Watching Narendra Modi being taken in a seaplane from the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad to the Dharoi dam in Mehsana district on Tuesday, I was reminded of James “Biggles” Bigglesworth and his cousin Algernon “Algy” Lacey, heroes of a series of novels for young readers written by WE Johns. My memory of those books is hazy, but I recall Biggles flew chartered seaplanes between the two world wars, and fought in World War IIas an RAF pilot. Looking up online, I found covers of novels like Biggles Defies the Swastika and Biggles in the Baltic that depict those planes. That tells you something about the vintage of the technology employed in seaplanes.
Seaplanes also appear frequently in the adventures of Tintin, created by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé mainly from the 1930s through the 1950s. We see them in The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Shooting Star, and King Ottokar’s Sceptre, and perhaps others I can’t remember. The popularity of Hergé’s hero, a reporter who does precious little reporting, has waned less rapidly than that of Biggles. Steven Spielberg’s recent motion-capture and animation feature The Adventures of Tintin, in which a seaplane features prominently, did fairly well at the box-office. It was clearly a period piece with period technology, and the seaplane fit right in.
As far the history of aviation is concerned, the seaplane is a curiosity whose best days are far behind it. Its potential as a mass carrier died with the Spruce Goose, a gigantic wooden boat plane designed by Howard Hughes which retains the world record for the longest wingspan of any aircraft ever flown. The Goose made a single trial flight before being mothballed, WWII having ended during its development.
The seaplane form has some uses today, in water rescues, as transport in remote areas, and as part of the infrastructure of exclusive island-based tourism, but the rapid expansion of landing strips has left it playing a very marginal role. Seaplanes might have become popular among amateurs and hobbyists, had they not looked so boring. The only one I’ve seen that seemed cool appeared in the worst James Bond movie ever made, 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun. It was an amphibious Republic RC-3 Seabee that had been designed in the 1940s but seemed more contemporary thanks to its funky oval cabin.
Thirteen years later, a more conventional plane appeared in The Living Daylights. Timothy Dalton might have been the worst James Bond of them all, but the stunt with the seaplane is among the best in any Bond film. Being chased underwater by a bunch of divers, Bond shoots a harpoon into the side of a taxiing plane, then skis barefoot behind it while dodging machine gun bullets, hangs on to a float as the plane takes off, enters the cabin, throws one man out and subdues the pilot.
This might seem like a typically implausible James Bond scene, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the stunt Narendra Modi pulled off last Tuesday. Consider this: Modi spent a large amount of money, perhaps coming from our taxes, in hiring a seaplane when he could have got the job done as easily with a locally available helicopter. One of the two foreign pilots, a man who looked like his last job was an arms drop over El Salvador, couldn’t be bothered to wear full-length trousers for the flight, ignoring protocol entirely. The other man was in pilot’s uniform, making for a weird mismatch. Modi boarded the airplane as if it was a supersonic jet-fighter rather than a product built from decades-old technology.
Flight of fancy
Modi touted it as potentially a revolutionary addition to India’s transport network, despite a cost per passenger per trip that would put it out of bounds for everyone except the very affluent. He not only had most of the mainstream media applaud all this but also accept his party’s false claim that this was “the first ever flight by such a craft in the country”.
Donald Trump said, during his election campaign, that he could stand on New York’s Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and still not lose any voters. Narendra Modi is his equal in every way. He can sell the old as new, the niche as mass, the imported as indigenous, and the exorbitant as economical. One can hardly blame him for having no regard for facts, given how long he has successfully sold the lie as truth.