• The Dream Of The Ultimate Recreational Flying Yacht and the Unimaginable Horror That Followed

    A Fascinating Look At Unbridled Ingenuity Without Responsibility

    I would like you to envisage what the ultimate super-high-performance boat would be. An apex predator at any location you chose to unleash it upon. Would it be the sensational 59-foot Cigarette Tirranna? Maybe it would be a boat from Marine Technologies, Doug Wright or Nor-Tech. Many would agree that all of those companies produce boats that represent the ultimate manifestation of the combination of cutting-edge marine technology, hull design and exhilarating performance. Those companies produce boats that have no equal among water speed-addicts and a presence that is ostentatiously magnetic, while casting aside the notion that money cannot buy happiness.

    One all but forgotten entrepreneur had a vision to create a recreational machine that embodied those traits to their maximum to the very few ultra-elite that could afford it. It had no equal, then and now. It would be a part-time yacht, a part-time airplane, and a full-time expression of colossal wealth and success.

    Scream And Fly is not only about fast boats, but the technology of speed on the water in all forms. The marriage of speed and water comes in different forms, and I will admit that while the iteration in this particular article is outside the scope of our traditional coverage, it represents most facets of our shared interests' marine technologies. We’re not talking about the kind of high-performance boat here that we’re all familiar with, however the subject of our story is a fantastically ostentatious vision and creation that has an equally fascinating story.

    After World War II, most of the 34,000 surplus aircraft ended up at over thirty open-field storage depots all over the country, slowly being reclaimed by nature over decades. Some of these aircraft escaped that fate and ended up in the civilian market and found new use in the commercial sector such as corporate transports and even firefighting aircraft. In the case of our unique story here, a Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat was converted from a maritime coastal defense craft into a luxury flying yacht. An aircraft that was designed for wartime duties would be transformed into something that Consolidated could never have imagined.

    Let us imagine for a moment that you own a yacht with every conceivable home luxury and convenience with the capability of taking you and your entourage to any vacation spot you can think of. I am not merely offering up the imagination of the most opulent superyachts that could satisfy the egotism of the wealthiest people on the planet. I am talking about a ship that was outrageous in its conception and breathtakingly pretentious in its execution. This was a flying yacht that served up the entire world as a giant playground for its owner. That was the intention here, and its beginning is as remarkable as its ending is unimaginable and tragic.

    Acclaimed LIFE Magazine photographer Loomis Dean was invited aboard the first Landseaire for an experience like none other, chaperoned by its creator for what would be a feature article in the magazine.

    The idea for a flying yacht began with an entrepreneur named Glenn Odekirk. Odekirk headed SoCal Aircraft Corp and had worked with Howard Hughes on a number of projects. Like his old boss, Odekirk was not squeamish about entertaining conspicuously extreme ideas, and he had just the plan that would slot in nicely with the post-war boom that was then taking place.

    After World War II, Odekirk felt that the timing was right to create the ultimate millionaire’s toy that would represent the epitome of glamorous travel and adventurism. Wartime military contracts created many ultra-wealthy industrialists, and Odekirk knew that many of these individuals reveled in materialistic conspicuous living, and a luxury flying yacht could satiate those rich tastes.

    Naturally with the war over, there would be a giant surplus of former military airplanes that were no longer needed which could be purchased inexpensively. Odekirk reasoned that most privately-owned airplanes were rarely used for anything other than short hops simply to enjoy the novelty and allure of the ultimate status symbol.

    But what about utility? Even the owners of extremely expensive luxury automobiles use them for a multitude of everyday tasks, combining the benefits of materialistic desires as well as basic transportation. This particular ship’s more practical, utilitarian tasks would not include transportation to the local grocery store. No, it would offer up its owners an easy means to say, take a day trip to another country or perhaps just becoming the center of attention around the world. You know, every day mundane stuff.

    Odekirk thought the time for such a ship had arrived and his luxury flying yachts presented a fairytale lifestyle to the very few that could afford it. The Catalina PBY flying yachts would be called Landseaire.

    Designed as a coastal patrol craft, the Consolidated Aircraft Model 28 made its debut in 1935 as the PBY Catalina for use in the US Navy. It was designated by the Navy as a flying boat and amphibious vehicle, providing a scope of capabilities that were not matched up to its introduction. It could land and take off from land or sea, with its undercarriage retracting flush against its hull. Both engines were mounted high above the cockpit, faired into the parasol wing. A forgiving aircraft to fly, the PBY’s combination of features made it ideal for Odekirk’s ambitious business venture.

