The field of aviation achieved a new milestone last week with the safe passage of the world’s longest commercial flight. That Qatar Airways plane travelled a distance of 14 535 km between the Qatari capital of Doha, and Auckland, New Zealand, in one continuous stretch – a journey that covered ten different time zones and lasted 16 hours and 23 minutes to complete. Such a historic milestone provides an opportune moment to reflect on the history of aviation, particularly in the South African context.
It is common knowledge that the field of aviation was pioneered in the US when Orville Wright achieved the first powered flight on December 17, 1903. What is less well known is that the first powered flight in South Africa was achieved just six years later and is regarded as the first heavier-than-air flight undertaken on the African continent.
The roots of South Africa’s aviation heritage can be traced back to France, not only was the first aircraft flown in the country a product of French design and engineering, but the first man to undertake that flight was also a French national.
In the wake of the Wright brothers’ nature-defying achievement, several aircraft manufacturing companies were established to explore, develop and enhance that ground-breaking technology. One of the first such companies was Voison. Founded in 1906 by the French engineer Gabriel Voison and his brother, Charles, Voison claims the honour of manufacturing the first manned heavier-than-air aircraft, the Voison-Farman I, which achieved the first flight on the continent on March 30, 1907.
Interestingly, South Africa was not very far behind such pioneering aeronautical initiatives. In the same year, a South African engineer by the name of John Weston built the country’s first aircraft, which was largely based on the design used by the Voison brothers, at Brandfort, in the Free State. Unfortunately for Weston, the aircraft was underpowered and never flew. It was only in June 1911, once the machine had been modified in Europe and shipped back, that Weston was able to fly the aircraft and claimed the honour of piloting the first South African-designed and built ‘flying machine’. That flight, undertaken in the Weston-Farman biplane, took place on June 16 just outside Kimberley and established a South African nonstop record of eight-and-a-half minutes.
Weston’s enthusiasm in local aviation led to the founding of the Aeronautical Society of South Africa that same year.
While Weston was adjusting his aircraft in Europe, South Africans were becoming increasingly curious to observe a demonstration of such ‘flying machines’. It was the East London town council that took the initiative by issuing a public notice in early 1909 inviting the demonstration of any aeroplane or ‘flying machine’ at the town’s forthcoming Gala Season in December. That invitation was duly taken up by the firm of Howard Farrar & Co, the well-known manufacturer of mining and general machinery, which offered to import one of the most modern aircraft and an aviator for the event.
The company subsequently bought a Voison biplane and brought out Albert Kimmerling, a French mechanic in the employ of Voison, to fly it. The aircraft arrived in East London on December 18, 1909, and was assembled just in time for a special show that had been arranged for December 28. The aircraft itself was a pusher-type biplane and comprised two main wheels, a nose wheel for landing and twin tail wheels for taxying. It was powered by a seven-cylinder Gnome Rotary 50 hp engine that drove a two- bladed aluminium propeller.
The show was hosted at East London’s Nahoon Racecourse, which has long since been the site of Stirling High School. An article published in East London’s daily newspaper, The Daily Dispatch, the following day provides a fascinating account of that historic milestone: “A great surprise greeted a few in the know who were present on the racecourse last evening between the hours of 18:00 and 19:30 and they witnessed the first practice of the flying machine. M[onsieur] Kimmerling left the garage with the biplane to make a trial of the course. “The manner in which he was able to manipulate the enormous machine at the rate of 30 miles an hour, sweeping past with a speed that could almost be said to be appalling, was a sight indeed.
“The occasion was heightened by a setting sun, which marked the close of day with a gorgeous rosy glow silhouetted against the spires of the church steeples and the residences of Southern Wood. “Twice Kimmerling travelled over the racecourse, guiding his machine with great ease, turning off like a flash of lightning when it appeared almost certain that he would crash into the grandstand.”
Such was the historic significance of that flight that a commemorative plaque was erected in 1978 by the National Monuments Council. The plaque still stands on the corner of Gleneagles and John Bailie roads, just outside Stirling High School. (South Africa narrowly missed out on hosting the first powered flight in the southern hemisphere; that honour is claimed by Australia, which witnessed its first powered flight just three weeks earlier, on December 9, 1909.)
Kimmerling went on to do other flying demonstrations in Durban and Johannesburg during the course of 1910. Interestingly, it was in Johannesburg that the first-ever fare-paying passenger, Thomas Thornton, was taken for a flight in a biplane on March 19, 1910. For that special privilege, Thornton paid an astonishing £100 (some R165 000 in today’s money terms) for a flight that lasted a few minutes over what is today the suburb of Orange Grove.
The longest flight achieved during Kimmerling’s tour of South Africa covered a distance of some 20 km at a height of 300 ft.
Sadly, Kimmerling was killed, at the age of just 29, in an aircraft accident in Mourmelon, France, shortly after returning from his tour of South Africa.