A yellow Gipsy Moth biplane, whose ethereal flight in “Out of Africa” helped pad that 1985 film’s total of seven Academy Awards, was sold at auction in Paris on Feb. 6 for $302,000 (201,000 British pounds). The buyer was a telephone bidder whose identity was not disclosed; but the buyer did disclose it would be returned home to Kenya.
The plane is a 1929 model, still air-worthy, with a permit to fly, and in excellent overall condition, notes Bonhams, the auction company which is offering it. The plane was a bit of an odd offering at the Le Grand Marques du Monde au Grand Palais event, as it is principally for classic automobiles, vintage motorcycles and lots of automobilia.
The late David Watkin, the noted cinematographer, said in accepting the Academy Award for his lens work in the movie that the famous flying scene over the Kenyan savannah – in which the plane unexpectedly scares up a huge flock of pink flamingoes – is what helped him win the award.
That, and the skill of the pilot, Sir Henry Dalrymple-White, a noted Royal Air Force Wing Commander in World War II, for maneuvering the delicate DH60M Gipsy Moth into perfect position and maintaining Watkin’s breathtakingly long shot. The pilot was also a British Baronet, who had moved in Kenya in the 1940s. He flew until he died in 2006, at age 80.
The plane is painted in the same bright yellow-and-black livery – typical of the London Aero Club, an affiliate of the Royal Aero Club – it was in the film. It has the registration letters, G-AAMY, that honor pioneering and record-setting English aviatrix Amy Johnson (who was apparently shot down in 1941 by an over-vigilant British anti-aircraft battery in Sussex after she was unable to correctly radio in the day’s code words). In the film, the letters are altered slightly to G-AAMT.
The plane was constructed with a plywood frame, covered with little more than cloth fabric (as noted, with wonder, by Redford’s character in the movie’s script). It is powered by a 90-horsepower, 5.2-liter, air-cooled, inline four-cylinder Gipsy L-320 engine, assembled by Wright Aeronautical Corp. in the U.S., under license from de Havilland. It is a fixed-wing craft; many had folding wings, so they could be stored in a compact space.
The Gipsy Moth was a very popular type of aircraft; in the early 1930s it was estimated 85 out of every 100 planes in Britain were Moths of some type. Yet, out of thousands built, as of 2010, only 18 DH60s remained registered (but not necessarily “airworthy”) in the U.K. This plane, which carries serial number 86, was most recently owned by a London-based (Netherlands-registered) charter company; it is the only DH60M on that registration list.
DH60s were not terribly expensive; 1927-1931 models were priced at 650 British pounds (about $34,000 today?).
Bonhams had attached a pre-sale estimate, due to the Hollywood provenance of the plane, of about $180,000. Clearly, someone really wanted it back in Kenya.
December 15, 2012 [Updated March 1, 2013]