Queenstown's Allister Miller Centenary Event

By John Illsley

Events celebrating an aviation anniversary in South Africa are few and far between these days. Those that do take place are almost all local private initiatives and this was true of the event staged in Queenstown on the 16th and 17th June, hosted jointly by the town's flying club and car club. Advertised as the Miller Centennial, the timing was to coincide with the year in which Major Allister Miller DSO, arrived in Queenstown in a BE2e aircraft as part of a recruiting drive during World War One (1914-18) on behalf of the Royal Flying Corps.

Miller arrival in Queenstown 1917 by Don Bell

He had undertaken a similar tour of the country the previous year and based on the success of that exercise (which saw about four hundred men recruited) he was sent out again in October 1917, this time with an aircraft, two mechanics and a staff officer at his disposal. The second recruiting tour started in Cape Town in November 1917 and took him initially along the coast to the Eastern Cape, followed by towns in the hinterland, of which Queenstown was one. His arrival did not in fact constitute the first aircraft seen in the town as John Weston had flown a Bristol Boxkite here before the Great War. Nevertheless, the novelty of seeing an aircraft up close, must have played a major role in Miller' success as he flew around much of the country. His second tour led to 8000 applicants of which 2000 were selected for training in Britain. Many of these men went on to play a key role in post-war South African military and civil aviation.

As part of the commemoration of Miller's visit in 1917, Don Bell, an aviation artist based in Port Elizabeth, was commissioned by the Queenstown Flying Club to paint a depiction of this event. The work was on display in the club house during the centenary event and shows Miller overhead the town in "Rio de Janiero 2", with the distinctive hexagon of streets that dominate the centre of the settlement to this day visible below. Rendered in golden-brown hues, it is very typical of the light experienced in this valley in the late afternoon.

Allister Miller's connection to Queenstown was renewed during World War Two (1939-45) when he was appointed as the final commanding officer of 47 Air School, a training facility dedicated to training navigators using mainly Airspeed Oxford and Avro Anson aircraft. As a Lieutenant Colonel he was in charge of this school for several years. As part of the event at Queenstown, a new wall of remembrance was unveiled on the Friday afternoon. This memorial has as its centrepiece a wartime engine crane which was rescued a few years ago and which has now been restored. Behind it the semi-circular wall carries an inscription dedicated to the men and women who had served at the air school or been trained here. Flanking this inscription are the wartime crests of the SAAF and the RAF whose personnel manned the school and whose pupils passed through the camp between 1941and 1945. It was perhaps appropriate that the ceremony should fall on Youth Day, given the young age of most of the trainees. Certainly the backdrop for the memorial could not be more appropriate. The horizon features Hangklip, the most prominent mountain in the area and a beacon for wartime trainee navigators. On the airfield itself, almost all of the buildings that made up the wartime air school still survive. Most of the Bellman hangars; the administrative buildings and the accommodation huts are now part of police storage facilities but one Bellman hangar and a few red brick wartime buildings make up part of the present airfield together with most of the original land and one runway, which today is tarred. As one of the most complete surviving wartime airfields in the country, it is a largely unappreciated relic of the most important contribution made by South Africa to the training of Allied aircrew in the war under an agreement which created the Joint Air Training Scheme.

47 Air School wall of remembrance

Mark Sahd, Reg Morgan and the grandchildren of Allister Miller

The opening ceremony, held in the golden light of late afternoon, was made all the more poignant by the presence of Allister Miller's three grandchildren who had journeyed here especially for the occasion. One of these, Allister Peter paid tribute to his grandfather during the ceremony and mentioned how his own father after being shot down in Burma (while on secondment to the RAF) had also ended up as a SAAF training officer at Queenstown. Prayers were conducted by local MOTH Louis Barnes and the monument was dedicated by Anglican minister Reg Morgan. At the conclusion of the ceremony, a flypast of three locally-based RVs, one trailing smoke, provided a suitable aerial tribute.

