Famous Dakota being restoredDate: 20 August 2007
By Ronnie Glass
Tucked away in a hanger at Air Force Base Ysterplaat, Cape Town, is a remarkable SAAF Dakota, a Douglas C-47A, number 6832, bearing the aircraft letters KOD, which is being restored to its original pristine condition as in late 1943, when built in the U.S.A.
This aircraft played a unique, once-in-a-lifetime role in 1952 by being involved in the "fish-napping" of a fish originally thought to have been extinct, and flying it to South Africa to rewrite the history books.
Now a small band of super-aviation enthusiasts who call themselves "The Friends of the SAAF Museum" are working flat out in a bid to have the restoration of the aircraft completed in time to mark the anniversary of what has generally become known as "The Flight of the Coelacanth".
But these people need help - urgently - if they are to succeed in their task. The association is urgently looking for volunteers to assist them either personally by helping to work on the restoration project, or to help finance the project (see separate sidebar on this page for further details)..
The Dakota's fuselage will be restored to the colours she proudly bore 55 years ago - a polished aluminium skin with a blue nose-cone with the engine nacelles bearing similar livery. It is intended to paint a Coelacanth on the fuselage beneath the cockpit window. Eight coats of airforce camouflage paint are being removed.
The Dakota will remain as a military-type aeroplane with benches fitted in the interior, instead of seats. Another special feature is that she will fly on her original piston engines, designed in the 1930s.
Number 6832 last flew in 1992.
The discovery of the coelacanth, its "rescue" from an island in the Comores, its flight in Dakota 6832 back to South Africa, and the involvement of the famous Ichthyologist, Professor J.L.B. Smith of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, read like a science-fiction novel.
Some people have likened the discovery of the coelacanth as being akin to finding a prehistoric dinosaur alive and kicking. Prior to this amazing story starting to unfold off the coast of East London, the earliest fossil record of a coelacanth was from about 320 million years ago and the most recent from 70 million years ago. No later fossil records were discovered. It was thus accepted that this fish had become extinct around that time.
But then, on December 22, 1938, a Captain Goosen threw his nets overboard from his fishing trawler one more time before returning to East London harbour. When the nets were pulled in an unusual fish was noticed which nobody recognized.
On landing, the manager of I & J Fisheries, made a call to the then East London Museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer. She immediately rushed to the harbour, and on seeing the fish, realized that it was very unusual and took it to the museum and thereafter to a taxidermist in order to preserve it. Unfortunately, but this time it was already badly decomposed.
The following day she wrote to Professor J L B Smith, who was on holiday in Knysna, enclosing a detailed drawing of the fish and describing its unusual characteristics. It was a large fish weighing nearly 58 kg with a length of 1,5 metres, she said.
Prof. Smith was immediately convinced it was a living fossil fish and within days confirmed it was a coelacanth. He found it described and accurately drawn in a leading reference book.
Unfortunately, the insides and gills had been thrown away and so Prof. Smith's quest for a second and better preserved coelacanth began.
His feeling was that the fish had been caught rather far south and that other specimens would more likely be found in waters around Mozambique or Madagascar or the other French islands further north. So he printed leaflets in French, Portuguese and English offering a reward for anyone landing such a fish.
However, it was not until December 20, 1952 that a similar fish was caught by a fisherman from the French Comores Island of Pamanzi. He took the fish to a Captain Hunt who had his fishing vessel berthed on the other side of the Island.
Capt. Hunt knew of Prof. Smith's quest and immediately contacted him describing the fish in sufficient detail for Prof. Smith to think that it was indeed the coelacanth for which he had been waiting 14 long years.
The already famous ichthyologist knew he was up against time in order to minimise the deterioration of the fish. He tried every contact he knew as he realized the only way to save the fish would be to fly it to South Africa.
Having exhausted every other source, in total desperation he asked the Durban telephone exchange to find out the whereabouts of the then Prime Minister, Dr. D F Malan. He first spoke to Mrs Malan and thereafter to the Prime Minister, who were on holiday in the Strand, in the Cape. Dr Malan readily agreed to make a Dakota available to fly Prof. Smith to the Comores.
Two days later, in the early morning a Dakota landed at Durban's Stamford Hill Aerodrome under the command of Commandant J Blaauw and was soon on its way to the Comores with Prof. Smith on board.
A fuel stop was made at Lourenco Marques [now Maputo] in Mozambique. That night was spent in Lumbo, in northern Mozambique. The next day's flight, with very limited navigational aids, was to try to locate the island of Pamanzi, Comores. Whether the Dakota could land there was not known, both as regards the reception they might receive from the French officials and whether the landing strip built by South African forces during World War II would still be usable.
The small landing strip was found but all the time the weather was worsening as it was the cyclone season.
So finally on December 29, 1952, Prof Smith was able to see this fish that had been caught nine days earlier, and he gratefully identified it as a coelacanth. Captain Hunt had intentionally kept it on his vessel in a specially-made metal lined box and, on Prof. Smith's instructions, had injected it with a preservative, formalin. To the South Africans' relief the officials on the Island, after a short celebration, did not prevent the Dakota from taking off with the fish safely on board.
Commandant Blaauw and his crew of five had their skills and the flying ability of the Dakota fully tested by the steadily deteriorating weather. Prof. Smith arrived back in Durban to a hero's welcome from the press and the public. The distance covered was 7400 kilometres, a remarkable feat for this aircraft. The following day they flew to Cape Town, landing at Ysterplaat Air Force Base, from where Prof Smith took the coelacanth to the Strand to show it to Dr. Malan.
Prof. Smith was not allowed back the next year to the Comores as the French considered it was "their" fish. However, in 1953, the French organised expeditions and managed to capture the third coelacanth and were thus somewhat appeased.
The coelacanth caught in 1938 is on display in the East London Museum and the second is on display in a glass case, at the S A Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, Somerset Road, Grahamstown.
Many coelacanths have since been seen and caught, some as far south as Sodwana Bay, in northern kwaZulu-Natal.
Appeal for Help
Anyone who would like to assist the Friends of the SAAF Museum - financially or otherwise - in their bid to have the Dakota flying again are asked to contact Kevin Furness on 083 463 4903 for more information. You can also visit www.saafmuseum.org.za/proj6832 to view the progress of the restoration.
There is another volunteer organisation known as the SAA Museum Society ( www.saamuseum.co.za ) which is involved in restoring and maintaining famous civilian aircraft.
The South African Historic Flight ( www.historicflight.co.za ) proudly operates the civilian version of the Dakota, a Douglas DC-3, registered ZS-BXF, seating 24 passengers. This aircraft, named Klapperkop is regularly hired out to those wishing to enjoy a flight in a historic aeroplane.
SA Historic Flight also owns and hires out its successor, the Douglas DC-4. This popular and much admired aircraft is fondly referred to as the "Skymaster". It seats 50 passengers.