Article by Alan Hindle, originally published in World Airnews magazine.
There are few pilots flying today who do not have fond memories of the old Baragwanath airfield, which was situated to the south of Johannesburg. Many will have done their training there, but few know its whole history. Aviation writer and artist, Alan Hindle, has thoroughly researched the subject and his article is published to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the loss of an old friend, Bara-G…
The name, Baragwanath, today is synonymous with one of the biggest hospitals in the Southern Hemi sphere, but for two generations of pilots and airmen it will always be affectionately known as “Bara- G”.
It is now five years since the aerodrome closed down, but many pilots still fly over the area to capture the nostalgia they once knew in the halcyon days gone by.
The Johannesburg Light Plane Club (JLPC) was formed in 1927 at a meeting in Johannesburg, and when it was finally disbanded, it was regarded as being one of the oldest active flying clubs in the world.
Flying from Bara-G began long before 1927, however. On November 15, 1919, a special edition of “The Star” was flown to Durban by Major Alister Miller in a World War I Avro 504 biplane, which is considered as being the first commercial flight in South Africa.
Baragwanath had the distinction of having the first aerial transportation company in South Africa. It was registered as SA Air Transport (South Africa) Limited with Captain Miller as one of the directors. This outstanding pioneering pilot was also instrumental in forming Union Airways, a precursor of the present South African Airways.
The company lasted until 1921 when it folded due to the lack of money and suitable aircraft. The aerodrome which had been cleared of blue gum trees now .lay redundant, and was used by a dairy farm nearby for grazing cows. The original farm gate was still there when the club house was demolished in 1982 and remains there to this day.
In 1926 two WWI pilots, Captains Rod Douglas and Stan Halse, met at a little hotel run by Douglas, which later became famous as a Johannesburg landmark, known as Uncle Charlies, named after big game hunter and entrepreneur, Charles de Jongh, who also ran a filling station at the well-known intersection.
Over drinks, Douglas and Halse discussed the formation of a flying club and approached Rand Mines for permission to use the grounds previously used for the first aerodrome. This was agreed to on a tenure basis.
At the inaugural meeting, 133 air-minded citizens were enrolled as members and a committee was formed. The club became known as the Johannesburg Light Plane Club with Stan Halse as its first instructor and Rod Douglas as club captain.
Rand Mines brought its steam wagons in and enlarged the aerodrome by clearing the blue gum trees. A little reed club house was built complete with prirnus stove, a hurricane lamp, a desk, chair and a mildewed map of the Transvaal pinned to a blackboard. But there was no aeroplane. Instead, the club existed for a whole year without an aeroplane and it had no funds available to buy one. However, a wealthy business man, Glen Bateman, came to the rescue and leased his aircraft, an Avro Avian, to the club. Later a Cirrus Moth appeared on the scene and the club was underway.
Civil aviation in South Africa really took off at this stage and, in retrospect, no history of civil aviation can be complete without frequent reference being made to the JLPC, which was synonymous with the history of Johannesburg, sharing its depressions and prosperity.
The late 1920s and early 1930s were difficult years for the club; the world was in the throes of a depression and all flying clubs were affected.
The first disaster struck the club when the Cirrus Moth crashed on take-off and 200 members were left without an aeroplane and, as no finances were available for a replacement, the club was back to square one. However, light appeared again in the form of Sir Charles Wakefield, oil millionaire and philanthropist, who presented one Gipsy Moth to every budding flying club throughout the British Empire. Baragwanath received its in October 1929.
This much sought-after and coveted aeroplane had by then made its mark in the aviation world by long distance record breaking flights, making de Havilland the leading manufacturer of light aeroplanes in the world, immortalizing the names of the great women pilots like Amy Johnson, Jean Batten, and the Duchess of Bedford.
The Gipsy Moth became a legend at Baragwanath, particularly ZS-ABM. It entered service in 1929 and trained scores of pilots right to the outbreak of World War II, and finally collapsed, some said, from sheer exhaustion at the hands of the new SAAF pupil pilots.
At this stage in the club’s history, the SAAF came to the club’s rescue, as it has done for so many of the flying clubs throughout South Africa. Organized by Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, the air force put on a magnificent display at tended by a huge crowd. The formation flying display was carried out using DH-9s of WWI vintage, some of which had been used in action during the 1922 miners’ uprising. One of these aircraft can still be seen today in the Johannesburg War Museum.
