Early Birds in Central Africa

An account of flying activities in the Rhodesias during the years 1920 to 1922

by J. McAdam

The British aircraft industry received such stimulus during World War I that before the end of that conflict aircraft were available which were capable of carrying a fair load in addition to their crew.

Towards the end of 1918, upon the termination of the war with Turkey, personnel of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East became available for other duties, and the Air Ministry decided to make several long-distance flights to pave the way for the civil aviation which, it was confidently believed, would follow when peace returned to the world. A Handley-Page bomber had already, in July, 1918, flown from Cranwell to Cairo via Paris and Rome, and in November the same aircraft made the first flight from Egypt to India.

In pursuance of this policy it was decided to open up the air route from Cairo to the Cape, and in December, 1918, three survey and construction parties were appointed to establish landing grounds at convenient intervals along the route. No. 1 Party was responsible for the sector from Cairo to Nimule (Sudan), No. 2 Party for that from Nimule to Abercorn, and No. 3 Party commanded by Major Chaplin Court Treatt (1), for the sector from Abercorn to Broken Hill and thence down the line of rail to Cape Town. Second-in-command of No. 3 Survey Party was Captain Shortridge, who was made responsible for the northern part of the sector, while Major Court Treatt devoted his attention to the southern area.

Some of the difficulties encountered are illustrated in the following contemporary press report: "ln many places it was necessary to cut aerodromes out of dense jungle: to fell and dig up the roots of thousands of trees. The soil of inumerable anthills had to be removed by hand and carried away in native baskets, as practically no barrows or other equipment were available. Many of these anthills were 25 feet in height and anything up to 45 feet in diameter, and as one cubic yard of anthill weighs about 2,670 Ibs., some idea may be gathered of the amount of work involved, in view of the lack of mechanical equipment. At Ndola, for instance, 700 Africans worked from April to August, 1919, moving 25,000 tons of soil and filling in a gully 600 yards in width. Blasting was tried but was found to be ineffective."

Despite these obstacles, and numerous other hardships and hazards including communications and transport difficulties, mosquitoes and tsetse flies, lions and other animals and reptiles, the task of the three survey parties was completed within twelve months, and at the end of December, 1919, the Air Ministry declared the Cairo-Cape air route to be open.

Soon after this announcement several expeditions declared their intention to set out for the Cape. First away, on Saturday, January 24th. 1920, was a converted Vickers Vimy bomber, sponsored by The Times of London and within the next ten days three more aircraft left England - a Handley-Page sponsored by the Daily Telegraph, a D.H.14 of Airco Ltd. (neither of which got very far), and a second Vickers Vimy named the "Silver Queen".

"Silver Queen" was sponsored by the Government of South Africa and was flown by two South African pilots, Lieut.Col. Pierre van Ryneveld, D.S.O., M.C., and Flight-Lieut. C.J. Quinton Brand, D.S.O., M.C., D.F.C. With them, to attend to aircraft and engine maintenance, were Mr. Burton, an airframe engineer, and Mr. F.W. Sherratt, of Rolls Royce.

The Times Vimy, after a relatively trouble-free flight across Europe arrived at Heliopolis, near Cairo, on Tuesday, February 3rd., and departed for Luxor and points south on Friday, the 6th. From then on the expedition was plagued with mechanical trouble as their water-cooled engines overheated and developed serious leaks. Time and time again during the following three weeks they were forced to land to rectify the defects, but they pressed resolutely on; the crew must have been possessed of iron determination to have kept going under such strenuous circumstances. The party arrived at Tabora in central Tanganyika on Thursday, February 26th, and more will be heard of them later.

"Silver Queen" took off from Brooklands on Wednesday, February 4th, the day after the arrival of The Times Vimy at Heliopolis. Before leaving Van Ryneveld declared that they intended to reach Cape Town in "the shortest time that circumstances would permit" and that they would do their best to overtake The Times expedition.

Their flight across Europe to Gioja del Colli in Southern Italy was more or less incident-free, and after refuelling there they took off at 9:30 p.m. for Derna in Cyrenaica.

This flight, made in atrocious weather, was the first non-stop air crossing of the Mediterranean from Italy to North Africa. Later one of the pilots remarked that it had been "an unforgettable nightmare... an ugly impression which they would like to obliterate from their minds." The Rhodesia Herald, in an editorial on February 18th, 1920, wrote: "their grit and stamina were put to the severest test in that terrible voyage across the Mediterranean... their eleven-hour struggle against adverse atmospheric conditions will live in aviation history... as one of the most noteworthy achievements."

Despite this ordeal they spent only one hour at Derna and then took off for Sollum where, upon landing, the aircraft's tail was damaged by a boulder. Ford car parts were adapted and after a two-day delay they left for Heliopolis, which was reached on the evening of February 9th.

