Sunday 9 December 2012

de Havilland Beaver

By Mitch Stirling (Air Rhod.)

These days, as my wife and I are out walking around the lovely Macauley Point in the evenings, we occasionally hear  the sound of a radial engine coming from the sky. This intrusion of sound from a distinctive Pratt and Whitney radial  engine doesn't bother me at all. I love it. Is it an old Wasp Junior engine, I wonder? Is that a Beaver? And my mind  begins to drift... drift back to my early childhood in Southern Rhodesia and it makes me think... old Canadian and  Rhodesian pilots had/have a lot in common. Those aviators of old shared the same pioneering spirit that opened up  unknown territory in those little de Havilland Beavers. Their stories and pictures grace our history books of today.

Balovale, Barotseland
The first Beavers, named after their busy, semi-aquatic 'cousins', were introduced in 1947... and by 1967 (when original production came to an end) 1657 of these tough little machines were at work all over the world in a variety of civilian and military roles. 'Punch' Dickens, the famous Canadian bush pilot (I see a pugnacious little fella wearing fur boots and a Davey Crocket hat!) was the man responsible for collecting data to help in the design plans of the first Beaver to take to the Canadian skies. Almost to the man, every one of his bush pilot buddies whom he consulted asked for POWER and STOL (short take-off and land) and that is exactly what they got.... an all-metal work-horse with a long, high-lift wing and a war-surplus 450 hp Pratt and Whitney, nine-cylinder radial engine stuck on the pointy end. Two big side doors were an added feature, wide enough to accept 44 gallon drums of fuel, and an oil filler and dip stick conveniently positioned inside the cockpit for cold-weather operation. It was spartan and functional and it could ski and float. It was rugged... reliable, efficient!
Over the years modifications and upgrades have been added to the original, like flat steps for passengers to replace the earlier tube steps. Hundreds of Beavers are still flying today, but in the 1950's and 1960's these sturdy, ubiquitous little 'half ton trucks' of the bush were hard at work all over Central Africa in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi). The Beavers, close to the hearts of many, played a very important role in the social development of central and southern Africa linking together remote, often inaccessible areas and providing basic services to the local populous. They transported all kinds of things like medicines, mail, car spares, fresh food, family cats, stretcher cases to hospital and, on one occasion, a new-born babe which appeared during flight! There was even a Beaver on floats that did a survey of the upper Zambezi river above the Victoria Falls in beautiful Barotseland.

CAA Beaver fleet history:

VP-YHF destroyed Mankoya (NR) 1951

VP-YHH Eland to Zambia 9J-RFZ 1967

VP-YIL Duiker to Malawi 7Q-YIL 1966

VP-YIM Impala destroyed Malawi 1956

VP-YIS Oryx to Malawi 7Q-YIS 1966

VP-YJC Sable destroyed Malawi 1952

VP-YJD Kudu to Zambia 9J-RGA 1967

VP-YKA to Zambian Air Force

VP-YOR Lechwe to Zambian Air Force

In 1966 the Pat Judson Trophy was awarded to the Beaver pilots of Central African Airways 'who flew these single-engined aircraft for more than ten million miles over extremely rugged terrain without a fatal mishap'. It was presented by Mr AD Baxter, president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and accepted on behalf of all the Beaver pilots by Captain Rodney van Rooyen.

VP-YIL 'Duiker' at Chileka with Reg Vermaak

 The popularity of the Beavers was described nostalgically by Mr Don Taylor in an article called "Rainbow on the Zambezi'. He recalls, 'Next day I left Mongu for Lusaka on a little Beaver of Central African Airways. Flying in Central Africa is like taking a bus in Britain; a familiar, routine affair. At Mongu as many of the community as can get the time off, turn out to see the aircraft take-off. It is all very warm and homely. Everyone flies. You might find yourself with somebody's baby on your lap, or helping a grandmother to fasten her seat belt. The wife of an official sat alongside the pilot, with three of us squeezed in the middle seat and as we took off there was a loud 'meouw!' of protest from behind me . Somebody's cat, encased in a wicker basket was making a maiden flight'

A similar wistful story appeared in the SCAANER magazine of 1962, written under the pseudonym 'Ganesh'. 'In this day and age of jet travel, places like Lusaka are but an hour (or two beers ) away from Salisbury, leaving little time for study of the scenic beauty as it unfolds below. And in any case, the countryside if visible, seems well-nigh featureless from a Viscount at 18 000ft. It was my good fortune recently to get a lift home to Salisbury in a Beaver, cruising along at a leisurely pace at 2 000ft. The rugged hill formations of the escarpment stood out clearly in bold relief and the river itself could be traced for many miles into the hazy distance. The farms, the townships, the mines, the roads and contour ridges could be followed easily as they slowly drifted by below. Time seemed to stand still as the distant prospect of Salisbury appeared and seemed to remain stationary on the horizon. The city was, in fact, clearly visible in the sloping shafts of the late afternoon sunlight and we eventually slipped quietly down to land on the cross-runway, just as the other staff were knocking off for the weekend. And what an excellent time to arrive - 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. The Age of Elegance may have ended with the passing of the stagecoach, but it's 20th century counterpart can be experienced in the leisurely and graceful progress of the Beaver. So if you ever get the offer of a lift in one, seize it with both hands.'

VP-YIL gleaming in the sunshine at Mzimba, Nyasaland (Malawi) with Captain Rob Hood.

In conclusion... the amazing big wheel of life keeps on turning, because a few hundred kilometres from the lovely Macauley Point here in British Columbia, old friend VP-YIL is still hard at work in Campbell River under the guise of CF-GRA seen here at Campbell River, Vancouver Island, 25 Nov 2012.

CF-GRA photos: Hilford Burton


Adapted from the book, 'They Served Africa with Wings' by Mitch Stirling and John House.

Insert by ORAFs
 Limited quantities of this book are available, please click on the image or mail Eddy Norris at  above to contact ORAFs and I will put you in touch with the source.

Thanks to Mitch for sharing this information with ORAFs.
Thanks to Hilford Burton for his photographs.

To view the Blog Home Page - Please Click Here or on the link below   
(Please visit our previous posts and archives)

Suggested reading
Suggested Reading

Ref. Rhodesian aviation




At 9 December 2012 at 19:50 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Dave Hughes (Umtali Boy) Writes;-

I am sure evrYyone has a story or two about the Beavers. Remarkable aircraft. I was involved with guarding Doctor Banda when he was arrested in those far off Federation days. He was, to put it politely, very cheesed off that his guard was headed by a lance corporal !! Me.

We flew to Chileka in two Beavers. The team split between the two aircraft. It was over cast and cloudy all through Nyasaland and the planes flew below the cloud and skirted around hills and eventually got us there albeit about an hour longer than scheduled ! Long after the beer supplies were finished !

Many years later when he was boss of Malawi I captained a Mashonaland water polo team to go up to Blantrye to play against Malawi. Which was virtually the English side that used to come out to train in Central African heat. They "worked" on the tea estates but mainly played polo. Before the game both captains introduced their teams. When I had finished going down the line of my guys he turned to me and "I am pleased to see you eventually got promotion !" !!
Afterwards we spoke about the guard occasion and he remembered me clearly and remembered I had a big, ginger moustache. I wonder where that colour ever went to ?


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home