Allister Miller was not only a war hero but he was instrumental in the creation of a civilian aviation industry in South Africa. By all objective measures, he can claim to be the father of this industry. Due to his recording breaking flight from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, he was accorded recognition in Port Elizabeth by naming the street past the airport, Allister Miller Drive.
But what did Allister Miller actually do to receive this acclamation?
Main picture: Allister Miller crash landing at the PE Golf Club
Lieutenant-Colonel Allister Miller DSO OBE (1892–1951) was a South African aviation pioneer, who contributed significantly to both military and civil aviation in his country during the first half of the 20th century.
He originally qualified as an electrical engineer. On the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, he joined the British Army, from which he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps [RFC] as a pilot, in 1915. He fought in the skies over the Western Front in France and Belgium. During 1916 and 1917 he returned to South Africa on recruiting tours for the RFC, the predecessor to the Royal Air Force. He recruited more than 8,000 volunteers, of whom 2,000 were accepted, most of them as pilots. They were known collectively as “Miller’s Boys”.
On the second recruiting tour Miller took along two B.E.2 aircraft and mechanics to assemble the aircraft in Cape Town. The aircraft were serial numbers A3109 and A3110 built by Wolseley Motors Limited. They were nicknamed Rio de Janeiro Britons Nos. 1 & 2 in honour of the fact that they were purchased with moneys raised by the British community in Rio de Janeiro.
Record breaking flight
On 7 November 1917 Allister Miller set out from Cape Town in one of these aircraft. His destination was far off Port Elizabeth, 850 kms away. This extraordinary feat had never been attempted before. As the average speed would be no greater than 70 mph, it would also be a gruelling flight.
This record breaking flight is commemorated on a plaque in the reception of the Port Elizabeth SAAF Museum in Southdene Port Elizabeth. Beneath it stands a bust of Major Allister M Miller DSO of the R.F.C. (Royal Flying Corps). This Plaque provides the following information:
“The end of an historic flight, Rio de Janeiro II, piloted by Major [later Lieu-Col] Allister Miller, the pioneer of South African civil aviation, lies upended in a bunker on the old 17th fairway of the Port Elizabeth Golf Club.
On Wednesday, 7th November 1917, Major Miller, accompanied by Sgt-Mechanic Way, took off from Young’s field, Cape Town. Five hours 18 minutes later, flying at an average speed of 70 mph, the plane touched at the PE Golf Club – the first plane ever to land at the City. An estimated 5,000 people were waiting at the Club to witness the arrival, but they pressed so close when the plane touched down that Major Miller was forced to crash his craft into a fairway bunker to avoid the over-eager spectators. His action prevented what could have been a major tragedy. The only damage to the plane, fortunately, was a broken propeller which was presented to the Club as a memento of an historic occasion.”
Coupled with this feat was the fact that Miller carried eighty copies of the Cape Times newspaper together with some mail. As such this mail can rightfully claim the title of the first airmail from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth.
Cutting from the Cape Times
On the 6 November 1917 a small crowd gathered at the aerodrome at Young’s Fields at Wynberg, Cape Town to watch the start of Major Miller’s projected Union wide tour, the first leg of which was to end at Port Elizabeth. It was intended to land at Humansdorp where some of the newspapers were to be unloaded. However the engine was not working to the satisfaction of the Major and time was spent in trying to remedy the defect. A trial flight proved that things with the single engine were not yet perfect, a start on the tour was nevertheless made at 7.6 a.m. and the aircraft now also with the flight mechanic, Sergt. Way, on board was lost to view in the direction of Somerset Strand. The weather conditions proved hostile with a strong head wind so the Major abandoned the flight for the day and returned to Young’s Fields, having reached Sir Lowry Pass in forty minutes with a return time with the wind of ten minutes. Inspection of the engine showed that the fault was a blocked feed pipe, which was cleared. An announcement was made that that the flight would resume on the following day at 5 a.m., weather permitting.
A cutting from the EP Herald on the flight
“The whole of the city had arranged to suspend activities from 10.30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in order to afford everybody the opportunity to witness the arrival, it being expected that the plane would circle around the city before landing on the golf links. A large crowd had gathered from an early hour, some had come in from the outer districts, such was the excitement and novelty of the occasion; many of these people had never seen an aeroplane before.
