Port Elizabeth of Yore: Airfields, Airports & Aerodromes

During the age of biplanes, aerodromes, airfields and airports were intimate places where family and their friends could view the passengers boarding while standing beside the plane. Today their signature features are formality, impersonality and huge scale, the very antithesis of the personal touch. This impersonality is exacerbated by the hub-and-spoke approach of air flight today.

Without radar, navigational aids and concrete runways, these aerodromes served these fragile midget planes.

Main picture: Avro Anson F1 1143 based at 42 Air School

Extemporised landing strips

Think of biplanes and what comes to mind are green fields, probably unprepared paddocks and grassy areas. In those halcyon years, it was fortuitous that an investment in concrete runways was not a requirement. If they had been, it would have unduly hindered the introduction of airplanes and the advancement of this novel mode of transport.

The first landing by an aircraft in Port Elizabeth, was made by Major Allister Miller on Wednesday 7th November 1917. Without any navigation aids, the flight from Cape Town had to be made visually by following the coast. This made flying in bad weather and at night exceptionally dangerous. After a flight of five hours and eighteen minutes, Miller’s intention was to land on the fairways of the Port Elizabeth Golf Club situated in Mill Park.  

Allister Miller: A South African Air Pioneer & his Connection with Port Elizabeth

Not realising that a plane required a long distance to land, the crowds blocked off the potential stopping area. Accordingly, a last-minute adjustment was required. It was either damaging the plane or possibly even causing some serious casualties amongst the enthusiastic spectators. Miller selected the former option. He aimed for a bunker. The propeller hit the ground and physics did the rest. The plane flipped up but steadied itself moments before the tail reached the vertical. Catastrophe had been averted in the nick of time.

 The second use of an extemporised landing strip was recorded during WW2. In 1942, a German U-Boat was reported 240 miles south of Cape Recife. In spite of the Avro Anson being unsuitable for the task, as it was at the limit of its range, it was despatched with a torpedo to sink the enemy submarine. On the way back home, in gusty stormy weather, with most instruments such as altimeter non-operational, they struggled home.

Mission: Destroy U-Boat 240 Miles South of Cape Recife

Denis Glendenning recalled this life-threatened adventure back home to Port Elizabeth: Attention was then focused on our own survival at the extreme limit of our flying range. Unbelievably, the wind had reversed direction. A full load of equipment was repacked for return to base with the depth charges. The cabin’s fabric covering, soggy and wet, increasingly began to hang down in strips, dripping water. We were awash. The new course was set by calculator strapped to the pilot’s knee and we began to climb in order to get above the cloud and rain. Soon it was obvious that we could not gain further height. To get above the cloud was impossible. Next the flying instruments began failing, beginning with the air speed. Next the artificial horizon collapsed. The altimeter was stuck at 33 000 feet. Even the turn and bank indicator failed. The situation was now dire and very dangerous. A crew member quickly produced a pocket watch suspended on a piece of string. He was applauded by the crew. We had a pendulum to show the flying attitude of the aircraft.

With no altimeter, the next danger was to avoid an unnoticeable slow descent and ultimate crash into the sea below. All the crew were alerted to open the windows in order to keep watch regardless of rain entering. So dense was the fog that it was only when we a few feet above sea level, did the hysterical shrieks of alarm come from the bomb aimer’s hatch – just in time.

Len Austin in a Fairey Battle at 42 Air School

 Looking out of an open window in pouring rain, with one eye on the sea below, and the other on the watch dangling on a string, as our only flying instrument, we flew, seemingly for hours. Our fuel situation was by now critical. The crew were again briefed for emergency action. They acted impressively when the first engine cut. Simultaneously we crossed the coastline. The undercarriage was lowered so smartly. As the second engine also ran out of petrol, it was now clear skies. But as it was too far to reach the aerodrome, our Anson was turned to port and landed on a south westerly fairway, well bunkered, and facing toward the Humewood Golf Clubhouse. Our final danger was that the bumpy landing would cause a depth charge to explode. 

Image from an original photo album which formerly belonged to a RAF Serviceman trainee pilot who did his pilot training in South Africa during WW2 at 42 Air School

Denis Glendinning was later posted to 31 Squadron in Italy where he participated in operations over Europe flying Liberators.

Fairview Airfield

The flat piece of ground alongside the Cape Road officially assumed its role as an Aerodrome when it was opened on the 8th January 1928 by the Mayor A.H. Brookes. That said, it must have been in operation in August 1927 as the P.E. Light Aeroplane Club was given permission to use what was probably grandiloquently called The Fairview Aerodrome.

