Since it was established in 1886, the city of Johannesburg has been at the forefront of much of the economic, industrial and infrastructure development in South Africa and the broader African continent. However, there is one notable exception to that general historical and ongoing trend, and that is the development of civil aviation infrastructure.
Indeed, it is a curious fact that the first airport was established quite late in Johannesburg’s development, with the first airfield opening only in 1929 and the first airport being commissioned in 1931. To put this into South Africa’s broader historical context, it was some 20 years after the first flight was undertaken in the country. What is even more curious is that the erection of the airport was not spurred on by the city’s own infrastructure development initiatives, but was undertaken at the behest of a British airline that needed a suitable airstrip on which to land in Johannesburg.
Such a peculiar reality owed to two factors. Firstly, the civil aviation industry was a late starter in South Africa, taking off (excuse the pun) only in the 1930s, following the launch of a Trans-Africa flight service. Secondly, the Zwartkop aerodrome, established in early 1921 just outside Pretoria, adequately served the aviation needs, which, until the advent of civil aviation, were largely just military in nature for the old Transvaal province. (Zwartkop was the first military air base established in South Africa and is now the home of the South African Air Force Museum.)
It was the creation of South Africa’s first airline, Union Airways, in 1929 and the initiation of an airmail service that largely spurred on the development of Johannesburg’s first aerodrome. The Germiston Aerodrome, which was established on the site currently occupied by Rand Airport, was commissioned in August 1929 to provide a suitable landing strip for Union Airways aircraft conveying mail from all urban centres in South Africa. However, as the aerodrome consisted simply of a grass-covered field and a hangar, it could barely be classified as proper aviation infrastructure. Thus, when British airline Imperial Airways announced its intention to introduce a Trans-Africa service in 1930, which would stop in Johannesburg, the Union government realised that the aerodrome would have to be upgraded to handle day and night air traffic, accommodate the larger aircraft that would be landing there, and provide the facilities to process the passenger traffic and international airmail that would be conveyed by the new airline.
The Germiston Town Council was allocated a budget of £65 000 for the conversion of the aerodrome into a properly equipped airport. The upgrade included the construction of new runways, one large and small hangar, an administrative office building, a workshop and a few cottages for Imperial Airways and airport staff. A complete floodlighting system was also installed and wireless masts erected to enable communication with aircraft. In the end, £80 000 (about R72-million in today’s value) was spent on the new airport, which was completed in time for the arrival of the first scheduled Imperial Airways flight on Saturday December 19, 1931.
The opening of the new Rand Airport was undertaken with much pomp and ceremony, being officiated by South Africa’s Governor-General himself, the Earl of Claredon. However, the 2 500 people who attended the occasion must surely have been disappointed when the Imperial Airways aircraft, the City of Basra, which was the main attraction, failed to arrive as scheduled. According to the airline, the aircraft had been delayed in Salisbury (now Harare) “on account of the weather”. But such was the excitement of seeing the arrival of the first plane that had flown all the way from London that 5 000 people arrived at the new airport the following day to welcome the City of Basra and the 225 kg of Christmas letters and parcels it had conveyed from England.
Given Johannesburg’s centrality in South Africa’s commercial sector, it was only natural that Rand Airport would rapidly become the principal hub of South African civil aviation. Its status as such was cemented in 1935, when the new State-owned airline, South African Airways, which had been formed in February the previous year, moved its headquarters from Durban to the Germiston airport.
Such increased activity necessitated an improvement of facilities. Firstly, a new air station and control tower were erected to provide adequate control of the movements of the burgeoning number of aircraft. Secondly, an actual terminal building, designed to resemble an aeroplane from the air, was constructed to house passenger waiting rooms, a baggage hall, a customs office and a restaurant. The upgraded airport was officially opened in August 1935 and has remained virtually unchanged for the last 80 years.
Rand Airport served as South Africa’s main international airport for just 17 years, however. Unfortunately, the airport could not keep pace with the phenomenal development of civil aviation in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War: it could not handle the significantly larger aircraft that were now flying to South Africa but it and could also not manage the substantial increase in passenger traffic. Thus, shortly after the war, government made the decision to supplant Rand Airport by constructing a brand-new international airport (the current OR Tambo International Airport) as the country’s new hub of civil aviation. While the new airport was being constructed, most aircraft were redirected through the Palmietfontein Airbase, a military airfield that had been established during the war south-east of Johannesburg, where the township of Katlehong stands today.
Rand Airport continued to operate as an international airport, albeit in a much reduced capacity, until October 1999, when it lost its status, owing to government’s decision to limit the number of international airports to one in each province. However, Rand Airport, the oldest in the country, is still an important aviation hub in the province, handling some 8 000 movements each month and hosting the annual Rand Airshow. It also houses the SAA Museum, which can be visited every day except on Mondays.