Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Early Years of Aviation

By any measure the first airplanes were light-weight midgets with the French Nieuport 17 weighing only 375 kgs. As such they did not require a hardened surface on which to land. Any reasonably level grass covered field or strip of dirt or sand could suffice as an airfield. In Port Elizabeth’s case, the area adjacent to First Avenue Newton Park was selected as the airfield. Not only that but a concreted apron was required otherwise standing aircraft were liable to sink into soggy and damp ground. Also required are various other structures such as hangars and a terminal building.

Main picture: Painting by Ron Belling of Harvards flying over the military section of the airport

The first plane landing
At the commencement of the Great War, military aircraft were little more than wooden strutts, spars and ribs covered with canvas. They bore no armament other than the personal weapons of the pilot. Without a parachute, the use of which was prohibited, any engine fault or cracked strut would pitch the plane into a steep dive, a death spiral and the loss of yet another pilot. The Germans with their Dutch Fokker biplanes were masters of the sky scything through the planes of the Royal Flying Corps. Recruits were urgently required to replace those lost in combat, accidents or mechanical failure in flight and the Union was one of the imperial recruiting grounds.

Above: Allister Miller

In late 1917, Major Allister Miller toured the country to recruit trainee pilots for the Royal Flying Corps. This was his second recruiting drive and already some 8,000 applicants had volunteered themselves for selection. On this occasion, Miller would include Port Elizabeth on his itinerary. During November 1917 Miller made the first flight from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, landing on the Port Elizabeth Golf Club course. His plane was a BE 2E biplane with a 100 hp Austin engine. His arrival was most eagerly awaited by people from all around the district, who assembled to see the plane arrive. It was an imperfect landing as the surging crowds waiting on the extemporized runway on the golf course caused Miller to take evasive action as boisterous spectators blocked the runway. The repercussion was that in swerving to avoid the crowds, the plane struck a bunker and in the process damaged the propeller which is now on display in the Golf Club.

Union Airways
At that time, this was considered a long-distance flight, but it ushered in the age of flight. Furthermore it heralded the start of the civil aviation industry in Port Elizabeth as Miller himself was instrumental in founding the South End airport in 1929 when he floated the Union Airways in Port Elizabeth after receiving a contract from the Union government to fly mail from Cape Town to the major cities at the time.

During 1930 Miller purchased a Fokker Super Universal NC98K in the USA and registered it as ZS-ABR to serve as part of Union Airways which would use the airfield at Fairview as their base. On the 29th January 1930, this plane made its maiden flight from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth under the banner of Union Airways. In effect, the Fokker Super Universal ZS-ABR became the first passenger carrying machine used on regular services, with Fairview as their base.

Above: In 1930, Fokker Super Universal NC98K, was purchased in the USA and registered as ZS-ABR to serve in Union Airways. Note the sparsity of vegetation especially of trees in the area surrounding the Fairview airfield during the 1930s. This allowed the pilots to land in whatever direction the wind blew in. As the landing speed of these craft was so slow that the wind direction had an inordinate effect on the plane.

This aircraft was not noted for its longevity when on the 31st December of the following year it crashed at Kayser’s Beach with 3 people on board. The plane had to be written off but all 3 passengers survived. The extent of their injuries is unknown.

Junkers F13

The Junkers F13 arrived in SA during 1932 and was operated by Union Airways and later SAA as ZS-AEA. It carried the name “Hendrik Swellengrebel”. At the outbreak of WW2, this aircraft was pressed into service and was given the SAAF serial number “259”. During the war it was utilised as the personal aircraft of Col J. Louw, General Officer Commanding-Coastal Area.

Capt. Graham Bellin, one of the early pioneers of SA aviation, was to become one of the first pilots of Union Airways and of SAA. In 1917 Graham Bellin (then a 2nd Lt. in the RFC) started his initial flight training at the school for military pilots in Tours, Central France. He made his first training flight in a Maurice Farman S11 Biplane on 5 Sep 1917. Further training followed on a Caudron G-3 and a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny’s. On 18 Sept, after only 4 hours of total flying time he made his first solo in a Caudron G-3 serial “3291”.

Bellin training on the Maurice Farman S11 biplane

The father of civil aviation in South Africa, Major Allister Miller founded Union Airways in Port Elizabeth in 1929 after being awarded a government contract to fly airmail between Cape Town and the major centres in South Africa. The company was registered on 24 July 1929 and began airmail operations on 26 August 1929 with five de Havilland DH60 Gipsy Moth bi-planes. Mail was collected from the Union Castle steamships from Britain that docked at Cape Town harbour on Monday mornings and flown to Port Elizabeth by a single Gypsy Moth. At Port Elizabeth two more Gipsy Moths were waiting to continue the service, one to fly mail to Bloemfontein and Johannesburg and the other to East London and Durban. On Thursday the 29 August the return service was operated reaching Cape Town in time for the departing United Kingdom bound steamship.  

Union Airways carried its first passenger from Cape Town to East London on 3 September 1929. The airline also undertook the carriage of sick persons on mercy flights. As both mail and passenger traffic increased, Miller bought a Fokker Super Universal single engine aircraft that could carry six passengers and this aircraft entered service on 29 May 1930. The next aircraft type to enter service with Union Airways were two de Havilland DH 80A Puss Moths. These aircraft could carry two passengers in an enclosed cabin and replaced some of the Gypsy Moths that had been sold or written off. Unfortunately one of the Puss Moths crashed near Sir Lowry’s Pass after structural failure, the pilot and both passengers were killed. More bad news was to follow when the Fokker Super Universal was written off in a crash at Kayser’s Beach near East London on 31 December 1931. The three Union Airways airmen onboard were not injured. 

