Today, June 11, marks the centenary of the arrival of the first aircraft in Harare carrying two passengers from Kadoma, and it is perhaps an irony that today may pass – as it did 100 years ago – without a single passenger being received in the capital.
Commemorations were held in Bulawayo on March 5 this year to mark the arrival of the first plane to Zimbabwe in 1920 – the Silver Queen II. And it was to be the City of Kings that the plane to carry the first passengers in Rhodesia – a brand new Avro 504K – first made its appearance on May 23, 1920.
It was very much a speculative money-making venture. The plane was owned by the SA Aerial Transport Company and two pilots accompanied the plane – Earle Rutherford and CR Thompson, who had travelled by rail to Bulawayo so to inspect the airfields, along with a mechanic Mr English.
On arrival in Bulawayo on May 23, both tyres were punctured by thorns on the landing ground. The plan was to take advantage of Show Week in Bulawayo. Wealthy residents could take a “joy ride” around their town for the princely sum of three guineas (£3 3 shillings) for 10 minutes or five guineas for 20 minutes.
The Bulawayo Chronicle cooed about what entertainment would be forthcoming during Show Week adding: “But most interesting of all to very many Rhodesians is the news that for the first time they will be given an opportunity of tasting the delights of flying. An Avro aeroplane is coming up, and will take passengers for ‘joy rides’.
On May 24, the deputy mayor Clement Dixon was supposed to have christened the plane the ‘Rhodesian Queen’, but the Chronicle report reads: “A bottle of champagne was suspended from the propeller base of the machine, and at the conclusion of his speech, the deputy mayor took a hammer and smashed the bottle, the machine being christened ‘The Rhodesia’ amidst a foaming, sparkling shower of wine.”
The deputy mayor went up on the inaugural flight with Mr Martin, a director of Airoad Motors, the Rhodesian agents of the venture. After spending nearly a fortnight flying around Bulawayo, the plane left on June 5 for Gwelo, having hauled in £950 from 208 passengers, which was nearly 3% of the white population of Bulawayo. The Chronicle noted in its report:
“It was a few minutes after ten on Saturday morning when the aeroplane rose from the municipal aerodrome for the trip to Gwelo. Pilot Rutherford was accompanied by mechanic English. The Rhodesia carried a letter to the Mayor of Gwelo from the editor of the Bulawayo Chronicle and also a copy of that morning’s paper. The machine circled over the town for some little time, giving a farewell exhibition to the townspeople before it darted off to Gwelo.”
From Gwelo, the Chronicle’s correspondent said the town had been looking forward to the event for some time: “To say there was excitement is putting it mildly.” The ‘Rhodesia’ was to arrive at 10.30am, but only made its appearance at 11.45am, “soaring over the kopje overlooking the town on the south side and then descending and making a perfect landing amidst great enthusiasm.” The journey had taken one hour 10 minutes.
Airfields had also been prepared at Que Que and Umvuma, but the ‘Rhodesia’ headed to Gatooma, arriving on the morning of Tuesday, June 8. Thompson travelled by train to Salisbury to ensure that the landing ground set out on the racecourse, which is the site of the Rainbow Towers/Zanu PF headquarters today, was suitable for the June 11 arrival. Here is the report that appeared in the Rhodesia Herald:
FIRST AEROPLANE IN SALISBURY
MAYOR’S OFFICIAL WELCOME
Salisbury has at last been visited by an aeroplane and that has undoubtedly been the cause of much excitement. News had been received that a plane had arrived in Bulawayo and had been christened with the name of ‘Rhodesia’ and the information was at the same time forthcoming that the machine after a short stay in Bulawayo would proceed via Gwelo and Gatooma to Salisbury.
The fact that the machine was due to arrive at 11 o’clock last Friday morning, and that a special landing place was being prepared on the racecourse had the result that a large crowd assembled inside the racecourse as the hour of 11 approached. Although there were many adults they were considerably outnumbered by the children. The latter scanned the sky with anxious eye, and seemed a trifle disappointed when 11 o’clock had come and gone and minute after minute passed. Suddenly the hooter at the brewery commenced to send its voice abroad in short spasms and the conclusion was immediately jumped to that the aeroplane had been sighted. This was correct, as within a minute the machine could be seem some miles away high in the heavens. Then the whirr of the propeller could be heard and almost in less time that it takes to tell the ‘Rhodesia’ was overhead and the buzz of the propeller had increased in volume.
Everything was ready for the landing but the pilot wanted to have a look at the town first and gaily flew over the spectators. “HD96” stood out prominently in huge type beneath the machine, which after circling the town in one big swoop as a hawk looking after its prey, it returned to the racecourse and landed after a most graceful and elegant dive. The machine carried the pilot Mr Rutherford, and also two passengers, Mr S Thornton and Mr RH Ullyett; both of Gatooma, the two latter expressing themselves as cold but delighted with the trip. Cheers were raised by the assembled spectators on the machine coming to a halt opposite the grandstand, and as the occupants alighted, the Mayor Mr George Elcombe welcomed the pilot on behalf of the town.