    Odekirk offered up this imagination-defying lifestyle and he would be the gatekeeper for the privileged few that had the means to afford the $265,000 price tag for each Landseaire. That translates to about $3.3 million dollars today.

    The Catalinas to be converted to Odekirk’s specifications would be fitted with an interior that bore more resemblance to the Presidential Suite at the Waldorf Astoria than even the most luxurious commercial airliners and ocean liners of the day. Features of the Catalina that were designed for military use such as the bubble fuselage windows suddenly became an appendage of a lounge with a breathtaking 360-degree view of the world at 35,000 feet (about the height of Mount Everest).

    The Landseaire had sleeping accommodation for eight people, with each bed having its own reading light, radio, curtains, and vents for the air conditioning system. You read right – the entire airplane interior was air-conditioned. In 1950.

    There were almost no visible riveted bulkheads inside the plane and support structures were cleverly hidden. Sometimes bordering on the ostentatious, the Lendseaire’s interior was replete with padded satin walls, porcelain fixtures, a full-service kitchen with three-burner cooking range, oven, and a full-size refrigerator. There was a fully tiled bathroom with a shower and running hot water. Interestingly, the bathroom tiles looked like porcelain, but were made of bakelite plastic to save weight. This was an aircraft, after all.

    When the PBY landed on water, two rowboats - complete with five horsepower Johnson outboards - would be lowered into the water from under the wings with large steel cables. In flight, the boats would be semi-retracted into the spaces where anti-submarine depth charges once occupied, secured by modified bomb-release shackles. The two tenders could be lowered and raised electrically from within the cockpit.

    A few of the extravagant Landseaire craft were indeed produced, however, the realities of selling airplanes as if they were yachts naturally attracted prospective buyers that, up to that point, had never considered purchasing an airplane before, let alone an exceptionally large, multi-engine military aircraft. This quickly created the inevitable results at the hands of clientele that lacked the necessary experience and respect of the disciplines involved in flying and maintaining such a large machine. Those buyers just wanted that outrageous flying yacht and all the prestige that goes with it, and Odekirk’s Landseaire was an enormous feast for the ego.

    By now you might be wondering what became of the Landseaire pictured in this article. Unfortunately, there were no fascinating adventures to be told involving this airplane. On July 5th in 1953, it crashed in a landing accident in Ubatuba, Brazil. Nobody was seriously injured, but the luxury aircraft was damaged beyond repair and scrapped. As unfortunate as this event was, the horrifying fate of another similar luxury Landseaire could never have been imagined.

    Glenn Odekirk’s luxury Catalinas never caught on with the super-wealthy, and ironically, some of the few Landseaires sold were converted back to utilitarian civil service aircraft, becoming waterbombers to fight fires. But Odekirk’s lofty dream would not be soon forgotten, becoming reincarnated into a deadly-serious nightmare.

    From Dreams to Nightmares

    In the late 1950s, A wealthy Californian industrialist, Thomas W. Kendall, who had been inspired by Oderkirk’s flying yachts and wanted to keep busy during his retirement, decided to purchase a dozen surplus PBY Catalinas and convert three of them into luxury aircraft, using the same name that Odekirk had bestowed upon his luxury PBYs – Landseaire.

    Thomas Kendall’s vision for these aircraft matched Odekirk’s, however, Kendall’s motivation in creating his Landseaire was more personal – he wanted one for him and his family so they can embark on the ultimate vacation, touring the world in flamboyant style. But this vacation would take a turn for the frighteningly bizarre.

    With his Landseaire ready, Thomas Kendall set out for his world tour, along with his wife, four children, his secretary, and Life photographer David Lees. The trip aboard the PBY was as they had hoped – exciting, awe-inspiring, and, at times, overwhelming. At every stop, the aircraft created a torrent of astonishment among local residents. The Kendall family and their passengers became superstars everywhere they decided to land – on sea or land.

    While touring the Middle East, they landed on the Gulf of Aqaba, just east of the Sinai Peninsula. Thomas Kendall lowered the landing gear while the plane was afloat to prevent the PBY from beaching itself on the shore.

    While Kendall was checking the left engine, he heard what he thought were firecrackers being set off for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. He suddenly noticed small splashes of water nearing the plane. It was not firecrackers, but automatic rifle fire.