At 11:30 p.m. the following day, February 10th, "Silver Queen" took off from Heliopolis and flew into the night, heading south. All went well for the first few hours, but at about 5 a.m. a draining tap on the radiator of the starboard engine vibrated to the open position, allowing all the cooling water to escape and the engine seriously to overheat. They were committed to an immediate forced landing in pitch darkness near Kurusku, about 80 miles north of Wadi Halfa. Upon landing, the aircraft ran into a pile of large boulders and the fuselage was irreparably damaged, but the crew miraculously escaped serious injury. (2)

The engines were apparently undamaged, so the crew removed them and transported them back to Cairo by boat and train.(3) After tests the engines were fitted into a second Vimy, provided by the Royal Air Force, Middle East, at the request of the South African Government. Mechanic Burton now stood down and was replaced by Flight-Sgt. E. F. Newman of the Royal Air Force.

"Silver Queen II" left Heliopolis early on Sunday, February 22nd, and reached Wadi Halfa that afternoon. Here a delay was caused by a careless mistake in which a fuel tank was inadvertently filled with water, and it became necessary to drain the entire fuel system; (the remarks of the crew do not appear to be on record.)

Some slight engine trouble was encountered on the next sector of the flight, but this was rectified at Khartoum (4); thereafter the journey was uneventful for the next few hundred miles and at 1.45 p.m. on Thursday, the 26th, they landed at Kisumu on Lake Victoria, from which The Times Vimy had taken off at 7.30 that very morning.

"Silver Queen II" left Kisumu at 7 a.m. next day with the intention of flying non-stop to Abercorn, but engine trouble forced them to divert to Shirati on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria (near the Kenya/Tanganyika border), and they spent the rest of the day working on the engine.

That same morning, February 27th, The Times Vimy took off from Tabora at 6.50 and within minutes was obliged to return due to engine trouble. The distance between Shirati and Tabora being about 300 statute miles, the position at mid-morning was that little more than three hours of Vimy flying time separated the two expeditions.

After working on the engines all morning The Times party boarded their aircraft at 2 p.m. to depart for Abercorn, but this time the starboard engine failed completely upon take-off. The aircraft swerved into the bush, being wrecked beyond repair, and the flight had to be abandoned. According to reports "some regrettable language was used."

"Silver Queen II", her engine defects rectified, left Shirati early on the 28th and, overflying Tabora, landed at Abercorn at 2.45 p.m. The crew later reported having sighted the aerodrome at Tabora but "no sign of The Times machine".

Abercorn being 5,400 feet above sea level and the airfield none too large,5 the pilots made the prudent decision to lighten the aircraft's burden by offloading what they described as "an enormous quantity of spares and . . . much of our own kit, flying boots, etc." They also revised their plan to fly direct to Broken Hill and decided instead to make for the intermediate landing ground at Ndola which, being nearer, would of course require less fuel and so further lighten the machine for its take-off from Abercorn.

Having thus re-organised the loading of the aircraft, they took off for Ndola at 6.55 a.m. on Sunday, February 29th. The sector Abercorn-Ndola is singularly devoid of geographical features, and must have proved a severe test of their navigational skill. Their aids to navigation consisted of a magnetic compass and a map (almost certainly small of scale and devoid of detail). Added to this, serious trouble developed in the starboard engine, and they began to contemplate the possibility of landing in the bush, but then, as the Livingstone Mail put it, "happily the engine recovered sufficiently to bring the machine to Ndola," where they landed, probably with considerable relief, at five minutes after noon.

Heavy rain fell the following day, and this delayed their departure until Tuesday, March 2nd, when they managed to stagger off the waterlogged field at 6.10 a.m. en route for Broken Hill, where they landed at 7.40.

After breaking their fast and refuelling the aircraft, the party took off at 10.15 a.m. for Livingstone (6); considering the navigational headaches which they must have experienced in the remote areas to the north, it was no doubt a relief to follow the "iron compass" (7) without much regard to their instrument panel.

Excited railway officials at isolated stations and sidings kept the stationmaster at Livingstone informed of the aircraft's progress by means of the railway telegraph . . . Lusaka 11.00, . . . Kafue 11.38, . . . Mazabuka 12.05, . . . Kalomo 1.40, . . . Zimba 2.20 and then, after circling the Victoria Falls, "Silver Queen II" touched down at Livingstone at 2.42 p.m.

The Bulawayo Chronicle of March 12th, 1920, described the scene in the following terms: "Arrangements had previously been made for the town to receive a warning of the aircraft's approach by means of gun signals and at 10.20 a.m. these signals sounded at the police camp. (8) Cars and cycles immediately hurried to the aerodrome . . . excitement mounted . . . work practically ceased throughout the town as almost the whole population, black and white, assembled at the landing ground."

