Retired air conditioning magnate Thomas W. Kendall had a dream. The businessmen resolved to buy surplus PBY Catalinas, American seaplane and ubiquitous, Swiss Army knife of air transport, rescue, seaborne bombing and anti-submarine warfare, and give them a second lease on life as flying yachts for the wealthy. The price couldn’t have been much, the seaplane hadn’t found a post-war, jet-age role, and many serviceable examples were left to rot in desert boneyards.
Kendall began by buying three and hiring a visionary LA-based interior designer to transform the warbirds into a fleet of luxurious, comfortable aircraft, each sleeping as many as fourteen, and complete with bathroom, kitchen and dining areas.
At least one of Kendall’s aircraft was used (and damaged) during the filming of SOS Pacific. But the idea wasn’t to rent them out to Hollywood–Kendall wanted to take his family on a year-long, world-circling adventure with three converted seaplanes and a host of friends.
To kick off his bold adventure, private pilot Kendall left on a year-long, world-circling journey with all three planes, complete with his wife (an experienced pilot in her own right), four children, and friends.
LIFE photographer David Lees met them in Egypt for an air tour of Cairo, the Suez Canal and Luxor.
After landing in the Saudi Arabia’s Tirana Strait, things began to go wrong. Under pitch black and a strong wind, the group ate dinner and prepared for bed. They heard a yelling from the dunes outside, and the next morning two of the party reported seeing five men watching from a sandy knoll some 150 feet distant. One “carried a machine gun,” according to the witness.
…the pleasure trip turned into a harrowing, almost fatal adventure… (LIFE Magazine)
The party had become used to seeing armed soldiers and “thought nothing of it,” and soon the children were playing on the beach, collecting seashells. Lunch turned to swimming as the pilots checked the engine.
Then came the sound of firecrackers, and splashes of water all around–someone was shooting at the children as they played in a rubber raft. Everyone swam for the plane and huddled on the floor as sporadic automatic fire impacted rang through the plane, like “banging… a steel pipe.”
Veteran war photographer David Lees estimated that 3,000-4,000 rounds were fired in their direction, and some 300 impacted the plane over the course of the 40-minute ambush.
The parents lay on top of the children, protecting them with their own bodies. Pilot Kendall attempted to make a run for the cockpit, but was stopped by a bullet shot through his abdomen, just below his ribs, and a second through his buttocks.
Before blacking out, Kendall managed to get the engines running, just enough to taxi the plane out of the range of fire. The party collected their thoughts and administered first aid to the wounded–and counted their blessings that nobody had been killed.
But the Catalina was taking on water, forcing them to abandon the aircraft for a dingy, paddle to shore and surrender to the same men that had been firing at them, reported as Bedouin tribesmen of the Saudi Arabian army, who had somehow mistaken them for Israeli commandos.
The group of Americans was brought to Prince Khalid ibn Saud, son of King Saud, who interrogated them about the incident.Soon after, they were treated as guests of honor and repatriated with the assistance of the US Ambassador.
The seaplane never flew again. Time has not been kind to the wreckage of the beautiful PBY Catalina. Trapped between the Red Sea the desert, salt, wind, sand and tide have all taken their toll, as have tourists and souvenir-hunters. Some of the following photos date from the mid 1990’s, others are more recent. The ongoing damage to the airframe is clear, and before long she may be reduced to little more than aluminum struts sticking out from the sand.
For a better look at what she might have looked like in her heyday, take a look at what another entrepreneur did with his PBY Catalina flying boat, converting it into a glamorous air-yacht for the incredibly wealthy. The following gallery is from LIFE photographer Loomis Dean during a 1950 sightseeing trip along the San Diego coast. The photo series highlights the finer points of luxury air travel, namely the two bikini-wearing blonde models paid to accompany the day trip. The flying boat slept eight, and carried with it a full wet bar, wing-mounted dingy, full galley, ship-to-shore telephone, AM-FM radio, built in television, shower and air conditioning, though the camera’s lens seemed to focus mostly on the models. Unfortunately, this specific Catalina crashed near Brazil in 1953, never flying again.
Check out Kendall’s lost PBY Catalina in GoogleEarth, below
All photo credit to David Lees, LIFE Magazine unless otherwise credited.