It seems logical that the Fairview Aerodrome would be located at the racecourse given the readily available expanse of grass for a runway, but it seems as if it was actually over the road. In book Open Cockpit over Africa by Victor Smith, sets the record straight.

“Fairview aerodrome was in Newton Park, just over Cape Road from the Fairview racecourse. The hangar, a long narrow building, was too low for the biplanes so a long trench was dug and concreted for the undercarriage to run it. This also had the effect of lowering the aeroplanes to a more convenient height for servicing.

This Club, whose goal had been “to encourage and promote the development of civil aviation for commercial and sporting purposes” had only been established during August 1927. There was tremendous enthusiasm for flying at this time and on the 21st July, Major Miller had visited Port Elizabeth and presented a lecture in the Loubser Hall in Belmont Terrace on “The Flying Club Movement.”  In 1936, this Club was superseded by the P.E. Aero Club.

At this opening, the Mayor handed over a Widgeon, named “Lady Heath,” to the P.E. Light Aeroplane Club. A ten-mile air race was arranged with Lady Heath flying her Avro Avian and two Moths while the Widgeon was flown by Col. Henderson, Major Miller and E.W. Swann.

Lady Mary Heath in the cockpit of an Avro Avian

On the 2th July 1929, the Union Airways Co. was registered. Its headquarters was located at the Fairview Aerodrome until 19933 when it was relocated to Durban Stamford Hill Aerodrome as Fairview was too small for the new planes. A year later, on the 1st February, it was taken over by the Government and renamed the South African Airways.

In order to commemorate the inauguration of the air-mail service by Union Airways, an Air Pageant was organised by the P.E. Light Aeroplane Club. On this occasion, the Club’s new Moth was christened “Stella” and a presentation was made to Major Miller by Mr B. Smulian, President of the Club. In the 26th August, Miller undertook the first air-mail flight from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth with post from the mail ship, HMS Saxon.

During June 1936, the recently formed P.E. Aero Club, started offering tuition to its members by R.O. Southey in a dual control Avro Avian.

Driftsands Aerodrome

This airport has borne a number of names over the years. Initially it was known by the whimisical name Driftsands Aerodrome.  The Port Elizabeth Airport was established in 1929 in close proximity to the city. It was initially founded by Lieutenant Colonel Miller, who needed an airfield to operate his postal service between the city and Cape Town.

It was only officially opened some nine years later, in 1936, boasting a single runway, one hangar and a concrete apron. However, the foundations of this infrastructure would later have to be removed to make room for additional vehicle parking.

During World War II, the airfield was extended to accommodate 42 Air School for the Royal Air Force and 6 Squadron South African Air Force. While military operations were persued on the southern and eastern sides of the field, commercial operations were conducted from the northern side. In 1954, it saw the landing of the first jet-propelled aircraft – five De Havilland Vampire FB9s.

42 Air School

Construction of the permanent terminal buildings, runways and an air traffic control building began in 1950. The commercial operation was moved to an airfield at St Albans, some 25km from the city centre, for the construction period. The new buildings were officially opened in 1955. In 1973 the apron was extended to accommodate larger aircraft and a new departures terminal was opened in 1980. The facilities served the airport community until 2000 when plans for a major terminal upgrade were drawn.

ZS-AUA Tafelberg South African Airways. Last Douglas DC-4 flight out of Port Elizabeth

The modern terminal upgrade was completed in June 2004 allowing the airport to handle up to 2 million passengers a year. The airport now had three runways. The main asphalt one 08/26 is 1,980m long, the second asphalt one 17/35, 1,667m long and the third grass one is 1,160m long. There are also 13 aircraft parking bays on the apron and the terminal building measures 8,700 square metres. This facility caters for domestic flights but can be screened off to operate a fully compliant International arrivals and departures section. The airport resides at an elevation of 226 feet (69 m) above mean sea level

Port Elizabeth Airport

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. Airports Company of South Africa have stated their plans to build a new airport within ten years to accommodate the increasing traffic at the current facility.

During the 1970s, airport was renamed as the H. F. Verwoerd Airport. With the first non-racial elections, the celebration of the architect of Apartheid was not tolerated. In line with the removal of such reminders of the iniquities of the Nationalist regime, the airport was renamed the Port Elizabeth Airport.

The airport is no longer operated by the Municipality but is now owned and operated by the Airports Company South Africa – ACSA – which also operates nine other airports around South Africa. The airport is located approximately two miles south of the city’s central business district. For this reason it has earned the sobriquet “The Ten Minute Airport” because it is said to be less than ten minutes’ drive from most major areas of the city.

