To The Victoria Falls
Development of the Victoria Falls
The Age of Air
The route between London and Cape Town was regarded as one of the challenges for aviators. In 1918 the British Air Ministry dispatched survey teams to Africa to pave the way for an air route from Cairo to Cape Town. Three survey and construction teams established landing grounds along the route. After a year of bundu-bashing and levelling anthills, the Ministry declared the "Cape to Cairo" air route open in December 1919, providing 24 aerodrome and 19 emergency landing strips fit for use.
The Times of London announced that it would finance the first flight to the Cape and its aircraft - a Vickers Vimy Commercial, G-EAAV, took to the air on 24 January 1920, piloted by Captains S Cockerell and F C Broome, with Dr Chalmers Mitchell, Secretary of the Zoological Society.
General J.C. Smuts however wanted South African aviators to be the first to complete the trip. He therefore authorised the purchase of a Vickers Vimy, G-UABA, at a cost of 4 500 pounds. Christened the Silver Queen, and commanded by Lt Col H.A. (Pierre) van Ryneveld with Lt Quinton Brand as co-pilot, the aircraft took off from Brooklands (Surrey, England) on 4th February 1920, aiming to overtake the Times sponsored plane. After an eventful night crossing of the Mediterranean, they arrived at Derna the following morning. Further night flying followed in an attempt to catch the Vickers Vimy, but the Silver Queen was wrecked in a forced landing at Korosko, near Wadi Halfa in the Sudan. A leaking radiator forced a night-time emergency landing, and in the dark the plane ran into rocks. The crew survived serious injury. A second Vimy F8615 was loaned from the Royal Air Force at Heliopolis, in Egypt, and on February 22nd the two pilots returned to the skies.
The Silver Queen II - The first aeroplane to arrive in Bulawayo - 5 March 1920.
On February 27th Captain Cockerill's competing Vickers-Vimy plane crashed on take off at Tabora in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). The plane is wrecked beyond repair, although no-one was injured, apparently "some regretable language" was used!
The Silver Queen II arrived at Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia on February 28th, and the next day on to Ndola. On the 2nd March 1920 they moved on to Broken Hill, and left later for Livingstone (on the Zambesi), where she arrived at 2.45 p.m. During this time Quinton Brand took the first aerial photographs of the Victoria Falls. The next stage of the journey Buluwayo (Southern Rhodesia) was delayed owing to heavy rains.
By this stage, all the other challengers had abandoned the flight. The De Haviland machine piloted by Lieutenant Cotton, of Australia, smashed its tail and three wings; Major Bradeley's Handley-Page crashed near Atbara, while Major Welsh's Royal Force machine was forced to descend in a damaged state at Koroska.
The Silver Queen II flew on to the Bulawayo Racecourse on the 5th March, becoming the first aircraft to touch down in Southern Rhodesia. The scene of the plane landing in Southern Rhodesia was recorded by the Bulawayo Chronicle of the 12th March:
Arrangements had previously been made for the town to recieve a warning of the aircraft's approach by means of gun signals, and at 10.20am these signals sounded at he Police Camp. Cars and bicycles immediately hurried to the aerodrome. Excitement mounted. Work practically ceased throughout the town, as almost the whole populatuon, black and white, assembled at the landing ground. At 12.40, a speck in the sky to the north-west heralded the approach of the Silver Queen II and, within minutes, she touched down smoothly on the grass - the first aeroplane to land on the soil of Southern Rhodesia.
The aircraft was cordoned off to keep the hundreds of curious locals at some distance. The crew were formally received by Mayor James Cowden and Acting Town Clerk F Fitch, after which the party proceeded to the Grand Hotel for a civic luncheon.
On the following morning, 6th March, after the completion of pre flight preparation, the Silver Queen II took off at 7.55am. The engines laboured on take off, the plane just clearing the vegetation at the end of the airstrip. Shortly thereafter the engines failed and the plane crashed in the bush just beyond the Matsheumhlope River. Although badly shaken and bruised, none of the four man crew sustained serious injuries. The Silver Queen II was damaged beyond repair.
The 'Silver Queen II', crashed after take-off, Bulawayo - 6 March 1920.
