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From the exploits of pioneers to the rapidly expanding services of today



AN AIRSPEED ENVOY PASSENGER AEROPLANE used by South African Airways. Four of these aircraft are in use on services in the Union of South Africa. They can be converted for military purposes, and three similar machines have been acquired by the South African Air Force as fast medium bombers. When used for commercial purposes the machines accommodate six passengers. They have two Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah IX engines.

THE development of civil aviation in the Union of South Africa has been on lines different from those in other countries comprising the British Commonwealth. In 1934 the South African Railways and Harbours Administration took control of the air routes previously operated by two companies, these companies being amalgamated in South African Airways.

The machines are modern, consisting of Junkers and Airspeed Envoys; considerable sums are always being spent on improving existing airports and on the building of new landing grounds.

The flying boats of the Imperial air mail route operate between Great Britain and Durban. The land machines of South African Airways link the chief centres of the Union with the air mail route, and communication is, therefore, greatly accelerated.

It was the determination and perseverance of a few men that enabled the internal air routes in the Union to be opened up. The story begins as far back as 1911, when a company, the African Aviation Syndicate, Ltd, was formed to introduce aviation to South Africa. Captain (afterwards Brigadier-General) Guy Livingston, Mr. Compton C. Paterson (constructor-pilot), and Mr. E. F. Driver (pilot) sailed for Capetown with two machines - one a Paterson biplane and the other a Bleriot monoplane - arriving in time to give exhibition flights during the Christmas holidays of 1911.

Compton Paterson was among the outstanding personalities of the early days of aviation. In 1910 he designed and built a biplane similar to the Curtiss, which he flew from the shore at Freshfield, near Liverpool. Afterwards, he spent some time at Hendon with the Grahame-White Aviation Company, and then devoted himself to the task of building an aeroplane specially for the trip to South Africa.

It was not his intention to fly there, hence he designed the biplane so that it could be packed in a case measuring 14 feet by 6 feet by 8 feet. Its total weight without fuel, and including the 50 horse-power Gnome engine, was 750 lb. The biplane was capable of lifting two passengers, in addition to the pilot, and the speed was about 50 miles an hour. The span was 32 feet, but in about five minutes three men could remove the end wing sections and the machine could then be stored in a small shed. With this biplane and the Bleriot monoplane the two pilots began their exhibition flights at Kenilworth Racecourse, about eight miles from Capetown. In the interval between the time the biplane was assembled and the making of a tent to protect it, the fabric of the machine alternately became tight in the rain and then slack when exposed to sunshine. This caused the tail fabric to split when Paterson took off on the Boxing Day. The fabric formed a bag, forcing the tail down, and the machine began to climb almost vertically, then turned over and crashed. Paterson spent a fortnight in hospital and another fortnight on crutches. Then the damage was repaired, and the biplane entered upon a remarkable career.

Among the efforts of these pioneers was a souvenir air mail. Souvenir picture postcards, to the number of 2,597, were flown between Kenilworth and Muizenberg, on False Bay. The postcards on which was printed “First South African Aerial Post, by Sanction of the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs. For conveyance by Aeroplane between Kenilworth and Muizenberg”, were flown between December 31, 1911, and January 3, 1912. The two pilots gave exhibitions at other towns, and then Paterson decided to fly his biplane Pat across country from Kimberley (Cape Province) to Klerksdorp (Transvaal) and back, a distance of 442 miles. He began this ambitious flight early on the morning of Tuesday, April 9, 1912. He flew over the open workings of the Kimberley diamond mines, following the railway for about fifty miles to Warrenton, where he landed for breakfast and to obtain petrol and oil. He soon took off again and followed the Vaal River for about twenty-six miles, but the hot sun on the river caused heat eddies which made flying uncomfortable, and he descended at Christiana to wait for the sun to sink. He set off soon after five and reached Bloemhof, about thirty-three miles, in forty minutes.

