Aviation memories

Reader Vernon Varty wrote in with some of his memories:

Thank you for such a wonderful website … as some famous person once said: “There’s nothing like the Good Old Days.”

We moved from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in 1941, long before I started proper school. One of my very clear memories of the early 1940’s was standing in a queue with my mother, waiting for the 3-ton truck to arrive with rations … we got powdered eggs, horrible-tasting white margarine, unsifted flour, dried peas and so on. Apparently nobody was allowed to make white bread. We had a little wood and cloth contraption with a small crank-handle that could turn, and we would take turns at sifting the flour so that we could and did have white bread. We had to paint all our windows black, and shut them at night because of the blackout.

I started school in 1945, and my dad told me that something called “The War” was now over, and that something called a Spitfire was going to fly all over Durban. We waited and waited, and finally this speedy and noisy little aircraft flew over …  I was enthralled. Some months later there was a big military exhibition at Albert Park, and there stood a Spitfire in front of my eyes. I was allowed to go over and touch it. That was the start of my lifelong love of aviation. We used to walk down to the flying boat base at Congella to gawk at the Sunderlands, and were often lucky enough to watch one of these magnificent machines either arriving or taking off. I became an aviation fanatic, collected pictures of aircraft, watched a Movietone News film which showed an amazing new invention … it turned out to be a Gloster Meteor and could fly at unheard-of speeds.

At an air show at Stamford Hill Aerodrome (can’t remember the year) I saw my first Vampire jets, flown by Pikkie Rautenbach et al. It was a special day. Three Harvards did a formation display which began by taking off side by side, and tied together with 18 feet of red ribbon. The idea was to do the whole display without breaking the thin fabric, and at the end they did a spectacular vertical climb, at the top of which they finally separated, the ribbons easily parting. Precision flying indeed. On the same day, the organisers placed five 5-lb bags of flour in a long straight line stretching almost the whole length of the ‘drome. Then the huge wonderful Sunderland did an unforgettable beat-up, bursting at least 3 of the 5 bags WITH ITS KEEL. Only years later did I begin to realise what an incredible piece of flying that was.

I spent my high school years at Mansfield High, near the Botanic Gardens. One day in 1953, on a school lunch break, we heard the most amazing sound, and suddenly 2 impressively huge aircraft flew past, almost directly overhead. Immediately afterwards, 2 more came by, and we later learned that these were Mk.2 Avro Shackletons, on a visit from the RAF. The more I read about these spectacular planes, the more I fell in love with them. This sales visit would result in the SAAF taking delivery of 8 of these wonderful machines in 1957.

Shackleton P-1722. Picture courtesy Vernon Varty.
Shackleton P-1722. Picture courtesy Vernon Varty.

My matric year was in 1955, and we had no subject to write on Thursday 25th so I pedalled from our house at Montclair down to the new airport, due to have its official opening that afternoon. I saw Lt Fletcher’s Vampire belting in from the Isipingo end of the runway, and watched in total disbelief as it suddenly dived into the ground, making a horrible explosion. I will never forget the black mushroom cloud as the fuel went up. One of our Montclair neighbours was Capt Goulding, a fire chief who was on duty. He told us afterwards that trying to clear up after the crash was one of the saddest jobs he had ever done.

Somewhere in the above timeline Durban was treated to the arrival of the beautiful De Havilland Comet, piloted by John “cat’s eyes” Cunningham. Security at airports in those days was very trusting, the terminal building being separated from the aircraft apron only by a low wall, which served mainly as a long planter for colourful flowers. So after the flight party had disembarked and gone in to the terminal, I strolled over to the amazing Comet and actually touched one of the large tyres, before a Railway Policeman told me to go away.

In 1967 my love of aviation finally got the better of me, and off I went to the Durban Wings Club to learn to fly. I remember very well some of the people mentioned in your aviation pages because they were all members at the time. Names like Peter Riley, Mike Hartley, guitar-playing Denis Bishop, who became the South African aerobatic champion, and Arthur Morris, who painted the huge and happy indoor aviation mural inside the clubhouse. From your Fairfield Handicap page I remember Les Miller, who was the club’s chief flying instructor.