Fortunately, another aircraft, recently recieved from the British Government, was made ready by Smutts in Pretoria, a DH9 H5648 called Voortrekker, which was flown to Bulawayo, still in its RAF livery. Their journey resumed on 17 March and the aviators landed three days later at Youngsfield, Wynberg, Cape Town, at 4pm on 20 March 1920. Their mail cargo of letters had been transferred from aircraft to aircraft and so safely reached its destination, after a total flying time of 109 hours and 30 minutes, spread over 45 days.
After circling over the city, the pilots were given a most enthusiastic reception by a large crowd, and they were cordially greeted by Lord Buxton, Governor-General of South Africa, and Gen. Smuts. The British King has sent the following telegram to Col. van Ryneveld on the completion of the flight from Cairo to Cape Town : "I send to you and Maj. Brand my hearty congratulations on your very successful flight.—GEORGE R.I."
The 'Voortrekker' De Havilland DH 9 (H5648). Bulawayo 17 March 1920.
"The art of flying across Africa is to know how to crash", is how The Times of London summed up early aviation in Central Africa.
In the late 1920s aviation advances gave guests to the Falls a new and breath-taking way to experience the Falls - from the above. The short-lived Rhodesian Aviation Company was established with the aim of tapping the tourism potential of the Falls, with their first aircraft, an Avro Avian, operating commercial ‘flips’ over the Victoria Falls from June 1929 (McAdams, 1969).
"The company was formally registered on 17th April, 1929, but owing to a serious delay in the delivery of the 'Bluebird', the commencement of flying operations had perforce to be postponed. …[As] a considerable amount of potential business was being lost, a second-hand Avro Avian aircraft was purchased… on 13th June, and was immediately flown up to Livingstone, where it was put to work operating 'flips' over the Victoria Falls." (McAdams, 1969)
The Bluebird, when it arrived, was very popular for flights over the Falls, the side-by-side seating making conversation between pilot and passenger easy.
Henry Balfour, on the last of his visits to the Falls in 1929 recorded:
“Great changes since 1910. A large and very fine stone hotel has replaced the wood and tin shanties which used to serve as [the] hotel. Many new houses have been built... I went down to the Aerodrome and... went up with Major Smith in an Avro-Avian plane. Flew over the Falls, down to beyond the Masui River and up as far as Kandahar Island. Wonderfully interesting. We flew at about 1,500 ft. [457.2 m] Made a very good take-off and landing.” (Balfour, 1929)
Aeroplanes came to the rescue of stranded Hotel guests during a rail strike which took effect on 16th February 1929. The strike, combined with the rains which made the rough road from Bulawayo impassable, left the Falls completely isolated:
“Aeroplanes to the rescue. In this case it is to help a party of British tourists stranded at Victoria Falls owing to a strike in connection with the Rhodesian Railway. Even motor-cars were of no use, apparently, and the ‘evacuation’ arrangements had to rest upon aeroplanes.” (Flight Magazine, Feb 1929)
Those not evacuated by air extended their stay at the Hotel until the 2nd March when the first passenger train left the Falls for the south (Rhodesia Railways Bulletin, April 1929). The strike must have caused headaches for the Hotel’s Head Chef, who relied on the train service to deliver the catering supplies from Bulawayo.
Edward Herbert (‘Ted’) Spencer was initially posted to the Falls in 1923 after joining the British South Africa Police. He soon saw the potential of a motor garage and car hire business, establishing ‘Spencer’s Garage and Service Station,’ strategically located on the corner of the Falls Hotel’s driveway, to service the growing numbers of visitors to the Falls.
In July 1935 Spencer purchased a second-hand de Havilland Puss Moth aircraft, ZS-ACB (re-registered as VP-YBC), and employed the services of a recently qualified young pilot Jack McAdam, to offer game viewing and charter flights under the name of ‘Spencer’s Garage and Air Service.’ Flights operated from the Victoria Falls Airfield, which would later become known as the Sprayview Aerodrome. In early 1936 Spencer acquired a DH83 Fox Moth biplane (VP-YBD), in which he trained and soon qualified as a pilot. Spencer is recorded practising aerobatics and amazing his ground-bound African spectators - so much so that ‘Spensaar!’ became a locally adopted exclamation of amazement (Whitehead, 2014).