The occasion – the first long distance flight in South Africa – would have been dramatic in any event but the unexpected climax lent additional force to it. Major Miller left Cape Town at 6.30 a.m. accompanied by Sergt. Mechanician Way, in fine weather, the flight took 5 hours and 22.5 minutes. This was of course the fastest time ever up to that date.
Every vantage point in and about the city was thronged with eager people. The Donkin Reserve was crowded as with the Market Square and also the roofs of most of the buildings in the city. Unfortunately these latter spectators saw very little of the aeroplane. Many failed to see it at all particularly those on Market Square, it having been expected that it would circle overhead before landing.
The plane circled twice dropping in altitude all the time until at a couple of hundred feet a white message bag with streamers in the colours of the R.F.C. was dropped to the waiting crowd.
He “volplaned” down to the fairway of the eighteenth hole, dashed towards the green crashed into the bunker and buried the nose of the ‘plane into the turf it remained balanced on its nose (planes of those days did not have brakes). If he had swerved he would have gone into the crowd. Ready hands assisted both the pilot and mechanic out, unharmed, wild excitement gripped the crowd. The propeller was in splinters, undercarriage twisted, a wheel totally wrecked and damage was caused to a wing. Later he said that he should have touched down further back as the breeze at ground level was very slight.”
It was decided that repairs to the plane could be carried out in Port Elizabeth but as all spares were in Johannesburg it must be assumed that these were railed to be Port Elizabeth. The Major would go to Johannesburg by train to continue with his schedule there, using the spare plane, already in Johannesburg and then return to Port Elizabeth to resume the tour.
A reception was arranged in the Golf Club House where Mayor Kemsley made a speech using such phrases as “epoch in the evolution of science” and welcomed the Major to the city. The Mayor went on to say, “The aeroplane would be used in future, when this colossal upheaval of nations of the world is over, as a means of bringing the people of the world together and of increasing trade.”
In his reply the Major said, “The Royal Flying Corps extends its hearty greetings. Your airmen have realized all expectations and I have now returned to receive further nominations from the good material still available.” Describing his flight he said that the weather at Cape Town was ideal with a little wind from the south-west. At Mossel Bay he had a few anxious moments and then again at Knysna due to wind; he was forced to fly out to sea between these places and was glad when this windy area was left behind. At Humansdorp there were air pockets where he had further engine trouble, which eventually cleared. “It started to splutter” he said, “and I thought how rotten it would be to have to descend so near the end of the flight, however we got here-as you saw.”
He pointed with a smile to the irrecognisable wheel. His average speed was 75 miles per hour at 5000 feet. The reception closed with the distribution of the mail and the auction of the Cape Times special aviation edition newspapers, of that same morning. The first paper auctioned fetched £35s, the next fetched £6 and then fifty papers at £1 each, the balance being sold later. Even the message bag and its ballast of nails were auctioned. Major Miller said that he was on a recruiting drive for the RFC for more men to train as pilots.
After the war, Miller pursued a career in civil aviation. His first two ventures were unsuccessful and short-lived: the South African Aerial Navigation Company, which became South African Aerial Transports Ltd (1919–1920), and Rhodesian Aerial Tours (1922).
In 1924, Miller was elected a Member of Parliament. In this capacity, he successfully lobbied for government support for civil aviation. He gave flying demonstrations, toured the country to popularise flying, and encouraged the formation of flying clubs.
In 1929, Miller founded Union Airways, as the country’s first commercial mail and passenger carrier. It amalgamated with South West African Airways in 1932, and was taken over by the government in 1934 and renamed South African Airways.
In 1936, Miller took part in the Portsmouth to Johannesburg Air Race, held to mark Johannesburg’s golden jubilee.
During World War II, Miller served in the South African Air Force, where he commanded several flying schools. After the war, he worked as chief publicity officer for South African Airways.
Allister Miller died in Port Elizabeth in 1951.
Allister Miller: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allister_Miller
The Miller Flight: http://www.fad.co.za/Resources/aviation/miller.htm
1910 to 1920 – Early Flying in South Africa: http://www.sapfa.org.za/history/1910-1920-early-flying-south-africa
Cape Times: November 7 1917
Eastern Province Herald: November 8 1917