Arthur Stevens: flying in Africa in the 1960s 1

I have always had a fascination for aircraft and aviation. In fact this avgeekery stretches back to even before I can remember, providing an early reference point that has led to a lifelong hobby. As aviation itself has expanded and developed over the past 60 years – technology as well as in travel volumes and purposes – so too has the capacity to record and participate in the sector at a whole range of different levels. Significantly for us avgeeks this has been facilitated by the ability to travel (at least, until the onset of COVID-19), and especially the rapid technology advances in photography. It is now so easy to record our travels and experiences; and this contrasts to the early days when cameras were unreliable, expensive and very limited in application.

So my early experiences of aviation – are just that – anecdotal before becoming recorded for posterity. I was born in Nyasaland, specifically the British Protectorate of Nyasaland, back in 1958, an era that had much evolution geographically, sociologically and historically. In the very early 1960s – when I was perhaps 2½ years old – we had moved for a spell to Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, as my father had been unwell. We lived in the suburb of Belvedere, beneath the flightpath of Salisbury airport. Although of course I have no immediate recollection, my mother remembers clearly that when the BOAC Comet passed overhead I would run out into the garden shouting, “Go! Go!” – my earliest manifestation of the love for aviation.

As time went on, more and more instances became embedded into my conscious and sub-conscious mindset. We had moved back to Nyasaland by 1962, my father being closely involved with the tobacco industry in Southern Rhodesia. With grandmothers in Dublin and in Hove (near Brighton) in England, there were occasional visits back. The earliest I don’t recall, a BOAC Britannia from Salisbury to London Heathrow probably in late 1962. But the next one I most certainly do, a magnificent BOAC Vickers VC10 from Salisbury to London in 1965. I was aged just 6½ by then and had just the one younger sister Patsy (Deirdre didn’t come along until 1967). My memory of this flight was marked especially by the take-off run, the first jet powered take-off I had ever experienced. The power of the aircraft, the noise and the excitement made it seem to me as if we were traveling uphill. And of course we were – the steep take off being completely new to me. Patsy and I were recovering from Whooping Cough at the time – which must have endeared us to our fellow travelling passengers…!

My early flights were few and far between, although by comparison to many contemporaries I was relatively well travelled at an early age. Nevertheless I do recall some special incidents of the time. One of these was the arrival at Blantyre’s Chileka Airport in 1964 of a BOAC Bristol Britannia carrying Princess Margret marking the occasion of Malawi’s independence from Great Britain. The airport’s quite short runway had had to be extended to accommodate this arrival (and was further extended in 1966 to accommodate the newly introduced services by East African Airways de Havilland Comet 4s – but that is another story for another time!). I had watched the royal arrival from Chileka’s famous balcony – a far more memorable experience for me than the royal party.

Another incident that I do recall was my first flight aboard a DC-6. This would have been in 1965 and followed the introduction by Central African Airways (CAA) of a leased Alitalia DC-6 aircraft the previous year. CAA operated services on behalf of the three countries that made up the Federation of Rhodesias and Nyasaland, the Rhodesias being Northern and Southern Rhodesia. CAA continued to operate these services through independence to March 1967 when it was dissolved and replaced by the constituent airlines of Air Malawi, Zambia Airways and Air Rhodesia. My DC-6 experience came about as this aircraft operated scheduled services originating in Salisbury and transiting Blantyre on their way out to Mauritius. We had started in Salisbury for our 1½ hour flight to Blantyre. I clearly remember the hold for engine runs prior to takeoff, as well as holding at the departure point. While holding I was treated also to the arrival of a TAP (Transportes Aereas de Portugale) Boeing 707 en route to the Mozambican capital Lourenco Marques.

Mozambique was also my first real memory of a complete journey by air. This would have been from later in 1965 aboard a DC-3 of Air Malawi, who operated services with DC-3s as a subsidiary of CAA. As a family we had travelled from Blantyre’s Chileka Airport to the Mozambican resort city of Beira – a subsequently familiar destination over the years. We were accompanied by another family at this stage, with my contemporary friend Lars and I sharing the Dakota seats. I recall vividly with fascination the bubbling of oil within a glass globe of some sort atop the Dakota wing. My mother did not share my fascination – her reaction being more consternation!

My regular flying started in early 1968 with my going to boarding school in Rhodesia. This was marked by flights there and back by mainly the Vickers Viscounts of Air Malawi and Air Rhodesia – at least 6 flights a year. Subsequent years through to 1976 when I left school were aboard also the Hawker Siddley 748s and BAC 1-11s of Air Malawi. Flights on the Air Rhodesia Viscounts continued through to March 1976 when the Mozambicans closed the border over which we flew between Malawi and Rhodesia. This led to my first flights aboard the Air Rhodesia Boeing 720s as we were obliged to re-route through Johannesburg instead. But – again these stories will continue in future blogs!