de Havilland Puss Moth over the Falls, 1930s
McAdam kept detailed log books and flight notes, posthumously published as ‘On Wings of Fabric’ in 1982 and reproduced by Stirling and House (2014). McAdam records that game viewing flights were hugely popular with visitors to the Falls:
“These game-viewing flights, of about two hours’ duration, were a popular attraction. Leaving the Victoria Falls, the route generally followed the Zambezi to Kazungula where the boundaries of four territories meet at a single point and a 360° turn would carry the aircraft in rapid succession over South West Africa [Namibia]... and the countries then known as Bechuanaland [Botswana], Southern Rhodesia [Zimbabwe] and Northern Rhodesia [Zambia]. Then, flying in a westerly direction, roughly parallel to the Chobe River, the aircraft flew across the eastern extremity of the Caprivi Strip where a variety of wild animals, particularly lechwe, could usually be seen. Then, turning south and crossing the Chobe River near Kasane, the route continued to Kazuma Pan and thence back to the Falls. (Sometimes, by way of variety, the reverse direction would be flown.) So plentiful was the wildlife that Ted Spencer would offer prospective customers a guarantee: ‘No game - no pay.’ Never, to the author’s knowledge, was a refund claimed.” (Stirling and House, 2014)
McAdam’s flight log book records many interesting aviation adventures and incidents during his time flying for Spencer’s Airways. Not all flights were pleasure trips, with McAdam assisting in the search for a missing American visitor in September 1935:
“The body of Mrs Mary McKee, a 70 year old American visitor, was found two days later under a tree with dense foliage (which probably explained the failure of the air search). She had evidently wandered off into the scrub, lost her way, and died of exposure, not more than half a mile from the boathouse on the south bank of the Zambezi.”
McAdam also recalls flying many distinguished guests from the Falls Hotel, including Lady Baden-Powell in April 1936 and members of the Siamese (Thai) Royal Family in December the same year. Flights were not without the occasional problem, McAdam recalling an incident in October 1936 which nearly caused him to make an emergency landing on an island above the Falls:
“Having dropped some passengers at Livingstone after a game trip, was half-way between the two landing grounds when, over the Zambezi, the engine slowed down and clouds of smoke poured out. Seriously considered attempting a landing on Long Island, but carried on and just made it into the Falls airfield. Upon inspection it was discovered that two of the four pistons in the engine had seized up in their cylinders due to defective lubrication caused, in turn, by a loose oil pipe connection between oil tank and pump.” (Stirling and House, 2014)
On another occasion in early 1937 McAdam recalled the propeller came off the single-engined Fox Moth mid-flight over the Falls, and a hasty forced landing was made in the bush, incredibly without serious damage!
Spencer became something of a local legend in the Falls, and it is popularly believed that he was the first to fly a plane under the Victoria Falls Bridge, although McAdam is on record as discounting this story. There is, however, a photograph of him flying incredibly low over the Devil’s Cataract.
“It is a part of old Falls legend that he was the first person to fly under the Victoria Falls Bridge early one morning in July 1938. However, there are some who say that McGill, a bush pilot from Livingstone, was the first man to do it.” (Meadows, 2000)
Towards the end of the War Spencer's Airways, Victoria Falls, were using one Avro Anson, one de Havilland Fox Moth, one Tiger Moth and one Fairchild UC.61A to provide short pleasure flights over the Falls.
Whitehead also records that Spencer had hoped to establish a flying boat service to Barotseland after the war, but he died tragically in a crash in London in 1947. An advert in Flight Magazine, 16th January 1947 records Spencer offering free passage from London for 16 married service men looking to emigrate to Rhodesia (Flight Magazine, Jan 1947). Spencer was piloting the Dakota plane which stalled and crashed soon after take off from London on the 25th January with 18 passengers, eleven of who also sadly died (Flight Magazine, July 1947).
Ted Spencer’s nephew, Terrance, took over the family business.
“His nephew, Terry, [who] took over the mantle of chief aviator for Spencer’s Airways, had beat the odds flying a Lancaster through most of World War Two. His luck ran out almost two years after his uncle’s. On 20 October 1948, whilst on a game flight, his plane caught fire somewhere over the Katambora Rapids. Turning for home on a burning wing and a prayer, Terry Spencer coaxed the Fairchild back towards Victoria Falls. Never made it. Crashed amongst the horizon-to-horizon teak forests... on the remote Westwood Farm. It was a long time, six weeks to the day, from the wristwatches of the crash victims, before the wreckage was found.” (Meadows, 2000)
de Havilland Rapide over the Falls, 1935