"After landing, the aviators were received by the Administrator, Sir Lawrence Wallace, and Col. Stephenson, spokesman for the 'Aviators Welcome Committee'."

Heavy rain fell on Tuesday night and the aerodrome became so sodden that the airmen decided to postpone their departure until Thursday. However engine trouble again manifested itself and they did not finally leave for Bulawayo until 8.40 a.m. on Friday, March 5th.

A stiff south-easterly wind was blowing and progress was slow; at times their ground speed was less than 60 m.p.h. Wankie 9.40, . . . Dett 10.20, . . . Ngamo 11.10, . . . Sawmills 12.00, . . . Nyamandhlovu 12.29.

In Bulawayo excited crowds thronged the race course which was to be used as a landing ground; in anticipation of the need to control the crowds Major A. J. Tomlinson and Lieut. D. McLean of the British South Africa Police took charge of policing arrangements. Earlier, as at Livingstone, the authorities had given warning by gun and hooter that the aircraft was on its way.

At 12.40 a speck in the sky to the north-west heralded the approach of "Silver Queen II" and a few minutes later she touched down smoothly on the grass - the first aeroplane to land on the soil of Southern Rhodesia.

Formal addresses of welcome were then read by Mayor James Cowden and Acting Town Clerk F. Fitch, after which the party proceeded to the Grand Hotel for a Civic luncheon.

Next morning, after the engines had been warmed up, "Silver Queen II" taxied to the down-wind end of the field, turned into the wind and, at about 7.55, commenced to take off for South Africa. The Bulawayo Chronicle of Monday, March 8th gave the following account of subsequent events: "The aircraft ran right across the cleared space and . . . lifted into the air only a few yards from the tangled bush beyond the field. There were gasps of relief from the watchers and then a delighted cheer. But it soon became evident that . . . all was not well. Heading towards Hillside . . . only a few yards above the bush . . . she disappeared from view. Apprehensions grew when the engines became silent."

"Some [of the crowd] started running towards the Matsheumhlope River . . . others rushed to cars and cycles . . . motors scurried along tracks on the commonage between South Suburbs and Hillside. Then [the first to reach the scene] saw the wreck of the aircraft in the bush beyond the river."

crash at Bulawayo

"Both officers were dishevelled and severely shaken but not seriously injured, while the mechanics sustained minor bruises."

The dejected crew returned to their hotel, where they soon began to receive messages of sympathy from far and wide. The most welcome of these would have been the telegram from General J. C. Smuts advising them that another aircraft would soon be on its way from Pretoria to enable them to complete their journey.

During their enforced delay in Bulawayo the aviators enjoyed much entertainment and hospitality. The pilots were driven out to the Matopos by Mr. A. G. Hay and were guests of honour at a Civic Luncheon on the 11th, while Messrs. Newman and Sherratt were entertained at the Palace Hotel on the 9th by the Mechanics of Bulawayo, and on the 12th by the Bulawayo Comrades at the Carlton.

Later Flight-Lieut. Brand delivered a lecture on their flight down Africa to the cadets of Milton School, after which the Headmaster, Mr. E. B. de Beer, proposed a hearty vote of thanks to him.

The replacement aircraft provided by General Smuts was a D.H.9 of the the South African Defence Force, (9) which was flown from Roberts Heights to Bulawayo via Palapye by Lieut. John Holthouse, with Major Court Treatt as navigator, and which arrived at 2.20 p.m. on Tuesday, March 16th.

At 6.30 next morning the two pilots (10) took off on the final stage of the journey. A strike of rail and postal workers was in progress at the time and it is on record that Mr. R. Lanning, Native Commissioner at Plumtree, managed to get a message to Col. van Ryneveld asking him to drop a few copies of the Bulawayo Chronicle as he passed over the village. This was agreed to and as the aircraft swooped low over Plumtree School the papers were duly dropped to Mr. Lanning. It is reported that one of them was endorsed by him and is now preserved in the National Archives at Salisbury. (11)

The flight of van Ryneveld and Brand from Bulawayo to Cape Town in "Voortrekker" was relatively uneventful, apart from the tremendous acclaim accorded them by their fellow countrymen at each landing place; They landed triumphantly at Cape Town at 4 p.m. on Saturday March 20th, 1920, the first men to fly from England to the Cape, and for which magnificent achievement both were later knighted. (12)

Before concluding this chapter let us spare a thought for poor Newman and Sherratt, who without doubt played a vital role in maintaining the aircraft in serviceable condition during its epic flight down Africa and whose names nowadays are all but forgotten when the saga of "Silver Queen" is discussed.

