Pioneers of the African Skies
|Sir Pierre van Ryneveld and Sir Quintin Brand with the Silver Queen, a Vickers Vimy with which they set out, on February 4, 1920, to undertake the England to South Africa trans-Africa flight.
|Picture © SA Museum of Military History.
Two crashed planes, 109 flying hours, 45 days... Follow the record-breaking journey of pilots Pierre van Ryneveld and Quintin Brand, who pioneered the first flight from London to Cape Town in swashbuckling style.
After the world had applauded the first transatlantic flight and then the first flight from London to Australia, the next big challenge was who would be the first to fly the length of Africa. In December 1919, the British Air Ministry announced that surveys had been completed and, with the help of local African labour, a string of landing strips had been cleared from Cairo to Cape Town and the race was on for the first to complete the journey.
In January 1920, The Times of London (some sources say the Daily Mail) offered a £10 000 purse (approximately £300 000 today), and less than a month later a British team in a Vickers Vimy set out set out from England for the Cape. It was piloted by captains S Cockerell and FC Broome, and included Dr Chalmers Mitchell, Secretary of the Zoological Society.
Prime Minister Jan Smuts wanted a South African to be the first so he authorised the purchase of a Vickers Vimy at a cost of £4 500. On February 4, 1920 Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre van Ryneveld and Flight Lieutenant Quintin Brand took off from Brooklands Aerodrome in Surrey in a Vimy named Silver Queen.
Van Ryneveld and Brand had to do some night flying to catch up with the Vimy sponsored by The Times. They encountered bad weather over the Mediterranean and the crossing took approximately 11 hours. But a leaking radiator led them to make a forced landing at night at Wadi Halfa in present-day Sudan (then southern Egypt). Although they were unhurt, the plane was unusable.
A second Vimy was loaned from the Royal Air Force, based in Egypt. Eleven days later, on February 22, in their newly christened Silver Queen II, the South African duo took off from Cairo and continued on their journey.
On 27 February the competing aircraft crashed at Tabora in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), without injury.
On March 6, in hot conditions and struggling with an overloaded plane at high altitude, Van Ryneveld and Brand crashed the Silver Queen II while attempting to take off at Bulawayo.
Again the South African government intervened. Another aircraft, this time a De Havilland DH9, part of the Imperial Gift from Britain to South Africa for her efforts in World War One, was flown to Bulawayo and handed over to the two pilots. It was named Voortrekker.
Their journey resumed on March 17 and the aviators landed three days later at Youngsfield in Wynberg, Cape Town. Both men were knighted for their achievement.
Their flight took a total of 45 days with a flight time of 109 hours and 30 minutes.
Part of what had driven Smuts to finance and pursue this goal was his conviction of the value of air power.
Part of what had driven Smuts to finance and pursue this goal was his conviction of the value of air power. Van Ryneveld had established himself as a flying ace in the Royal Air Force during the World War One. In February 1920 Smuts appointed Van Ryneveld Director of Air Services with instructions to establish a South African Air Force, under separate command from the army.
The newly acquired capacity that Van Ryneveld assembled was used to crush several rebellions. The air force was used against striking white mineworkers during Rand Rebellion of 1922, and some aircraft were shot down. Among them was Voortrekker, the De Havilland that had completed the last leg of the air race from England.
South African air power was also used to stamp out the Bondelswartz rebellion in what was then South West Africa in 1922 and shortly after that, another rebellion by the Rehoboth people.
During World War Two Brand rose to the rank of Air Vice-Marshal and commanded Britain's 10 Fighter Battle Group. He died in Umtali, Zimbabwe in 1968.
Van Ryneveld was promoted to Chief of General Staff of the South African Defence Force in 1933, a position he held throughout World War Two until he retired in 1949.
Research by Sue Valentine, with acknowledgements and thanks to the following sources:
J McAdam, "Air Vice-Marshal Sir Quintin Brand, Co-pilot of the first aeroplane to land in Rhodesia", (Rhodesiana No. 22, 1970)
J McAdam, "Early Birds in Central Africa. An account of flying activities in the Rhodesias during the years 1920 to 1922", (Rhodesiana No. 13, December 1965)
Brenda Brand - e-mail and postal correspondence
Veronica Brand - e-mail correspondence
Tony van Ryneveld - personal interview
Newspaper clippings from the scrapbook of Lady Brand: [Daily Telegraph February 5, 6 and 11, 1920; Daily Telegraph, March 9, 1920; Evening Standard February 11 and March 6, 1920; The Times, February 16, 1920; The Times, March 2 and 23, 1920; Daily Mail, March 22, 1920]