THE TITLE REFERS to an African village which sprang up in the middle of nowhere to accommodate the team sent out to recover an Imperial Airways C class flying boat.
THE TITLE REFERS to an African village which sprang up in the middle of nowhere to accommodate the team sent out to recover an Imperial Airways C class flying boat. It had put down on a small river in the middle of Africa after becoming ‘temporarily unsure of its position’. Graham Coster, having read the story of the epic recovery operation, sets out to retell it in the broader context of the history of the inter war flying boat service through Africa to the Cape.
At the time, the flying boat service was the most luxurious way to travel. A surprising number of former passengers responded to Coster’s advert in the personal column of The Daily Telegraph, including my old friend and mentor, Dick Smerdon, who flew in Carpentaria from Durban to Cairo in 1944. They all told of the sense of wonder at the comfort and the low level views of Africa, with pilots taking detours to show them herds of elephants something you are unlikely to experience on your SAA 747 trip to Jo’burg these days!
No one could have sustained the level of expense needed to maintain this form of luxury travel. By 1949 the break even point in the sale of seats was 115 per cent, and I liked the comment from the Telegraph at the time that it would have been cheaper to pay the passengers £50 each not to fly! One year later the service to the Cape was scrapped.
In typically British fashion, of course, we persevered far beyond the realms of good sense. Despite the demise of the Cape route and the fact that the Comet, portent of a jet age to come, was already flying, Saunders Roe was busy developing a bigger, better flying boat. The Princess was launched in 1952, the newest, biggest, fastest dinosaur afloat.
The book is written as a travelogue, interspersed with historical details. I have two criticisms. Firstly, Coster, who is not a pilot, in my opinion wastes a great deal of the book on irrelevant research. His flight in a Cessna floatplane is unlikely to give much impression of what a flight in a real flying boat felt like. He travels along the old flying boat route to the Cape looking for signs of their passing, as if expecting to find runway lights across Lake Naivasha. I couldn’t help feeling that this was more about discovering himself than uncovering historic data. Secondly he seems unable to use two syllables where he can get away with six (‘solipsistically’?).
Some of the reminiscences are wonderful and I particularly enjoyed the main story of how the engineers had put a new bottom in an Empire flying boat in the middle of the African bush twice. This was little short of heroic as their photos show. All in all, a good read, even if Graham Coster has little understanding of aircraft. Ernie Hoblyn.