I was five years old at the time of that memorable air display, and recall Stan Halse, who was then chief instructor at the club, doing the first parachute jump. We ran toward where he had landed and found him smoking a cigar! The club’s fortunes improved dramatically after this and a new phase in aviation began to develop. More money became available, more aircraft were purchased, and many private owners hangared their aircraft at Baragwanath.
Going back to 1930, the club had by then logged over 2 000 hours flying, trained 13 pilots and achieved the distinction of training the country’s first commercial pilot, G.B.D. Williams.
By March 1931, the club was averaging 230 flying hours per month. Flares were laid out next to the main runway and night flying began.
The club was now well established as the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. It was at this stage that some of the great personalities in aviation began arriving.
Flying became very popular in the 1930s and big crowds flocked to Baragwanath every weekend. A new attraction in 1931 was the first monoplane in South Africa, a Puss Moth belonging to Cmdr. Glen Kidston. Tragically it later broke up over the Drakensberg in severe turbulence, killing the pilot. This aircraft type was withdrawn from service worldwide for wing modification, the main spar being suspect.
Crowds were allowed to wander around the aerodrome at will, and club members, to encourage air mindedness, put on impromptu air displays. Over weekends, the crowds were treated to low level aerobatics and the flour bombing of racing cars.
The club by this time had acquired a hard working Fox Moth, registration ZS-ADH
This was a large biplane carrying three passengers inside with the pilot sitting in an open cockpit. He could be seen through an oval celluloid window, and communication was by flexible rubber pipe. There must be hundreds of elderly men and women on the Reef today who had their first flight in this machine. The flips cost five shillings for children and 15 shillings for adults, and was over Johannesburg.
I saved up my pocket money for my first flip, and when I saw the tube hanging down, I tried to speak to the pilot. A freckled-faced girl with spectacles and prominent teeth, lisped angrily at me: “Don’t do that! You’ll take his mind off what he is doing and we may crash!”
The pilot, I recall, wore a white silk shirt, tie flapping in the breeze, white linen helmet, and a very bored expression.
PIONEER WOMAN PILOTS
Mention must be made at this stage of the pioneer women pilots who flew at Baragwanath in the 1930s.
Foremost of these was Dulcie Evans, who was the first woman to make the solo trip from Port Elizabeth to the Reef. Margarie Douglas, sister of Colonel Rod Douglas, was the first woman to solo at Bara-G. There was also Rosemund Everard Steenkamp, who was prominent in all the pre-war air races, and a memorial trophy was later presented in her name to outstanding woman pilots.
There were many more, including Miss Penny Salmond, who was a star acrobatic pilot; Doreen Hooper, who later became a colonel in the WAAF, and petite Jackie Serour, a true ace. She used to ride to Baragwanath on a bicycle to save money for flying lessons. After qualifying with a commercial rating, she went to England at the outbreak of war and became an ATS pilot ferrying Spitfires and Lancasters.
The de Havilland Aircraft Company of South Africa decided to make its headquarters at Baragwanath in the mid 1930s. This brought about a big change. No longer a small flying club aerodrome, it was now a rapidly growing training centre and many of the big industrialists in mining and manufacturing were moving their aircraft to Baragwanath.
Some exotic aeroplanes were seen at this time, including the first Cessna in South Africa, which belonged to Mr Charles Kallenbach, of the well-known timber firm; a beautiful Waco, belonging to millionaire Otto Thaning, Danish Consul for South Africa, and two Fairchilds belonging to a mining group.
With the increased flying activity at Baragwanath, accidents were inevitable. The worst occurred about this time. Major P. Cochran and his passenger, Michael Oppenheimer, nephew of Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, lost their lives when the DH Dragon Rapide they were flying side-slipped into the ground shortly after take-off under full power and burst into flames. Great heroism was shown on that day by ground engineer Stanley People, who was test flying an aeroplane at the time. He landed his aircraft near the burning wreckage, and pulled both bodies out of the flames.
Highlight of the mid 1930s was the arrival of world-famous Sir Alan Cobham and his Circus who put on a magnificent display despite low cloud and drizzle. The feature of the dis play was low level aerobatics in a red low wing Junkers monoplane. The pilot thrilled the large crowd present by brushing the blue gum trees with his wing tips in the inverted position in poor visibility. It was claimed that the pilot was a WWI German ace.
