The Last Sunderland

Durban was host to both civilian and military flying boats from before WWII with the military ones flying from the bay until 1957. Tom Chalmers was to have been a passenger on the last official flight which was cancelled after an accident. Fortunately, he did witness the aircraft taking off the previous day on what turned out to be the last flight and took the picture below. Allan Jackson.

Picture courtesy World Air News.

<== Click picture to view wallpaper-size enlargement. (1024x768px)

Added 12 October 2005: A close inspection of the book Flying Boat by Ivan Spring reveals that the accident referred to in the story took place on 28 August 1957, meaning that the picture must have been taken on 27 August. The picture probably does not show the last take-off from Durban Bay after all, because Flying Boat records the last Sunderland flight as having taken place on 8 November 1957.


By Tom Chalmers - 28 February 2004

What happened about the Sunderland picture was that I was due to have flown on the aircraft the following day on what was to have been the official last flight of Sunderlands in service with the SAAF's 35 Squadron, then based at Congella.

The previous day I happened to be at Maydon Wharf when I heard a Sunderland warming up its engines. I boarded a ship berthed at Maydon Wharf and ran up to the bridge deck (I was never challenged or stopped – in fact I saw no one!).

I went out on to the wing of the bridge deck and was just in time to photograph the Sunderland (D-RB) as it left the water (its wake and water streaming from the hull are still visible).

The next day I reported to 35 Squadron for the last official flight and was equipped with a May West, a one-man dinghy and a parachute and stepped aboard the aircraft (the same one I had photographed the previous day and the only one still in service). I was seated in the "lounge" identified in the photograph as the row of windows (portholes?) immediately below the cockpit.

It was early morning and low spring tide with not a breath of wind. The water was like glass, which meant that the aircraft would be unable to get up "on to the step" to effect a takeoff. Flying boats need a chop on the water to enable them to rise up on to the step. As a result the aircraft did a number of fast taxis up and down the Maydon Channel behind a crash boat which was zig-zagging in front of us.

By the time we had been up and down the channel three times, there was sufficient disturbance in the water to allow us to attempt a takeoff. At full throttle we began the takeoff run but when we reached about 60-70 mph, the two left engines suddenly quit on us and the aircraft swung in towards the wharf. The pilots reacted instinctively and cut the two right engines at the same time aopplying full right rudder. (We never found out why the engines quit).

The aircraft swung straight but not before the left wing tip went over the wharf clearing it by about a foot. However, the wing then struck about four or five bollards in succession ripping off the outer section as far as the radome (radar antenna capsule under the wing just outboard of the left float) leaving a trail of wreckage in its path.

A number of fishermen who were sitting on the wharf, wasted no time in diving into the water to avoid being struck by the wing. None was injured but I remember this remarkable sight of these fishermen plunging into the water as the wing slashed across the wharf. If anyone had been hit by the wing, they would have been killed instantly.

The aircraft came to a stop looking very sick indeed and was eventually towed back to the base by the crashboat. So ended what was to have been the official last flight. This was the only time in my flying career that I was involved in a crash and the first and only time I ever wore a parachute in an aircraft.

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