All credit must be given to the current chairman of the Queenstown Flying Club, Mark Sahd, for his tireless efforts to make the memorial a reality and for being the main driving force behind the weekend's event, ably assisted by other QFC stalwarts such as Alasdair McDonald, Ken Clarke and Deon Papendorp.

L39 jet trainer from PE

Sadly the weather didn't play along on the Saturday, which was the earmarked for the public. High winds, often in excess of twenty knots, prevailed through most of the day. This didn't prevent some flying from taking place throughout the event and in fact made the STOL demonstrations by the Savanah, a type with a strong connection to the Eastern Cape, all the more impressive. Flown by John Waterson, the take offs and landings needed only a few metres of runway and were interspersed with flying above the runway that was, at times, close to hovering! At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of speed, was a visiting L39 Albatros jet trainer which took all of ten minutes to fly in from Port Elizabeth.

Two Austers and memorial

Only two vintage types made it from elsewhere in the form of an Auster Mk 5 flown from Port Alfred by George Armstrong and a DHC Chipmunk flown by James Wardell from Wings Park outside East London. Perhaps the most unusual type was the Vulcan twin trainer which arrived from Progress Air Academy. Unfortunately many prospective visitors were put off by the wind. An assortment of RVs, both resident and visitors, made this the most common aircraft on the field, and it was appropriate that the only aerobatic displays of the day were flown by Wally Goodrich.

Display aircraft on apron of airfield's Bellman hangar

Classic Wings aircraft on display

The flying displays were very much anchored by the aircraft of the Springbok Classic Air fleet. The Beech 18 was flown down by Captain Brian Stableford and the Dakota by Captains Flippie Vermeulen and Laurie Raath. Both aircraft were flown in spirited displays. The Beech earned its keep throughout the day, doing a dozen local pleasure flights, all filled to capacity. The last of these was at dusk, at the same time as it was hoped to fly the DH Dragon Rapide, with the wind having dropped somewhat. A small brake problem precluded this and the crowd had to be content with seeing this magnificent aircraft taxying along the runway. Among those in attendance was the previous owner, John English, who was duly impressed by the standard of the rebuild which allows this aircraft, the only one left in the country, to again grace the skies.

Dakota north of Queenstown

A vintage and classic line up at Queenstown

Beech 18 doing joy rides

Activities on the airfield during the Saturday were not limited to aviation-related items and visitors were entertained by tractor and car parades which showcased a wide variety of types spanning more than eight decades. Static engines could also be found puttering away in another display. The flying club's Bellman hangar was largely turned over to food and craft stalls and provided refuge from the rather miserable blustery weather outside.

Vintage car line up

Most of Mark Sahd's Classic Wings Collection was on display outside. The Rapide, Tiger Moth, Auster and Chipmunk all looked resplendent in their predominantly silver military colour schemes. Two are in Southern Rhodesian colours and two in Royal Air Force colours. Tucked away in the hangar and still waiting its turn in the painting queue was the collection's Fairchild F24.

Mark Sahd and two aircraft of his collection

Guests at the clubhouse on the Saturday evening, apart from enjoying a great steak supper, were able to view an illustrated presentation compiled by Mark Sahd on the history of the Air School and the Miller connections. This was followed by a talk by another of Allister Miller's grandsons, Mike Peter, who provided an outline of his grandfather's career. It was a reminder of the pivotal role that he had played in early aviation in South Africa, including the founding of Union Airways, the forerunner of South African Airways.

Rapide and Dakota

The event was well attended by local residents and by those arriving from neighbouring districts. It is to be hoped that other clubs based on historic airfields in South Africa might emulate Queenstown's example and also that Queenstown will not again wait twenty years before staging another flying event. As one of those who enjoyed the warm hospitality of the QFC members and other Queenstown residents, sincere thanks for all your efforts and congratulations on a very worthwhile initiative.

Events 2017

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