    The bullets began pelting the PBY as Kendall yelled for everybody on the beach to swim to the airplane as quickly as possible. Kendall instructed the passengers to lay flat on the bathroom floor. He estimated that nearly 4000 rounds were shot at them, with about 300 of them hitting the plane.

    While rapidly preparing the PBY for takeoff to escape the attack, phosphorous tracer-fire began to set the interior of the plane on fire. The satin-covered walls and padded furniture of the Landseaire created an immensely dangerous situation. A small fire could easily engulf the entire interior of the plane very quickly.

    Kendall made it to the cockpit as bullets perforated the PBY’s thin aluminum skin. Suddenly, he felt as if somebody punched him in the ribs. He had been hit by one of those bullets that were showering the plane. Just as his secretary, Ramona Shearer raised her arm to help Thomas escape the cockpit, she was struck in the arm. Meanwhile, Thomas’ son Bob was frantically trying to cut the mooring line, while his mother was laying on top of her other children in an effort to shield them from the barrage of bullets.

    Kendall managed to start the engines, but they were running very rough. They could have been damaged during the attack, but there was no time to investigate the cause. Quickly, he retracted the undercarriage to begin taxiing the plane in shallow water out of range of the gunfire, only to run aground on a coral reef, ripping open parts of the fuselage. As Thomas Kendall described it, “Water was pouring in through foot-long gashes that looked as if they had been ripped by a giant can opener. Everything was floating around. We had 900 gallons of fuel and it was pouring out of the perforated tanks, splashing off the wings like heavy rain off a roof.”

    The people aboard the PBY had no choice now – they were not going anywhere. They were at the mercy of their crazed attackers. Soon, three trucks arrived on the beach with 60-80 soldiers, firing their rifles into the air and screaming. The soldiers were Bedouin tribesmen recruited by the Saudi Arabian army. They were hyperactively gesticulating with their rifles firing into the air, as Thomas Kendall’s 11-year-old son Paul handed over the group’s American passports which didn’t seem to improve the situation. Nobody in the Landseaire group could ascertain what their fate would be.

    Once the Landseaire group was brought to a military camp, they were being asked outlandish questions in barely-understandable English by their captors. "Which one of you here is the leader", demanded one of the soldiers, while he pointed his rifle at each of the group to illicit an answer. It was then that the captive and injured party learned what this was all about – Thomas Kendall’s group were thought to be Israeli commandos.

    The group were brought before Prince Khalid, where they rigorously tried to convince them that they are just American tourists. After many denials, the Saudi Prince decided to inspect the Catalina PBY himself to get to the bottom of the matter. Upon the Prince’s return, suddenly, medical staff were rushed in to care for the injured, and among the returning group came another American they did not know. “Hi” he said with a smile, almost holding back laughter. Thomas and his group were spellbound.

    It turns out that mystery American happened to be the personal pilot of the Saudi Prince, and managed to convince the Saudis that the Landseaire group were indeed unfortunate tourists. The prince was royally embarrassed over the matter, and while the unfortunate travelers were at the hospital, arrangements were rapidly made to have the Landseaire group flown to the Saudi port city of Jidda to recover for a few weeks while arrangements were made with American officials at the embassy to have the group repatriated.

    But what about the luxury PBY Landseaire that remained beached in the Gulf of Aquaba? It was stripped of its valuables by the Saudi army, with its carcass left where the ambush took place. And there it remains today, seemingly mostly intact, as a ghostly monument to one man’s vision and unchecked ambition.

    As far as the Saudi government was concerned, this bizarre incident never happened, and the Landseaire group would not be reimbursed the for the loss of the plane and most of their luggage and belongings.

    Not surprisingly, this nearly-implausible event came to exemplify Thomas Kendall’s dream of selling luxury airplanes as recreational toys, and the nightmare of diving head-first into unknown waters. Kendall’s story came to transcend the airplane itself, being sold to numerous high-profile publications, ironically bringing him the fame and monetary success that he sought with his Landseaire.
    Comments 4 Comments
    1. cptunnel's Avatar
      cptunnel -
      Great read, thank you!
    1. rock's Avatar
      rock -
      Very interesting. Thanks.

    1. Scream And Fly's Avatar
      Scream And Fly -
      Thank you guys
    1. Jimboat's Avatar
      Jimboat -
      good read! thanks, Greg.
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