Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Introduction of Air Flight

It can safely be presumed that the residents of Port Elizabeth were equally as fascinated at the concept of air flight as the rest of South Africa. As a testament to that allure was the great fanfare that Allister Miller’s flight from Cape Town in 1917 engendered. 

This is the story of how fascination transmogrified into plans and then planes. This was an age of dreamers and schemers. 

Main picture: Experimental air mail service between Cape Town and Durban

First airmail delivery in SA

The first airmail delivery in South Africa involved the towns of Kenilworth and Muizenberg on the 27th December 1911.

Letter on first air mail flight

It was more of a proof on concept rather than a dedicated service. Pilot, Evelyn “Bok” Driver in a seven and a half minute trip, flew a mailbag fastened to the back of his seat containing specially printed postcards for Muizenberg’s newly opened gabled post office at 184 Main Road. The Bleriot monoplane landed on Oldham’s Field near today’s False Bay Railway Station.

First air flight to Port Elizabeth

On 7 November 1917 Allister Miller set out from Cape Town in a B.E.2 aircraft built by Wolseley Motors Limited. 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 [the name that had been given to B.E.2 craft], piloted by Major [later Lieut-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.

Allister Miller landing at P.E. Golf Club after his flight from Cape Town

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.”

Wedding of Allister M Miller & Marion Mercy Bagshaw

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. 

Experimental airmail service

Whilst the general population was enamoured with air flight, nonetheless, with few exceptions it was regarded as being fraught with danger – understandably so – due to these flying machines being both frail and unreliable and subject to the vagaries of the weather. Forget about the glamour of the flying aces, with open cockpits, conditions were cold, uncomfortable and quite frankly miserable.

For all that, their proponents made a case for their adoption for the carriage of mail and passengers. In South Africa the foremost proponent of the introduction of airmail services was Tommy Boydell, the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs in the early 1920s. Much was made of the speed of the service yet the poor record regarding on-time delivery in the USA belied their claims.

Experimental air mail service

Boydell had a vociferous supporter and lobbyist, Major Miller, then member of Durban Point. In the end, it was not the efforts of this duo which tipped the scales but the recently constituted Civil Air Board. In a ground-breaking move, they proposed a series of experimental air mail flights over three months. The government acquiesced. They requested that the Chief of the Air Force, Colonel Pierre van Ryneveld, organise the experiment between Durban and Cape Town. With alacrity, during February 1925, Van Ryneveld allocated ten DH-9s for the assessment together with ten pilots under the command of Major H.C. Meintjies.

First there was a test run commencing on the morning of Thursday 19th February 1925 when the ten DH-9s left Pretoria in two flights of five with the first arriving in Durban at 11 o’clock. On the next day they flew on to East London where one fell foul of a hollow in an uncompleted runway while another plane damaged a wing on takeoff.

De Havilland Airco DH9

Port Elizabeth was to receive its first mail plane when a week later a DH-9 arrived from Cape Town and landed on the Newton Park sports field. This test followed the intended route from Cape Town, via Oudtshoorn, Port Elizabeth and East London, to Durban.

The inaugural service commenced on Monday 2nd March 1925 with the ten aircraft deployed as follows: three at Cape Town, two at Oudtshoorn, two at Port Elizabeth, two at East London and one at Durban. The timetable was that as soon as the mail reached the Wynberg aerodrome, two of the Cape Town machines would leave for Oudtshoorn with the third machine remaining behind in Cape Town as a reserve. The two machines stationed at Oudtshoorn would fly the mail onward to Port Elizabeth while the one Cape Town machine would fly mail to Mossel Bay whereas the other would await mail from Port Elizabeth before returning to its base in Cape Town. In turn the two planes from Oudtshoorn would have over their mail to the two PE based planes which would only ferry it as far as East London. The single plane based at Durban was in reserve. The hand over of mail was timed not to exceed 15 minutes and the maximum weight of the mail per plane was restricted to 400lbs.

A flight of DH-9s used for the first Union Airways mail service

Even prior to the completion of the first trip, doubts were raised as to the reliability of the service. Two aircraft had been damaged on the test flight. Unsurprisingly, it was businessmen from Port Elizabeth who first raised their concerns. While fully appreciating the advantages of an airmail service that would bring Port Elizabeth within five hours of Cape Town, they emphasised that they required iron clad assurances that their mail would reach Cape Town without fail to catch the mail ships. From their vantage point, instead of having to post their mail on Wednesday evening, it was now possible to post it a day later and possibly even on Friday morning.

