Planes, Trains, and Waterfalls

A South African company revives a 1950s airliner and the lost art of elegant travel.

Fifty years ago, Metroliners plied short-haul routes around the world (above, a Swissair 440). (NASM 00023486 (SWISSAIR PHOTO+ VERMESSUNGEN AG ZURICH NEG. #7453, METROPOLOTON))
Air & Space Magazine

Herman van Niewehuizen had lost his cool. That much was clear when he stomped off the train he managed for South Africa's Rovos Rail and climbed into our Jeep. He punched a number on his cell phone and motioned the driver to turn down the radio and get on the road to Pietersburg's airport. As he waited for his call to go through, van Niewehuizen turned to photographer Baron Wolman and me and hissed: "The Americans! They didn't listen! Rohan was very clear. Everybody else pre-packed. One hundred fifty-five kilograms of luggage!"

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On the other end of the line, Rohan Vos picked up. Vos, the owner of Rovos Rail, had warned his passengers about their luggage. Two days earlier, he'd gathered them in Rovos' Pretoria rail station to explain the itinerary and the rules of the luxury rail-and-air tour on which they were about to embark. Of the passengers, little was expected. Beyond the jacket and tie he asked gentlemen to wear for evening meals, his only request was that when the train had covered the 200 miles to Pietersburg, where passengers would transfer to a 1950s-era airliner for the final leg to Victoria Falls, they were to have whittled their carry-on luggage down to just 15 kilograms (33 pounds) each. The remainder of their belongings would follow on another airplane.

The Americans-a trio of lawyers from New York City and a small child-had played dumb and refused to split up their luggage. Now they would need to shed a total of 95 kilograms of carry-on, and that would delay their bus ride to the airport and possibly the flight itself. Van Niewehuizen was pre-coronary. He cursed into the phone, mixing Afrikaans with accented English. Though we couldn't hear it, the message from Vos' end of the line seemed clear: Herman, calm down. The aircraft were fogged in at their base in Lanseria, 150 miles south. The New Yorkers would have time to repack.

It was January, just past the peak of Africa's summer tourist season. At Rovos' invitation, Wolman and I had traveled to South Africa to experience service aboard the company's Consolidated Vultee 440s. They are among the last of the 1950s-era, twin-radial-engine airliners flying. Rovos uses its two 440s mostly on trips to Victoria Falls, the thundering, mile-wide cascade on the Zambezi River along the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, but they also team up with the company's Douglas DC-3 on air safaris around southern Africa.

When addressing the passengers from behind a conductor's stand inside the rail station, Vos looked every bit like a lanky, distinguished Willy Wonka. His enormous hands flared with each sentence as he welcomed travelers into the world he created for his own amusement: more than 60 train carriages, five antique steam locomotives, three classic airliners, and a 56-acre rail station site, which also hosts a transportation museum and a soccer pitch. The company dates back to 1986, when he purchased and refurbished a few train carriages he hoped to convert to a rolling vacation home. Rail fees ended up being too daunting for the trips he wanted to make with his family, so the railways suggested he cover costs by selling tickets to tourists. The idea stuck. In 1989, Rovos launched its first journey, a round trip between Pretoria and Kruger National Park. The same year, Vos sold off the auto parts business that had made him wealthy to devote himself fully to his rail enterprise. In 2001, he added the airplanes.

Like all Rovos routes, the Pretoria-Victoria Falls trip appeals to those who want the romance of luxury rail travel through a distant and exotic land. The slow journey through Gauteng province offers gourmet meals and unlimited wine, big beds, and claw-foot bathtubs. A couple of hours aboard a luxurious airliner, on the other hand, seems less meaningful to most passengers. In fact, the majority hadn't given the flight to Victoria Falls a moment's thought; all they cared about was that the flight gave them the opportunity to photograph one of the world's seven natural wonders.

The 440 was Convair's response to the superior but pricier four-engine, turboprop-powered Vickers Viscount. It was the company's second iteration of the 240 Convair-Liner airframe, a design that debuted in 1945 as the world's first pressurized, twin-engine transport. In 1951, the 340, with an extended fuselage and wings and increased fuel and seating capacities, hit the skies.

By comparison, the 1954 upgrade from the 340 to the 440 was mostly a cosmetic one. In fact, the 440 had been designated the 340B until the company decided a snappy name-Metroliner-and an aggressive marketing campaign might breathe new life into the design. The Metroliner featured sleeker engine cowlings and slightly more powerful engines and weather radar than its predecessor. And because the 340 had been especially loud, Convair took pains to soundproof the 440 and hush its engine exhaust. Convair also offered an option to extend coach class by eight seats, to 52, with the removal of carry-on closets.

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.

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