enough to hang outside like a torpedo without completely ruining the air flow. Uffa secured the go-ahead from Lord Brabazon, who subsequently got a rocket from those above for allowing himself to cave in so quickly under the influence of Fox’s silver tongue.

‘Uffa designed the final version one-eighth full-size, 1.5 ins to the foot, and ran off dozens of copies so that many draughtsmen could work on it simultaneously. The lines were lofted then the builders set to work: three weeks in all from pencil lines to waterlines. The hull was built with traditional diagonal planking – two layers of opposing diagonals, one straight planks fore and aft separating them, if I remember correctly. There would probably have been oiled silk or some such material between layers.

‘The test pilot in the Hudson would only fly the first test with the boat attached if Uffa went along too – which he did, including during the final stall tests. The streamlined boat hardly affected the airspeed at all and the plane kept up easily with another Hudson carrying RAF photographers. A secondhand Britannia Middy engine was reconned by the manufacturers for the tests and proved to be exactly right, delivering six knots and good endurance – but it was no longer in production. This led to a call going out to pleasure boat operators up and down the land, including many municipal boating lakes, to strip out engines and return them to the manufacturers (the British Motor Boat Manufacturing Company). June Dixon, Uffa’s neice, describes this bizarre situation beautifully:

“These valiant little engines, cast aside by the exigencies of war and no longer responding to the peacetime call of ‘Come in number twelve, your time is up’, were destined to find themselves chugging gaily along, homeward bound, offering new hope to men whose time but for them might well also have been up.’”

‘The air-sea trial took place during an air raid, with Uffa, and others, bobbing up and down in the Solent in a rubber dinghy. The pilot had been instructed to drop the boat from 600 feet at 110 mph, aimed right at the dinghy, whose occupants were duly soaked by the splash. It descended as the designer intended, nose down under several chutes at a thirty degree angle. The chutes were blown away by a charge when the boat hit and floating lines were fired outwards by two rockets.

‘The boat – a world’s first – was equally as successful in practice and Uffa was eventually presented with a certificate saying as much by members of the Goldfish Club when he became the subject of the television programme This is Your Life many years later.

‘It has been suggested that if the old rogue ever did get into heaven before the Devil knew he was dead, then this design above all others would have been the one that tipped the balance in his favour.

‘Keith Muscott’

The Airborne Lifeboats were used in as many as 600 rescues, but after WWII was over, many were converted for use by yachtsmen and dinghy sailors, and I’ve heard reports of a racing class being created around them. They would certainly have made good, big cruising boats for sailing schools and so on.

Click here for more on Fox at intheboatshed.net and click here to read about his life at the Wikipedia.

There’s an interesting and affecting postscript to this story. Family and friends at the end must have regarded the Airborne Lifeboat as Fox’s finest creation, for an engraving of one appears on his gravestone.

Uffa Fox airborne lifeboat gravestone

Uffa Fox’s gravestone on the Isle of Wight, from Wikimedia Commons

Keith’s interest in Fox is long-standing, and he has this to say about his hero:

‘I have always been interested in Uffa Fox for a variety of reasons. Born in 1898 and winning races almost as soon as he could climb into a boat, it seems to me that he bridges the old world of sailing and wooden boat construction and the new one of Olympics classes, moulded hulls, GRP and so on. Not only that, but he made himself a master in most aspects of both, and became a tremendous designer and craftsman and a sailor of international ability and reputation.

‘Then there is the attraction of his larger-than-life-personality. It probably would have been too wearing on the nerves to live next door to the man, but his provocative opinions, his ideas about boats – which veered from genius to eccentricity – and his entertaining personality, which shines through his designs and his writings, have few parallels.

‘He was such an uncompromising designer in that his craft do not suit lazy sailors – hard work and ability are always rewarded with exhilaration.’

‘But for me, the breadth of his sailing interest has always been the paramount inspiration – I can’t recall where he published it, but his account of the seaworthiness of the Bounty’s overloaded launch in which Bligh navigated successfully for thousands of miles is a case in point.’

