Beeton - March 2004
started with all Durban's aviation activities centered on
the old Stamford Hill Aerodrome, which had been established
in 1921, and the flying boat base at Congella. Regular South
African Airways services to the other major centers in the
Union (as it was then) were provided by Douglas DC-3 Dakotas,
and Lockheed 18-08 Lodestars, which were able to operate off
Stamford Hill's grass runways. The terminal building used
at that time remains in existence to-day, and currently serves
as the regimental headquarters of the Natal Mounted Rifles.
The South African Air Force operated from Congella with the
survivors of sixteen Short Sunderland GR Mk.5 flying boats
that had been delivered to 35 Sqn at the end of World War
II, plus a land based detachment at Stamford Hill, which flew
Harvards from a hanger adjacent to Argyle Road. The remaining
day-to-day activity at Stamford Hill was centered on private,
charter and training flights, including popular joy-rides,
or "flips", over the city.
Hill put on its fair share of air shows, and one particularly
spectacular event stands out in my memory. It was held to
commemorate the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, although
I think the show took place early in 1954. The main feature
was a contingent of De Havilland Vampire jet fighters from
the South African Air Force, some of which had red noses,
indicating that they were operated by No. 2 "Flying Cheetah"
Squadron, recently returned from meritorious service in Korea.
The Vampires' most spectacular "act" was a demonstration
of relative speed, where two formating aircraft performed
an overshoot, barely above stalling speed, while one of their
comrades simultaneously flashed past at something over 500
mph (800 km/h), making that distinctive Vampire single-seater
howl which resembled the sound made by blowing into the mouth
of a bottle.
Air Force Avro Shackleton MR Mk.2 long-range maritime reconnaissance
bombers overflew Durban twice, in 1953 and 1955. These visits
formed part of a successful effort to sell Shackletons to
the SAAF as Sunderland replacements, and eight MR Mk.3's subsequently
joined 35 Squadron from 1957. Unfortunately, this acquisition
also resulted in the squadron relocating to Ysterplaat, Cape
Town, and losing its link with Durban, where it was first
formed during World War II.
the newly-constructed airport at Reunion, later to become
firstly Louis Botha, and later Durban International, became
progressively available, with its longer, hardened runway.
This opened up possibilities of larger and faster aircraft
visiting Durban. Before the main terminal building became
operational at the end of 1955, a temporary control tower
and prefabricated terminal complex were used, located along
the Northern leg of the taxiway. The SAAF took over this complex
when it relocated all of its Durban-based operations to Louis
Botha from 1956.
British aircraft manufacturers used South Africa for "hot
and high" testing of their new products at that time,
and Durban played host to an early prototype of the soon-to-be
highly successful Vickers Viscount airliner on such a trip.
The Viscount appeared fairly conventional for the period,
although it sounded (and smelt) very different, with its Rolls-Royce
Dart turboprop engines. Later, Viscounts of both Central African
Airways, and South African Airways, operated regular scheduled
services into Durban. Another visitor, on tropical tests,
was a De Havilland Comet 2, flown in by the legendary RAF
night-fighter ace, John "Cat's Eyes" Cunningham.
Before the well-documented tragedies that befell the Comet
1, this aircraft led the world into the age of jet travel,
and the early versions were incredibly beautiful machines.
From the graceful, streamlined nose to the gently swept wings
with turbojet engines buried in the roots, and upswept tailplanes,
the Comet was eerily silent on approach, but, before the advent
of "silenced" jet engines, impressively noisy as
enough, several interesting French aircraft visited Durban
in the 'fifties. These included Dassault MD 315 Flamant light
twin-engined transports of the Armee de l'Air (French Air
Force), which made several trips from their base in Madagascar,
and two huge Sud-Est SE 2010 Armagnac four-engined transports,
which arrived carrying ships' spares. The Armagnac, powered
by four 3 500 hp Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major radials,
was reputed to be the largest civil transport in the world
during the mid-fifties. However, best of all were the three
Avro Lancaster patrol bombers of the Aeronavale (French Naval
Air Arm) which visited as late as 1958. These must have been
some of the last Lancasters in front-line service anywhere
in the world, at that time.
|The Aeronavale Avro Lancasters on their visit to Durban. These pictures by Vic Pierson appeared originally in FlyPast magazine and are gratefully used here with permission.
sound of four Rolls-Royce Merlins, as found on the Lancaster,
was echoed when East African Airways weekly flight, from Nairobi,
arrived in Durban. EAA flew ex-BOAC Canadair Argonauts, for
a time, on this schedule. Based on the Douglas DC-4/DC-6 family
design, the Canadian-built Argonaut, or DC-4M, had Merlins
in place of the more usual Pratt & Whitney radials of
its American counterparts. Other "different" sounding
visitors included a one-off chartered Handley Page Hermes,
and weekly Central African Airways' Vickers Vikings, both
powered by variants of the deep-throbbing Bristol Hercules
radial. The CAA Vikings, flying from Salisbury (now Harare),
soon gave way to Viscount 700 Series turboprops, the first
turbine-driven aircraft to operate a schedule into, and out
from remote bases were also regular visitors. The most frequent
included Ventura twin-engined bombers, Dakota transports,
and, from 1956, the charasmatic Canadair Sabre 6. Somehow,
the legendary Sabre which, on the ground, had an almost ungainly
appearance with its gaping nose intake, drooping slats and
awkwardly-hanging speed brakes, transformed into something
totally different, almost swallow-like, once airborne. Sabres,
at high transonic speed and low level in Durban's humidity,
were sometimes enveloped in clouds of misty condensation clinging
to their airframes, which looked quite alarming at first sight.
interesting aeroplanes sometimes arrived by sea! During 1959,
the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Albion called at Durban
on her way home from the Far East. Albion's air group consisted
of Hawker Sea Hawk FGA 6's, De Havilland Sea Venom FAW 21's
and Douglas Skyraider AEW 1's fitted with huge, underslung
radar fairings. As was traditional with visiting warships,
Albion was duly opened to the public, allowing for close-up
examination of the aircraft. When the ship sailed off towards
the Cape, a formation of Sea Hawks and Sea Venoms performed
a farewell flypast over the city.
is by no means exhaustive, or comprehensive. It consists mainly
of the (reference-supplemented) memories of an ageing enthusiast,
who lived, as a young boy, at Isipingo Beach. This allowed
for fairly convenient observation of the daily arrivals and
departures from Reunion/Louis Botha, and access, by parent-enabled
visits, to other places and events of interest. I hope it
stirs some memories, and prompts other readers to put pen
to paper, even if only to correct inaccuracies that I have
(unwittingly) recorded above.
A Portrait of Military History in South Africa - Ron Belling
Postwar Military Aircraft 3: Avro Shackleton - John Chartres
AFB Durban - Magazine Article by Dave Becker. (SA Flyer Jan
The Aircraft of the World - Green & Pollinger (Macdonald)
Winged Springboks 1934 to 1996 - Ivan Spring (Spring Air)
Air Enthusiast Magazine (Key Publishers).