Less than three weeks later, on April 8th, a company known as Airoad Motors was registered in Bulawayo, the first enterprise in Central Africa to concern itself with aeronautics. The directors appear to have had grandiose plans to branch out in all forms of transport, for they advertised their intention to "carry on the business of importing, buying, selling, exchanging, manufacturing in whole or in part, equipping, repairing, altering, taking or letting on hire and generally dealing in cars, coaches, carriages, traps, cabs, carts, omnibuses, cycles, ships, boats, aeroplanes, airships and conveyances of every description propelled or worked . . . by steam, electricity, petrol, oil, gas or any other motive powers . . . or drawn by horses or other animals." All of which seems somewhat ambitious in view of the fact that the company never owned or operated any aircraft, boats or vehicles of any description, and went into liquidation later in the year.

Be that as it may, the following advertisement appeared in the Bulawayo Chronicle of May 15th, 1920: "Airoad Motors have pleasure in announcing that they are booking flights per 'The Rhodesian Queen' during Show Week. Apply Aviation Manager, corner of Main St. and 5th Ave."

The aircraft referred to was an Avro 504K, a converted military machine owned by the South African Aerial Transport Co., based at Baragwanath Aerodrome, Johannesburg, and managed by Major A. M. Miller, D.S.O., the pioneer South African airman. Airoad Motors was appointed agent for that company during a proposed tour of Rhodesia by this aircraft.

On May 22nd readers of the Bulawayo Chronicle were informed: "AERIAL JOYRIDES . . . Mr. C. R. Thompson of the South African Aerial Transport Co. has visited Bulawayo to check the aerodrome in preparation for the visit of the Avro to be christened 'Rhodesian Queen', which is coming from Baragwanath." (13)

The air route from Johannesburg to Bulawayo in those days more or less followed the line of rail and the Avro, flown by Mr. Earl Rutherford accompanied by an engineer, Mr. A. English, landed at Mafeking and Palapye, where some trouble was experienced due to holes in the aerodrome surface, caused by field rats.

The aircraft arrived at Bulawayo on Sunday, May 23rd, and was immediately grounded due to punctured tyres caused by thorns on the landing ground. Upon examination a total of 84 holes were discovered in the tubes and Mr. Thompson relates that "upon the advice of one of the locals we lined the tyres by inserting strips of raw kudu hide between the tyres and the tubes, and this proved satisfactory."

Mr. Thompson was not satisfied with the length of the ground which was available for take-off and tried to persuade the authorities to extend it; however he was informed that a certain Air Force major had pronounced it to be perfectly suitable, and they declined to do so.

On Monday, the 24th, the aircraft was christened "Rhodesia" by the Deputy Mayor, Mr. Clement Dixon. The reason for the change of name is not revealed but, bearing in mind that the "Silver Queen II" had come to grief here only six weeks earlier, it is possible that the "Queen" part was felt not to be propitious.

After the christening ceremony Mr. Thompson asked Deputy Mayor Dixon to honour him by accepting the opening flight. As the Avro could carry two passengers, Mr. Martin, a director of Airoad Motors, accompanied him on this trip, and these were the first air passengers ever to be carried in Central African skies.

On this initial flight Mr. Thompson decided to demonstrate his theory that the field was too small and he reports: "When taking off I held the old Avro down to the last minute until we were very close to the trees at the far end of the runway, then I "zoomed", which gave the [Deputy] Mayor a real fright, and on landing I told him that we had just 'made it'. He was now convinced that the ground was too small and next morning a gang of convicts cleared another 50 yards of trees, making the take-off much easier."

On Friday the 28th, Mrs. Edwards and Mrs. Pitman were taken up, to become Central Africa's first lady air passengers. Whilst on the subject of ladies, it was reported that Mr. English, the engineer (whose nickname was 'Anglais'), did not relish their presence while repair work was being carried out on the aircraft because "the vocal oil with which mechanics lubricate their feelings when a particularly hard nut has to be tackled is necessarily absent when ladies are around."

Temporarily recruited to assist English with the more menial aspects of aircraft maintenance was an African youth who was given the soubriquet of "Flight Sergeant-Major Ned", and he was surely the first African to be employed in the local aviation industry.

Mr. Thompson recalls that during twelve days of successful flying at Bulawayo their gross takings amount to about 950, and that amongst their many passengers were Mrs. Tom Meikle and her niece and "a Mr. and Mrs. Landau".

On Saturday, June 6th the team left Bulawayo for a tour of the Midlands, Mashonaland and Manicaland during which the towns of Gwelo, Que Que, Gatooma, Salisbury, Rusape and Umtali saw their first flying machine. First port of call was Gwelo; Thompson, as before, went in advance by rail to select a landing area and the aircraft, flown by Rutherford, with English, followed. Rutherford carried a letter from the Editor of the Bulawayo Chronicle to the Mayor of Gwelo; also a copy of that morning's paper.