Paterson intended to continue his flight within a few minutes, but the diamond diggers surrounded the first aeroplane they had ever seen, and when they did give the aviator space for the take-off it was too late for him to fly far and he came down for the night at Kingswood. Before landing Paterson circled above the plain and selected a hotel, near which he descended. He took off early on the Wednesday morning and flew on to Maquassi, where he descended and asked the direction in which Klerksdorp lay. Then he set off again, but his information was vague and when he failed to locate the railway line which was his signpost he became anxious. Finally he sighted the line and saw near it a ganger’s cottage. He descended to ask his way and was told that Klerksdorp was about eighty miles farther on. As he had hardly any fuel, Paterson left the machine in a field and took a train to the nearest township to buy petrol. He returned, filled the petrol tank and flew to Klerksdorp, arriving in the evening to be greeted by almost the entire population, who were awaiting him.

THE LUXURIOUS INTERIOR of one of the air liners used by South African Airways

THE LUXURIOUS INTERIOR of one of the air liners used by South African Airways. Today, South African Airways have Airspeed and Junkers aircraft on their routes, but regular commercial flying began in South Africa in 1929 with an air mail service using D.H. Moths. These were soon augmented by Fokker Super-Universal aeroplanes, and later Junkers machines were added.

He spent a day at Klerksdorp and began the return flight on the Thursday evening, flying over the first 58 miles in 68 minutes. He spent the night at Maquassi and flew to Christiana in the morning and there rested, intending to begin the next stage in the evening; a thunderstorm delayed him, however, and he stayed till Saturday. Again the weather was bad, but conditions improved by the evening, although the wind was high, and Paterson flew the 26 miles to Warrenton in as many minutes. The remainder of the flight consisted of short hops whenever the bad weather eased for an hour or so.

Paterson completed the 442 miles in 8 hours 39 minutes flying time. This, the first important flight in South Africa, was a memorable one.

Paterson was invited by the authorities at Capetown to demonstrate the flying of a seaplane, so he fitted two floats, which were built locally, to the Pat, and gave exhibition flights in Table Bay.

With his colleague, Driver, Paterson opened a flying school for officers and civilians at Kimberley. The school was the cradle of South African aviation. One of the pupils constructed an aeroplane of the Farman type with Paterson modifications, and this machine, the first built in South Africa and flown successfully, was bought by the Government. Among the officers who learned to fly were a number who took part in the air operations in the campaign in South West Africa during the early part of the war of 1914-18.

After the war was over, the first man to give serious attention to the organization of an air service between towns in the Union was Major A. M. Miller. He formed the Aerial Transport Company, and in 1920 piloted a business executive of a company on a trip that created great interest. He flew the machine from Durban along the coast to Port Shepstone and then to various inland towns whose inhabitants had not seen an aeroplane before. This trip was followed by others which impressed the public.

Meanwhile the first flight from England to Capetown was made by two South Africans, Sir Pierre van Ryneveld and Sir Quinton Brand. They left London in February 1920 in a Vickers Vimy biplane, the Silver Queen, powered by two Rolls-Royce Eagle engines. This machine, supplied by the South African Government, came to grief about 530 miles south of Cairo. The aviators made a forced landing after darkness and the machine was wrecked on rough ground strewn with rocks. The engines were salved and installed in a second Vickers Vimy named the Silver Queen II, but this machine was wrecked at Bulawayo. The flight was resumed in the Voortrekker, a D.H.9 with an Armstrong-Siddeley Puma engine and this third machine reached Capetown in March. Sir Pierre van Ryneveld organized the South African Air Force.


AIR ROUTES OF SOUTH AFRICA. The Union has air lines joining most of the principal towns. These lines link up with the Imperial air line from England to Durban, and with towns in other parts of Africa.

For some years civil aviation in South Africa made little progress. In 1925, an experimental air mail was tried between Capetown and Durban with military machines. This involved operating a coastal route of 950 miles in relays with D.H.9 military planes carrying about 450 lb of mail. From Durban the mail was flown on the first stage to East London, then to Port Elizabeth, on to Oudtshoorn (inland from Mossel Bay) and then over the Hottentots Holland Mountains to Capetown. Low clouds and sea mist provided difficulties, but these were overcome by the pilots. For six weeks mail was flown in time to catch the mailboat at Capetown without a single failure, and all the incoming mail was flown, on time, from the ships to the four towns served. But the mail ceased and aviation languished, being kept alive by the efforts of a few individuals. Major Miller made an air tour of the Union in a Moth in 1927, covering 2,300 miles in eight days, his average flying speed being about 85 miles an hour. At the end of 1927 Sir James and Lady Heath arrived in South Africa. Lady Heath and other aviators made an air tour to various centres where clubs had been formed, and interest in aviation revived.

