An age of sea planes and grace recalled
It took nearly a week, and 20 stops, to reach SA, writes VICTORIA JOHN
DURBAN is the biggest and busiest port in Africa, but 70 years ago it offered safe anchorage to something quite unlike the massive container ships, buzzing helicopters and 800 other vessels which steam in and out of the harbour every month.
From the early 1930s it was the final stop for the fabulously graceful Sunderland flying boats which used the harbour to land and take off on the almost seven-day journey to and from the UK.
These stately weekly visitors to Durban docks would land with a splash, then were moored to buoys off Salisbury Island and were a popular attraction for residents. Owned by the British Overseas Airways Company (BOAC), they were first used for survey flights, then for transportation of mail.
The flying boat’s first commercial passenger flight from Durban to the UK was on May 31, 1937, and took six and a half days, including 20 stops to allow for refuelling and passengers to rest in luxurious accommodation.
Allan Jackson, who has dedicated a website to the history of Durban, provides a diary of Edith Sherry, born on February 24, 1900, who flew from Southampton to Durban on the flying boat Castor in 1937. She writes of the many stopovers the plane made, which included Marseilles, Rome, Cairo, Kampala and Dar es Salaam, and how the aircraft flew low enough over Mozambique to see “lots of game”.
An example of a meal aboard one of these lavish flights included iced asparagus, fricassee of lamb Therese, boiled potatoes and a buffet including roast round of beef, baked upland ham and a summer salad.
Sherry wrote: “I enjoyed every moment, and have nothing but praise for the organisation. All arrangements were perfectly carried out and everything was done for the comfort of passengers.”
Durban resident Peter Chamier, 72, who grew up within walking distance of Durban Harbour, tells how he would walk down to the docks every day after school to watch with fascination the flying boats being repaired and serviced.
His uncle, Peter Holmes, and father-in-law, William Anderson, both in their 30s at the time, worked as mechanics for BOAC. He says: “The sound of a jet aircraft these days does not come close to the sound of a Sunderland sea plane.”
He was also once offered a ride in a Sunderland and describes landing on water as “smoother than landing on land, like applying brakes in a car”.
But not all landings were quite this calm. The book Zululand True Stories by Dr JC van der Walt describes the reckless flying of some Sunderland planes and their landings on Lake Mzingazi, including “striking a hippo”, “striking a log” or “striking a crocodile”. The planes would then limp to Durban port for repairs.
The services of the passenger flying boats survived World War II but were then eclipsed by land-based aircraft capable of flying much greater distances. The elegant era of the flying boat eventually succumbed to land planes in 1946.
Unfortunately none of these beautiful machines was spared from the scrapyard, but their memory will remain in the minds of those fortunate enough to have watched the graceful flying boats in action.
UP, UP AND AWAY: The drone of the Sunderland’s four engines and propellers must have been deafening as it flew over Durban after taking off from the harbour.