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Flying boats in most people’s minds conjure up images of a time of great decorum in travel - when huge ocean liners were the primary form of international travel, when passenger aircraft just began to match the comfort and luxury of the passenger ships and when the trip itself was an adventure.

The flying boats of the thirties and forties of the last century represented the heyday of romantic travel. This form of travel combined the best of all forms of travel at the time - the luxury of the ocean liners and first-class trains with the speed of air travel. The fact that the aircraft took off and landed on water was both an advantage and a disadvantage. An advantage in the sense that all it needed as a runway was a stretch of open water, but the flipside was that it could only be used where there was sufficient open water. That, in the end, proved the undoing of this type of transport.




1.The Short Singapore, flown by Alan Cobham which carried out a survey of the possible flying routes around Africa and was instrumental in Empire Airways introducing the Short C Class flying boat on the Africa service.

After 1933 British Imperial Airlines was committed to carrying mail to destinations in the British Empire including South Africa. With the emergence of practical international and intercontinental airline services, there was an obvious need to develop air routes to connect London with the Empire.
A survey as early as 1928 was completed by Sir Alan Cobham in a Short Singapore flying boat. In 1931 he undertook another survey, formally on behalf of Imperial Airways, using an S-11 Valetta, a three-engine monoplane.

In 1933 British Imperial Airlines head, S.A. Dismore had convinced the British Government that it could make the bold promise to carry mail throughout the Empire or at least, to Southern Africa, India, Singapore and Australia – by air for surface postage rates.

Known as the Empire Airmail Scheme, this plan led to a contract to establish a service, and British Imperial Airlines placed its order with Short Brothers for 28 of their big, untried, aircraft. Imperial Airways called them “Imperial Flying Boats”, but the popular name was “Empire Flying Boats”.

Canopus, the first S23 Empire class boat made its initial flight on July 4th, 1936 and the Empire Airmail Scheme was officially inaugurated in June 1937 when 3 500lbs (1.75 tons) of mail was delivered to South Africa.
The S.23 measured 88 feet (26.82m) in length, 31 feet 9.75 inches (9.745m) high, and had a wingspan of 114 feet (34.75m), it weighed 40,500 pounds (+- 20 tons) fully loaded and fuelled. It was powered by four Bristol Pegasus XC nine-cylinder radial engines each rated at 920 horsepower, which in turn provided a cruising speed of 164 mph (264 kph). It had a service ceiling of 20,000 feet (6 096m) and its range was 760 miles (1 223). It carried a crew of 5 accommodating 24 passengers.
The S.23s were also known as "C-Class" flying boats, because each was given a name beginning with the letter "C", Canopus and Centurian, to name a few that flew this route.
British Imperial staged its flights through a hub at Alexandria in Egypt, with the S23s known as Clio and Calypso, flying to and from Southampton. Calypso continued East to India and beyond while the Centurian served South Africa.

'CANOPUS' the first flying boat belonging to Empire Airways to land on the Vaal Dam in 1936.

The SHORT SUNDERLAND, a plane designed for the Royal Air Force developed from the C' class flying boat. They were used by the South African Air Force during World War II.

They used to take off from Southampton flying to Augusta in Italy, on to Cairo, then Khartoum, Port Bell, Victoria Falls and Vaal Dam.  During flights, which were at a low enough altitude, for passengers to get a good view of the Nile and the wild African landscape, the purser would lay out a cold buffet on a bench.  Dinner would be "ashore" in a good hotel while the great silver craft spent the night riding at anchor under the African moon. Johannesburg-bound passengers would disembark at Deneysville, near the Vaal Dam wall, an hour's bus journey from town.

Meanwhile, the longer-range Caledonia was used to open a service to New York by way of Newfoundland. In 1938, the Cambria was experimentally refueled in flight as a means of extending its range.

The Sunderland was then developed from the successful Empire class for the Royal Air Force by Short Brothers for wartime service as a long-range bomber.  Flights continued during World War II and many of the Empire boats remained in service until 1947. British Overseas Airways (BOAC) continued with the flying boat service to South Africa.

The Sandringham was a post-war development from this plane as was the Short S.45  Solent which was placed into service on the Springbok run to Vaal Dam.

