1937-1938: The Piggy-Back Plane

1938 - Watched by a large, interested crowd, the Mayo Composite Plane carried out its first official separation tests over Rochester, Kent, where it was built. The tests were carried out successfully, when the smaller craft 'Mercury' was released from the parent plane 'Maia' on which it was carried into the air.

(c) TopFoto


The Piggy-Back plane (more prosaically known as the Short Mayo Composite) was developed by Short Brothers (Shorts), a firm noted for its production of flying boats.  Shorts’ flying boats could travel long distances if they could refuel en route, but the transatlantic route was rendered impossible unless passenger space was replaced with fuel tanks.

It was known that a plane could actually fly supporting a heavier load than that with which it was possible to take off.  Major Robert H. Mayo of Imperial Airways proposed carrying a smaller, but heavier, plane into the air attached to the back of a larger, lighter plane.  The thrust of both planes’ engines would lift them to the required height, after which they would separate, the larger one returning to base and the smaller one continuing on its journey. 

In development, a launch plane named Maia carried the transport plane Mercury to its operational height.  The first in-flight separation was on February 6 1938 and the first trans-Atlantic flight was on July 21 1938.  The planes were prevented from colliding after separation by the design of the wings and the special three part locking system that held them together.  A lock for each pilot released first and a final automatic lock that operated at the right moment.

Only one composite plane was built.  Technological advances and the onset of WWII rendered it obsolete, and Maia was destroyed by German bombs in May 1941.  Mercury was scrapped for its aluminium in August of that year.

Yet the idea didn’t entirely die.  In 1976, NASA used it to transport the Space Shuttle between air bases, bolted onto a Boeing 747.


July 5th, 1937 - “The Mayo composite aircraft nears completion at Rochester. The aircraft consists of two units. One is a four engined seaplane to be heavily loaded with freight mail and fuel, the other is a lightly loaded flying boat similar, except in details, to the Empire flying boat.”

(c) TopFoto


 1937 - The two parts of the aircraft. The plane is expected to bring India and New York within a day’s non-stop flight.  (c)  TopFoto

1937 - The two parts of the aircraft. The plane is expected to bring India and New York within a day’s non-stop flight.

(c) TopFoto




 (c)  TopFoto

 1938 -  ‘The Mayo composite plane, flies over the ancient city of Rochester, its birthplace in the garden of England, Kent. On left of the picture is Rochester Castle, rebuilt by Gundulf, early Norman Bishop, and the spire on right is that of Rochester Cathedral, which was already for centuries old when the Normans invaded Britain. The cathedral was founded by King Ethelbert in 604 AD. In background is the River Medway, which has seen these centuries of progress and yet floes placidly on its way to the sea. The Mayo plane took off from the River on her official separation trials and this picture was made just before small aeroplane 'Mercury' was automatically released from the wing of the parent flying boat 'Maia'.’   (c)  TopFoto

1938 - ‘The Mayo composite plane, flies over the ancient city of Rochester, its birthplace in the garden of England, Kent. On left of the picture is Rochester Castle, rebuilt by Gundulf, early Norman Bishop, and the spire on right is that of Rochester Cathedral, which was already for centuries old when the Normans invaded Britain. The cathedral was founded by King Ethelbert in 604 AD. In background is the River Medway, which has seen these centuries of progress and yet floes placidly on its way to the sea. The Mayo plane took off from the River on her official separation trials and this picture was made just before small aeroplane 'Mercury' was automatically released from the wing of the parent flying boat 'Maia'.’

(c) TopFoto


1938 - The Mayo Composite Plane taken at the moment of separation in midair over Rochester.

(c) TopFoto



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 Text and curation: Amanda Uren



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