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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To assure Vos that the airplanes could operate at altitude, LAC flew him on a round trip from its 8,360-foot-elevation base at Cochabamba to La Paz-at 13,325 feet, the world's highest international airport. Vos also insisted LAC crunch numbers for what he said might be a typical Rovos Air trip: "A flight from Johannesburg to Livingstone...which is 5,500-odd feet down to 4,000-odd feet at [95 degrees Fahrenheit] with 44 people." The calculations said the 440s could make the trip. "On the strength of that, I bought these things," says Vos. Two airliners, $1 million each.
Because the aircraft had flown only intermittently for the Air Force, and because they operated at altitude in Bolivia, the airframes were in good condition with almost no corrosion, but they were out of compliance with international airworthiness directives. Vos removed the airplanes' insulation and wiring, the avionics were again updated, and the instruments reconfigured and modernized.
One instrument that remained was the engine analyzer, a circular display near the flight engineer's seat. The flight engineer's main job, after starting the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines, is to monitor them during flight. "That instrument enables us to tell if the spark plug is firing or if the lead that's going into it is performing," says Theo Munro, a Rovos flight engineer who worked on DC-3s and DC-4s for 30 years in the South African air force. The analyzer can spot problems before they turn into real trouble. Its backlit sine waves pulse in synch with the engines and look like an electrocardiogram ("We often joke that that's the captain's heart rate," says Rovos Air operations chief Stuart Vere-Russell).
The Convair's signature system is its engine augmenter, which uses heat from the exhaust to warm outside air it has collected. The warmed air can be used to heat the cabin and de-ice the leading edges of the wings and stabilizers. In addition to warming the aircraft, the augmenter also helps cool the engines. It uses the vacuum induced by the high-speed flow of the exhaust gases as they pass through the exhaust tube to suck ambient air through the engine nacelles and reduce the need for cowl flaps. Convair boasted that the system added about 10 mph to cruising speed and 2,000 pounds of payload.
Once the restoration was complete, Vos had the aircraft weighed for local aviation authorities. "The weight ended up 2,400 pounds more than had been declared when we purchased it," says Vos. "So hello! We're 11, 12 passengers down on [weight] numbers we expected." Vos thinks Canedo simply passed on a number the Bolivians may have been given when they bought the airplanes. Canedo disputes the charge, but it doesn't change the situation. "We've got airplanes now that cannot fulfill the job they were purchased for," Vos says.
When the other passengers arrived at Pietersburg airport, it was evident that the story of van Niewehuizen's confrontation with the New Yorkers had made the rounds. I'd seen him only briefly since he'd stormed off the Jeep. Now he'd reappeared to shepherd his passengers through security and immigration. His mood had improved: When asked about the New Yorkers' newly condensed luggage, he responded with a smile and a story about a Rovos Air captain who had ordered the contents of a Convair's baggage hold offloaded and set on the ramp so that the entire group of passengers could repack.
Even small adjustments to the Convairs' payloads make a difference to weight and fuel numbers, and thus safety and profit. Having already removed a row of unsold seats to compensate for 175 pounds of freeloader (me), Rovos banished Wolman to the twin-engine Piper that would follow the Convair to Zambia with the extra luggage. When it can, Rovos flies the lighter of its two 440s. Metroliner ZS-BRV weighs in at approximately 500 pounds less than its virtually identical-looking companion, ZS-ARV (though the latter sports a larger nosecone), yet even the lighter airplane suffers, eating up lots of runway during takeoff from Pietersburg before settling into a 20-minute climb to 13,000 feet.
Flown nonstop to Livingstone, the Convairs might cover the 525 miles in two hours and 10 minutes. But because the 440s shave weight by leaving Pietersburg with a partial fuel load, they must refuel at Francistown, Botswana, after just 70 minutes in the air. Then there is a 75-minute flight to Livingstone.