SAAF Museum re-establishes ties with McGregor Museum

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The SA Air Force (SAAF) Museum, the keeper of and responsible for South Africa’s military aviation heritage, renewed ties with the McGregor Museum outside Kimberley, widely accepted as the birthplace of military flying at the southern tip of Africa.

Not too far from the Kimberley city centre is Alexanderfontein where “a simple corrugated building” few realise is a reconstruction of an early 1900s aircraft hangar stands in Northern Cape’s often inhospitable weather.

Few realise this is where South Africa’s first military pilots received their basic flying training, writes SAAF Museum historian WO2 Alan Taylor. The museum houses a life-size replica of the Compton-Paterson biplane used to train these pilots, amongst whom was Anna Maria Bocciarelli, the African continent’s first female pilot.

“The Pioneers of Aviation Museum opened in October 1981 thanks to the joint efforts of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley and the SAAF Museum.  The exact full size replica of the Paterson biplane aircraft was constructed by SAAF Museum workshop staffers, then based at Lanseria Airport, from plans drawn up using original photographs and a few dimensions discovered in a period aviation magazine.”

A memorial adjacent to the reconstructed hangar holds the remains of Edward Cheeseman, a British instructor killed in the first crash and has the distinction of being South Africa’s first recorded flying casualty. Making the memorial even more binding to South Africa’s military aviation history is that stones from SAAF Association branches are an integral part of it.

“Guest of honour at the unveiling was retired major general Kenny van der Spuy, the last of the original 10 pilots who underwent training there and at the time of his death at age 99 in 1991 was the world’s oldest living pilot. His remains were subsequently interred in the memorial.”

On the history of the Paterson and Alexanderfontein Taylor writes: “British pilot Cecil Compton Paterson established the Paterson Aviation Syndicate at Alexanderfontein in 1913 and was given the contract to train 10 pilots for the then Union Defence Force’s newly authorised South African Aviation Corps”.

The original aircraft was destroyed in a crash and Paterson, along with his pupils, built a new aircraft from some salvaged remains. This aircraft crashed that October and he purchased another from a civilian pupil to complete the contracted training. Six men were eventually sent to England for advanced training with the Royal Flying Corps in April 1914 and a few months later became the first South Africans to serve in World War One.”

The museum historian notes: “Staff from the SAAF Museum at AFB Swartkop recently paid a visit to the museum while on official duties and re-established ties with McGregor Museum. Embracing our collective aviation heritage we salute those intrepid airmen who paved the way for the establishment of the SAAF”.

The SAAF last year marked its centenary with the COVID-19 pandemic putting paid to celebrations including the museum air show and AAD (Africa Defence and Aerospace) where the air force would have been the major attraction in the air show.