HISTORY OF AVIATION IN SOUTH AFRICA, AN OVERVIEW.
The Honourable Minister of Transport, distinguished guests and visitors, welcome.
As we approach the Centenary Year of powered flight it is appropriate to reflect on the origins of aviation in South Africa and the world.
Over the centuries many people have gazed with wonder at the flight of birds and wondered how we, as humans, could join the birds in their environment, the air above us.
Greek mythology will have us believe that Daedalus and his son, Icarus, escaped from Crete on wings made of feathers and wax, unfortunately Icarus flew too close to the sun which melted the wax and caused him to plunge into the sea and drown.
During 200 BC the great Greek inventor and mathematician, Archimedes, discovered how and why objects float in water. 1500 years later Roger Bacon wrote that air, like water, has something solid about it. He concluded that if man could build the right kind of machine; that the air would support it, much like water supported a ship. The problem was to put theory into practice.
1783, two Frenchmen made the first free flight in a hot air balloon.
In 1804, a British inventor, Sir George Cayley built the first successful glider, but was not able to lift a man in flight. However he did found the science of aerodynamics and did describe a fixed wing, powered airplane, driven by propellers.
According to written history, the first heavier than air machine to lift a man, was a glider of a German inventor, Otto Lilienthal, the year was the early 1890’s. At this time in a number places around the world, various people were attempting flight with steam powered aircraft. Some managed to become airborne, but none were able to stay aloft in a controlled fashion. Controlled flight seemed to be within the grasp of many an inventor.
But what about here in South Africa, did we not have a farsighted inventor in our midst’s? In fact we did…
Some 20 years before the recorded flights of Otto Lilienthal, on a quiet farm in the Karkloof Valley in Natal there lived a farmer’s son who also dreamed of flight. John Goodman Houshold was a bright young man who preferred things scientific to things agricultural. On their farm, DeMachtenberg heattempted to find mathematical answers to the riddles of flight. In addition to studying birds on the wing, he made measurements and calculations from vultures he shot. What was it, he wondered, that allowed a vulture to hover and glide without flapping its wings? Was there a formula? A wingspan: weight ratio, perhaps?
Bishop Colenso, the controversial cleric but brilliant mathematician, checked Goodman's calculations and encouraged him in his pursuit of solutions to the mystery of flight.
With Houshold the courage to seek answers was matched only by his courage to launch out into the unknown in his heavier-than-air machines. We might laugh today, but just imagine what courage was needed to leap off a tree with a glider covered with the hard, dry hide of a bull? This attempt, which was made near Muden, was a crashing disaster for his maths, but fortunately not for his body. So, it was back to the drawing board. It was necessary, he concluded, to trim the weight drastically.
Although he must have drawn plans for his gliders, none of his original sketches remain, and there are two versions of what the finished craft looked like, both having been drawn for newspaper articles from descriptions by people who claimed to have seen Houshold's creation. The first was a design that resembled an outsize paper dart similar to those we flew as schoolboys. On the glider the pilot sat astride a bar below the wing, which pointed forwards. By moving forwards or backwards the pilot could control the inclination of the craft in flight. Cords fixed to the outer edges of the kite and manipulated by the pilot controlled lateral movement. The second sketch showed a craft similar to a modern day hang-glider, with the pilot seated on the trapeze bar below the swept-back wings. It must be noted that, the second sketch was made many years before hang-gliders came into general use.
Spanish reeds, covered with either silk, tarred paper or calico, were used to cover the ribbed frame. The uncertainty about what covering material was used is a result of the secrecy Goodman had to go to keep his experiments from his disapproving parents. The time arrived when the craft, and Goodman Houshold's courage, had to be tested.
In the calm of evening, Houshold had his glider carried to the top of a kopje behind the homestead. The launching must have been similar to that of hang-gliders. With the aid of several farm labourers and his brother Archer, Goodman ran down the slope of the kopje. When sufficient speed had been achieved to maintain flight, he leapt onto the trapeze bar.
It is said that, accompanied by the yells and gesticulations of the farm-workers, he rode over a plantation of small eucalyptus trees and drifted twice across the meandering river. A favourable air current carried him on, over to the far side of the stream, where he made a sudden landing, and the flight was over. The flight had carried John Goodman Houshold more than a kilometre, and had, at one point achieved a height of about fifty to eighty metres. Spurred on by his success, a second flight was attempted, but Houshold crashed into a tree and fell, again managing not to cause himself injury.
Goodman's mother came to hear of the crash and, with stern admonitions and prophecies of doom from challenging the state given him on earth by the Almighty she changed the course of history. Goodman listened to his mother and as a result the remains of the glider were consigned to the barn, and many years later burnt along with other rubbish.