Above: De Haviland DH60G Gipsy Moth 1124 ZS-ABI Gipsy Moth SAA

Union Airways was struggling to make ends meet and little help was forthcoming from the South African government. Junkers South Africa Pty (Ltd) which owned and operated South West African Airways, bought a substantial share in Union Airways. An all-metal Junkers F13 was chartered from SWA Airways and was soon operating in place of the wrecked Fokker. More Junkers aircraft followed in the form of F13 and W34 aircraft and later a Junkers A50 also joined the fleet. Imperial’s airmail service from Britain to Cape Town was routed via Rand Airport and Kimberley and this made the Union Airways airmail service from Cape Town to Johannesburg unnecessary. The carriage of airmail from Durban to Johannesburg and Durban to Cape Town was contracted to Union Airways. Passenger growth on the Durban – Johannesburg service grew steadily culminating in a daily flight. This compelled the airline to move their base from Port Elizabeth to Durban. Major Miller also placed an order for 3 Junkers Ju 52/3m aircraft; an all-metal airliner with three engines which could carry up to 18 passengers. The final nail in Union Airways coffin came when one of the Junkers W34 aircraft crashed in bad weather near the town of Eshowe in late 1933, two crew and three passengers were killed and one passenger survived. This was a major blow to the airline and forced Miller to approach the South African government to take over the operation. The South African government took over the assets and liabilities of Union Airways on 1 February 1934. This included 40 staff members and three Junkers F13s, one DH60 Gypsy Moth, one DH80A Puss Moth and a leased Junkers F13 and Junkers A50. The airline was named South African Airways and fell under the control of the South African Railways and Harbours administration. SAA honoured the order for the three Junkers Ju 52/3m aircraft. 

It soon became apparent to SAA that Johannesburg would become the hub of air travel in South Africa and the airline moved to Rand Airport on 1 July 1935. 

South End given the nod
Fairview was swiftly deemed to be inadequate to permanently serve as an airfield as it was far too small. Various sites were proposed as the site for the future airport. Debates raged regarding the pros and cons of the sites on the short list: South End, Parson’s Vlei and New Brighton. These arguments persisted for several years with some even dismissing the premise that the municipality and not the government was responsibility for the construction of a new airport. Finally, on the 28th December 1934, the ratepayers chose the site at South End for the new Aerodrome over its competing sites. During February 1934 the tender of Murray and Stewart for £12 480 was accepted thereby concluding the initial stage of the project.

1936 Opening the original airport at South End

Just over two years later the new aerodrome (airport) was opened by Hon C.F. Clarkson, Minister of Posts and Telegraphs on the 23rd May 1936 and over the period of 23rd to the 25th May, the Port Elizabeth Air Pageant was held to celebrate the event. This event must have attracted huge interest as some 40,000 visitors attended the show. Twenty-nine private planes came from all over the country and the Defence Department dispatched a squadron of Wapitis and 6 Hawker Furies. Union Airways sent a three-engined Junker and a “Speed Envoy”. A Service of Thanksgiving was held at the aerodrome in connection with Empire Day celebrations and the opening. At a dinner at the Hotel Elizabeth Major Miller was given the freedom of the aerodrome.

Above: 1938 Aerial view of airport which does not yet have permanent concrete runways
Above: HF Verwoerd airport in 1968. Looking out onto apron from cafeteria with SAA Vickers Viscount ZS-CDT ‘Blesbok’ in view

Upon opening the Driftsands Aerodrome it consisted only of a single runway, one hangar and a concrete apron.  During the Second World War the airfield was extended to accommodate 42 Air School for the Royal Air Force and 6 Squadron South African Air Force on the southern and eastern sides of the field while commercial operations continued from the northern side.

Above: The SA Airforce museum in Southdene

Construction of permanent terminal buildings, runways and an air traffic control building began in 1950. During construction, existing operations were moved to St Albans, some 25 km away. The new buildings and facilities were officially opened in 1955. Architecturally the buildings had elements of late Art Deco and Festival of Britain and were seen as symbolic of the progress of the city. The new airport was featured as the backdrop for the Chevrolet adverts in the 1950’s.

Once completed in 1955, the Port Elizabeth terminal was official reopened and in 1973 the apron extended to accommodate larger aircraft with a new departures terminal being built and commissioned in 1980.

Since then the apron and arrivals and departures building has undergone several upgrades and extensions. The airport resides at an elevation of 69m above mean sea level. It has two asphalt paved runways: 08/26 is 1,980 by 46 metres and 17/35 is 1,677 by 46 metres . There are also 13 aircraft parking bays on the apron and the terminal building measures 8,700 square metres. The modern terminal upgrade was completed in June 2004 allowing the airport to handle up to 2 million passengers a year. In preparation for the 2010 FIFA World Cup runway 08/26 was going to be extended from 1,980m to 3,000m with a view to accommodating International flights, although this never happened. 

Family connection
In 1934 when the tender was awarded to Murray & Steward, my father Harry Clifford McCleland was a 23 year old employee of M&S. I wonder whether he had to work on this site which would have been convenient as he lived in Schoenmakerskop. In the 1970s he was the foreman on the job with JJ Ruddy & Sons to revamp No. 6 Sqn base at the airport.


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