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)

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!"

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.

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.

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.

Once aboard the Convair, I felt bad for Wolman, who'd had to climb over suitcases and duffel bags to wedge himself in the Piper. Aboard the Convair, I jaunted down cushy green carpeting and plopped myself into a wide leather seat. Above my head, shallow shelves just deep enough to hold coats and hats ran the lengths of the cabin walls. I also took note of the Art Deco-style Convair nameplates on the seat armrests, and the tasteful porthole curtains. And then there was the pièce de résistance: a pedal-operated rail car commode installed at the behest of Vos. Considering the weight limitations, a 25-pound toilet (and the 20 liters of flush water) seems an odd choice, but it played to rave reviews. "When you sat on the toilet your knees weren't up to your chin," said passenger Rose Orenstein of Lake Tahoe, Nevada. "It just felt reasonable."

The refueling stop in Botswana was made more interesting by heavy rain that had cooled the air but washed out local electricity. Passengers milled about the darkened Francistown International Airport terminal drinking from juice boxes and trading stories about game preserves. Others stood outside and smoked.

After an hour, the flight attendants announced that the airplane was fueled, and the 41 of us tramped across the ramp and up the Convair's extendable airstairs to our seats. The rain had abated to a drizzle. The second leg began with another long takeoff roll and shallow ascent over the flooded bush surrounding the airport.

Service aboard the aircraft was meticulous and slightly over the top. (The same was true of the train: Upon returning to a suite from dinner, one finds a bottle of champagne sitting on a turned-down bed.) The flight attendants began by passing out embroidered tablecloths and long-stem yellow roses, followed with an offering of wine or mango-orange juice. Next came a light lunch of cheese and cucumber on a baguette, beef and onion skewers, a phyllo dough pastry, a spring roll, and a spicy fritter. Delicious.

The day's early start-8:30 a.m.-and the dull noise of the slow-spinning (just 1,000 rpm) propellers encouraged napping, but lunch renewed the passengers' interest in the landscape. At low altitude and low speed, Africa can be absorbed on a per-village basis. South Africa's countryside-its low Drakensberg Mountains, paved roads, and occasional farms-looks like rural Virginia or Kentucky. But Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia scrolled steadily underneath us like the Africa of National Geographic articles: squat trees, muddy rivers, and patches of red soil. A commotion in the cabin marked the arrival of the money shot: Mist from Victoria Falls creeping upward in wisps above the Batoka Gorge. Moments later, the bump of the tires touching down and the roar of the propellers reversing signaled the end of our flight.

In the time it took to taxi and deplane, enthusiasm for the day's adventure had vanished. Everybody wanted to be there already, to relax poolside at a posh hotel before venturing to the falls or nearby game parks. In the Livingstone airport parking lot, hotel shuttles idled as we awaited the luggage airplane, which was 30 minutes behind us. The fogged-in aircraft, the refueling stop, the lengthy wait for our bags-these would have had U.S. travelers screaming. But here such complications are shrugged off as "just Africa."

We were nearly two hours behind schedule, and Rose Orenstein's husband George had taken notice. "It's been about six hours since we got off the train," he calculated. "Despite all of the elegance, and all the comforts, and the pure joy of this flight, the reality is if you have to get someplace, this is a thing of the past." Christof Helbing of Switzerland appraised the day more succinctly: "It was nice. Not a second time. Once was enough."

Vos recognizes that the Convairs are not ideal, but he has no plans to sell them. Operations chief Vere-Russell would like to see a change to a jet, perhaps a Fokker 28. "From a business point of view, an economical point of view, we definitely need a stronger, more powerful airplane," he says. But he can sympathize with Vos as well. "[Rohan] has put a hell of a lot of money into these things. To just sort of up and leave them...he's quite hesitant to do that."

Even with the delays, I wasn't sure that such a change was necessary. By definition, a journey with Rovos is not point-to-point transportation. A ticket buys you the time to soak up the finer details of a vista or a passing town, of a steam locomotive or a half-century-old airliner, of fine food and the companionship of fellow travelers. Rovos marketing agent David Patrick had once told me Vos' "whole ethos behind this thing was that he wanted to give people a chance to relax and to restore the lost art of conversation." When the luggage (and Wolman) landed and passengers hugged and parted company for the last time to claim their bags, I couldn't help but think he'd succeeded.

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)

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