SOME AVIATION MEMORIES OF DURBAN IN THE 1950s
 

By Frank Beeton - March 2004

The decade 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.

Stamford 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.

Royal 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.

From 1951, 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.

Several 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 it departed.

Strangely 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.

The goosebump-inducing 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 of, Durban.

SAAF aircraft 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.

Other 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.

This account 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.

Johannesburg, March 2004.

References:
A Portrait of Military History in South Africa - Ron Belling (Struikhof Publishers)
Postwar Military Aircraft 3: Avro Shackleton - John Chartres (Ian Allan)
AFB Durban - Magazine Article by Dave Becker. (SA Flyer Jan 2004)
The Aircraft of the World - Green & Pollinger (Macdonald)
Winged Springboks 1934 to 1996 - Ivan Spring (Spring Air)
Air Enthusiast Magazine (Key Publishers).

 

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