What Happened to the Incredible Flying Yachts of the 1950s?

By | April 29, 2016

They don’t call the 1950s the "Golden Age of Travel" for nothing.

Found deep within LIFE magazine’s trove of incredible stories from the past is the story of the flying yacht… Well, you could call it a flying yacht or an amphibious airplane, it doesn’t matter as this thing is oozing with coolness!

We have here the photos of LIFE veteran Loomis Dean who was invited aboard PBY Catalina - one of the most versatile aircraft used in World War II that has been converted into a luxurious travel machine.




Yes, before it was hosting women in polka dot bikinis, it was bombing and destroying enemy planes and submarines.


After the war, entrepreneur Glenn Odekirk saw that the roomy Catalinas can be converted into luxury flying yachts. He had this vision of pioneering a new glamorous travel trend he calls the “Landseaire,” and Catalinas were to be the epitome of that.





Wow, you’re even allowed to smoke in here...


And who needs card games when you have an incredible view of the sky and the world below?


This is not your average stop-over.



Pictured here on the left, aboard his dingy, is Glenn Odekirk. The dingy comes with the plane, fixed under the wing while on-flight.


Odekirk invited family members, two gorgeous blondes and LIFE’s camera lens for an obvious photo op as he was hoping to generate enough buzz to lure the interest of wealthy American industrialists whom he was hoping to sell his planes to.



Of course, there’s gotta be a fully-stocked bar! What yacht doesn’t?





A Landseaire costs around $265,000 at that time (that’s roughly $2.5 million in today’s money),with heavy operating costs. That puts the craft beyond what even most millionaires could afford.


Now, let’s take her up.



This flying yacht comes with the comforts of your home. There’s an 8-person sleeping quarter with two double beds and two singles. Near each bed are an individual light, radio switch and speaker, vents for airccon system, a telephone and curtains. They even have buil-in televesion set!



Yup, there’s a shower room, enclosed in waterproof plastic, that runs in hot and cold water.


The galley boasts modern kitchen equipment, with a three-plate cooking range, an oven, a large refrigerator and frozen-food unit.


Put it in cruise control, relax and enjoy.



Although it’s possible you may suffer from jet lag and sea-sickness at the same time.




So what became of the luxurious Catalina? Unfortunately, it perished in a landing accident near Ubatuba, Brazil on July 5, 1953. We’re not sure how many flying yachts Oderkirk was able to sell, but to this day, a very small number of them remain in airworthy condition.

The Catalina Curse

During the late 1950s, a retired wealthy California-based industrialist, Thomas W. Kendall, who’s been inspired by Oderkirk’s Lanseaire, decided to buy a dozen PBY WWII Catalinas that he could convert into luxurious flying yachts…

Here are some photos of his handiwork…



In 1959, along with his family, he decided to go on a year-long world-wide tour to test one of his creations. While moored in Egypt, they were joined by LIFE photogrpaher David Lees. They then continued their tour down to the Tirana Strait, just between Egypt’s Sinai and Saudi Arabia.


It was here that their dream rour would turn into a nightmare. While moored on the beach, they were suddenly ambushed by Bedouin tribesmen serving the Saudi Arabian army. Allegedly, the Bedouin suspected the group as Israeli commandos in disguise despite the fact that Kendall hoisted the American flag above the pilot’s compartment that morning.



The harrowing experience was described by Thomas Kendall himself in his written account for LIFE:

After a late lunch I went up on the wing to check the left engine. Bob was in the water checking some equipment in the nose. Stephen and Paul were wading in the shallows about 60 feet away, playing with our bright blue rubber life raft. Everyone else was in the plane. When I finally buttoned up the engine, I stood up and glanced around. Except for the boys, I saw nothing but rocks, low hills and empty sand.

I looked at my watch. It was 4:32 exactly. Then I heard what sounded like distant firecrackers. My first thought was that some local Bedouins were celebrating the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which was then in progress. In Luxor, Egypt, our last stop, they had celebrated by firing off a cannon. Suddenly, I noticed little splashes in the water beside the rubber raft. Somebody was shooting at the children …

As I ran I shouted for everyone to lie down on the floor because we were under fire. Mrs. Shearer ran with me to the tail and we watched our small sons dog-paddling very slowly toward the hatch, just their heads above water, towing the raft for cover between themselves and the bullets…

By now machine-gun and automatic-weapons fire was hitting the plane, I don’t know how long we stood there screaming at the children to hurry—it felt like eons…

The ambush lasted 30 to 40 minutes, and only the cowardice of our attackers saved our lives. If they had come closer instead of hiding behind a knoll three quarters of a mile away, I am certain we would all have been killed.

After a while we saw the upholstery was smoldering from a tracer bullet. I knew gas must be leaking everywhere. I could either stand up to start the engines and maybe get shot, or I could stay on the floor and maybe get us all burned alive. When I got up to go to the pilot’s compartment to throw some switches so we could get out of there, there was another burst of fire and I felt a blow in the right side. The bullet entered just below my ribs and it spun me around and threw me about six feet. I fell down backward.

When Mrs. Shearer heard me grunt that I’d been hit, she raised her head to look at me. Just then a bullet hit her right arm, exactly where her head had been. She clawed a big chunk of metal out with her fingernails but there were two more pieces she couldn’t reach. I was dazed for a moment but she gave me a towel and then, somehow, lying on her back, she lifted the seat up so I could reach under and connect the batteries. Then I went forward to the cockpit to throw the switches.

The full article be found here.

After half a century, the ambushed Catalina, or what's left of it, is still where the Kendalls were forced to abandon it.



H/T LIFE Magazine | Vintage Wings