Trans African Cat

Written by Ron Mak (1991)

If there was an award for the ultimate aviation enthusiast/travel adventure, the Catalina Safari Company would be in the finalists. Owned by Frenchman Pierre Jaunet, Catalina Safari launched its unique trip in 1988, from Cairo, Egypt, to the Victoria Falls, 3,600mi to the south with a Consolidated PBY Catalina amphibian!
Pierre Jaunet and his wife Antoinette had conducted overland safaris to the remotest and wildest corners of Africa for 20 years. Thinking of new twists to the traditional safari, the idea came to Pierre when he spotted some old floating docks on the Nile, a vestige of Britain's Imperial Airways' Cairo to Cape Town service of the 1930s. Why not a similar trip in the '80s, travelling the same route? Almost three years was spent securing permits for this complex itinerary and during this time Pierre also searched for a suitable flying boat. A friend who lived in Botswana suggested a Catalina and the hunt was on.

Eventually, a Catalina was located at Reno, Nevada, in good condition and with only 13,035 hours flight time since new from the Canadian Vickers factory at Cartierville, Montréal, in 1944. The aircraft, a PBY-5A Canso A (the Canadian name for the Catalina) registered C-FJCV, had been delivered to the Royal Canadian Air Force in March 1944 and had served until June 1947, logging only 1,142 hours. Her whereabouts for the next eight years are a mystery, but in 1955 the PBY turned up at the SALA maintenance facility at San José, Costa Rica, and was converted to passenger configuration. In July 1956, a Lee Crutchell sold the Catalina to Eastern Canada Airlines which used the aircraft until May 1960, except for a five-month lease to Notre Dame Airways the following year. Austin Airways then acquired CF-JCV and kept her for 16 years until she was sold to Aero Trades of Winnipeg, Manitoba, in September 1976. In March 1982, the PBY was again sold, this time to a new company called Air Caledonia. Based in British Columbia, the PBY was used mostly to fly fishermen into three camps in the province. A Convair 440 replaced C-FJCV in summer 1986, and she was flown to Reno for storage pending sale.

Catalina Safaris acquired the PBY for $150,000 in summer 1988, and flew her to Sydney, Vancouver Island, for maintenance and refurbishment. Wide doors were opened up through the interior partitions and windows added for enhanced passenger visibility. The forward cabin was divided into two sections, each with eight comfortable seats, and a small galley and bathroom added. In the rear cabin, the viewing blisters were retained and this area converted into a sitting room, complete with a well-stocked bar and a library of African maps, travel, and vintage aviation books. The marathon ferry flight to Africa was accomplished in October 1988, the longest sector being Gander—Santa Maria (Azores) in eleven hours, and a proving flight—filmed by the BBC for a documentary program—followed to Victoria Falls. The return trip, starting December l, was the first revenue flight by Catalina Safaris.

Catalina Safari's complete itinerary consists of a 23-dayjourney, covering seven countries in 13 stages with a flying time of 39 hours. En route, stops are made at the most famous archaeological sites along the Nile, at the pyramids of Meroe in the Sudan, Lake Turkana and the Chalbi Desert in northern Kenya, the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, Zanzibar, Lake Malawi, the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and the Zambezi River above Victoria Falls. The Catalina's low flying altitude

allows a special perspective on Africa, with the same wide vistas that excited Ernest Hemingway, Beryl Markham, and Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). The flying boat also enables access to remote areas without the hardship of days spent on rough roads. On board, first-class food is served on the longer sectors complemented by a fine selection of French wines. Layovers on the route are for two nights, at a private tented camp, a game lodge, or a fine hotel. Routine maintenance is performed by the crew en route. For example at Khartoum, after landing on the Nile to disembark passengers, the PBY is flown to Khartoum International Airport where it mixes with regular airline traffic and business jets. The all-inclusive price (excluding international air connections) for the full African itinerary is around $17,000, which obviously puts it out of reach most people.

Half trips run to $8,000. However, it is hoped that some shorter trips can be arranged next year specifically for aviation enthusiasts. After all, a flight over Africa in Catalina Safari's Cat is one that we'd all like to put in the logbook!

An excellent book has been written about Pierre Jaunet, his Catalina flying boat and his adventures in Africa. The book is called The African Catalina and is written by Mike Shirley-Beaven. It was produced by CBC Publishing London (1994) with ISBN No. 0 9515209 4 6. See below for the book cover: