Air stories and tragedies from Durban

The following stories were culled from James Byrom's excellent book Fields of Air which deals with the history of civil aviation in South Africa, with special reference to the curious stories and tragic aspects of that history. James pointed out that I did not, strictly speaking, need permission from him to write up the episodes from the book which deal with Durban. It's true that facts can't be copyrighted but I still want to acknowlege my great debt to James and his book. There is a section below marked off from the rest which contains additional details on the tragedy of Cookie Mills that I was able to glean from someone who knew her. Allan Jackson
- 8 August 2006

First up is a mid-air collision between a Gipsy Moth and a Westland Wapiti north of the mouth of the Umgeni River in 1939. The military Wapiti was piloted by Lt. LT Kinsey, who was instructing pupil pilot FP Schoeman and the civilian Moth by Roy Coull**, who was instructing Noel Horsfield.

The Wapiti flew into the bottom of Coull's machine, breaking off the Moth's wheels, and then, out of control, it crashed into the sea. Coull was apparently a pilot of great skill and managed to fly his aircraft back to Stanford Hill Aerodrome, where he managed to land after attracting the attention of the groundsman and signing to him to fetch the fire engine and position it near where he expected the Moth to come to rest. Both Coull and his pupil were unhurt.

The air force also used Stamford Hill Aerodrome at the time and a party of airforce personnel drove from there to the beach on the northern side of the Umgeni River. They managed to swim out to the wreckage of the plane about 200 metres offshore. The two pilots were not found in the wreckage and the party returned to the beach. The tug Otto Siedle unsuccessfully attempted to recover the wreckage but eventually a team of Indian seine netters managed to manoeuvre their boat through the surf and attach a rope to the aircraft, which was then pulled ashore.
The body of Lt Kinsey was later washed ashore but that of Schoeman was never found.

** Roy Coull was the chief flying instructor for Natal Aviation and is mentioned on the Learning to fly in Durban page on this site. There there is also a picture of him.

Tragedy struck on 1 January 1952 when sisters Marie "Cookie" and Lorraine Mills were killed when a Cessna 140, flown by Cookie, crashed in mist at Cato Ridge while on the way back to Durban. The aircraft had been hired that morning by Cookie, a keen pilot, so that the girls could visit their sister Joan in Pietermaritzburg for New Year's Day lunch. The board of inquiry found that the aircraft had crashed due to the mist, but that the pilot should have turned back.

In a poignant addendum to the story, my informant Peter Milne told me that he flew with Cookie the day before her death, in the very same aircraft in which she died. He said that he had got off work in the morning, as it was New Year's Eve, and arrived at Stamford Hill Aerodrome keen to go for a flight. Cookie, who worked at the airfield as a secretary, said that she would like to come along and, so, Peter waited around until her lunch hour. The two took off in Cessna ZS-BFH and, along the way, Peter demonstrated, by flying through a cloud, how easily you can lose your sense of direction if you fly by the seat of your pants.

He told me that he doubts that Cookie flew into cloud for that reason and the fact that she was experienced enough to know that she shouldn't do so. The truth will never be known but, said Peter, the fact that she knew the aircraft would be required in Durban the following day may have played some role in causing the accident by making her unwilling to turn back until the mist had got too thick it was too late.

On a visit to Peter, I was shown his now-yellowing log book which is one of his most precious possessions and records the flights he made and the types of aircraft he has flown or been flown in. On a macabre note, the log book records a number of flights he made in ZS-BFH after the tragedy, so the aircraft must have been repaired after the accident.

Peter Milne is a life-long aviation enthusiast having had his first flight at Stamford Hill Aerodrome in 1929, at the age of 6. I have seen the faded receipt for 5 shillings, which was issued by the Durban Light Aeroplane Club on 5 May 1929 and which records that the flight took place in Gipsy Moth, ZS-AAI, piloted by N Ford who, Peter recalls, ended up crashing into the Isipingo River, just south of Durban, and drowning. Peter trained as a pilot as soon as he was able and kept his licence current until a growing family soaked up all the available funds. He now builds and flies radio-controlled gliders and makes aeroplane paintings.

Added: 3 November 2006

The web never ceases to amaze me and this time it was an e-mail from Marie Lorraine Tomlinson. Alert readers will have noticed that her first names are the same as those of the sisters killed in the aircrash, and it turned out that her mother Avice, was a sister of Marie (Cookie) and Lorraine. When she gave birth later in 1952, she named her daughter after her sisters killed that year. Marie was kind enough to send me a couple of pictures and a newspaper clipping about the accident.

