This docu, filmed in 1989, shows a WWII Catalina PBY tracking the African route of the pre-War Britain Imperial Airways’ luxurious flying boats, which soared from Cairo to what is now Zambia. The hour show teases by supplementing the later film with B&W clips from those earlier upper-crust journeys aboard sleek Empire Flying Boats; newer film shows grit and determination but little glamour in a glimpse at a fallen empire.
The excitement of rising from the Nile and heading south — with Africa spreading out below, views of Khartoum and the meeting of the Blue and White Niles — are necessarily brief as the two-engined Catalina plows the air.
There are high moments, as when the pontoons fold into the wingtips or the ship shakes when it hits birds; what might have been a workaday trip turns into an adventure, thanks to the American pilot and to the variety of people encountered at stops along the way.
The pilot, mending and coaxing the aching airship, brings her smoothly down on waterways where the BIA planes often stopped. Some are now off-limits due to ground rebellions, but many of the former waystops still stand.
The show looks at a 70-year-old woman doctor who pilots her own plane, helping tribespeople; and shows natives carrying on some of the traditions at one station where wealthy Brits once found refuge in polo and garden parties;
In Nairobi, black professionals have inherited the comfortable houses once owned by British colonials, and the son of a prominent Oxford grad tells of building an airline. Civil war reigns in Mozambique by the aquamarine Indian Ocean and the onetime Portuguese colony has deteriorated through neglect.
Sliced down from its original 75-minute running time, program still holds interest, but it seems like a skim job: The people are all engaging, the views extraordinary; but it’s too quick a trip.
Maybe, despite the excellent photography and editing, those earlier romantic Empire Floating Boats and the spirit of their passengers ranging from the titled families to the Happy Valley Set remain too potent to be downed. What a film their stories would make.