Commercial flying began in August 1929, when the Union Airways, founded by Major Miller, inaugurated an air mail service between Capetown, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Johannesburg. Five D.H. Moths were used, and these were soon augmented - by Fokker Super-Universal aeroplanes, each powered by a 425 horse-power Pratt and Whitney Wasp engine. Later Junkers machines were introduced. Although the Government subsidy for carrying mail was small, a good service was built up between Capetown and Durban and also between Durban and Johannesburg.

The South West African Airways was formed to connect at Kimberley with the Imperial route from Great Britain, but because of delay in establishing the trunk route the service began locally in 1931, from Windoek, the capital of South-West Africa. This route was operated successfully over the sparsely-inhabited wild country in this region. All-metal Junkers machines were used.

In 1934, South African Airways was formed under the South African Railways and Harbours Administration to take over the air services. By the beginning of 1938 all the chief centres in the Union were linked by regular services, enabling passengers to travel in modern machines at a considerable saving in time compared with railway travel. With the exception of the coastal cities the centres of population are at altitudes of several thousand feet. The long climb from the coast restricts the speed of express trains. The natural conditions are favourable for flying, as on the interior routes visibility is excellent and high winds are rare. The Rand is the centre of population and the Rand Airport is at Germiston, near Johannesburg, the centre of the gold mining industry and the biggest city in South Africa. There are daily services in either direction between the Rand and Durban, and the time of flight is from 2 to 2¼ hours.

Aeroplanes fly daily, except on Sundays, between Durban and Capetown via East London and Port Elizabeth. A machine leaves Durban at 9.15 a.m., lands at East London two hours- later, and at Port Elizabeth at 1 p.m., where a stop of 45 minutes is made. It reaches Capetown at 5 p.m. The total time is 7 hours 45 minutes. In the opposite direction the stay at Port Elizabeth is reduced and the time is scheduled at 7 hours. The fare is £13 single. By train the time is about two days and the fare £9 17s.

There is a direct air route between the Rand and Capetown at the same fare, £13, as that between Durban and Capetown. This service from the Rand is on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and in the reverse direction on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The route is via Kimberley, and the journey takes seven hours in the southerly direction and fifteen minutes longer for the return flight. The train takes rather more than a day and the fare is £8 5s. 9d. There is a weekly service between, the Rand and Port Elizabeth via Bloemfontein. The fare is £10 and the time is four hours. The railway fare is £6 8s. 9d. and the time by train about 25 hours.

A twice-weekly service operates in either direction between the Rand and Windhoek, the route from the Rand being by way of Kimberley, Upington and Keetmanshoop to Windhoek, the time for this flight being 8 hours 40 minutes, and 8 hours in the reverse direction. The fare is £15 5s, The train takes about two and a half to three days, the fare being £10 8s. 4d. During one season, floods caused extensive damage to the railway in South-West Africa, and the passenger and goods traffic on the air route increased, as the air services were unaffected by the floods.

Rand’s New Airport

Besides a bi-weekly service between the Rand and Bulawayo, another service is operated in conjunction with Rhodesia and Nyasaland Airways and Wilson Airways between the Rand and Kisumu, the airport on the Kenya shore of Lake Victoria. This route from the Rand is at present operated by a weekly service. The aeroplane leaves on the Sunday morning for Pietersburg and then flies to Bulawayo, Livingstone, Lusaka and Broken Hill, where passengers stay overnight. On the Monday the machine flies to Mpika, Mbeya, Dodoma, Moshi and Nairobi, reaching the capital of Kenya in the afternoon. The aeroplane completes the flight to Kisumu on the Tuesday morning in 70 minutes. The fare from the Band to Broken Hill, the mining centre in Northern Rhodesia, is £21, to Nairobi, £44, and to Kisumu £48. The railway fare to Broken Hill is £11 16s., and the journey occupies from two to three days. This service linking the Rand with the Rhodesias and Kenya follows the previous Imperial route, which was altered when flying-boats were introduced.

