Corsairville: The Lost Domain of the Flying Boat
By Graham Coster
Penguin Books Ltd 2000; New paperback edition (1 Feb 2001)
Available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Corsairville-Lost-Domain-Flying-Boat/dp/0140253483
or order at your local bookstore
This riveting work of non-fiction is the story of the writer’s remarkable quest to uncover a lost fragment of our travelling past. Graham Coster, keen on aeroplanes since childhood, determines to find out more about those legendary flying boats which changed the face of travel in those years straddling the Second World War. Coster’s quest takes him from Croydon, where he was born, to Alaska via Southampton, Lake Windermere, Florida, the Caribbean, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zimbabwe. But one particular seaplane became the stuff of legend…
True to the title, the reader is kept spellbound by the extraordinary story of Corsair. On 14 March 1939 Corsair was flying the northbound service from South Africa to England, by then ‘only’ a 5-day service from Durban to Southampton. This flying boat had reached Kisumu on Lake Victoria, having already stopped at Mozambique Island in Portuguese East Africa and Mombasa on the Kenya coast. She took off at dawn, pausing once again at Lake Victoria’s Ugandan Port Bell, heading for Juba on the River Nile, 350 miles north. After another 3 days and they would reach the shores of England. However Corsair’s direction-finding equipment had been giving trouble.
Flight captain, Alcock, had been enjoying a snooze until the time they should be nearing Juba. But he could see no sign of the Nile, and they were coming into thick mist. The wireless signal confusingly showed they were past Juba, so they turned around and began to search, puzzled by unfamiliar looking rivers below. After four hours lost in the air, with only fifteen minutes of fuel remaining, they descended through the mist and made a skilful landing on what turned out to be a very narrow stretch of water. Corsair hit a rock before Alcock managed to beach her. The passengers were slightly puzzled to have to exit through a hastily made hole in the top of the fusilage and very confused to find themselves in the middle of swampy nowhere. Luckily it wasn’t too long before a Belgian missionary appeared to inform them they’d crash landed on the Dungu River in the Belgian Congo!
The rescue of Corsair involved two separate salvage teams battling heat, insects and illness . Roads were hacked through the jungle by hundreds of convicts from a local goldmine. The first abortive attempt, on 14 July 1939, was undertaken by Alcock – he was told that having landed it there, he could fly it out. The successful attempt on 6 January 1940 was made after the damming of the river, the creation of a new lake and even the birth of a village – which naturally came to be called Corsairville.
On his search, Coster flies in some of the world’s few remaining seaplanes. ‘Touchdown in a flying boat has to be the most exciting’, he writes. ‘Water, that fluid, lapping element: when you meet it flat-on it is hard and granular as granite.’ He also uncovers a vanished world, interviewing those involved with the empire flying boats. There’s no need to be a plane-spotter to read this book – it will appeal to anyone who enjoys travel, whether it’s armchair or suffering the indignities of modern airports and planes. After all, once upon a time you could fly in luxury, stopping in exotic places for coffee (while your flying boat refuelled). When on board, you had space to sleep, wander about and enjoy a gin and tonic at the bar, freshen up in the powder room, or enjoy views from the observation deck as you cruised low enough to appreciate the scenery.
Although his ultimate destination, Corsairville, turns out to be even more inaccessible in the 1990s than back in 1939, Coster – with humour and insight – has effortlessly carried the reader on an unforgettable