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By Alan Taylor

Though the SAAF operated the South Africa's first helicopters in Natal - three Sikorsky S-51s that were acquired in 1948 - rotorcraft flight had actually taken place locally some sixteen years previously.

On 19 June 1932 the first gyrocopter to come to South Africa was off-loaded from the RMS "Arundel Castle" berthed in Durban Harbour and transported to Stamford Hill Aerodrome. This aircraft, a Cierva C.19 Autogiro, was imported by Niall Coughlan, a well-known personality in Durban at the time.

Accompanied on its journey from the AVRO factory at Hamble in England was Roy Tuckett, the pilot who intended giving daily demonstration flights with it at Durban for a week before flying on to Pietermaritzburg and for the following two or three weeks visiting other towns before ending at Johannesburg. He also planned to undertake a similar tour of Rhodesia.

Its assembly aroused much interest amongst local enthusiasts over the next couple of days and at about 10.30 on the morning of the 22nd, resplendent in a silver and blue colour scheme, it was rolled out of the hangar to the considerable interest of a sizeable crowd which had assembled for the historic occasion. Alex Quinn, the Ground Engineer, and his assistants (none of who had ever worked on a gyrocopter before) worked for some time on the rotors but shortly after 11 o'clock, Tuckett and Quinn climbed aboard, started the engine and engaged the rotor.

To the surprise of the onlookers the Autogiro ran along the ground for only a few meters before becoming airborne and performing a few maneuvers before showing the unique advantages of a gyrocopter. Switching off the engine, the aircraft dropped and as Tuckett pulled the nose up it seemed to hover in mid-air before landing with scarcely a bump. After Coughlan had also had the opportunity to fly in it himself, it was brought back to the hangar for inspection and preparation for a flight to Pietermaritzburg that afternoon.

The opening ceremonies of the Royal Agricultural Show were held in the Oval and shortly before the end the Autogiro flew overhead. From a height of 4 000ft Tuckett descended and proceeded to give a demonstration for the capacity crowd before landing and coming to a stop directly in front of the Royal Stand. He was welcomed by the Governor-General and gave a short address before climbing on board again, starting and taxiing out to an enclosure where it remained on display for the next two days.

On Sunday the 3rd - the day after the July Handicap, the Durban Light Aeroplane Club hosted a Grand Aero Show. A major and much-advertised drawcard was to be the demonstration of the Autogiro which had been placed on exhibition at the Lunar Park on the northern end of Marine Parade since its return from Pietermaritzburg.

Disaster struck however on the morning of the air show - Tuckett went down to fly it out but when he released the wheel brakes to begin the take-off run, the left wheel locked and he spun violently around. Although there was adequate space sheer bad luck resulted in the rotor blades striking a lamp standard, breaking them in the process. In addition the undercarriage was also damaged.

New rotor blades would have had to be ordered from the factory, costing some £200 to replace and with the planned tour of South Africa and Rhodesia not likely to take place for some months, Coughlan apparently lost all interest in it.
Though the few known illustrations in the media reports of the time show no discernable civil registration, its identity was probably G-ABUE, recorded as being registered in the UK on 26 May 1932 and exported.

Subsequently acquired by Tuckett, repaired and fitted with new rotor blades by Arrow Air Services at Stamford Hill Aerodrome it was test flown by Jack Davis on 18 December. The Civil Aviation inspector however was concerned that Quinn's Engineer's licence did not cover autogiros, experience on which Britain's Air Ministry considered essential.

He also had only a limited licence for the type of structural repair work that had been carried out without approved repair schemes. It was the inspector's recommendation that the certification of the repair work should not be accepted, nor should Quinn have authority to sign out such work until such time as his licence was so endorsed.

On 26 January 1933 the Autogiro was being flown to Rand Airport for the inspection on the repair work to be carried out when it force landed at Paardekop south-east of Standerton due to shortage of fuel. Damage was sustained to the propeller, the rotors and the engine mounting; permission was however given to Quinn to carry out repairs and it was subsequently taken to Zwartkop Air Station for inspection and validation of its C of A prior to being sold to Sir Alan Cobham.

Its fate is uncertain and was either flown as part of Cobham's Great Air Display tour of South Africa while G-ABGB, the machine he brought with him was undergoing repair or was used as a source of spare parts for the repair. Records in the National Archives also indicate that its fuselage was later utilized in the rebuild of another autogiro in 1936.

** This brief account is only part of an ongoing research exercise into the three rotorcraft that made their appearance in South Africa prior to WW2 and I would welcome any additional information and photographs in particular.


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