Exactly when the two flights were made is not known. Some say as early as 1871, while others believe the flights were as late as 1875. What is certain is that the flights were conducted at least 15 years before the historic flights of Otto Lilienthal.
To put history in perspective, Wilbur Wright would have been 4 years old when his younger brother Orville, was born. The year – 1871 - the same year that John Goodman Houshold is said to have flown his glider. Imagine what might have happened, had John Goodman Houshold been supported in his endeavours by his parents?
During 1900 and 1901 the Wright brothers experimented with large gliders, controlled by ropes held by Wilbur and Orville, but could not generate enough lift to support the weight of a man. These experiments led them to concluded that most of the published tables for air flow and pressure distribution on curved surfaces were incorrect, so they built a wind tunnel and tested some 200 different airfoil shapes and built their 1902 glider, by the end of 1902, the Wright brothers had completed almost 1000 flights with their new glider, so plans were made for a powered version. However, first they had to design and build their own engine, as no suitable power plants were available. The engine they produced was a four cylinder in-line, water cooled, petrol engine that produced about 10Kw. (12 HP) The Flyer was a larger version of their successful 1902 glider #3, it had a wing span of 12 meters and weighed 340 Kg with the pilot.
Finally on the 14th December 1903 the Wright brothers, plus witnesses were assembled and ready for the first flight. A coin was tossed and Wilbur won the right to do the first flight, but he pulled the nose of the aircraft up too high, stalled the wing and plunged into the ground. Repairs were made to the Flyer and on the 17th December 1903, it was Orville’s turn to fly, thus he became the first person to achieve sustained and controlled flight in an aeroplane. The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 36.6 meters or 120 feet.
History had been made, but it took another 4 years to convince a sceptical public and the even more sceptical authorities that controlled, powered flight was possible, as it was February 1908 before the Wright brothers were invited to demonstrate their Flyer to the US War Department.
The first successful demonstration of powered flight in South Africa was made by a Frenchman, Albert Kimmerling, he brought his own aircraft, a Voisin to East London for the Gala Season 1909. On the afternoon of 28th December 1909, Kimmerling attained a height of about six meters in a flight over the Nahoon racecourse. Towards the end of February 1910 Kimmerling made three successful flights at Sydenham Hill, near Orange Grove. On 19th March 1910 Thomas Thornton, of Johannesburg, became the first air passenger in South Africa, for the princely sum of 100 Pounds Stirling.
The first aircraft designed, built and flown in this country, was built by another Frenchman Alfred Louis Raison, based on the design that Louis Bleriot used to fly across the English Channel, from Calais to Dover. Raison built the aircraft for a wealthy Johannesburg based timber merchant, Cecil Bredell. Bredell flew the aircraft on 2nd May 1911 at Highlands North, Johannesburg.
In 1911, John Weston of Brandfort secured agencies for the Gnome engines, the Bristol and Farman biplanes and the Bleriot monoplane, but was not able to promote any enthusiasm from officials for use of his machines in time of war and received no support.
A year later, an Act under Defence Article 19 section 2 of 1912 was passed to establish a school to train aviators for the South African Aviation Corps and in 1913 ten aviators were sent to the Paterson school of aviation training, which was based in Alexanderfontein, Kimberly. Unfortunately after about two months the pilot instructor, who had been imported from England, broke a leg in a crash and died a few days later from complications. Public enthusiasm for flying waned and Paterson was forced to close his training school.
Six of the students were selected to go to the Central Flying School at Upavon (England) for further training. Five eventually qualified, one being KR (Kenny) van der Spuy, who was to rise to the rank of Major General in the South African Air Force. World War 1 resulted in the five successful pilots being impressed into the Royal Flying Corps.
At the end of hostilities in 1918, the British Government offered 100 aircraft to each of their Dominions, to allow them to start their own Air Force. South Africa received a total of 113 aircraft, some being donations. These aircraft were used to form the South African Air Force at a new base, close to Pretoria, on the farm Zwartkops. In June 1920 Sir Pierre van Ryneveld was promoted to Lt Colonel and appointed to the Instructional and Administrative staff of the Union Defence Force, back-dated to 1st February 1920. This date, in the absence of any official date is taken as the birth date of the SAAF.
Prior to this, in 1920 Lt Col van Ryneveld and Flt Lt Quinton Brand departed from the UK in a Vickers Vimy in an effort to be the first to fly from the UK to Cape Town. They made it, after completing the flight in their third aircraft, a two seater De Havilland 9, which had been hurriedly assembled and delivered to Bulawayo to allow van Ryneveld and Brand to complete their flight and so to become the first persons to fly from England to Cape Town, South Africa. For this achievement, both van Ryneveld and Brand were knighted.
