Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894
The Lost Flying Boat has all the ingredients of a high adventure tale: an assemblage of tough characters with distinguished combat service, the lure of lost treasure that drives these men to face both natural and man-made danger, the presence of a domineering and obsessed leader who will sacrifice everything to obtain the gold he seeks, and a scenario of suspense that leaves the reader wondering if the expedition can succeed without costing all the adventurers their lives. Within the framework of this action-packed story, Alan Sillitoe skillfully explores several significant questions concerning human values.
Divided neatly into three parts, the novel chronicles the adventures of a crew of former World War II airmen brought together by their former aircraft commander, Captain Bennett, to search for lost gold in the Antarctic region. The story is told by Adcock, a wireless operator and the only member of the expedition not originally a member of Bennett’s wartime crew. Adcock joins with Bennett for what he views as an opportunity for adventure and a chance to put aside the pain of his recent divorce.
The first part of the work is set in South Africa, where Bennett assembles his crew and provisions the Aldebaran, a huge flying boat that will carry the men to the Kerguelen Islands in the Antarctic Ocean. As far as Adcock can tell, only Bennett knows why the expedition is being mounted, but he soon senses that there may be something both dangerous and illegal in their efforts. As the crew arrives in South Africa, Adcock learns why each has signed on for what many of them sense will be their last mission with Bennett. Some come for the promise of money (though none knows how the money will be obtained); others come simply for the promise of adventure.
As they prepare for their departure, Adcock begins to sense that they are being watched, that someone else is interested in their activities. Not until shortly before they actually take off does Bennett reveal to the crew their destination and purpose: to recover several million dollars in lost gold coins, buried on a remote island in the Antarctic by a German submarine captain before he was captured. Bennett, who had rescued the captain and been with him when he died, now possesses the map that will lead them to the treasure.
The second part of The Lost Flying Boat focuses on the transoceanic flight. Forced to maintain radio silence, Adcock listens intently to the signal traffic as Bennett and crew guide the flying boat with great precision to their foreboding destination. Suspense is heightened when, in mid-flight, the four former gunners who are along for reasons Adcock has only suspected until now, break out machine guns and mount them in the flying boat’s turrets. Meanwhile, from the radio traffic, Adcock begins to verify his suspicions that another party is after the gold. Bennett directs the wireless operator to send false signals to a ship that seems to be insistent on communicating with them; Adcock, wincing under the moral dilemma of using his trade to perpetrate falsehood, complies. With expertise that Adcock begrudgingly admires, Bennett maneuvers the huge flying machine into the narrow fjord on the island where the gold is buried. The plane alights in the water, and the men begin the most dangerous part of the expedition: extricating the treasure and escaping before their competitors arrive.
In the final section of the novel, the tenuous bonds that have held this group together begin to unravel as the crew searches for and finally discovers the gold. While they search, they hear the ominous sounds of another plane, clearly looking for them. Bennett expertly directs a shore party of which Adcock is a member to locate the gold, dig it up, and haul the boxes of coins to the water. During this operation, however, one of the gunners wanders away; he is found later at the bottom of a cliff, torn apart by sea birds. Upon returning to the boat, the shore party discovers that Wilcox, the engineer, has drowned. Once the gold is aboard, Adcock contacts the supply ship that is to rendezvous with them to refuel the flying boat. Meanwhile, another gunner slips away. The depleted crew accomplishes the refueling, but while they wait for the foul weather to break, they learn by means of the wireless that the supply ship has come under attack and has been seized. In a daring display of aerial heroics, Bennett manages to lift the flying boat out of the fjord while under fire from the guns of the ship that has done away with the supply vessel. An aerial dogfight ensues between scout planes from this enemy ship and the flying boat, and the crew of the Aldebaran are finally forced to choose between the dangerous alternative of flying a damaged plane with the full load of gold or jettisoning the precious cargo to save their lives.
The group finally disintegrates: The navigator, Rose, kills himself; the chief gunner, Nash, and Bennett argue over jettisoning the gold to save their lives, and both meet their ends through a series of killings that finally cause the aircraft to crash, leaving Adcock as the lone survivor. After several days, he is picked up by a passing ship and lives to relate this tale twenty-five years later.
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