In 1935, the Johannesburg Light Plane Club was still operating from makeshift premises a reed hut with a corrugated iron shed alongside. This was at the centre of the aerodrome. It was ironic that the club, which founded the aerodrome, should be housed in these conditions while aircraft companies which came much later were accommodated in comfortable offices and surroundings.
Plans were drawn up for the establishment of a new club house as the only amenities the club then enjoyed were still the old Primus stove, and hurricane lamps. Water had to be brought from Uncle Charlies garage in drums.
Dances were held in the hangars.
Gone now were the halcyon days of barn storming and flour bombing; a new social strata was emerging in the flying world.
The new club house was completed in 1937 and the occasion was marked with a huge display by the army and air force. Guest of Honour was Oswald Pirow, the then Minister of Defence.
The SAAF put on a magnificent performance in perfect flying weather. Highlight of the display was the new Hawker Fury, a classic aeroplane which is still considered to this day by aeroplane buffs as the most beautiful and elegant aircraft ever flown.
The whole scene at Baragwanath now changed with the advent of the new club house, which had been designed on the English Tudor style manor house so familiar to thousands of people over the years.
A new committee of wealthy and influential businessmen, including mining magnates, took over the club’s activities. The Johannesburg Light Plane Club became organised on the same lines as the other elite clubs of Johannesburg – very British, and very urbane. Toasts were drunk to the King and the waiters wore white tunics with red sashes and served with white gloves. The crockery was monogrammed. Tennis courts and a swimming pool were laid out and squash courts built.
The flying scene changed dramatically as well. The aerodrome was enlarged and a main runway laid down. Until then, aeroplanes had been landing in all directions. A new control tower was completed and strict discipline was enforced.
At this stage, a new aeroplane came on the scene – the famous and legendary Tiger Moth. JLPC was the first club to introduce the type in South Africa. These aircraft had been supplied on an Air Ministry contract for Royal Air Force training and were considered military aircraft.
The first three Tiger Moths to arrive were brand new (ZS-AHA, ZS-AHK and ZS-AHI) and painted maroon and silver. The ageing Gipsy Moths were phased out.
Baragwanath was destined to become the traditional home of the Tiger Moth in South Africa. Large numbers flew there during and after the war.
I had the distinction of flying my own ZS-DNP as the last aeroplane to leave Baragwanath on July 3, 1983, when the club closed down. (This milestone flight is recorded in the photograph on the front cover).
OUTBREAK OF WAR
The elegant and regal splendour of the club was short lived. Events in Europe were moving to a catastrophic climax with the declaration of war in September 1939.
The South African Government lost no time in organising the country on a war footing; this included the major aerodromes. Baragwanath was taken over by the South African Air Force and became a major training establishment in the Empire Air Training scheme, becoming known as No. 1 EFTS. These schools were established in the then Southern Rhodesia, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India, and South Africa.
The main aircraft used for training was the Tiger Moth. The club’s three Tigers lost their elegant livery of maroon and silver and donned their war “uniform” of yellow ochre, roundels and registration numbers, thus losing their identity in the anonymity of training planes for war.
The scene at Bara-G was changed also by blue uniforms of the RAF. There were pilots from Canada and Australia and many names emerged from Baragwanath which were to become legendary in the aviation world, including Stan Gray, Len Spoor, and Jim Kelly, who went on to become the chief flying instructor in the Empire Central Flying School in England during the war. There were others as well, too numerous to mention in this brief history of this club, to whom tribute must be paid. Many did not return from the battle-scarred skies of Europe and Africa. We will remember them.
“Future Of Aerodrome In Doubt”, reads the yellowed newspaper clipping from “The Star” in the Baragwanath library file dated September 17, 1931, and on top of the file, the latest clipping gloomily records, “Baragwanath may go”.
The threat of closure hung over the club throughout its long history, which resulted in a perpetual feeling of insecurity.
The ground belonged to Rand Mines and it was valuable. As the club watched the encroachment of industries around the periphery of the aerodrome and the growing expansion of Soweto, its members knew that eventual closure was a certainty. However, when WWII ended, another 37 years were to pass before this became a fact.
In those 37 years JLPC grew to become one of the greatest clubs in the world with 600 members and over 300 aircraft, including 17 Tiger Moths reckoned to have been the most anywhere in the world based at one airfield. Then, too, there was the thriving gliding community which provided pilots of world class standard who represented South Africa in many countries, and later a parachute club.
