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Foynes thronged as 20,000 turn up for air-show celebration of 75th anniversary of first commercial transatlantic flight

08 July 2014

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Transport Minister Leo Varadkar among those to pack into West Limerick town for two days of celebrations 

There was aviation magic in the skies over Foynes and huge throngs on the ground at the weekend as an estimated 20,000 were on hand to witness two days of daredevil aerobatics displays as the 75th anniversary of the first transatlantic commercial flight was marked in the West Limerick town.
The busiest weekend ever for Foynes was a fitting tribute to the milestone anniversary of the famous flight that saw the Pan American Airways ‘Yankee Clipper’ land at the first ‘Shannon Airport’, the then seaplane port in the West Limerick town, in July 1939.
Over 15,000 turned up Sunday for the centrepiece of the celebrations, a stunning two hour air-show involving up 30 different aircraft, ranging from individuals to teams, which captivated the huge crowds with their aerobatics displays. 
The celebrations reflected Ireland’s love affair with aviation.  And it essentially began at Foynes, which for that magical period from 1939 to 1945 was the European capital for transatlantic aviation before operations transferred across the Shannon Estuary to Rineanna, shortly afterwards to be named Shannon Airport – the main sponsor of the weekend’s celebrations in Foynes. 
That historic first commercial flight between the US and Europe had just 19 VIP passengers on board when it landed at Foynes from New York, via Newfoundland. In the years that followed, Foynes was the arrival point into and departure point from Europe for some of the world’s leading politicians, dignitaries and royalty, among them John F Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bob Hope and Ernest Hemingway.  Gracie Fields was even known to have sang quayside for staff during her visits there.
The now world famous Irish Coffee, which hostelries in the town were inundated with requests for throughout the weekend, also owes its origins to that period.  It was first created and named by a chef, Joe Sheridan, who, on a miserable winter evening in the 1940s at Foynes, blended hot coffee, Irish whiskey and sugar, topping it with thick cream, to warm up passengers on a Pan Am Flying Boat that landed at the seaplane port.  
In stark contrast with the inaugural flight, which would have cost passengers at the time a hefty $675 for a return ticket – the equivalent of over $11,000 today – the two day celebration was free-to-public.   
It also doubled as the 25th anniversary of the opening of Foynes Flying Boat Museum - the only aviation museum in Ireland and dedicated flying boat museum in the world.  The museum was officially opened in July 1989 by its Patron, actress Maureen O’Hara Blair, whose husband Charles Blair flew the last scheduled flying boat from Foynes to New York in 1945.  The event also saw the Air Traffic Control tower at Foynes operated for the first time since the airbase closed in 1945. 
Among those attending the weekend’s festivities were Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who unveiled a plaque to honour the inaugural flight into the sea-port 75 years ago on Wednesday.  Speaking at the unveiling, the Taoiseach said,  “Foynes will forever be on the map thanks to the long association between this part of our country and the greater world outside.  It’s been a long time since 1939 and it’s hard to believe that the first commercial non-stop flights from New York took 25 hours.  You can imagine what people would say today if they were faced with spending 25 hours on a flight to New York?  
“It is a long way today but was a lot longer in aviation terms back then.  Yet all those pioneers, from Lindberg to Captain Blair and all of the celebrities, film stars and people of well-known repute travelled to Foynes, which was the biggest civilian airport in Europe during the Second World War.  Foynes played its part in aviation history, with so many memories created here.”
Also present over the weekend were Minister for Transport, Sport and Tourism Leo Varadkar, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan, plus a host of dignitaries.  All the leading Irish based aviation leasing companies were also represented, plus heads of Shannon Airport, Shannon Foynes Port Company, plus the Irish Aviation Authority, the Air Corps, Defence Forces, as well as American Airlines, whose forerunner American Export Airlines flew regularly into Foynes when it was the capital of transatlantic aviation from 1939 to 1945. 
Rose Hynes, Chairman of Shannon Airport said that Foynes lit the spark for a huge aviation legacy in this region that continues today.  “There is an inextricable link between Foynes and Shannon Airport; we are part of the one aviation family. Together we celebrated over the weekend the first-transatlantic commercial passenger flight from 75 years ago between New York and Foynes. In Shannon we have inherited the transatlantic gateway from Foynes.
“On 22 October 1945, Charles Blair captained the last scheduled flying boat service from Foynes to New York. Two days later he turned around and flew the first scheduled transatlantic land-plane service, in a Douglas DC4, back to Shannon Airport. And another chapter began.  The weekend was a fitting celebration of this great history.”
Organiser of the event Margaret O’Shaughnessy, Director of the Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum, said she was taken aback by the success of the event.  “It was a huge event to take on as we hadn’t done anything as big as this before it was a success way beyond our expectations.  The crowds were bigger than what we could have hoped for and that shows the interest there is in aviation, which very much goes back to what was created here at Foynes 75 years ago.
“People made a big effort to came here, many from long distances, and they got superb entertainment from the airshows.  We had fantastic displays throughout the weekend and it was great to see the town so busy.”


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