Coming soon: Vernon’s Musical Memories.

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7 Responses

  1. Frank Beeton
    | Reply

    Hello Vernon, the Spitfire that you saw in Albert Park was most certainly the F.VIIc serial JF 294 that came out from the UK in 1944 to participate in “Liberty Cavalcades” in all major SA cities. It was subsequently absorbed into the SAAF as serial 5501 and is presently on display at the SA Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. If you read my contributions to the “Aviation Memories” thread you will see that you and I share many of the same memories, although I was a little younger than you (born 1946). Regards, Frank.

  2. Frank Beeton
    | Reply

    Sorry, just re-read my previous post. Should read F. VIIIc (Mark 8) Spitfire. Roman numerals!

  3. Vernon Varty
    | Reply

    Hello Frank … apologies for this very late reply … I’m not ill-mannered, just not very internet savvy, and opened the page by accident. We’re apparently not supposed to advertise our contact details, but if you’re ever in Cape Town I hope you’ll look me up …name,address, phone etc in the Telkom directory. Thanks for the info regarding that marvellous Spitfire.
    P.S. On 22 October 2004 I was lucky enough to get a ride in P-1722, the Shackleton in the photo above … a 40-minute experience I will never forget. The co-pilot that day was Perter Dagg, same co-pilot who helped put P-1716 down safely in the Sahara Desert some years before.

  4. Nicola Rauch
    | Reply

    Hi Vernon
    I wonder if you have any memories about the Mercury Airways DC3 Skyliner that departed Stamford Hill on 15 May 1948 and crashed near Vrede in the Free State? There were a number of pilots on the flight (it was a bit of a jaunt down to Durbs for employees) including Jacob Naude (Babe) Smith, Hamilton (Hammy) Purvis, David Leppan, Hugh Maclennan and Sydney Cross, the wireless operator. My aunt was the airhostess on the flight
    The chief pilot of Mercury Air was Commander Rautenbach – initials either P.M or T.M. He is not the famed “Pikkie” but might well be related – Flyers seem to come in families! I would love to track him/his family down to see if there are any records on the crash or the Airline.
    I would so appreciate any information or contacts
    Kind regards, Nicola Rauch

  5. Vernon Varty
    | Reply

    Good morning Nicola.
    That Mercury Airways flight must have happened happened when I was about 11 years old. I would have been away at boarding school in Estcourt in those days, and I don’t remember anything like that.
    My earliest direct aviation contacts only started when I began my own flying lessons in 1967, so I’m afraid I’m no help personally with your question.
    However, I had a look via Google and found a report about the crash. In case you haven’t seen it, you can find it here:
    I hope this is some help
    Warm regards

  6. Vernon Varty
    | Reply

    Hello to Frank Beeton
    Your welcome information some time back about Spitfire JF294 keeps popping back into my mind. So much so that I have now had to do some i/net digging, and I happily found an air-to-air photo showing this aircraft on its way from Cairo to Cape Town in 1944. I’m so glad to have this link to that great day for me at Albert Park, when I was actually allowed up onto the wing to have a look into the cockpit. I don’t know how to attach photos to these posts, which is quite sad because I also found an air-to-air close-up of a Sunderland flying over the Point Docks area.
    Thank you again for pointing me back to an unforgettable day.

  7. Frank Beeton
    | Reply

    It was a great pleasure, Vernon! BTW the original propeller from that Spit was “donated” to the SAAF Museum for their airworthy Spitfire Mk. IXe Serial 5518 alias 5553. Unfortunately this aircraft crashed at Swartkop AFB on 15th April 2000, so that propeller was destroyed! JF294/5501 is still in the War Museum at Saxonwold (with a replica propeller) so you can renew acquaintances with it any time you are in Johannesburg. There have been several initiatives to rebuild 5518 to static condition but I don’t know how far they have gone, it was pretty badly smashed up in the prang and the last I heard it was stored in a container.

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