The accident rate was low when the density of traffic is considered. But Baragwanath had its tragedies. Many young pilots were lost and the club felt this deeply. Accidents were analysed and great effort was made to avoid similar causes in the training programmes. Safety seminars were constantly being held at the club.
JLPC was resurrected in 1945 under the leadership of Mr George McKenzie, who had been chairman prior to the war. His financial expertise enabled the club to resume activities on a sound financial footing.
The SAAF moved in again with the Harvards of No. 3 Squadron, and the Clubhouse once more became the scene of many a “thrash” as it had been during the war when it was an officers’ mess.
Baragwanath became a disposal site for vast quantities of war material, which included damaged Spitfires, Harvards, Hurricanes and Tiger Moths. Fifty of the Tigers were saved and came under the auctioneer’s hammer one Saturday morning in 1947. The best were reserved for the flying clubs at £50 sterling each. A good Tiger Moth today is valued at between R60 000 and R70 000. The rest were sold for scrap, including the Spitfires and Hurricanes.
A priceless Fairey Sworqfish naval aircraft was sold for £60 and used by a charter company to tow banners, but it was too heavy on fuel and it, too, was broken up, as were many other aircraft. These, today, would probably fetch in the vicinity of a million rand.
Flying began once more when the club reopened on April 4, 1947. Chief flying instructor was Jim Kelly assisted by war-experienced Stan Gray, Fritz Johl, Hansie Haarhoff, a star aerobatic pilot, and Alan Bell. Kelly was club captain until 1953 when he was tragically killed in a car accident in Swaziland.
The Tiger Moth was the sole trainer for many years and one Tiger, ZS-BSF, now privately owned, has flown continuously since the end of the war. It towed gliders for four years. So great was the affection for this machine by the club that other aircraft were cannibalised to keep it flying.
The club later changed to Chipmunks, a very popular aeroplane, but went back to Tigers again in the late 1950s when the Chipmunks became too expensive to maintain.
Highlight of the post war period was the 25th anniversary of the club. The SAAF put on its usual immaculate display, with the main feature being three Harvards tied together in a aerobatic sequence flown by leader, Fritz Johl, Tommy Vanstan and Stan Murray. The public was introduced to the new Vampire jet at this display.
The club relinquished the Tiger Moth as a trainer forever in 1965 when the last one was sold. Cessna 150s and Piper Cherokees were introduced and the helmet and goggles era was over.
However, many privately-owned Tigers were still around, and when hangarage became available at Bara-G, their numbers swelled to 17 in 1970. Some of these aircraft had probably flown at the airport during the war and many were immaculately restored. A Tiger Moth Club was formed and was run on the similar lines to that of the famous Tiger Club at Redhill in England. It is still in existence.
The last barnstorming attraction at Baragwanath was held in October 1970 when The Star newspaper organised a race for these aeroplanes awarding an engraved cup to the winner.
Baragwanath produced some outstanding pilots during the post war period, again too numerous to mention here. However, among them are Nick Turvey, aerobatic ace for many years; Brian Zeederberg, great-grandson of the founder of Zeederberg Coach Service at the turn of the century, who became world aerobatic champion in Tiger Moths; “Bomber” Jackson, world gliding champion in the 1950s, and star aerobatic pilot, Scully Levin, of SAA, who is still thrilling the crowds as leader of the Winfield aerobatic team.
Then, too, there were Russell Anderson, of Rand Mines, who used his influence to save the club as long as possible, and Johannesburg lawyer, Philip Hesselson, who steered the club through good times and bad. He had learnt to fly on a Gipsy Moth in 1930 and was the club’s oldest member.
THE BELL TOLLS
The ominous warning in the faded yellow clippings of “The Star” of 1931 became a reality in 1982 when the club was given notice by Rand Mines to vacate the aerodrome.
On April 6, 1982, the last air display took place, with 12 Tiger Moths proudly flying over the airfield in formation in nostalgic tribute to the home they had known for so long.
We salute a great aerodrome and the great flying people who flew from there for 56 years.
A NEW HOME
In the early 1980s, Baragwanath was closed down, and the club forced to move to a new piece of land called Syferfontein.