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10 thoughts on “Uffa Fox’s great and lasting memorial – the Airborne Lifeboat”

  1. My wife's uncle was in Air-sea Rescue after damaging his ears in fighters in WW2. I remember him talking about trials in the Thames estuary but at the time Uffa's name didn't come up. In 1956, at the Melbourne Olympics, as a Sea Scout, I believe I was introduced to him on the officials boat, the detroyer Warramunga. I was only 13 and 'working' at the Olympics as a message runner before portable radio's and mobiles.

  2. Hello,

    I'm a Brit living in the US. I am preparing a DVD, mostly still images, of my local boatyard. One segment will describe an elderly man who lived in the yard in one of these Uffa Fox airborne air sea rescue boats. The boat was alleged to have been sailed here from England on two occasions.

    I would like to have a digital image of one of the boats to include in my DVD. If you have one, or know where I could get one, would you email me a copy, or give me directions to a source?

    Thank you

    Keith White

  3. The Wikimedia Commons has the small one above, but if you use it you must include a credit for the source.

    Otherwise, I'd try the museums, perhaps starting with the boat museum at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.


  4. Hi to Keith White, I owned an Uffa Fox airborne lifeboat in the eighties and have a good picture of it in New Zealand. If he emails me I can send a photo or two of it.

    Phil Smith

  5. The Classic Boat Museum is on the Quay at Newport. Isle of Wight

    The Museum opened in 1996, and houses an exciting collection of sailing and power boats, of both local and national interest and importance.

    We are a Charity and Registered Museum, and run entirely by volunteers, Our aim is to preserve and present the best of those boats that demonstrate the workmanship of past generations for the delight of the present.

    As well as the exhibitions in the Museum, we have a restoration shed where work takes place all year round, restoring to their original condition boats that are part of our maritime heritage.

    Our collection contains not only classic boats, but also tools, artefacts, books, photographs, film and archival items that relate to much of the history of boat building, sailing, yachting, cruising and racing over the last century, in the Solent and beyond. Our boats also include an airborne lifeboat that was dropped to aircrew who had been shot down during the last war. This is a Mk1a and was No Q11. She was found on the outskirts of Colchester, Essex in a very sad state. Restoration has brought her back to how she would have been in WW2. Complete with Middi engines, sails and several artifacts of that time.

    We have several Uffa Fox designs, including Prince Philips Coweslip. All the boats in the exhibition are in a seaworthy condition and are sailed or driven as often as possible. Some are available for special occasions. Pleasew visit out website at http://www.classicboatmuseum.org

  6. Yes, you are right about them being used long after the war by sailing schools, and about them being raced as a class.

    For part of the summer of 1963 I taught at Plymouth Sailing School, who had a fleet of three of them. Ballasted with concrete in the bilges if I remember correctly, which allowed one to walk around on the decks and gave them the stability of a yacht of comparable hull form, and with Flying Fifteen rigs.

    They were also raced as a class in Plymouth Sound, and I remember that one Saturday – which was the changeover day for our weekly courses and thus a non-teaching day – we entered all our three Airbornes in a local regatta, which had a class for them. I don't remember just how Airbornes many raced on that occasion, but it was certainly significantly more than just our three.

    Oliver L. Shaw

  7. In Adlard Coles' book "More Saling Days" (pub. 1947) there is the story of Uffa Fox racing "Airborne" under her original rig in a race from Cowes to the Chirstchurch Ledge buoy and back, on September 1st. 1945,with a big crew and a barrel of beer – and doing remarkably well!

  8. There is a dismantled lifeboat lying at the Cape Town military airforce museum at Ysterplaat. The boat is complete, but in pieces, and the engine – a rare 6 cylinder 4 sparkplug Villiers motor has been completely restored.

  9. Does anyone now know where a 30ft mark 11 airborne lifeboat is.? We believe we are about to restore the last surviver but that might not be so??

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