A Tribute to Tom Chalmers

By Complied and edited by Brian Spurr

The South African Aviation community lost one of its keenest champions with the passing of Tom Chalmers on the 25th August 2018. It is with great sadness that we dedicate this article in his honour.

Thomas ("Tom") Ernest John Chalmers (82) was born in Johannesburg in 1936. He moved with his mother and brother to Durban in 1949 and attended Durban High School from where he matriculated in 1953. Tom claimed he matriculated with "ease," gaining five "Es" and an "F" for the six subjects he wrote! Tom's father was killed in action in Italy in March 1945.

He was determined to become a pilot from an early age after having a flip with famous South African pilot (and aerobatic champion) Nick Turvey in a Dragon Rapide. After that flight Tom said he was hooked on flying. Tom's brother served in the South African Air Force during WWII as an air gunner and radio operator in 17 squadron in Martin Marauders. Tom applied to join the SAAF for training on leaving school, but was turned down because the then ACF (Active Citizen Force) was being disbanded and his eye sight was "not up to scratch" for the permanent force.

Forced by circumstances for find other employment, Tom applied for and was accepted in the position of a "news cadet" with the SA Broadcasting Corporation News Department in 1955. This, he found somewhat to his amazement, was what he was meant to do with his life.

Within five years, he had worked his way "through the ranks" to become at the age of 22 the youngest News Editor ever in the history of the SABC - a "record" which, it is understood, still stands today. However, he was still hell-bent on becoming a pilot and earned the money for his training by "stringing" for eight newspapers in South Africa and two international news agencies overseas.

He started flying training in December 1958 at Stamford Hill aerodrome flying Piper Vagabonds and Tri-Pacers. He told me that the well-known Arthur Morris was responsible for getting him into flying. He went solo after the minimum allowed six hours, gained his private pilot's licence in four months and his commercial pilot's licence a year and a half later. His eyesight had not proved to be a hindrance.

With his CPL in his hands, he applied to airlines and charter companies around the world without much success being told by British Airways, (then BOAC), that he was "too old" to be accepted as a junior pilot. He was 23 at the time.

Tom's early flying days.

Not deterred, he and his (recently-wedded) wife, Joan, did not give up and a month later he was accepted to fly for Basutair, the only charter operator in what was then Basutoland, now Lesotho, the mountain kingdom in the middle of South Africa. Tom told me that
he got engaged to Joan flying in a Tri-Pacer! He had just handed over the ring when the aircraft suddenly developed an electrical fault, thus ending the planned ceremony so he could concentrate on landing safely!

Tom recalls that flying Piper Tri-Pacers in the mountains, where the average runway elevation was around 7500 feet, was the hardest flying he has ever done - he recorded 800 hours in his logbook within six months.

During this time, he applied for and was accepted for South African Airways, but when he went for his acceptance medical, his eyesight let him down. However, South-West Airways, based in Windhoek, Namibia, accepted him immediately (strangely enough on the recommendation of SAA).

Throughout his flying career of 12 years, he still kept his hand in by writing for newspapers and magazines,

Tom flew for SWA for three years, before accepting a position with Comair in Durban. A few years later, still in Durban, he was offered a corporate pilot's position with a local textile company, which he accepted and continued flying for them until 1972, when the journalism bug started biting again and his growing family needed him at home. He told me that
on one trip the Salisbury (Harare) he opened his suitcase and found his child's security blanket and he resolved there and then to quit flying.

Tom approached a friend of his from his early reporting days, who was the editor of the Durban morning paper the Natal Mercury, for a job and he was accepted as a senior reporter and aviation correspondent. Within six months, he was earning four times more than he did when flying, even though he held an Airline Transport Pilot's Licence by this time.

Just over a year later, in early 1973, Tom decided to merge his two careers and launched the globally acclaimed World Airnews. To date it is Africa's longest-running, widest circulating aviation journal, having celebrated its 46th anniversary in March this year.

Tom continued his flying part-time using his experience to test fly all manner of aircraft ranging from light singles to the "heavy iron" simulators. This included the Airbus A380 simulator, which he "flew" just before he decided to give up flying. He was having trouble, as he puts it, "getting his old bones into cockpits." He hung up his wings with just over 10 000 hours in his logbooks.
His advice to young pilots was to always have a second career to fall back on.

He served as a life member on the board of the Commercial Aviation Association of Southern Africa; was the Honorary Life President of the South African branch of the International Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association; was honorary Life Vice President of the Durban Wings Club (he was a member for over 60 years), was a life member of several other flying clubs and, at one time or another, had served on the committees of a number of journalism and flying organisations. He also earned several honours from his peers in both aviation and journalism fields.

Aside from his writing and love of flying, Tom kept himself busy with his passion for model trains and many and varied woodworking endeavours. His wife of 58 years Joan, sons and daughters Craig, Richard, Alan, Carolynn and Debra Ann, as well as his many grandchildren and great grandchild will miss him deeply.

In November 2015 Tom was one of three judges at the Durban Wings Club aviation photographic competition. The three judges were Tom Chalmers, Andrew Whysall and Robbie Aspeling.

Tom tried retirement in 2008, but a few months later decided to "retire from retirement" and return as managing editor of World Airnews. He and Joan still owned and produced the magazine at the time of his death. He was an integral part of the team, reporting, editing, writing, laying out and even on occasion making the tea!

Joan Chalmers has emphasised that the magazine that Tom nurtured and built will continue as his legacy into the future. World Airnews will be at exhibiting at AAD 2018 (Africa Aerospace and Defence) at Waterkloof AFB, Pretoria this month and she has invited everyone to visit their stand. It is good to know that the oldest aviation monthly journal in South Africa will continue. The magazine tracks trends in aviation and developments in airlines, manufacturing, avionics and air shows. The magazine is produced in hard copy and is also digitally distributed internationally and extensively throughout the African continent.

After 46 years in publication, World Airnews is dedicating a large portion of the October 2018 issue to honour and celebrate the role that he played in aviation. Make sure to get your copy. This edition will also be available in stores as well as on-line at

Rest in peace Tom.

Aviation Personalities

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