As usual, the aircraft engendered considerable excitment and it was reported that "there was a great demand for flights at 3 3s. 0d. per time".

On the morning of Tuesday the 8th, the team moved from Gwelo to Gatooma. Press reports indicate that the aircraft "provided the town with plenty of excitement and it was very well patronised".

Mr. Thompson confirms that flying was brisk at Gatooma, and mentions that "during the tea interval I was touched on the shoulder and found none other than Dr. A. J. MacKenzie, whom I had met when flying at the Kowie near Grahamstown''. (14)

Mr. Thompson continues: "As English and I were preparing to peg the machine down at the end of the day's flying, a dear old man with a beard appeared most interested in the aircraft, stating that he was one of the early prospectors and had never seen a flying machine before. I decided there and then to take him for a 'flip'. The old boy was thrilled but when we landed, before I could turn round, he had wandered off into the 'blue', and I never established his name."

From Gatooma a telegram was sent to the Mayor of Salisbury requesting that he arrange a landing area "which should be not less than 300 yards each way, and would he be good enough to place a smoke fire in the centre to furnish the wind direction."

"Salisbury race course", reported the Rhodesia Herald of June 10th, "has been prepared as a landing ground. (15) The local depot of Airoad Motors is Messrs. Kimpton's, where flights can be booked."

Mr. Thompson had travelled from Gatooma to Salisbury by rail to examine the landing ground, and Rutherford flew the machine up on the morning of Friday, June 11th. The scene is described in the Rhodesia Herald of Saturday, the 12th: "Large crowds assembled at the race course yesterday to view the aircraft . . . which was expected at 11 a.m., but was late. Suddenly the hooter at the brewery sent its voice abroad in short spasms, and the aeroplane came into sight. It flew over town first, then approached the race course, and the symbols 'HD 96' stood out prominently in bold type beneath the machine."

"Cheers were raised by the assembled spectators as it came to a halt opposite the grandstand. (16) After landing, Pilot Rutherford and two passengers, Messrs. Ulyett and Thornton of Gatooma, stepped out."

"The Mayor, Mr. George Elcombe, welcomed Mr. Rutherford on behalf of the town, and congratulated him as being the pilot of the first aeroplane to come to Salisbury; and expressed the hope that the day was not far off when aeroplanes would be in daily use in Rhodesia."

The Herald continued: "Police had a busy time keeping the crowds away from the aircraft . . . It was soon announced that a short flight would be made. First passengers in the capital were Mayor Elcombe and his daughter, Miss Margaret Elcombe . . . The pilot this time was Mr. Thompson . . . After the flight the Mayor remarked that he was struck by the beauty of all the gardens."

Numerous flights took place during Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, but flying was suspended on Saturday afternoon due to the races. The oldest passenger to be carried was 74-year-old Mr. William "Mazoe" Smith, who went up on Friday the 11th, accompanied by the Mayoress, Mrs. Elcombe.

Mr. Thompson relates: "We were quartered at Meikle's Hotel-I must mention here that the owner of a large garage, almost opposite the hotel was a tower of strength to us arranging petrol, oil, etc. I cannot remember his name." (17)

After spending ten days in the capital, the barnstormers visited Rusape and Umtali where they conducted more aerial joyrides. Their visit to these centres was well-timed as in each case the annual show was in progress and the town crowded with visitors.

Upon their arrival at Umtali all offices and stores were closed in celebration and a large crowd gathered at the race course. Having welcomed "the aviators in the first aeroplane to visit Umtali" the Mayor, accompanied by the Town Clerk, was taken for a short flight. Many residents then followed their example.

Mr. Thompson writes: "I have since visited Umtali and, looking at the surrounding country from the top of the hill near the Hotel, I shudder to think of the risk of flying our old string and wire machine over this terrible country. A safe forced landing was absolutely out of the question."

"Rhodesia" returned to Rusape on Monday, the 28th, and there the team spent a few days "resting and visiting the Annual Show" as well as making a number of flights.

On July 3rd they took leave of their friends in Rusape and made a leisurely journey back to Bulawayo, arriving in time for the Rhodes and Founders weekend (Saturday the 10th, to Tuesday, the 13th, 1920).

Next on their itinerary was a visit to Northern Rhodesia; Messrs. Rutherford and English left Bulawayo on the morning of Tuesday, July 20th, carrying "a specially-printed edition of the Bulawayo Chronicle". They stopped at Ngamo to refuel, then flew low over Wankie, where some of the papers were dropped, and landed at Livingstone shortly after 2 p.m. Here the remainder of the papers were "circulated gratis".