Meanwhile, the South African civil aviation scene was not a happy one. Hamstrung by Government officials who did not understand the situation, funding was meagre. The controlling body, at that time, was the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, whilst the Civil Air Board was merely an advisory board with no executive powers. Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, as Director of Air Services, had little say over aviation policy.
Nevertheless, in this climate Major Allister Miller formed Union Airways Ltd in 1929 and with a poorly paid mail contract from the Government, started the first regular civil airmail service on 26th August 1929 paving the way for commercial aviation and the formation of South African Airways on the 1st February 1934 when the Union Government acquired the assets and liabilities of Union Airways Ltd.
At the same time many new private flying clubs had sprung up in South Africa, but due to many accidents and lack of subsidies were forced to close, one by one. However, the 1930’s was still the time of record setting flights and during this time, Captain RF Caspereuthus set a solo record from the UK to Cape Town.
76 hours 30 minutes between 5th and 13th October 1930. Others, such as Victor Smith, were not so lucky being hampered by more than the normal problems on his flights.
In 1931 a few enthusiastic – wannabe – pilots, NCOs and other SAAF staff members at Zwartkops, who were not normally able to fly aircraft as part of their duties started the Defence Light Aeroplane Club, and this club is still operating today as the Defence Flying Club.
On the 3rd September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany and on the 6th September, South Africa followed suit. All civil aircraft were impressed into military service and the Air Force geared up the training bases as part of the Joint Air Training Scheme. Many pilots were trained and sent to the RAF where they flew with distinction. The advent of WW II as with WW I lead to a massive increase in technology and improvement in aircraft design and performance, this was to be to the benefit of civil aviation once hostilities had ceased.
After the war, many surplus military aircraft were sold on the civil market, with the increase in numbers of aircraft Air Traffic Control was introduced. With radios becoming small enough to be fitted to aircraft, radio communication soon became compulsory and the Aldis Lamp was replaced by voice communication. Rand Airport became too small for the larger aircraft being used on the Inter-continental routes, so a new airport at Palmietfontein was built. Soon this was too small as well for aircraft such as the de Havilland Comet 4 and Jan Smuts Airport was built, this airport now known as Johannesburg International, came into operation in April 1952.
The 1950’s and 1960’s saw civil aircraft change from ‘rag and tube’ machines with ‘conventional gear’ to aircraft of monocoque construction with tricycle gear. Aircraft became heavier, more complex, flew faster, further, higher and did not need to be recovered periodically.
The 1970’s and 1980’s saw the movement to GRP ‘glass reinforced plastics’ (or fibreglass as we know it) being used as a medium for the building of light aircraft, particularly in the ‘homebuilding or experimental’ class of aircraft. Here Burt Rutan stands out as the guru of weird and wonderful designs, such as the Vari Eze, Long Eze, Defiant, Voyager, Boomerang, Proteus, and many others. Pioneering the mouldless system of construction.
The Voyager was used to set the last – all time – record in aviation. A flight around the world; non-stop and non-refuelled. The Voyager set this record between 14th December 1986 and 23rd December 1986. 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds to fly around the world. A total distance of 42 212 Km covered at an average speed of 185 Km/H. If we were to look back 83 years, from 1986 to the Wright brother’s first flight, remember they covered 36.6 meters, the Voyager had a wingspan 33.8 meters, almost the total distance flown by the Wright brothers on that historical first flight.
1990 to the present day has seen more development in conquering space than in developing new aircraft, particularly in the USA due to litigation, because unfortunately if you advertise a ‘new improved model,’ you imply that the previous model was inferior!
Fortunately the homebuilders, that is, those who build their own aircraft are not encumbered by the threat of litigation and here in South Africa, despite the weak Rand, are seeing the greatest boom in finished homebuilt aircraft since the early 1900’s.
17th December 2003 will be the Centenary of controlled, powered flight and this will be celebrated worldwide as a day to be remembered. In the USA, the Experimental Aircraft Association has built an exact replica of the Wright Flyer, using the tools and materials of the day, fitted an original Wright engine (construction #14) and intend to fly this aircraft on 17th December 2003 from the sand dunes at Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina, the cradle of aviation. For it was here that the Wright brothers took to the air in 1903, watch the news, this will be a truly memorable day.
In closing. Next year a group of us South African pilots and aircraft owners will be flying to the USA to attend the Annual Convention of the Experimental Aircraft Association, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin to celebrate the Centenary Year. The flight will be a goodwill tour to celebrate aviation and to promote South Africa in the countries we pass through.
Naturally, some of the aircraft will be of the homebuilt variety, which is the way aviation started 99 years ago.