Cookie at the controls of a Piper Cub.

<== Click image for enlargement

Cookie, the intrepid aviatrix.

<== Click image for enlargement

Cookie, left, and her sister Lorraine.

<== Click image for enlargement

A newspaper clipping on the tragedy.

<== Click image for enlargement

Pictures all courtesy
Marie Tomlinson

I see that Cookie must have been really passionate about her flying which is particularly shown in the picture of her, third from top, in which she's using what I believe is her Wings Club badge, as a brooch.


On 30 June 1962, at 3:52pm, an SAA Skymaster with 46 passengers aboard, was bound for Durban when it collided with an SAAF Harvard trainer flown by Lt Paul Sinclair and Lt Paul Frolich above Edwin Swales Road. The Skymaster lost its rudder and some of its tail but managed to land safely at Louis Botha Airport a short while later. Sinclair and Frolich bailed out of their aircraft but Frolich was fiddling with the quick release mechanism on his parachute in an attempt to get it to open. He remembered just in time to pull the ripcord instead.

Sinclair deployed his parachute correctly but it got caught on a lamppost at the intersection of Edwin Swales and Bluff Road, leaving him dangling in the way of the traffic. A man driving a Landrover narrowly missed hitting him and then offered him a lift back to Louis Botha Airport, never asking how he came to be up the lamp post in the first place. The pilotless Harvard narrowly missed a bowling green on the Bluff and crashed in a nearby road.

Picture courtesy G Buttigieg
Click to view enlargement

Added 11 November 2010: Cathy Tosh wrote in to say that the Harvard crashed on vacant plot which is now no. 114 Wentworth Road. She used to live at 110 Wentworth Rd. She was 6 yrs old at the time, playing tennis in the front lawn with a friend, when the crash happened.

On 29 May 1963, Louis van der Spuy was coming in to land at Virginia Airport and crashed into the top of an aircraft piloted by Les Miller with Eric Watkinson as a passenger. The propeller of Miller's plane broke but it sheared off van der Spuy's nosewheel. Van der Spuy then decided to attempt to land at Louis Botha Airport because it had better crash facilities.

Lt Julius Kriel of 5 Squadron SAAF soon came up with plan to save van der Spuy. He called for volunteers to two ride on two jeeps behind the aircraft as it landed, and to fling themselves onto its tailplane to prevent its nose digging into the ground. After a dummy run to check whether the plan was feasible, Rifleman Herman van Wyk jumped, at 45 miles per hour, from a jeep onto the tailplane of van der Spuy's aircraft and hung on until it came to a stop. Van Wyk sustained a scratch on his leg during the incident but he and Kriel were awarded Gold Badges by the Durban Wings Club, and gold watches and cheques by the aircraft's owner and insurers.

The last story concerns the loss of Max Kolb and his aircraft off Durban in what was apparently a suicide bid; or was it? Cape Town photographer Kolb arrived in Durban in his Cherokee 180 aircraft in December 1964 apparently without a care in the world. He contacted model agency owner Hazel Bennett and showed her a portfolio of pictures which impressed her. He went as far as meeting a model at his hotel but shortly afterwards received two telephone calls which appeared to depress him.

The next morning Hazel received a call from him saying that he had some traveller's cheques and a portable radio for her because, he said, it was the end for him. She became convinced he intended to commit suicide in his Cherokee and contact the authorities at Virginia Airport to stop him. They did try to tamper with the aircraft to stop him but Kolb took off anyway and kept contact with Louis Botha (now Durban International) Airport before sending a final message: "cheerio, boys".

It was assumed that he had crashed 400 miles out to sea but, two years later, a trawler captained by Nick Carter hooked an aeroplane in its nets only 14 miles offshore. He was unable to identify the aircraft type before the nets tore but said that it had appeared in an almost undamaged condition. There was apparently no record of other planes going missing in the area so was very likely Kolb's. Its location close to the coast may be explained by the fact that he was disoriented and had flown in circles the whole time. There has been speculation, however, that he might have landed close to the shore and as gently as possible, with the aim of surviving and starting a new life elsewhere.



Home | Contents | Diary | Orders | Site Search | Contact Us