The birth of South Africa’s aviation industry cannot be pinpointed to one location or date or to a single individual. While East London may boast the status of hosting the first flight in South Africa, the first aerodrome, along with the first flying school, was, in fact, established in Kimberley. And, while it should naturally follow that the first airport would have been built in the same town, it was actually erected in Germiston, east of Johannesburg.
The advent of civil aviation in South Africa was largely inspired by engineer John Weston’s first flight in a South African- designed biplane, which took place in Kimberley on June 16, 1911. News of Weston’s demonstration lured other prominent aviators to Kimberley, including English pilots Cecil Compton Paterson and Guy Livingston. They were members of the then recently formed African Aviation Syndicate, whose primary objective was to promote interest in flying. Fortunately, these men did not have to campaign too hard, for flying had become Kimberley’s latest craze. In fact, such was the locals’ enthusiasm for flying that the two men decided to establish a local flying school. They believed that Kimberley, with its crisp, dry air and expansive flat, bare veld, had the best conditions for flying and training students.
The new Union government soon got wind of Paterson’s intention and, because the country did not have any training facilities for military pilots, an agreement was negotiated between Paterson and General Jan Smuts for his school to train ten pupils on the Union Defence Force’s behalf. In addition to those ten military men, the school took on three private students, including Ann Maria Bocciarelli, who became Africa’s first female pilot.
The base of the flying school was established on the farm Alexandersfontein, near the old Alexandersfontein Hotel, on the outskirts of the town. The land was owned by De Beers Consolidated Mining but, given the company’s philanthropic nature and its interests, which extended beyond diamond mining, the large tract of land was placed at the school’s disposal.
The new Alexandersfontein aerodrome, the first to be established in South Africa, featured a runway cut from scrub so thorny that its single aircraft had to have its wheels protected by thick leather coverings to avoid punctures, and a corrugated-iron hangar that also served as a workshop where trainees were taught to carry out aircraft maintenance. While highly primitive, compared with modern aviation infrastructure standards, it served training purposes well.
Training was done on a Paterson biplane (No 36) by British aviator Edward Cheeseman. (An interesting fact about Cheeseman is that he was South Africa’s first aviation casualty, having died after sustaining serious injuries when his plane crashed on October 15, 1913.) Testing of the pilots was supervised by the Aeronautical Society of South Africa, as prescribed by, and on behalf of, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
While the flying school at Alexandersfontein was a marked success, it had to be abandoned the following year, owing to the outbreak of the First World War.
The mantle of civil aviation was then passed, naturally, to Johannesburg, where the needs for proper airport infrastructure were most apparent. (The construction of Rand Airport, which was Johannesburg’s, and indeed the country’s, first airport, will be elaborated on in the next instalment of this column.)
For the next 15 years, no real effort was made to further develop Kimberley’s once pioneering aviation industry. it was only with the introduction of the first England–South Africa flight route in the early 1930s that Kimberley was, once again, stimulated into an aviation frenzy.
In 1930, British airline Imperial Airways (the forerunner to British Airways) began making preparations for its first Trans-Africa air service. Such a journey would be a considerable undertaking requiring 11 days to complete and a multitude of refuelling and resting stopovers. One of the most suitable stopping places on the final leg to Cape Town identified by the airline was Kimberley, given the naturally bare, flat surrounding veld.
The Kimberley City Council gave Imperial Airways its full backing for the scheme and agreed to spend some £30 000 (about R27-million in today’s value) on the building of an airport. However, the opportunity could not have come at a worse time, as the city was in the vice grip of the Great Depression and was also hit by the calamitous fall in the demand for diamonds, its economic lifeblood. However, such an opportunity could not be missed and the money was found and work began with immediate effect.
By the end of the year, a site about 6 km south of the city had been chosen, the scrub cleared, a landing area fenced off, a hangar and control house built and lighting and signal apparatus. In January 1931, the new airport was ready for the initiation of the Imperial Airways service.
While Kimberley is no long the hub of South African aviation it once was, for the last 86 years, it has been an important facility in South Africa’s broader aviation network. Today, it is the site of about 15 500 air traffic movements a year, handles about 132 000 passengers and is a significant air cargo terminal.
Having long since been abandoned as an aviation facility, the original Alexanderfontein aerodrome has been converted into a ‘Pioneers of Aviation’ Museum. It comprises a memorial, a reconstructed hangar and a replica of the biplane used in those first training sessions. However, the museum can only be visited by appointment with a guide from the McGregor museum.