Facts About Durban I published a picture of an SAA Lockheed
L794A Constellation (Reg. ZS-DBU) which was the first SAA
plane to be named Durban. I commented that the picture had
been taken around the time that Durban International [then
Louis Botha] Airport opened. In his reminiscences below Frank
Beeton believes he can date the picture more accurately than
that and tells of a tragedy. Allan Jackson.
Beeton - 17 February 2004
delighted to be given a copy of Facts about Durban
over Christmas. I was born in the city and grew up in and
around the Durban area, but have been away since 1980. I currently
live in Greenside, Johannesburg.
As a long-time
aviation enthusiast, I was interested to see the photograph
of the Lockheed L749 Constellation on Page 51. Some time in
1956, I was taken as a nine-year old, with a friend, to the
SAA hangar at the then Louis Botha Airport, for my first look
inside an airliner. It was a Constellation, and the outing
was, of course, a highly memorable experience. The big and
noisy Connies didnt come to Durban every
day, the more regular visitors were DC4 Skymasters, and, later,
Vickers Viscount 813 turboprops.
is something else about that particular photograph that bears
further examination. If you look immediately behind the Constellation,
you will see a DH Vampire T55 trainer of the SAAF parked on
the apron. Then, preferably using a magnifying glass, look
on the grass beyond the Connies distinctive three-fin
tail unit, and you will notice two large, dark areas, and
some activity on the airport.
Courtesy Transnet Heritage Foundation
Click image to view enlargement.
Lockheed L794A Constellation (Reg. ZS-DBU)
all this together, I have come to the conclusion that this
photograph was probably taken on November 24th, 1955, or the
following day. That date was the day that Louis Botha Airport,
and the terminal buildings, were officially opened. However,
during the morning, a very sad incident took place when Lt.
Bryan Michael Fletcher from the SAAF base at Langebaan, flying
de Havilland Vampire FB 9 Serial 246, was practicing for a
flying display due to take place at the opening ceremony later
in the afternoon. During a low pass from south to north, something
went terribly wrong, and the Vampire slammed into the ground
and exploded, killing the pilot instantly.
Click image to an enlargement.
grave of Lt. BM Fletcher in Stellawood Cemetary, Durban.
dark marks, that can be seen on the airfield in the photograph
on page 51, correspond very closely to my memory of the crash
site. Thankfully, I didnt see the accident happen, but
was at the airport in the afternoon to witness the opening.
The right-hand dark area I remember as a huge black scorch
mark on the grass where the Vampires fuel exploded,
while the left-hand disturbance was the crater where the major
impact occurred. As a somewhat naïve eight-year-old,
I was stunned by the manner in which such a beautiful aircraft
could be reduced to a shower of tiny fragments scattered over
a significant portion of the airfield. It was said that the
Vampire had hit the ground wing-first, which would possibly
explain the two distinct elements of the crash site.
later, I accompanied my late father on a fishing expedition
at the old Congella flying boat base, just before it was closed
in 1956. There, I discovered Vampire 246s wreckage on
the dump. The largest surviving piece was the jet tailpipe
heat shroud, about the size and shape of a 200-litre oil drum.
Serial numbers painted on underwing and tailboom fragments
confirmed the identity of the aircraft beyond doubt.
246 was accompanied to Durban by a back-up aircraft, one of
the SAAFs newly-delivered T55 trainers. After the crash,
this two-seater performed a very muted display at the opening
ceremony. So, if you add all this evidence together, it seems
very likely that this photograph was taken on the day of the
crash, or possibly the following day, before the T55 went
back to Langebaan, and the crash site was restored.
a more recent picture taken at Louis Botha when the SAAFs
Canadair Sabres visited Durban for the first time during 1956,
and there is no evidence of any structure or installation
where the dark areas are positioned in the Constellation photograph,
so I am reasonably convinced of the above facts. Under normal
circumstances, that area was just covered in neatly-mown grass,
although some of it is now possibly located beneath the subsequently
extended aircraft parking apron at Durban International.