How the flight of angels inspired a flying boat stop

Victoria Falls viewed from the air is so impressive that 68 years ago British Airways’ forerunner, BOAC, added a stop to its UK/Johannesburg service, just so its customers could see the spectacle.

Now, British Airways (operated by Comair) is again flying to Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders) one of the seven natural wonders of the world and which is living up to its moniker after higher-than-normal rainfall in the Zambezi River catchment area.

The airline stopped flying to Victoria Falls on 26 March 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown. Now that it is ramping up its flight schedule again, this safari/adventure- tourism bucket-list must is one of the first regional destinations to which it is operating.

This was informed by the fact that Victoria Falls has always been a popular leisure destination. It has plenty to offer from adrenaline-fuelled activities such as white-water rafting and bungee jumping to family safaris and tranquil river cruises, says Desmond O’Connor, Comair’s executive for revenue.

“As well as this broad appeal, there’s been a well-documented vaccination programme, as Zimbabwe works to get its tourism sector back on its feet. This, combined, with what we hope is some pent-up demand after so many people had to cancel holiday plans, made it an obvious choice of leisure destinations to include in the ramp-up.”

It’s the same appeal that enabled the BOAC planners to sell the idea to their bosses nearly seventy years earlier and the airline launched the new service on 4 May 1948, using Solent flying boats. These departed Southampton and – via five stops, including the one at the Falls – landed on the Vaal Dam four-and-a-half days later.

It wasn’t the quickest way to travel between Johannesburg and the UK – a Skymaster could do the trip in about 30 hours – but BOAC reckoned a scenic night stop at the Falls would convince leisure travellers that the extra time the flying boats needed to cover the 5 600 nautical miles was worth it.

The Vaal Dam was chosen as a flying-boat station because, according to a BOAC newsletter from the time: “With a useable area of approximately 90 square miles, and alighting areas varying from 11,000 to 20,000 feet in length, Vaaldam (sic) now makes an ideal flying-boat station. It is almost unheard of for flying conditions to be suspended owing to severe weather.”

Another attraction of the Dam was that BOAC didn’t have to start from scratch. Training facilities which flying boat crews had used during the war, when ‘C’- class flying boats operated the ‘Horseshoe’ route from Durban, could be upgraded and enlarged.

After taking off from the Vaal Dam the Solents flew to Victoria Falls, landing on the Zambezi.

Station engineer, S. Kempson, describes what it was like seeing one of the flying boats coming into land: “It circled Victoria Falls at 14.08 hours and in a few moments was orbiting the alighting area, four-and-a-half miles above the cataracts. Approaching from low above Kandahar Island, the aircraft lost height with superb grace, and scudding swiftly across the waters of the Zambesi, completed a perfect touch-down. She taxied easily towards the mooring-buoy, and tied up in seconds.”

The next day – there was no night flying – the aircraft took off for the onward flight to the UK via Port Bell on Lake Victoria, Khartoum, Alexandria and Augusta.

The weekly service is commemorated on a mural at the Victoria Falls Hotel, where the 34 passengers overnighted; a stop which was affectionately nicknamed the Jungle Junction, a name given to the hotel’s buffet restaurant in 1996.

Originally BOAC hoped to grow the flying boat service to three a week, but rapid improvements in post-war aircraft design meant that pressurised Hermes aircraft replaced the Solents. The Hermes could do the London/ Johannesburg journey in a day-and-a-half. The last BOAC flying boat service to Johannesburg ended in November 1950.

British Airways operated by Comair restarted flights to Victoria Falls on 13 May, with two flights a week on Thursday and Sunday. From 1 June it will re-introduce daily flights.

The view remains just as appealing. First officer, Warren Riley rates the flight as one of his favourites: “coming in to land you fly over the Victoria Falls and the view is incredible.”

Today, 71 years after the last Solent flying boat departed, there’s still plenty of demand for the ‘flight of angels’, with various charter companies offering flights over the Falls.

Contrary to what visitors may think, the term wasn’t coined tourism brochure copywriters, but David Livingstone, who wrote in his chronicles: “…, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

With British Airways operated by Comair offering some exceptional packages during May and June there’s never been a better time to gaze on “scenes so lovely”.

May packages start from R5 830 per person sharing for three nights. The offer is available on 20 and 27 May and includes flights, transfers, accommodation and breakfast.

When daily flights begin operating in June two-night packages including flights, transfers, accommodation and breakfast will be available from R5 476 per person sharing.

Return flights, without transfers and accommodation, start from R2 990.

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