AFB Ysterplaat – 70 Years of Aviation Excellence – Part One: Introduction



Introduction to flight in South Africa

The dream of flight was long given hopeful expression in the mythology of the ancient civilisations and indeed the great Leonardo de Vinci also saw the possibility of flight and drew it on paper centuries before it became reality. And when flight did indeed become reality it is not precisely known who was the first man to take to the skies from Ysterplaat.

There is a strong belief that, in the early 1870’s John Goodman Household and his brother Gordon built a glider and launched it and from the top of a 300 metre precipice on the farm Der Magtenburg, in the Karkloof area of KwaZuluNatal. The first flight was just over 1 kilometre and a height of 50 to 80 meters was achieved. During the second flight the craft soared for a while before beginning a rapid descent in which it clipped a tree and crashed, breaking his leg in the process.


John Goodman Household

It was the first ever recorded heavier-than-air flight and Goodman and his brother could have been accorded a place in history had it not been for their mother. When she heard of the crash she persuaded them to abandon the project out of fear that the family would incur the wrath of God for challenging their natural state of being earthbound. It is believed that the glider was stored in a barn and eventually burned with other rubbish.

All drawings, sketches and calculations were supposedly burned at John Household’s insistence so that he could abide by his promise to his mother never to discuss or attempt flying again. The Goodman Household Monument has been erected near Curry’s Post, in the KwaZuluNatal midlands to commemorate his achievement. There is then no evidence of any drawings or designs surviving Household who died in 1906. And what is more remarkable is that this had been achieved nearly ten years before the balloon flight of Major Elsdale in 1885.


Otto Lillienthal

This allowed the German Otto Lillienthal to take the honour when he made a successful glider flight in 1896. Eight years later, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first powered flight at Kittyhawk in the United States. It was the dawning of a new era; an age of adventure, excitement and glamour that gripped the world, and indeed the then Union of South Africa.

This first properly recorded flight in South Africa took place on the border of South Africa and this is what is known of that very significant event. Major Elsdale of the Grenadier Guards with 8 NCO’s and men arrived aboard the Pembroke Castle in March 1885 with 7 tons of hydrogen balloons and associated equipment.  The detachment transported the equipment up to Mafeking where Elsdale first flew on the 9th April 1885. The balloons were used for aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting for the Bechuanaland Field Force.


60 000 Cubic feet Montgolfier Balloon

The first balloon flight in Cape Town was by Mr Stanley Spencer who after several attempts to get off the ground in his 60 000 cubic foot Montgolfier balloon finally succeeded on Saturday 6th February 1892. This was the first time that Capetonians could see that a man could get off the ground without having to climb a tree or fling himself off Table Mountain.

The first official heavier than air flight in the Southern Cape was undertaken by Ralph Mansel in a Voisin glider from Somerset West in the October of 1908.

Albert Kimmerling was the first man to achieve powered flight on the afternoon of the 28th of December 1909 over the racecourse at East London. He attained a height of 6 meters and newspaper reports of the day make for interesting reading.

In the early December of 1911 Dr Weston and “Bok” Driver took to the Cape Town sky in a Farman and a Bleriot and therefore they were the first to fly over the city in a heavier than air machine. From where they took off and landed is as yet unclear.

As aviation progressed, early flights began and ended depending on the mission, the weather, and the mechanical state of the aircraft and the whims of the pilot. There were many quite suitable landing grounds in and around the Cape. However in these early days of flight in South Africa, a hesitant public stood firmly on the ground and watched until aviation had proven itself and won its wings. It was also a time of crushed hopes, dreams and aircraft. Conversely it was also a period of spirited decisions by intrepid men and women whose vision took them to the clouds and their place in history.