Also utilising this facility is Air Force Station Port Elizabeth which is home to C Flight of 15 Squadron of the South African Air Force. It is a helicopter unit primarily tasked with maritime and landward search and rescue. There is also a branch of the South African Air Force Museum at the airport. The museum houses many historical military jets, helicopters, exhibits and paintings dating from the airport’s days a World War II base to the end of apartheid.

Piaggio P.166, a twin-engine pusher-type utility aircraft developed by the Italian aircraft manufacturer Piaggio Aero

St Albans Airfield

As far as can be ascertained, the first use of the St Albans Airfield was by No. 25 Squadron which began to arrive in Port Elizabeth on the 7th September 1942. The Squadron was formed from 33 Flight at St Albans in Port Elizabeth on 1 July 1942 and was deployed as a torpedo bomber / coastal reconnaissance squadron patrolling the South African coast flying aged Avro Ansons as part of Coastal Command SAAF. The Ansons were gradually replaced and on 12 September 1942 the first Lockheed Ventura Mk I was received and by end 1942 the squadron was only operating Venturas in coastal operations. The first operational deployment was that of Operation Volley, where Venturas from 23 and 25 Squadrons were deployed to intercept German blockade runners together with HMS Sirius and HMS Phoebe in a 400-mile coastal belt off Agulhas between 15 and 21 September 1942.

The German submarine U-504 had been attacking Allied shipping off Cape Agulhas from October 1942 and the squadron was deployed to search for the submarine together with HMS Express and HMS Catterick – unsuccessful patrols failed to prevent the sinking of SS Empire ChaucerSS City of Johannesburg and US Liberty ship Anne Hutchinson (which broke in two) – the squadron did however succeed in escorting the bow portion of Anne Hutchinson under tow of the South African minesweeper HMSAS David Haigh back to port in Port Elizabeth

A detachment of No. 321 (Dutch) Squadron RAF flying Catalinas was based at St Albans during WWII from around 1942. In all probability it was withdrawn by 1944 as the threat of U-boats receded during the latter stages of the war.

During the construction of the permanent terminal buildings, runways and an air traffic control at the Driftsands Airport, commencing during 1950, the commercial operations was relocated to St Albans airfield, some 25km from the city centre, for the duration of the construction period.

Shortly afterwards, the airfield was converted into a racing track.


Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

A Portrait of Military Aviation in South Africa by Ron Belling (1989, Struikhof Publishers, Cape Town)

Fields of Air: Triumphs, tragedies and mysteries of civil aviation in Southern Africa by James Byron (2001, Covos Day Books, Joburg)

We will Remember Them by Colin J.J. Trader




  1. Algoa Bay Flying Club and Flying School played a great part in Port Elizabeth’s growth. It was founded by Major Phil Smulian; Capt.Nick Carter was also very well connect to this facility and do think it is still in existence albeit by another name. I shall contact both Graham Louden Carter and Tim Smulian and ask them to write their memories of Algoa Bay Flying Club/ School.
    As a teenage I spent many a happy time at the Club, my best friend was Penny Smulian. Best Regards, Lynette McWilliams Troughton

    • Hi Lynette,
      I would love them to write some personal memories of that era. I will publish them as a blog

  2. Thanks for many interesting articles. It is very gratifying to see the photo I took of the last DC 4 to P.E. That photo was one of quite a few that I took that day.

    Regarding St. Albans, I have many fond memories of the Airport dating back to when my brother and I were taken there as small boys, to see the aeroplanes. Unfortunately, I do not recall ever having seen photos of St. Albans as an operational civil airport. Does anyone out there have any to share?

  3. I am gratified to see a photo that I took of the last regular SAA DC 4 flight to P.E. It was one of a number that I took on that day.

    Regarding St. Albans Airport, I have very fond memories from my early childhood, of standing at the fence with my brother peering at those wonderful airliners. Likely DC 3’s and DC 4’s. Do any of your readers have photos of St. Albans as a functioning civil airport? Especially photos showing the hangar and any other facilities on the field.

    Frank Wilson (great grandson of John Wilson of St. George’s Park fame)

    • Hi Frank
      I wrote a blog or two about the estabishment of St George’s Park. I am especially looking for a photo or two and possibly information about your great grandson of John Wilson of St. George’s Park fame

      If so,please email me at deanm@orangedotdesigns.co.za

      Dean McCleland


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