Silver Queen II – the first aeroplane flight into Zimbabwe
The story of the first flight into the country is very exciting and must have featured prominently in Rover, Hotspur, The Magnet and Wizard, the most popular of boy’s comics being read in 1918.
The Monument plaque reads as follows: The first aircraft to reach this country, the Silver Queen, a Vickers Vimy bomber, crashed near this place on 6th March 1920. The aircraft was flown by Lieut-Col Pierre van Ryneveld DSO, MC and Flight Lieut. Quinton Brand DSO, DFC. The other members of the crew were Mr FW Sherratt, an engineer from Rolls Royce and Flight Sgt Newman (RAF) an airframe engineer.
This was the first flight from London to the Cape. Silver Queen I After the crash and some days later the flight was continued and completed by van Ryneveld and Brand in a DH9 aircraft named Voortrekker.
All the other challengers that started from England abandoned their flights. The De Havilland machine piloted by Lieutenant Cotton, of Australia, smashed its tail and three wings; Major Bradeley's Handley-Page crashed near Atbara, while Major Welsh's Royal Force machine was forced to descend in a damaged state at Koroska. The Times Vickers Vimy bomber crashed at Abercorn and was smashed beyond repair.
On the Corner of Fairbridge Way and Albemarle Road / Winnie’s Way, Bulawayo. The NMMZ plaque is in a small patch of rough ground sectioned off from the golf course a few yards from the road.
GPS reference: 20⁰10′36.54″S 28⁰35′49.03″E
By 1918, British aircraft were capable of carrying a fair load in addition to their crew and the British Air Ministry decided to make several long-distance flights to pave the way for civil aviation which would follow when peace returned to the world. A Handley-Page bomber had already, in July 1918, flown from England to Cairo via Paris and Rome, and in November the same aircraft made the first flight from Egypt to India.
It was decided to open up the air route from Cairo to the Cape, and in December 1918 three survey and construction parties were appointed to establish landing grounds at convenient intervals along the route. No. 1 Party was responsible for the sector from Cairo to Nimule (Sudan), No. 2 Party for Nimule to Abercorn, and No. 3 Party, commanded by Major Chaplin Court Treatt, for the sector from Abercorn to Broken Hill and thence down the railway line to Cape Town.
Despite these obstacles, and numerous other hardships and hazards - including communications and transport difficulties, mosquitoes and tsetse flies, lions and other animals and reptiles - the task of the three survey parties was completed within 12 months, and at the end of December 1919, the Air Ministry declared the Cairo-Cape air route open with 24 aerodrome and 19 emergency landing strips fit for use.
Soon after this announcement several expeditions declared their intention to set out for the Cape. First, on Saturday, January 24 1920, was a converted Vickers Vimy bomber, sponsored by The Times of London. Within the next 10 days three more aircraft left England - a Handley-Page sponsored by the Daily Telegraph, a DH14 of Airco Ltd (neither of which got very far), and a second Vickers Vimy named the Silver Queen I.
Silver Queen I was sponsored by the Government of South Africa as General Smuts wanted South Africans to be the first and authorised the purchase of a Vickers Vimy, G-UABA, for £4,500. She was flown by two South African pilots, Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre van Ryneveld, DSO, M.C., and Flight-Lieutenant CJ Quintin Brand, DSO, MC, DFC. With them, to attend to aircraft and engine maintenance were a Mr Burton, an airframe engineer, and FW Sherratt, of Rolls-Royce.
The Times Vimy, after a relatively trouble-free flight across Europe arrived at Heliopolis, near Cairo, on Tuesday, February 3, and departed for Luxor on the following Friday. From then on the expedition was plagued with mechanical trouble as their water-cooled engines overheated and developed serious leaks. Time and again during the following three weeks they were forced to land to rectify the defects, but they pressed on; the crew must have been possessed of iron determination to have kept going under such strenuous circumstances, they arrived at Tabora in central Tanganyika on Thursday, February 26, and more will be heard of them later.
