Learning to fly - Durban 1936

by Allan Jackson

I have my informant Betty Archbell to thank for the story of Archie Archbell who was born in Durban in 1914 and learned to fly at Stamford Hill Aerodrome in Durban. Tempest Haigh "Archie" Archbell initially decided on a banking career but gave it up and decided to learn to fly, with the object of joining the South African Air Force. He began his flying lessons in 1936 under the tutlelage of Roy Coull who was then chief flying instructor with Natal Aviation based at Stamford Hill Municipal Aerodrome. He also joined the Natal Aero Club, which was the forerunner of the Durban Wings Club.

During his training he had two crashes, one at Matatiele and the other at Cathkin Peak. On the latter occasion he and his passenger wandered lost in the Drakensberg for two days until the were found by a forest ranger and arrested for trespass. He had met Betty Armstrong in Kroonstad while on a practice flight and the Cathkin Peak crash took place while returning from another visit to her.

Archie was not successful in his application to join the SAAF because he suffered from occasional high blood pressure and failed the medical. On the advice of Roy Coull, he applied to the RAF and, although his blood pressure was high when first examined, the doctor told him to have a relaxing holiday and come back in two weeks.

He passed the second medical and was accepted into the RAF and given a four-year Short Service Commission. He left SA in February 1938 and, when war broke out, he was offered an extension to his commission. He specialised in air transport and spent three-an-a-half years with 216 Squadron, before spending two years as officer commanding 173 Squadron and then moving on to become OC of 24 Squadron at Hendon. He was accepted for Staff College but, the war having ended, the lure of South Africa, and Betty, proved too strong and he returned in 1947 to a post with Commercial Air Services.

His flying career was brought to a tragic end only months later when, on 30 January 1948, he was the victim of a hit and run accident in Pietermaritzburg and his arm was smashed. He was unable to pass his aviation medical and that put an end to a flying career spanning just less than 12 years. During that time, he flew 36 types of aircraft, ranging from the tiny Gypsy Moth to the Avro York, the transport and civilian version of the legendary Avro Lancaster bomber.

During his service with the RAF Archie Archbell became a member of the exclusive King's Flight of the RAF, having flown King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on two occasions.

Picture Gallery

Aerial Rule for Aerial Fools: Natal Aviation had a set of safety rules for its pupil pilots. The chief instructor of the company was Roy Coull, a South African aviation personality, who is the subject of a book by the SAAF Museum's Alan Taylor.

According to Betty Archbell, who met him, Roy was a person who took flying and, in particular, safety very seriously. I don't know whether he had anything to do with the preparation of the leaflet but feel he might well have. It contains 30 Rules calculated to keep Natal Aviation's pupil pilots safe and many of them are delightfully phrased.

  • Rule 22: Try and imagine that the cows that are galloping down below are your cows. You simply can't imagine what goes on inside a galloping cow.
  • Rule 27: If you kill yourself it's sad, if you hit an airliner its about 14 times sadder.

Click here to read page one of the leaflet.

Click here to read page two of the leaflet.

A section from Archie's Log Book with Roy Coull's signature attesting to the number of hours he had flown.


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Archie's first crash during his flying training was at Cathkin Peak. The top picture shows the wrecked aircraft and the bottom shows the entry in his log book recording the fateful event.


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Archie, second from left, arrives back at Durban Station after the Cathkin Peak crash. Roy Coull is on the left, apparently having met him off the train.


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Natal Aviation Flight instructor Eddie Mauritzi and Betty Armstrong (later Archbell) at Stamford Hill Aerodrome after one of the couple of flying lessons she had.


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The picture, left, shows Durban Aero Club members while the one on the right shows the club's aircraft.



These two pictures are apparently taken at Stamford Hill Aerodrome in Durban but they are not labelled. The aircraft in the background of the right-hand one is a Natal Aviation De Havilland Dragon DH84, so perhaps the pictures are of Natal Aviation staff or pupils, or even a combination of both.

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The Matatiele crash showing the aircraft, above, and the entry in Archie's Log Book.

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A section from Archie's RAF identity document.

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Another interesting historical note from Betty Archbell:

Betty remembers, when a young child, coming to Durban on holiday from Kroonstad where her father owned a motor garage. On one occasion in 1929, while in Durban, her father received a call from the local Shell manager telling him to get down to the harbour as soon as possible. The family arrived in time to witness the landing of Sir Alan Cobham in his Short Singapore flying boat. Cobham was at the time engaged in an epic flight round the coast of Africa in order to see if a flying boat service to Africa was practicable. The Armstrong family were taken out the plane on a launch and were introduced to Cobham. Betty said she remembers how very untidy the interior of the plane was, with papers lying everywhere; not too surprising, she told me, after such a long flight.


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