R B Matthews - December 2008
In the reception of the Port Elizabeth SAAF Museum in Southdene stands a bust of Major Allister M Miller DSO of the R.F.C. (Royal Flying Corps). The Plaque beneath gives the information that he was born in Swaziland in 1892 and died in Port Elizabeth in 1951. He formed a company in 1929 named Union Airways, which was the first official airmail service in South Africa. The company used a single aircraft, a Gypsy moth bi-plane. Later in 1934 this company was taken over by the government and grew into the South African Airways.
The Plaque says little enough about a man who is part of our history.
During 1946 my father was transferred to Port Elizabeth from Durban to manage the local branch of the Royal Exchange Assurance. I went with him one Saturday afternoon to clear out a storeroom full of old boxes containing the usual office junk that collects over years. In one of these boxes we found a copy of the Cape Times dated Wednesday 7 November 1917 together with a cutting from the Eastern Province Herald dated 8 November 1917 and a menu for a dinner at St. Georges Clvb. I have kept these mementos
The Cape Times has a sub title "Special Aeroplane Edition" and this newspaper is complete with all it's pages. It bares the autographs of Major Miller and that of J C Kemsley mayor of Port Elizabeth at that time. The front page carries only advertisements, advertisements that make one wonder at the fact that this was the third year of war. Advertisements mostly for women's clothes and with prices to die for, my dear. This very copy of the Times is one of eighty papers carried on the flight. Some mail was also carried and was therefore the first airmail from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth.
From the Cape Times:
On the 6 November 1917 a small crowd gathered at the aerodrome at Young's Fields at Wynberg, Cape Town to watch the start of Major Miller's projected Union wide tour, the first leg of which was to end at Port Elizabeth. It was intended to land at Humansdorp where some of the newspapers were to be unloaded. However the engine was not working to the satisfaction of the Major and time was spent in trying to remedy the defect. A trial flight proved that things with the single engine were not yet perfect, a start on the tour was nevertheless made at 7.6 a.m. and the aircraft now also with the flight mechanic, Sergt. Way, on board was lost to view in the direction of Somerset Strand. The weather conditions proved hostile with a strong head wind so the Major abandoned the flight for the day and returned to Young's Fields, having reached Sir Lowry Pass in forty minutes with a return time with the wind of ten minutes. Inspection of the engine showed that the fault was a blocked feed pipe, which was cleared. An announcement was made that that the flight would resume on the following day at 5 a.m., weather permitting.
From The Eastern Province Herald:
At Port Elizabeth regret was expressed at the delay conveyed in a telegram but the reasons were fully understood. The whole of the city had arranged to suspend activities from 10.30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in order to afford everybody the opportunity to witness the arrival, it being expected that the plane would circle around the city before landing on the golf links. A large crowd had gathered from an early hour, some had come in from the outer districts, such was the excitement and novelty of the occasion; many of these people had never seen an aero plane before.
Writer's note: -
The cuttings from the Port Elizabeth newspaper The Eastern Province Herald are held together with the front of an envelope onto which they are pasted; postage from London as shown by the stamp cost a halfpenny (posted at 12.30 p.m. 29 Sept 1917). These newspaper cuttings give a full account of the arrival of Major Miller and his mechanic, in Port Elizabeth.
From The EP Herald:
The occasion-the first long distance flight in South Africa-would have been dramatic in any event but the unexpected climax lent additional force to it. Major Miller left Cape Town at 6.30 a.m. accompanied by Sergt. Mechanician Way, in fine weather, the flight took 5 hours and 22.5 minutes. This was of-course the fastest time ever up to that date.
Every vantage point in and about the city was thronged with eager people. The Donkin Reserve was crowded as with the Market Square and also the roofs of most of the buildings in the city. Unfortunately these latter spectators saw very little of the aeroplane. Many failed to see it at all particularly those on Market Square. It having been expected that it would circle overhead before landing.
I have not ascertained the make of aircraft. It was evidently a gift machine as written on the side was "Buenos Aires Britons No.2. " It had never been flown prior to its arrival in South Africa.
From EP Herald:
The Herald reporter describes the arrival in a picturesque manner :- Major Miller's approach was signaled from Humansdorp at about 11.25 a.m. (it appears that he did not land at Humansdorp) and the great crowd on the Golf Links watched the south-western sky with excited expectancy. There was a cry which rapidly swelled as a sailing dot, no bigger than a butterfly, swung over the hills some miles away, and for the next thirteen minutes every head was craned skywards. Major Miller made straight for the landing place at an altitude of about 5000 feet.
The 'plane grew rapidly larger till its chief details were easily visible. The sun caught it and transformed it into a thing of gold with scintillating points where metal work caught the rays. The flashing circle of the revolving propeller grew distinct and twin feathers of smoke from the exhausts streamed out behind. A bird in flight was not more graceful, and the air hummed with exclamations of admiration.
The plane circled twice dropping in altitude all the time until at a couple of hundred feet a white message bag with streamers in the colours of the R.F.C. was dropped to the waiting crowd.
He "volplaned" down to the fairway of the eighteenth hole, dashed towards the green crashed into the bunker and buried the nose of the 'plane into the turf it remained balanced on its nose (planes of those days did not have brakes). If he had swerved he would have gone into the crowd. Ready hands assisted both the pilot and mechanic out, unharmed, wild excitement gripped the crowd. The propeller was in splinters, undercarriage twisted, a wheel totally wrecked and damage was caused to a wing. Later he said that he should have touched down further back as the breeze at ground level was very slight. It was decided that repairs to the plane could be carried out in Port Elizabeth but as all spares were in Johannesburg it must be assumed that these were railed to be Port Elizabeth. The Major would go to Johannesburg by train to continue with his schedule there, using the spare plane, already in Johannesburg and then return to Port Elizabeth to resume the tour.
A reception was arranged in the Golf Club House where Mayor Kemsley made a speech using such phrases as "epoch in the evolution of science" and welcomed the Major to the city. The Mayor went on to say, "The aeroplane would be used in future, when this colossal upheaval of nations of the world is over, as a means of bringing the people of the world together and of increasing trade."
In his reply the Major said, "The Royal Flying Corps extends its hearty greetings. Your airmen have realized all expectations and I have now returned to receive further nominations from the good material still available." Describing his flight he said that the weather at Cape Town was ideal with a little wind from the south-west. At Mossel Bay he had a few anxious moments and then again at Knysna due to wind; he was forced to fly out to sea between these places and was glad when this windy area was left behind. At Humansdorp there were air pockets where he had further engine trouble, which eventually cleared. "It started to splutter" he said, "and I thought how rotten it would be to have to descend so near the end of the flight, however we got here-as you saw." And he pointed with a smile to the irrecognisable wheel. His average speed was 75 miles per hour at 5000 feet. The reception closed with the distribution of the mail and the auction of the Cape Times special aviation edition newspapers, of that same morning. The first paper auctioned fetched 35 pounds, the next fetched 6 pounds and then fifty papers at 1 pound each, the balance being sold later. Even the message bag and its ballast of nails were auctioned. Major Miller said that he was on a recruiting drive for the RFC for more men to train as pilots.
Major Miller obviously stayed in Port Elizabeth for a few days because he attended a reception at St. Georges Club held in his honour on the 12 November 1917 The menu for this dinner was also found with the newspaper material and it bares his autograph.
Cape Times: November 7 1917
Eastern Province Herald: November 8 1917