Mayor George Elcombe
The Mayor congratulated Mr Rutherford on being the first airman to pilot a flying machine to Salisbury and on behalf of the townspeople extended to him a hearty welcome. The Mayor, with his usual quaint touch of humour, mentioned that when he had first arrived in Rhodesia 23 years ago, it was by means of donkey wagon, and he added that perhaps his experience on the road had been equally, or perhaps more exciting than Mr Rutherford’s had been.
The Mayor added that as a man interested in transport he welcomed this, the latest means of transport and hoped that the day was not far distant when the aeroplane would be in daily use in Rhodesia. He again congratulated Mr Rutherford on his safe arrival in the capital of Rhodesia, and expressed the hope that his company would meet with every success in their efforts to introduce the aeroplane into the commercial life of Rhodesia.
The machine by this time was surrounded by a large, enthusiastic and inquisitive crowd. The name of the machine, ‘Rhodesia’ is very distinct when it is at rest on the ground. During the trip from Gatooma, the aeroplane rose to a height of about 4 000 feet, and completed the journey – a distance of 80 miles – in 1 hour 12 minutes. It is fitted with Le Rhone engines, of French design, made in England.
THE FIRST PASSENGERS
After the curiosity of the crowd had to a certain extent been satisfied, the police had been kept busy telling people to ‘hands off’ and everyone had tried to get a word with the pilot, it was announced that another short flight would be made. The ground was cleared and Salisbury’s popular Mayor and his daughter, Miss Margaret Elcombe, then had the honour of being the first passengers to fly in Salisbury. The propeller was started and the aeroplane raced along the ground at a terrific speed for about 200 yards before taking to the air, and then quickly attained a height of about 2 000 feet and circled the town.
At the conclusion of the trip, the Mayor publicly expressed his thanks to the pilot, Mr Thompson (on right), who had taken over from Mr Rutherford (on left), for giving him the opportunity of being the first passenger to fly in Salisbury. The Mayor said that the experience was a most enjoyable one, and that there was no unpleasant feelings of sickness. He considered it was every ratepayer’s duty to take a trip in the plane, if only to see what a beautiful town they lived in. He had no idea until now that the people had such beautiful gardens. He had been able to see at a single glance the result of the past 20 years work of the Town Council, and it made him feel prouder than ever today of being associated with the Council and more anxious than ever to help carry on the good work done by his predecessors. He could assure everyone there was nothing to fear in taking a trip in the plane, and would urge everyone who could afford it to do so.
The Mayor, after again thanking the pilot and wishing him a pleasant stay in the town, wished his firm every success in their enterprise. He then called for three hearty cheers for the pilots which were most heartily given. So ended the Herald’s report.
From Salisbury, the plane went east to take advantage of the agricultural shows in Umtali and then Rusape, before it headed back to Bulawayo, via Que Que, disappointing residents in Umvuma and Gwelo, which had been expecting its arrival. However, it had been announced the plane would return in early August for Show Week in Salisbury and take in the other towns on this trip.
From Bulawayo, the plane was flown to Livingstone, where it arrived on Tuesday, July 20, at 2.10pm, after about an hour’s rest at Ngamo (a siding on the railway line just north of Gwaai). “A parcel of papers” was dropped over Wankies. On July 21, the Administrator Lawrence Wallace was the beneficiary of the first flight, before the first “joy riders” in Northern Rhodesia, these being Miss Ely and Mr Brooker.
The Bulawayo Chronicle reported on the first fare paying tourists of the Flight of the Angels: “The most thrilling experience was to witness the water pouring over the Falls into the gorge. During these flights over the Falls, the pilot maintained a slow flying speed and banked in order to give passengers a clear view of the river.”
The oldest surviving aerial picture of Salisbury states “1930” on it, but it is certain that this picture was taken before 1923 and possibly while the ‘Rhodesia’ was visiting. Many years passed before another plane visited and of note in this picture is the jacarandas are in their infancy and that construction of the Venturas house is yet to take place at the site on the corner of Josiah Chinamano and Sam Nujoma Street. Work started on the James Cope Christie designed house at the end of 1923
After its Northern Rhodesian tour, which was extended after the plane had a mishap in Mazabuka, the Rhodesia returned to South Africa. But there was a romantic ending to the venture as the Chronicle reported: “During their tour through Southern and Northern Rhodesia the airmen have made many friends, all of whom will unite in offering their hearty congratulations to Mr Rutherford, the pilot, on his engagement to Miss Tracy Rigby, the only daughter of Mr and Mrs Rigby, of the Victoria Falls. Mr Rigby is the district engineer for the northern section of the Beira and Mashonaland Railways.”