SOUTH AFRICAN AIRWAYS JUNKERS JU 52 aircraft at the Rand Airport

SOUTH AFRICAN AIRWAYS JUNKERS JU 52 aircraft at the Rand Airport, Germiston, Transvaal. These three-engined machines normally carry a maximum of fourteen passengers, but can carry seventeen if necessary. The four original Ju 52 machines are being replaced by new ones. This picture gives an idea of the size of the Rand airport and of the nature of the surrounding country.

The Airspeed Envoys, of which four are in service in the Union, are part of a batch of seven which the Government ordered. Three of the machines were acquired as fast medium bombers by the South African Air Force, and all seven were built so that they can be converted for military and commercial purposes. The four machines used on the airways accommodate six passengers in addition to the crew and are powered by two Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah IX engines. Maximum speed at 6,750 feet is 210 and at 10,000 feet 208 miles an hour. Cruising speed at 62·5 per cent power at 10,000 feet is 171 miles an hour. Normal cruising range at 10,000 feet is 720 miles. The civil machine can be converted into a bomber in a few hours. The Junkers machines are Ju 52 three-engined planes seating fourteen passengers, or seventeen in an emergency, and Ju 86 twin-engined aircraft, seating ten passengers. At the time of writing, the original four Ju 52 machines are being replaced by new ones. New Junkers are being delivered to form a fleet of sixteen 86s, powered by Pratt and Whitney geared Hornet engines to cruise at 200, and five 52s with three Pratt and Whitney engines to cruise at 192 miles an hour. All the new aircraft are fitted with blind-landing equipment, and modern aids to flying are being installed at the larger aerodromes.

When delivery of the machines is completed new services will be introduced, including a 7,000-miles airway from the Cape to the Congo, thence 2,000 miles inland to Kenya, and finally southwards back to Capetown. New aerodromes are being built in all parts of the Union, and the aim is to have emergency landing grounds at intervals of not less than fifty miles along all scheduled routes. Direction-finding stations are to be extended to South West Africa in anticipation of the projected West Coast route. To help private pilots to recognize towns, the names of railway stations are to be painted on the roofs at places along nearly 6,000 miles of railways.

When the work proceeding at the Rand Airport at Germiston is completed, the total cost of the airport will be £400,000. New stores, engine shops, hangars, offices and mess rooms are being erected. At Durban a new base for the flying boats of the Imperial air mail route is being built to replace the temporary base, to avoid delay in the transhipment of mail and passengers. The aerodrome for the landplanes is at Stamford Hill, Durban, at the northern end of the city. Plans have been prepared for building a combined flying boat and aeroplane base. A new service of South African Airways and the D.E.T.A. Airways of Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) between Lourenco Marques and the Rand, saves 24 hours in the through journey from London to Johannesburg, as the D.H. Rapides connect at Lourenjo Marques with the Imperial flying boats. The flight takes 2 hours 30 minutes, and the connexion enables passengers to avoid stopping overnight at Durban, by disembarking from the flying boat at Lourenfo Marques and joining the connecting aeroplane which flies to the Rand direct.

Various companies in the Union provide taxi and charter services and make aerial surveys, and the flying clubs provide tuition and practice for hundreds of members. Many of the members qualify as reserve pilots of the South African Air Force.

The Rhodesia and Nyasaland Airways was formed in 1933. It began regular services based on Salisbury, which is now the air junction for the route from the Rand, a route eastward to Beira, which is on the Imperial route, and another route to Blantyre, the commercial centre of Nyasaland.

THE CONTROL TOWER of the Rand Airport

THE CONTROL TOWER of the Rand Airport. The black ball on top of the tower, next to the wind stocking, is used to indicate when pilots should land according to a wind “T” placed on the ground and not necessarily exactly in accordance with the direction of the wind as indicated by the stocking. A South African Airways machine is shown taxying away from the buildings.

[From Part 12, published 24 May 1938]

Click here to see the photogravure supplement to this article.

You can read more on “Air Mails of the Empire”, “Air Traffic Control” and “Cobham’s Pioneer Empire Flights” on this website.

South Africa's Air Routes