An age of sea planes and grace re­called

It took nearly a week, and 20 stops, to reach SA, writes VIC­TO­RIA JOHN

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

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.

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