De Havilland 9 circling PE Central 24 Feb 1925, The SAAF inaugurated an experimental coastal mail service [Painting by Ron Belling]

On the day of the inauguration, Monday 2nd March 1925, the 2 DH-9s taxied out from the Wynberg airfield at 7:55 with thirty-five mail bags. After a flying time of two hours and ten minutes, the two machines arrived at Oudtshoorn at 9:45 am. Twelve minutes later, the next two planes were already en route for Port Elizabeth with 31 mail bags after four bags were placed on the plane to Mossel Bay. A fortuitous following wind enabled leg two to Port Elizabeth to be completed an hour ahead of schedule. Eleven bags were left at Port Elizabeth and within five minutes the remaining bags were transferred to the East London bound planes.

Flying the mail between Cape Town and Durban in an open cockpit

They arrived at East London at 1:15, well ahead of schedule. Finally the East London-based planes took off at 1:25 with the remaining bags, now reduced to seven.

With a strong wind on their tails, the two aircraft completed the journey in 2 hours and 33 minutes. This magnificent performance restored the confidence in air mail after the disaster-plagued test run the previous week.

The service was not viable, and it was terminated on the 15th June 1925. Sadly despite an excellent record of all flights, except three, arriving on the same day, after fifteen relays, the experiment did not usher in a new dawn. Instead the ten DH-9s were returned to base and their pilots stood down. While the rest of the world enthusiastically embraced the possibilities of air flight, in South Africa it sank into a quagmire of official indifference and obfuscation.

‘Casper’ Caspareuthus loads the mailbags into a compartment before taking off for another mail delivery

Union Airways Company

The name Allister Mackintosh Miller, a man who was yet another dreamer, would once again make the acquaintance of Port Elizabeth’s hospitality after his inaugural flight from Cape Town in November 1917. If that was the hors de oeuvre, this would be the main meal and a substantial one at that.

While some people dreamed of an air service between the home country, Britain, and South Africa, Miller dreamed of a commercial air passenger service within South Africa’s borders. Born in South Africa but of Scottish parentage, he was amongst the first to volunteer for service on the Western Front during the Great War of 1914-1918. Having distinguished himself as an airman, he was posted back to South Africa on a recruiting expedition. As a result of his tour of South Africa, he was highly successful in enlisting scores of young South African men, all of whom excelled in the Royal Air Force.

Union Airways in 1929

Entering politics, Miller stood as a candidate for the South African Party in Springs but was defeated. He later took his seat in Parliament as Member for Durban Point.

For all this, his primal love was first and foremost, flying. He obviously conjured up images of schemes during his free time. In 1927, Major Miller, who had been flying one of the first Moth planes brought to South Africa, carried out experiments in rain-making near Port Elizabeth. As part of his test, he discharged quantities of specially treated sand into rain clouds, but the scheme was a failure.

Major A.M. Miller founded Union Airways on 26 August 1929 to provide service between Cape
Town and Port Elizabeth, with later expansion providing for a route from Durban to Johannesburg.
The initial fleet of five D.H.60G Gipsy Moths was augmented, in 1931 by Junkers F.13s, W.34s and
a single Fokker Universal. ZS-AEA was one of five F.13s

Like all first loves, he was smitten for life. After a brief dalliance with politics, he was unfaithful, following his surreptitious unrequited dreams. These dreams took tangible form during July 1929 when he obtained financial backing for a commercial air service in South Africa. This assistance came in the form of an £8000 subsidy, that the government had budgeted for since the air mail experiment, and from the Atlantic Refining Company

24th July 1929 was a red letter day for Port Elizabeth. On this day, the Union Airways Company was registered with its headquarters being at Fairview, Port Elizabeth. It remained there until 1933 when it was relocated to Durban on account of the fact that the Fairview aerodrome was not large enough for the new planes. On the 1st February 1934, Union Airways Company was taken over by the Government in order to become the national carrier, and in that process, was renamed South African Airways.

The de Havilland DH.60G Gipsy Moth

Later in the same year, 1929, an air pageant was organised on the 18th August by the P.E. Light Aeroplane Club.  The intention of the pageant was to commemorate the inauguration of the air-mail passenger service. On this occasion, the Club’s new Tiger Moth was named Stella and a presentation was made to Major Miller by B. Smulian, President of the Club.



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

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



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