Aviation enthusiasts have recalled the epic transcontinental flight of the Silver Queen, a WWI bomber, from England to South Africa by flying an “air rally,” which an organiser says is like doing a “crossword in the air.”
The annual event is organised by the South African Air Force Association (SAAFA) and the rally has been present in one form or another at air shows and gatherings but was eventually discontinued. It was revived in 2006 and has been going strong ever since. This year is special in that it is the 90th anniversary of that bygone event of aviation’s halcyon era.
The organiser of this year’s event, Arrie de Klerk, spoke about the significance of the Silver Queen’s flight:
It goes with celebration of the air force. The air force was also established in 1920. The air force was established on the First of February and the Silver Queen (flew) on the fourth of February.
Asked how the rally worked, De Klerk explained:
What we do, we select a route round about the air force base at Swartkop either north or west or east. We give the guys -- in aviation terms – waypoints. For example, we give them a map of area; they fly a direction to Cullinan (north of Pretoria), for example.
(Cullinan is famous for the discovery of the Great Star of Africa, the biggest gem-quality diamond ever found.)
De Klerk went on:
It’s not a race. In the olden days they used to call it a treasure hunt. The guys have to fly the route on the direction we give them and the time we give them.
The organisers give the pilots a Route Schedule that has questions and clues to the waypoints. For example, “WPT 2” (Waypoint 2) had a question asking: “A quail egg on an aeronautical map is?” This, De Klerk explained, was a reference to a place on the map that was egg-shaped and had spots on, resembling a quail’s egg. He explained, ”A quail egg is a non-perennial pan.”
Some of the clues to solve the puzzles about the waypoints included three questions. “He phoned home; A Voortrekker vehicle and an old USA airline.” De Klerk explained the answers as “ET phoned home.” Then the vehicle of South Africa’s pioneer “Voortrekkers” was a wagon, or “Wa” in Afrikaans, so the letters WA were the answer and the old American airline was Trans World Airlines (TWA). So the place to check on the map was ETWATWA, which the pilots had to fly over.
Janet Szabo, used with permission.
A pair of AT-6 Harvard trainers at the Swartkop Air Force Base in preparation for the rally.
Another example was Waypoint 3, “To When the ‘Signal Hill CanoN’ booms over the City.”
De Klerk said the Signal Hill canon was widely known to be that fired over Cape Town at noon, or 12 O’Clock, and the “N” of canoN was capitalised, so pilots were to cross the N12 (National Route) highway.
It really was: “Like solving a crossword puzzle in the air.”
The original “Silver Queen” was a Vickers Vimy bomber, left Brookland Airfield England on Feb 4. 1920 flown by Wing Commander Sir Pierre van Ryneveld and Flight Lieutenant Quintin Brand.
The first “Silver Queen” crashed in the Sudan, but, according to John William Illsley’s book, In Southern Skies, the engines and instruments were taken to Cairo and fitted to another Vimy bomber, christened “Silver Queen II.” Due to the high altitudes and temperatures of landing grounds in Africa, the Vimy bomber encountered technical troubles not found over Europe.
A historic De Havilland Tiger Moth biplane on the outward leg of the Silver Queen Rally.
On take-off from Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) on Mar. 6, 1920, the second “Silver Queen” crashed. One of the surviving engines is now in South African Museum of Military History in Johannesburg.
However, South African prime minister Jan Smuts, determined that South Africans be the first to complete the flight, sent a De Havilland DH-9, which was named “Voortrekker” and the two completed the final part of the journey to Cape Town on Mar. 20, 1920.
The flight took 45 days. Actual time in the air was 109 hours and 30 minutes. (A similar flight today would take about nine hours.)