VAMP 246

In 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.


By Frank Beeton - 17 February 2004

I was 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” didn’t come to Durban every day, the more regular visitors were DC4 Skymasters, and, later, Vickers Viscount 813 turboprops.

But, there 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 Connie’s distinctive three-fin tail unit, and you will notice two large, dark areas, and some activity on the airport.

Picture Courtesy Transnet Heritage Foundation

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SAA Lockheed L794A Constellation (Reg. ZS-DBU) "The Durban"

Adding 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.

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The grave of Lt. BM Fletcher in Stellawood Cemetary, Durban.

The two 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 didn’t 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 Vampire’s 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.

Some time 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 246’s 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.

Vampire 246 was accompanied to Durban by a back-up aircraft, one of the SAAF’s 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.

I checked a more recent picture taken at Louis Botha when the SAAF’s 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.

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