Mr. Thompson, as was his custom, had gone ahead by rail to arrange a landing ground at Wankie where, it was thought, a landing would have to be made to refuel. He writes: "I spent a miserable trip sitting in the van of a goods train and finally arrived at Wankie at 2 a.m., and was directed to the only hotel there. After much banging on doors I eventually raised the hotel proprietor, who informed me very curtly that the hotel was full, and brushed me off by closing the door. I returned to the station and found a light in a small goods shed, where the foreman-in-charge allowed me to sleep on the hard cement until dawn."

"After a clean-up and a cup of tea I made my way to the Mine and met the Manager, a Mr. Thomson; (18) I explained the reason for my call and enquired if he could fix a landing spot for Rutherford to land and 'fill up', suggesting that he might do a few 'flips' for the staff. He got going immediately and between us we decided that the 5th hole on their golf course would be big enough, provided a few bunkers were filled in. A gang of labourers worked on this and hacked down a large anthill, one of their natural bunkers, and a landing 'T' was arranged." (19)

"This accomplished, I proceeded to Livingstone by that evening's goods train, and imagine my surprise when Rutherford arrived there a day early; he did not fancy the landing ground at Wankie, and carried on to Livingstone. I was most annoyed and to this day I am afraid to meet the Manager face-to-face after all he had done."

On the afternoon of their arrival at Livingstone, Tuesday, the 20th, the airmen received a message from the Administrator, Sir Lawrence Wallace, requesting them "to call in for a drink on their way back to the Hotel". His Excellency then expressed a wish to be flown over the Victoria Falls "as low as possible, as he wished to photograph the rock formation."

Next morning, after Mr. Thompson had granted His Excellency's wish, the usual aerial joyrides took place, the first fare-paying air passengers in Northern Rhodesia being "Miss Ely and Mr. Brooker, followed by Mr. and Mrs. Selby, then Mr. Hartley and Miss Fisher."

On Tuesday, 27th July, "Rhodesia", flown by Mr. Thompson, left Livingstone for Broken Hill, via Kalomo, carrying Mr. and Mrs. Werner. Mr. Werner, says Thompson, "was associated with Mr. King in a large mealie farm at Mazabuka, and he had crossed the Kafue in the first ox-wagon, also had been in the first train to cross the Kafue Bridge, and now wished to be the first to fly across it."

"Just before leaving" continues Mr. Thompson, "Mr. Werner objected to the price we were charging to fly him to Broken Hill, and mentioned that as we were going there anyway 20 guineas would be sufficient and not 60 guineas as quoted. I suggested that he make a similar proposition to the Station Master - that as his train was going to Broken Hill, 1 per head would be ample. Mr. Werner chuckled and said, 'Thompson, you win'."

The aircraft landed at Kalomo to refuel and took off for Broken Hill rather later than was intended; thus, as there was some doubt that they would reach their destination before dark, Mr. Werner suggested that they spend the night on his farm near Mazabuka. Thompson agreed, and they landed on a small ploughed field near the farm-house.

After landing, it was suggested that Werner's two nieces be taken up for a 'flip', (20) which was done, but upon landing the rough surface caused the aircraft's undercarriage to collapse and she nosed over on to her back. Spare parts had to be ordered from South Africa and it was almost exactly a month before the tour could be resumed.

In the meantime Mr. Thompson was called back to Johannesburg, and after the damage had been made good, Messrs. Rutherford and English, on Sunday, August 1st, flew the Avro from the Mazabuka farm to Broken Hill.

On their way back to Bulawayo a few days later the engine developed a defect soon after leaving Livingstone, and Rutherford landed at Wankie to investigate. (21) The plugs were found to be faulty and a delay of several days was incurred awaiting replacements from South Africa.

On September 17th "Rhodesia" paid another visit to Livingstone, this time carrying a representative of African Films Ltd., who wished to secure some aerial cine pictures of Victoria Falls.

On the return flight to Bulawayo on the 24th Rutherford was dismayed to find, upon landing at Ngamo to refuel, that the expected petrol stocks had not arrived. He took off again, hoping that there was sufficient in his tanks to reach Bulawayo. But progress was retarded by a brisk headwind, and with tanks almost dry, he was forced to land in a maize field near Nyamandhlovu. A small quantity of petrol was obtained from a local farmer, a path was cleared through the maize and the machine made a successful take-off, completing the journey without further incident.

Before leaving the country the Avro made a final trip to Umvuma, where "large numbers of local residents took to the air" during the week-end October 1st to 4th.

"Rhodesia" left Bulawayo at 10.30 a.m. on Friday, October 8th, 1920, on her return flight to South Africa after a successful 4 1/2 -month visit during which many thousands had their first sight of an aeroplane, and hundreds enjoyed their first flight.

