Planes, Trains, and Waterfalls
A South African company revives a 1950s airliner and the lost art of elegant travel.
- By Sam Goldberg
- Air & Space magazine, September 2005
NASM 00023486 (SWISSAIR PHOTO+ VERMESSUNGEN AG ZURICH NEG. #7453, METROPOLOTON)
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Despite the refinements, the airplane was no match for the quieter, more powerful Viscount and other aircraft of the dawning turboprop age (the Convair 580, more or less a Convair-Liner with turboprop engines, was a failure). Only 199 of the Metroliners were manufactured, though airlines upgraded more than 100 of their 340s to 440s with kits provided by Convair.
Ultimately, nearly 1,100 of the 240/340/440-series airplanes were built. The U.S. military was the biggest customer, ordering almost 500 aircraft. The most famous of these was the Air Force's T-29 "Flying Classroom," used to train bombardiers and navigators. Others, such as the C-131 and the Navy's R4Y, were used for transport, medical evacuation, missile tracking, photo-surveying, and electronics testing.
Rovos' two aircraft were among the 30 or so produced as C-131D Samaritan transports. For more than 30 years they flew Air Force officials and provided medevac service. In the late 1980s they were retired to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base storage facility in Arizona, and in 1991 they were transferred to the custody of the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio (though the airplanes belonged to the museum, they stayed in Arizona). The museum swapped them for an airworthy Beech 18 owned by Long Island trader Bob Smirnow. In 1992, Smirnow sold the C-131s to Rolando Canedo, owner of Bolivia-based Líneas Aéreas Canedo.
Canedo ferried the aircraft to Bolivia and refurbished the interiors and added seats, replaced hoses and hydraulics, rebuilt the engines, and added GPS instruments. Because the airplanes were no longer owned by the U.S. Air Force, Bolivian aviation authorities certified them for airworthiness as Convair 440s. LAC operated the aircraft until 2001, when Canedo decided he might retire and sell the airplanes.
Just as Canedo was contemplating retirement, Rovos Rail was facing a crisis. Zimbabwe, through which Rovos ran its main route-Pretoria to the town of Victoria Falls-was crumbling under the rule of President Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and its campaign to redistribute white-owned land to poor blacks.
In March 2000, faced with problems operating the trains in Zimbabwe and widespread flooding in the region, Vos concluded that it was no longer wise to run a luxury train through the Zimbabwe countryside. He plotted a route from Pretoria through Kruger National Park and on to Pietersburg, followed by a final leg to Victoria Falls in a chartered DC-3 or -4. (After much tinkering, the trip now consists of rail legs from Pretoria to Kapama Game Reserve and then Kapama to Pietersburg, followed by a flight into Livingstone, on the Zambian side of the falls. Rovos offers the one-way journey weekly.)
Though the charters served admirably, Vos wanted an aircraft he could modify for luxury. He searched the trades and the Internet for airplanes that would match the nostalgic allure of his rail cars. His heart was set on a piston-engine airliner that was pressurized and powerful enough to fly over bad weather and take off in the heat and humidity that thinned the air in Africa. He also needed to carry 44 passengers-the capacity of one rail dining car and about the number of tickets to turn a profit on a run to Victoria Falls.
There wasn't much out there-just a few DC-4s, DC-6s, and the Convairs. He sent an engineer to Bolivia to evaluate LAC's two 440s, which he'd read about online. The engineer's report came back positive, and in May 2001 Vos personally inspected the airplanes.