Lieutenant Colonel van Ryneveld with Captain Brand, February 1920, standing in front of Vickers Vimy, G-UABA, the Silver Queen I, before setting out on an England to South Africa Flight. Presumably behind them are Mr Burton, an airframe engineer, and FW Sherratt, of Rolls-Royce to attend to aircraft and engine maintenance.
Silver Queen took off from Brooklands on Wednesday, February 4 and before leaving, Van Ryneveld declared that they intended to reach Cape Town in "the shortest time that circumstances would permit" and that they would do their best to overtake The Times expedition. Their flight across Europe to Gioja del Colli in southern Italy was more or less incident-free, and after refuelling there they took off for Derna in Cyrenaica.
This flight, made in atrocious weather, was the first non-stop air crossing of the Mediterranean from Italy to North Africa. Later one of the pilots remarked that it had been "an unforgettable nightmare ... an ugly impression which they would like to obliterate from their minds". The Rhodesia Herald, in an editorial on February 18, 1920, wrote: "Their grit and stamina were put to the severest test in that terrible voyage across the Mediterranean ... their 11-hour struggle against adverse atmospheric conditions will live in aviation history ... as one of the most noteworthy achievements."
Despite this ordeal they spent only one hour at Derna and then took off for Sollum where, upon landing, the aircraft's tail was damaged by a boulder. Ford car parts were adapted and after a two-day delay they left for Heliopolis, which was reached on the evening of February 9.
The following day, Silver Queen I took off from Heliopolis and flew into the night, heading south. All went well for the first few hours, but then a draining tap on the radiator of the starboard engine vibrated to the open position, allowing all the cooling water to escape and the engine overheated. They were committed to an immediate forced landing in pitch darkness near Kurusku, about 80 miles (128km) north of Wadi Halfa. Upon landing, the aircraft ran into a pile of large boulders and the fuselage was irreparably damaged, but the crew miraculously escaped serious injury.
The engines were apparently undamaged, so the crew removed them and transported them back to Cairo by boat and train. After tests, the engines were fitted into a second Vimy provided by the Royal Air Force, at the request of the South African Government. Mechanic Burton now stood down and was replaced by Flight-Sergeant EF Newman of the Royal Air Force.
Silver Queen II left Heliopolis early on Sunday, February 22, and reached Wadi Halfa that afternoon. Here a careless mistake, in which a fuel tank was inadvertently filled with water, meant it became necessary to drain the entire fuel system. The crew's remarks do not appear to be on record!
Some engine trouble was encountered on the flight, but this was repaired at Khartoum; thereafter the journey was uneventful for the next few hundred miles and at 1.45pm on Thursday, February 26, they landed at Kisumu on Lake Victoria, from which The Times Vimy had taken off that morning.
Silver Queen II left Kisumu early next day with the intention of flying non-stop to Abercorn, but engine trouble forced them to divert to Shirati on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria (near the Kenya / Tanganyika border), and they spent the rest of the day working on the engine.
That same morning, February 27, the Times Vimy took off from Tabora and within minutes was obliged to return due to engine trouble. The distance between Shirati and Tabora being about 300 miles, the position at mid-morning was that little more than three hours of Vimy flying time separated the two expeditions.
After working on the engines all morning The Times Vimy crew boarded their aircraft to depart for Abercorn, but this time the starboard engine failed completely on take-off. The aircraft swerved into the bush, was wrecked beyond repair, and the flight had to be abandoned. According to reports: "some regrettable language was used".
Silver Queen II, her engine defects rectified, left Shirati early on February 28 and, overflying Tabora, landed at Abercorn, the crew reporting having sighted the aerodrome at Tabora, but "no sign of The Times machine".
Abercorn being 5,400 feet above sea level and the airfield none too large, the pilots made the prudent decision to lighten the aircraft's burden by offloading what they described as "an enormous quantity of spares and ... much of our own kit, flying boots, etc.” They also revised their plan to fly direct to Broken Hill and decided instead to make for the landing ground at Ndola which, being nearer, would require less fuel and so further lighten the machine for its take-off from Abercorn.