South Africa was evidently not yet ready for commercial aviation, for the South African Aerial Transport Co. ceased operations about a month after the Avro's return from its Rhodesian tour, and went into liquidation early in 1921. Major Miller, its manager, was forced to seek employment in the field of commerce, and in December, 1921, he came to Bulawayo "to take charge of the Union National and General Assurance Co."

There can be little doubt, however, that the Major's heart was still in aviation, and a few months later, on May 10th, 1922, a notice appeared in the Bulawayo Chronicle informing the public that "a project is on foot to establish a commercial aviation company in Bulawayo with the idea of developing aerial transport; . . . Major Miller is to take a leading part in the enterprise. Many local people . . . have offered to help with capital. A meeting is to be held in the Manager's office, Palace Theatre, on Thursday, 11th May to discuss the project."

On May 16th the Chronicle reported: "Commercial aviation is to have a real chance in Rhodesia - a limited liability company is to be formed, known as Rhodesian Aerial Tours, Ltd.... two-thirds of the necessary capital was found within three hours yesterday."

"The first aeroplane is to be an Avro which will be flown up from the Transvaal. (22) It is hoped to have this first locally-owned aeroplane here in a week to ten days . . . perhaps it will be flying over Bulawayo on Empire Day." (23)

This was not to be, for Major Miller left Bulawayo for South Africa by rail on May 23rd. He was further delayed in Johannesburg because, as the Chronicle put it: "all available mechanics are busy helping to mobilise the Union Air Force, as aeroplanes are being used to quell the Hottentot uprising in South West Africa. (24) The Avro requires an overhaul as it has been lying in a hangar for several months."

On Thursday, June 1st, the Chronicle reported that: "Major Miller is still delayed due to lack of mechanics. If news of his departure is received today, information on his progress will be posted on a board at Messrs. Wells and Co.'s Motor depot in Main St. - near the Charter Bar."

Major Miller, accompanied by mechanic A. C. Walker, eventually left Johannesburg on June 6th and, flying via Zwartruggens, Zeerust, Artesia, Palapye Road and Francistown, reached Bulawayo at 10 a.m. on Sunday, June 11th.

On Tuesday, the 13th, the Chronicle stated: "Rhodesian Aerial Tours start regular flying today. Pamphlets advertising tonight's film at the Palace Theatre, 'The Battle of Jutland', were dropped from the aeroplane over Bulawayo yesterday afternoon. Flying hours are from 7.30-11 a.m. and from 2.30 p.m. to dusk. Seats may be booked at the Motor Cycle Supply Stores in 8th Ave., and at the Aerodrome."

The Major then decided to display the aircraft at other centres in Rhodesia; thus on June 23rd and 24th the public were urged to book their local flights without delay as "a lengthy tour of Rhodesia is contemplated."

Additional attractions were now being laid on at the aerodrome: "Teas, light refreshments and chairs will be provided on Saturday afternoon and Sunday by the Cecil Cafe Co., while on Sunday afternoon the Cecil Cafe Orchestra will give musical selections."

On July 1st came the announcement that Major Miller would commence a tour of the Midlands on Wednesday, the 5th, and that "Mr. M. J. O'Donnell of 'Peter Dawson' Whiskey fame is to be a passenger - the first commercial engagement of an aeroplane in Rhodesia. (25) Mr. Monte Wolffe is business manager for the tour."

Major Miller, with passenger O'Donnell and mechanic Walker left Bulawayo for Gwelo at mid-afternoon on Thursday, July 6th, but, encountering a strong headwind, was forced by failing light to land and spend the night at Shangani. Next morning the journey was resumed and the party landed at Gwelo at about mid-day, to be welcomed by a large crowd. Mr. O'Donnell broached a case of Peter Dawson whiskey and "free sundowners were liberally distributed. "

The aeroplane remained at Gwelo for a few days, then, on July 12th, flew Mr. C. E. Gilfillan, a "well-known land surveyor, who had never seen an aeroplane before" to Umvuma. The following day the Major flew back to Bulawayo, returning to Umvuma on the 22nd. He must have found the atmosphere of this little town to be either agreeable or profitable, or both, for this time he stayed there for a fortnight.

Next there appeared a report in the Rhodesia Herald of Saturday, August 5th: "Major Miller is expected in the capital tomorrow . . . he has permission to land on the race course; he is expected to return immediately to Umvuma, but intends coming up in Show Week (8th and 9th August) when the aeroplane will be available for local flights. Bookings may be made at Messrs. Kimptons."

