Douglas DC-3 and C-47 Operators and Owners in South Africa
By Ken Fuller
In 1946 Anglo Vaal Air Services named A. V. Air transport and Africair Servicing operated a Dakota between South Africa (Rand Airport) and England (Croydon) Six months later they purchased a second aircraft fitted out as a Combi (passengers and freight) Avair pilots were Hansie Haaroff, George Gray, Jimmy Boyd and their radio operators were Ted Oxlee and Cris v d Westhuizen.
Africair Servicing a division of Miles Aircraft South Africa, was the agent for Miles in South Africa. The first Miles aircraft ferried out from the UK. was a Miles Gemini. A small four seater twin, flown by well-known Alex Henshaw of International fame.
In 1946 they amalgamated to form Africair Ltd. Both companies were part of General Mining. The management of the newly formed Africair was Chairman Sir George Albu, Managing Director T.V. Mitchell, Directors G. Lloyd and T. Ward, Operations Manager and Alternate Director Jack Andrews.
In April 1951 Africair successfully operated a flight for Wenela between Lusaka and Lilongwe to prove the viability of operating a mine labour airlift.
First crews were Jack Andrews, Kurt Kaye, Ted Hartwell and Dennis Middlebrook. Dennis says they lived in two hotels called the Lusaka and Lilongwe and had no transport, relying on taxis. There were no maintenance facilities at either end and therefore all necessary servicing and repairs had to be carried out by the crew.
As a result of this successful flight, Wenela Air Services were formed in 1952 with Africair as the operating company using Dakota Aircraft with Francistown as their base.
The operation was to last 22 years flying 1.1 Billion passenger miles on 52,000 flights. The number of aircraft hours flown was over 136,000.
In 1953 I (Ken Fuller) joined Africair. Initially I flew their Rapides with a chance of later being transferred to the Dakota fleet once I passed my Instrument rating.
One of my regular flights was the Platinum Run where a mine detective accompanied me to the Northam and Rustenburg airfields. We uplifted bars of platinum from the local mines and off-loaded them at Palmietfontein, which in those days was the temporary International airport.
The early morning flights to the Free State mines in Rapide aircraft were real “freezers”. The Africair aircraft engineers would jokingly say that if I gave them too many snags to fix, they would make more holes in the fabric fuselage so that I could really freeze.
Technical Director Africair
Chief Pilot Africair
Africair Douglas DC-3 Dakota refuelling
Tommy Ward a director of Africair writes with justification that in the normal course of events it has always been the flight operation that has gained the limelight. It would however, be a grave injustice if the efforts of the engineering staff at the Rand Airport base was not accorded their fair share of this rich segment of Aviation history.
In truth, it was there that it all began, a crew that worked throughout the night to make the first flight on schedule. Theirs was a prevailing spirit, full of enthusiasm and freshness of mind that created innovation above all a desire for the Company to succeed that would be the envy of any emerging organisation. To cap it all an “Esprit de Corps” was created that survives till the present although Africair is long gone. The history of Dakota ZS-DFN is a remarkable illustration of what transpired at the time. It was bought from the S.A. Air Force disposal stock for an absolute "song" and made its way to Rand Airport from Waterkloof Air Station, without wings, towed by the “horse” section of a heavy transport vehicle.
Its purpose was purely to provide a cheap source of uncommonly used spares which would not normally be held in stock, and to provide a test bed for our engines.
A short time later as a result of the Korean War prices of old Dakotas climbed to record levels and became a much sought after commodity. Knowledgeable minds turned to the lonely old “bird” and decided that it was easier to build an engine test bed than an aeroplane and so the rebuild of a flyable aircraft was started. Some months later after complete overhaul, phoenix like, ZS-DFN, after test flights and a great celebration party, began a second career and was involved in the very start of the airlift in Francistown.
On the practical side a Wenela Dakota was a very special aircraft because in order to make the entire operation feasible a beyond normal economy had to be achieved. This entailed reducing the empty weight of the aircraft to the stage where forty passengers could be carried over stage lengths of 1100 KM with safety reserves of fuel. This was achieved by light weight cabin flooring, light weight smaller cabin seats and lighter radio equipment.
Dennis Middlebrook who was Africair’s Chief Engineer tells the story about another Dakota ZS-DIW, owned by Anglo American which crashed at Rand Airport on a training flight. This aircraft was extensively damaged, including a broken main spar, and Africair engineers successfully rebuilt this aircraft for the airlift.
Another aircraft with a history was a DC-4. This aircraft was originally owned by Icelandic Airways which had forced landed on a ice floe. It was recovered by Scandinavian Airlines, repaired and sold to Africair who converted it for use by WAS. From this beginning the internal engineering section developed where every aspect of maintenance was successfully provided.
Salisbury International 1959
Photograph: Brian Robbins