Mercury Aviation Services
w/o 15 May 1948 Vrede
Named: City of Durban.
The following information comes from the book Down Memory Lane, Rand Airport, The Early Years after World War Two, by Ken Fuller. The book appears in its entirety on the South African Airways Museum Society website www.saamuseum.co.za
Mr. Gordon Fillery, Chairman of Mercury Airways had great confidence in the future of private enterprise in Civil Aviation in South Africa. They had numerous unfulfilled plans of ordering new aircraft for a South American and USA. Service. They did however obtain a contract previously held by A.V. Air, for carrying the Royal Greek Mail from Athens to Johannesburg.
Fillery in defiance of the British ban at the time on non-schedule operators (except with permission) caused a House of Commons debate.
Mercury were also the first in the world to introduce the sale of air tickets on a hire purchase scheme, and with their introduction of the £220 return excursion fare to England had a good response.
Their Dakota aircraft flown by former SAAF personal crashed into a mountain near Vrede in the then Transvaal, killing everyone on board.
The Douglas DC-3-455, construction number 6341 with the registration ZS-BWY was the first South African aircraft to carry sleeper accommodation, and had more powerful engines (750 hp Cyclone) than the ordinary DC-3. On 15 May 1948 the plane had left Stamford Hill airport in Durban at 06:23 that morning. It was due at Palmietfontein at 07:53.
The pilot Captain J.N. Smith had been flying more or less on instruments since take-off and had repeatedly asked for homing bearings, the last bearing transmitted was not acknowledged.
When the plane skimmed over Rodedale farm just after 07:20 light rain and thick mist obscured visibility. A little way beyond lay the isolated outcrop of Spitzkop, the most westerly of the Witkoppen peaks. The aircraft smacked into the rock just below the crest of the mountain.
Down below Willem Botha who ran the farm, was shocked, and phoned the police at Vrede before climbing up the mountain.
The sight that greeted him was horrific. The plane had almost disintegrated, with bodies lying around, as far as 100m away. There were no survivors.
Palmietfontein Air Traffic Control was not unduly worried at first, assuming the planes radio had failed. However when it was one hour overdue they notified the Civil Aviation Authorities and No 2 wing of the SAAF South African Air Force were put on standby. Little did they realise what a big air disaster they were facing.
The weather and accessibility hampered rescue efforts with only one difficult path up to the summit. There were 13 fatalities, 5 crew, 3 fare paying passengers and the rest were linked to Mercury Airways on some kind of junket. There is nothing left to mark the sight, the story goes that dozens of people signed their names on the tail and for many years it adorned a café in the area.
Another story is that passengers on an airborne South African Airways flight at the same time as the crash witnessed an agitated Captain walking up the aisle towards the cockpit.
The official finding was that the Captain had initiated his descent through cloud without first checking his position. After the crash Mercury was to merge in 1948 with Sky Taxis Ltd.
Mercury Airways Douglas DC-3 ZS-BWY crash site. Spitzberg near Vrede
Photograph: Ken Fuller