Next morning, as planned, the Major flew from Umvuma to Salisbury and back, then, after lunch he went to Que Que, where he carried out aerial joyrides. On Monday, the 7th, he flew from Que Que to Gatooma, then on to Salisbury; and this time he was able to use the new landing ground which had been prepared "on the commonage adjoining the Showgrounds." (26)

The Major's visit to the capital coincided with the annual Agricultural Show, opened that year by General Smuts, and the city being crowded, he was kept busy satisfying the demand for aerial joyrides.

On the morning of Sunday, August 13th, Major Miller left Salisbury bound for Rusape and Umtali, accompanied by mechanic Walker and Mr. A. R. Morkel of Ceres Farm, Shamva, who was to attend a sitting of the Water Court at Umtali.

It was reported that "after a pleasant flight an excellent landing was made at Rusape at 8.45 a.m. After breakfast the flight was resumed; however, while taking off a changeable wind caused the aircraft to swerve into small trees, which "broke the impetus, but the right wing caught a large tree, and was badly damaged."

Later Major Miller stated: "It has been decided to repair the aircraft at Rusape; it will, however, be some weeks before it will be available for further flights."

The machine never flew again; Major Miller remained at Rusape for a few weeks, presumably awaiting the agreement of his co-directors in Bulawayo to foot the repair bill. It seems reasonable to suppose that they, however, preferred to cut their losses and to wash their hands of the whole affair, for Rhodesian Aerial Tours went into liquidation on November 22nd, 1922.

Major Miller returned to South Africa, (27) where he later founded Union Airways (forerunner of South African Airways) and aviation in Rhodesia lay dormant for the next five years.

NOTES
1. Major Court Treatt, an able and adventurous man, had made a hazardous journey from the U.K. to Timbuctoo shortly before World War I, and was later to achieve fame for his leadership of a Cape to Cairo motor expedition (September, 1924, to January, 1926).

2. The author has seen a photograph of the wreckage, and the term "miraculous escape" seems to be no understatement.

3. By Nile steamer to Aswan, thence by rail to Cairo.

4. Spare engine components were taken aboard at Khartoum, including, very sportingly, some cylinders for The Times Vimy, in case they should overtake it.

5. The tenuous atmosphere at this altitude would adversely affect the performance of a low-powered aircraft of this type.

6. Then capital of Northern Rhodesia.

7. A term denoting "railway" used 15 years later by pilots of Rhodesian and Nyasaland Airways.

8. i.e., five minutes after the aircraft's departure from Broken Hill.

9. The aircraft was No. H 5648, named "Voortrekker" (Pioneer).

10. The D.H.9, being a two-place aircraft, no accommodation was availab]e for Newman and Sherratt, who therefore followed by rail.

11. "Early events in history of flying in S. Rhodesia", by N. H. D. Spicer (in New Rhodesia, v. 14, 12 Sept., 1947, p. 22).

12. Sir Pierre, who rose to become Chief of the General Staflf, Union Defence Forces, retired to his farm near Pretoria in 1949. Sir Quinton, after a distinguished career in the R.A.F. and the British Air Ministry, came to Rhodesia, where he now lives quietly on his farm near Umtali.

13. The author is indebted to Mr. C. R. Thompson, who lives in Johannesburg, for some of the information included in this article.

14. Those who remember the Kowie (Port Alfred) in the 1920's may recall that aviators used to land on the flats near the Lagoon. The author operated an aircraft from those flats in 1934.

15. The old race course, west of Rotten Row, now the site of the Civic Centre.

16. Near the present position of the Rhodesian College of Music.

17. Kimpton's Garage, which stood on the south-west corner of Stanley Avenue/Second Street.

18. Mr. A. R. ("Wankie") Thomson.

19. A "T"-shaped wind-indicator, so placed as to denote the correct landing direction, used in the absence of a "wind-sock" or smoke-fire.

20. Press reports quoted the names of the ladies concerned as "Mrs. Richards and Miss McDonald ".

21. Presumably Rutherford then made his peace with Mr. "Wankie" Thomson for having "boycotted" the town on the earlier flight.

22.This machine was one of five Avro 504K's owned by the now-defunct S.A. Aerial Transport Co.; there thus exists a 20 per cent chance that it was the "Rhodesia", which toured the country 18 months ealier.

23. May 24th.

24. The "Bondelswart" rebellion of May, 1922.

25. This report was erroneous-as has been seen, pilot Rutherford was commissioned to fly a representative of African Films from Bulawayo to Livingstone in September, 1920.

26. This aerodrome remained in use until 1956. In 1940, upon the establishment of an Air Force Training School there, it became known as "Belvedere". The road leading to it was called Belvedere Road many years before the aerodrome was so named.

27. He died at his home in Port Elizabeth in October, 1951.

From: RHODESIANA, No. 13, Dec. 1965.

Return to Main Page