Wednesday, January 28, 2015

An Unforgettable Documentary: "The Last African Flying Boat"

I know I don't post as much as I used to anymore, but it's not from disinterest.  Sure I could write more about cars or punk rock or watches, but what's the point.  I'd rather wait and throw on something of substance here, when I happen upon it.

Through a confluence of circumstances, I was reminded of a documentary I saw on the BBC while I was living in London in 1991.  On a whim, and of course following very little effort, I found it on YouTube.  If you have a spare seventy minutes, watch it, especially if anything I've written here ever grabbed your attention.  It's got it all.

"The Last African Flying Boat" was a documentary shot for the BBC in 1989 about an aging twin-engine Catalina flying boat retracing a journey from Cairo to Mozambique.  Historically, this represented the Southern route established by a long-vanished British concern called Imperial Airways.  Flying boat travel was pioneered by Imperial Airways in the inter-war years.  Following the Nile River, this journey evidently took weeks to complete.  The purpose of the modern day adventure was to reopen the route for well-heeled tourists.

So much about this story captures my imagination.  Of course, there is the beautiful Consolidated PBY Catalina amphibious plane, with its high wing, twin rotary engines, retractable pontoons, waist gunner blisters converted to observation windows, and an interior which is part luxury yacht and part Orient Express.  Imagine flying at a stately 80 knots below the cloud cover as the African landscape slides past beneath you.  You count crocodiles and hippopotamus while you sip on a perfectly crafted gin and tonic swirling in crystal.

The Cat is flown by a taciturn American with a bird's nest of curly blond hair, forever sporting a pair of American Optical aviator sunglasses with traditional bayonet temples.  We meet "Jim", as he is called, as he is landing the bird on the Nile river with one hand, while flicking the ash of his cigarette out the sliding window of the cockpit.  Aside from being checked out on this aircraft type, Jim is also a certified Cat mechanic, and as the trip progresses, many of his skills are put to the test, airborne, floating, or chocked up.

Our travel companion on the journey is a British travel figure of some renown, Alexander Frater, who, considering this is 1989, isn't above behaving like an imperialist of an earlier generation.  We see him chagrined to learn that there is no bacon to be had at breakfast in the Muslim-run hotel in Cairo; something his predecessors apparently wouldn't have put up with in the old days.  On more than one occasion, we see him seeking out the company of other "colonists," most memorably spending a pleasant evening in the veldt with the descendants of the notorious Happy Valley Set of Kenya, an enclave of Anglo-Irish aristocrats who had gone borneo long ago, but not without keeping up their polo stables, high tea, and African servants.

There are other memorable characters as well, including Bill Cragg, an intrepid expatriate bush pilot who warns Jim of the perils of flying through war torn regions of central Africa.  Another brief search on the internet informs me that, shortly after this film was in the can, Cragg himself was shot down by a Soviet-sold SA-7 surface-to-air-missile over contested territory, launched by Sudanese rebels.

I don't want to spoil the ending for you, but aside from the will-it-or won't-it of a rather difficult take off at elevation, there is very little tension.  Light on drama, but heavy on atmosphere, it remains unclear to me whether this brand of tourism ever returned to the Dark Continent.  If it did, or if it remains, or if it ever does, count me among those wishing I could partake.


M.Lane said...

Outstanding! I am going to watch it this weekend. Thanks. Maybe I'll scout out a sixpack of Tusker to go along with it.


PS GREAT to see the post!!

Ben said...

Brilliant! Although I think this show is more of a scotcher, due to the warm african beer that so vexes Jim. Oh, I hope I haven't given away too much already.

Anyway, I feel like I'm returning a favor, as I just finished the wonderful Conrad Hilton book. Cheers!

Preferred User said...

I think the whole thing becomes almost mystical in its appeal when they discover the Isla de Mozambique. Is it a bit of a reference to the heart of darkness?
But I absolutely loved it, so many things not being said or reported on, makes one so curious about what else happened.
Makes me dream of low-flying air tourism in remote areas, even fantasizing about learning how to fly these contraptions...

Ben said...

I just saw your comment. Thanks for your visit. I'm so embarrassed not to have thought of The Heart of Darkness at all. You are precisely correct!