On March 10, 1948, Solent G-AHIV ‘Salcombe’ arrived at Vaal Dam on the proving flight from Southampton and was followed by a special flight for the press on May 1, flown by G-AHIN ‘Southampton’ piloted by Capt. E ‘Teddy’ Rotheram. He was one of BOAC‘s more experienced captains having joined Imperial Airways in 1935 and given his command in 1938.

The first commercial service was introduced on May 4, 1948, flown by G-AHIT ‘Severn’. The route was Southampton - Augusta - Cairo - Luxor - Khartoum - Port Bell - Victoria Falls – Vaal Dam in 4½ days.

Though they became famous for their luxurious and incident free travel, their reign was brief.  On November 10, 1950, G-AHIO Somerset left Berth 50 in Southampton on the last southbound flight bringing a most wonderful era to an end.

On November 17, 1950, the Handley Page Hermes 4 was introduced with G-ALDR Herodotus making the first service to Palmietfontein near Johannesburg, which later became Jan Smuts International Airport and today is the O.R. Tambo International Airport. The following year NOTAM 53 of 1951 announced the cancellation of the aerodrome license for Vaal Dam.  It was the end of the Flying boat era.





The SHORT SOLENT was introduced on the Springbok route after the war until 1950 when they were replaced with land planes.




The press and VIP’s disembark from Southampton a BOAC Solent, to be ferried to the old hotel in Deneysville Vaaldam in May 1948. Photograph courtesy of the South African Railway Museum. The photograph was taken by the brother of Wim Hoek, a one time resident of Deneysville.

Hartbeespoort Dam did play a minor role in the flying boat industry before and during World War II.  In the early thirties there were moves afoot to establish a flying boat base in Hartbeespoort Dam, but as this could have seriously impacted on boating activities on the water, Johan Schoeman opposed the move. When the Vaal Dam was completed in 1937, Imperial Airways, the predecessor of BOAC, established a flying boat base at Deneysville, with Hartbeespoort Dam as an alternative port.

Probably the most famous of flying boats were the American PBY Catalinas, ("PB" stands for "Patrol Bomber" and "Y" is the code for "Consolidated Aircraft", the manufacturer) and sometimes people referred to any flying boat as a Catalina.

The flagship of American flying boats of the time was the Boeing Clipper 314, the image of which became synonymous with the romanticism of the time.  It was based on the XB-15 bomber prototype and had a wingspan of 45,5m, 10m more than that of the S-23.  It could carry 36 passengers at 300 km/h and were produced between 1938 and 1941.

The biggest flying boats ever built were the American Huges HK-1, nicknamed the Spruce Goose, and the British Saunders-Roe Princess, both produced towards the end of the flying boat era and both, according to the website, out of their time. The Spruce Goose had enough cargo space to carry two railroad boxcars.  It had eight massive Pratt & Whitney 3,000 horsepower engines with 17-foot propellers.  It weighed 300 000 pounds. And it was made of wood. It only flew for a couple of minutes during its test flight, piloted by the eccentric Howard Hughes himself and was never flown again.

Sea-planes and amphibian aircraft still landed at Hartbeespoort Dam from time to time but the era of the flying boats was over.  Towards the end of the nineteen nineties there were plans to introduce an amphibian service to the Okavango, using Hartbeespoort Dam as a terminal but with the amount of surface traffic on the water, it would have been tantamount to using a highway as an airport. The Hartbeespoort Dam Snake and Animal Park, which holds the license for commercial boating on the dam, objected and nothing came of the scheme.

Flying boats and seaplanes, as far as Hartbeespoort Dam is concerned, is just a memory of a romantic past, gone like the great ocean liners and steam trains and fondly relived in movies such as Casablanca.

SOUTHAMPTON the BOAC SOLENT takes off from the Vaal Dam.

Foundations of the old BOAC Terminal, now below the waters of Vaaldam.

The flying boat crews founded Lake Deneys Yacht Club and their company’s Speedbird logo graces the club burgee.  The Club committee boat is of course name Speedbird and the mark layer, Speedchick.

The foundations of the terminal building, slipway and part of the jetty can still be seen at Water Affairs when the level of the Vaal Dam is low.

Article written by Julian Girard the artist, for Vaal River Leisure & Lifestyle, Autumn 2012