ZS-AAC-Avro Avian-First Civilian Registered Civil Aircraft in SA

By Willie Bodenstein

Designed as a Tourer /Trainer by Avro's chief designer Roy Chadwick the Avro Avian had its first flight in 1926 and was introduced into service the following year.

Avro Avian. State Library of Queensland commons.wikimedia.org

Chadwick was responsible for practically all of Avro's designs. He is famous in particular for designing the Avro Lancaster bomber, its follow-up Avro Lincoln and preliminary designs of the Avro Vulcan V bomber. He also converted the Lincoln into the much-used Shackleton and his Avro York's carried one third of the entire British tonnage during the Berlin Airlift.

The Avian, of which more than 400 were built, was outsold by the de Havilland Moth and its derivatives, which first flew more than a year earlier than the Avian. However, the Avian was used extensively as a civil tourer or trainer, with many being sold overseas. The SAAF apparently in the 1930s purchased a number of Avians for use as training aircraft. They were retired but impressed for service at the start of WWII. Their fate unfortunately is not known.

However, the first Avian to find its way to South Africa was ZS-AAC. She became the first civilian and only the third aircraft to be registered in South Africa.

ZS-AAC was imported into South Africa during 1927 by the Shell Company and was test flown by Lt. R. R. Bentley, a flight instructor in the SAAF, who had completed the first official solo flight from London to Cape Town in a de Havilland DH-60 Moth. Bentley left London on 1 September 1927 and arrived in Cape Town on 28 September.

After having spent his honeymoon in Cape Town Bentley repeated his feat and flew all the way back to London, becoming the first pilot do so. Bentley was awarded the Britannia Trophy for the most meritorious aviation performance of the year.

Shell donated the Avian to the then Cape Town Flying Club based at Young's Field, Wynberg. She had a rather chequered career and was involved in four crashes, the first and most serious happening in December 1927 when she struck a ditch and suffered serious damage upon landing at Riebeeck West.

She changed hands several times and was again crashed this time at Wingfield Airfield where the wreckage remained for some time until she was saved by Eric Stanbridge a Cape Town pilot who was trained by a Major Kromhout.

Eric's fuel account cards with Shell SA

Stephen, Eric's son recalled his father telling him that he and his brother-in-law, Tom approached a Major Kromhout telling him that they would like to learn to fly. Major Kromhout suggested that instead of wasting their time and money he take them up for a flight to establish if they, in his words "were airworthy." After a nightmarish series of loops, spins and dives which Eric survived without any adverse effects, Tom unfortunately did not, Eric was accepted for training and earned his wings.

Eric's son Stephen Stanbridge and daughter Jacqueline Ann Simons nee Stanbridge

Eric and Tom were owners of a joinery company in Vasco, Cape Town. The building still survives to this day. Besides ZS-AAC one or more Avians were in the meantime imported and one had crashed and Eric bought the wreck for spares and he and Tom rebuilt the Avian in the shop. Their experience with working with wood stood them to good stead during the rebuilt of the wood and cloth Avian. Whatever parts they did not have the made.

Report in the Cape Times of 6 October 1939 on the Avians flight after the restoration by Eric Stanbridge

In early in October 1939 the Avian was test flown by Vincent Doherty. Doherty was born in Cape Town in 1909. In 1932 he enlisted in the Royal Air Force and in 1937 returned to South Africa and enlisted in the SAAF as a monitor of pilots of Spitfire and Harvards.

Eric flew the Avian extensively, often landing her on the beach at Melkbos Strand. Playing on the beach during one of the landings was a youngster by the name of Bubbles Koch. Koch would later become a Springbuck rugby player and represent South Africa in New Zeeland as part of the Springbuck team that toured there in 1949.

Some years later Koch met Stephen and recounted one such landing on the beach. "The Avian," Koch said, "approached low as my friend's and I watched and to our surprise landed close to the water's edge but then slewed and ended up in the water. We immediately rushed to help and pulled the aircraft out of the water. Your father got out, found a rag, and cleaned and dried some parts as we stood by and then started the engine and leaning out offered me a ride. I was not getting into that thing and told him so."

The Avian's last flight happened in the early 1940s. Eric was flying up the West Coast when close to Piketberg the weather closed in and he crashed into the mountain. Fortunately he was only slightly injured and extracting himself from the wreck he walked down the mountain and met the farm owner who assisted him to get back to Cape Town.

A law was in place during the war years prohibiting the removal of any aircraft wreckage. Eric had no choice and for a number of years the wreck remained in the open, the wood rotted, the covering disintegrated and the metal parts rusted. The Avian had survived a number of crashes but this time the crash as well as the ravishes of the Cape weather had damaged her beyond repair and Eric reluctantly gave the farmer permission to burn what was left.

Photo © Airways Museum

Another Avian with a South African connection is the one used by American Bill Lancaster. Lancaster left London 11 April 1939 in an Avian in an attempt to set a new speed record to Cape Town. On the evening of 12 April he departed on a 750 mi (1,210 km) night crossing of the Sahara. The Avian's engine failed and Lancaster crash-landed in the desert well north of his expected flight path. Relatively uninjured and occasionally firing flares he awaited rescue unaware that rescuers were searching for him to the south. Lancaster died eight days later, on 20 April 1933.

As far as can be ascertain there are no surviving Avians. However, a number of examples are on display in museums in Canada, one in a cafť in a shopping Centre in Stockholm, Sweden and one that represents the Avian that Amelia Earnhardt flew across the US in the Herrick Collection in Anoka, Minnesota. Two examples are in storage at Gawler, South Australia.

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