Having thus re-organised the loading of the aircraft, they took off for Ndola on Sunday, February 29. The Abercorn-Ndola route has few geographical features, and severe test of their navigational skills. Their navigation aids consisted of a magnetic compass and a map (almost certainly small scale with little detail) In addition, serious trouble developed in the starboard engine, and they began to contemplate the possibility of landing in the bush, but then, as the Livingstone Mail put it, "happily the engine recovered sufficiently to bring the machine to Ndola", where they landed, probably with considerable relief.
Heavy rain fell the next day delaying their departure until Tuesday, March 2nd when they took off and landed at Broken Hill. After refuelling they left for Livingstone following the “iron compass” of the railway. Excited railway officials at isolated stations and sidings kept the station-master at Livingstone informed of the aircraft’s progress by means of the railway telegraph…Lusaka 11:00…Kafue 11:38…Mazabuka 12:05…Kalomo 1:40…Zimba 2:20 and then, after circling the Victoria Falls, “Silver Queen II” touched down at Livingstone at 2:42pm.
Heavy rain fell on Tuesday night and the airmen had to postpone their departure until Thursday, but engine trouble meant they did not leave until Friday morning when a stiff south-easterly wind was blowing and progress was slow, at times their ground speed was less than 60mph. Wankie 9:40…Dett 10:20…Ngamo 11:10…Sawmills 12:00…Nyamandhlovu 12:29.
In Bulawayo excited crowds thronged the race course which was to be used as a landing ground. Earlier the authorities had given warning by gun and hooter that the aircraft was on its way. At 12:40 a speck in the sky towards the north-west heralded the approach of “Silver Queen II” and a few minutes later she touched down smoothly on the grass; the first plane to land on the soil of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)
Formal addresses of welcome were then read by Mayor James Cowden and Acting Town Clerk F. Fitch, after which the party proceeded to the Grand Hotel for a civic luncheon.
Next morning after the engines had been warmed up; “Silver Queen II” taxied to the down-wind end of the field and commenced to take off for South Africa. The Bulawayo Chronicle of Friday, March 5th 1920, gave the following account of subsequent events: “The aircraft ran across the cleared space and…lifted into the air only a few yards from the tangled bush beyond the field. There were gasps of relief from the watchers and then a delighted cheer. But it soon became evident that…all was not well. Heading towards Hillside…only a few yards above the bush…she disappeared from view. Apprehensions grew when the engines became silent.”
“Some started running towards the Matsheumhlope River…others rushed to cars and vehicles…motors scurried along tracks on the commonage between South Suburbs and Hillside. Then (the first to reach the scene) saw the wreck of the aircraft in the bush beyond the river. Both officers were dishevelled and severely shaken, but not seriously injured, while the mechanics sustained minor bruises.”
The dejected crew returned to their hotel, where they soon began to receive messages of sympathy from far and wide. The most welcome of these would have been the telegram from General J.C. Smuts advising them that another aircraft would soon be on its way from Pretoria.
The replacement aircraft was a DH9 of the South African Defence Force which arrived on Tuesday March 16th. Next morning the two pilots took off on the final stage of the journey. A strike of rail and postal workers was taking place at the time and Mr R. Lanning, Native Commissioner at Plumtree asked Lieut-Col. Van Ryneveld to drop a few copies of the Bulawayo Chronicle. This was agreed to and as the aircraft swopped low over Plumtree School, the papers were dropped to Mr Lanning. It is reported that one of them was endorsed by him and is now in the National Archives.
The flight of van Ryneveld and Brand from Bulawayo to Cape Town was relatively uneventful and they landed on Saturday March 20th, 1920, the first men to fly from England to the Cape, for which achievement both were later knighted. Sir Pierre van Ryneveld become Chief of the General Staff, Union Defence Forces and retired to his farm near Pretoria in 1949 and died in 1972. Sir Quinton Brand, after a distinguished career in the RAF where he achieved the rank of Air Vice-Marshall after a very distinguished war records in both World Wars, came to Rhodesia, where he died in 1968.
Abbreviated from J. McAdams. Early Birds in Central Africa. Rhodesiana Publication No.13 December 1965
Wikipedia for photos.