Unfortunately, the move orchestrated a split between the powered fly and gliding aspects of Baragwanath. The vast majority of the gliding pilots made their way to Orient Airfield, in the Magaliesberg Mountain Range, whilst the power pilots moved the hangars to Syferfontein. The first pilot to fly in to the new airfield was Roy Watson, who took up residence in Hangar 1, the rest of the JLPC members following in quick succession.
An opening Airshow was held once the runway had been laid and the hangars erected, which involved demonstrations by members’ aircraft. One noteworthy display was that of Tiger Moth ZS-UKW which did steep turns around a hot air balloon piloted by Richard MacLaine. There were also a number of formation fly pasts and aerobatic displays that set the scene for the new Baragwanath’s future.
A permanent aerobatic box was established, and Syferfontein became home of the Sport Aerobatic Club of South Africa. Numerous aerobatic contests took place over the years, with numerous pilots earning their Springbok colours, including Dieter Ebeling, Bob Hay and Brian Zeedeberg.
A clubhouse was built, and the airfield became the location of many social and fun events, including numerous driving lessons for the children of JLPC members! During the fledgling stages of the airfield, there was a small dam to the east of the field which was home to some seasonal flamingos. Unfortunately, the birds have long since departed, hopefully not because of conflicting airspace operations. Beautifying the open veld with some shade was also done under the auspices of the members, and the tall tree which still stands next to the Impala Jet Gate Guard was originally Bob Hay’s Christmas tree.
After the clubhouse was constructed, Brian Zeedeberg and Ian Popplewell established their larger hangar at the southern end of the airfield, and Syferfontein became known affectionately as home of the ‘Pomp and Jive Air Force’ for a number of years. Members would be seen wearing the light blue T-shirts with the slogan “it’s hard to soar like an eagle when you are stuck with a bunch of turkeys.” The humour and camaraderie was what the atmosphere of the airfield was built on, and Syferfontein became the location for numerous social events over the years, the highlight being the annual year-end party which was invariably a themed fancy dress occasion.
At this time, the Airshow act known as Snoopy and the Red Baron came to fame. It began with Dave Gill wing walking off the side of the Zeedeberg/Popplewell Bucker whilst ‘Snoopy’ took pot shots at the aircraft using an ever-increasing amount of firepower. The routine was a real hit with the crowd, and eventually some home-made pyrotechnics were used to enhance the act. This usually went according to plan, until the Grand Central Airshow where the veldt caught alight, and when the fire truck came to the rescue, it was out of water! The Snoopy Act involved a number of different pilots and biplanes over the years, and its status amongst Air Show enthusiasts became that of legend.
Air Show attendance and gaggles of JLPC aircraft attending various fly-ins also became regular. Brian Zeedeberg planned some trips to Mozambique, which included attending the Maputo Air Show as well as some beach, sun and fun while flying up the African coast. The Experimental Aircraft Association’s functions were always a highlight, with the Margate Airshow and Conventions as well as the Rustenburg Sun ‘n Fun camping outings being highlights in the flying calendar.
In the early 1990s, the two gate guards were purchased, the initial acquisition being the ex-Silver Falcon Aerobatic Team’s Impala. The jet was erected on a stand outside the clubhouse, and the ex-SAAF Harvard joined it on another stand outside the clubhouse during the early 2000s. These old aircraft would have been scrapped, as all serviceable parts had been removed and the airframes and wings were no longer airworthy, so it is apt that they spend their final days overlooking an airfield that is a hub of grassroots aviation. During the same period, it was decided to incorporate the original identity of the Johannesburg Light Plane Club with its former airfield name, and Syferfontein became known as Baragwanath once again.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, two other large hangars were built, the first being Noel Otten and Mike McAuley’s Toy Box, and later Johan Marits built his own hangar at the southern side of the airfield. Construction still goes on at Baragwanath, with the newest large hangar almost complete, as at April 2013, to the east of the field.
Baragwanath has been the scene of many memories for many people. It has been the location of many celebrations, the most noteworthy being the de Havilland Centenary and the 50th Anniversary of the Pitts Special. It has been the location of aerobatic and flying competitions, camp-outs and fly-ins. But most of all, Baragwanath is a place where friends can meet, swap stories of fights that they have and have not flown, trade advice, and enjoy the spirit of flying that has been passed on since the inception of the Johannesburg Light Plane Club in 1926.