Posted by: Editor | May 30, 2010

Esquimalt: Look to the Sea, Look to the Skies

Esquimalt: Look to the Sea, Look to the Skies…

Ever wonder about the history of the aircraft that we as Esquimalt residents often hear and see landing and taking off from Victoria’s Harbour? Esquimalt Review contributing writer and aviation aficionado Mitch Stirling shares his enthusiasm for Esquimalt’s locale alongside a busy maritime airport.                                           

Two Old Flying Machines that Link Our Past

 – By Esquimalt resident Mitch Stirling

When my wife and I are out walking around Macauley Point in the evenings, we occasionally hear the distinctive sound of a Pratt and Whitney radial engine approaching the Victoria harbour. The intrusion of this sound doesn’t bother me at all; in fact, I love it. Is it the thump, thump, thump of a Wasp Junior engine, I wonder? Is that an old de Havilland Beaver?

This thought takes me back a bit and reminds me of my long-term love affair with Beavers, those ubiquitous, tough little ‘half-ton trucks’ of the bush; back to the 1960’s when the Beavers were hard at work in central Africa. Central African Airways operated them all over Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) and they played a very important role in the social development of central and southern Africa by linking together remote, inaccessible areas and providing basic services to the local populous by transporting medicines, stretcher cases to hospital, mail, car spares, fresh food, family cats and even new-born babes. And now they are linking together my new home in British Columbia and my old home in Southern Rhodesia.  There was even a Beaver on floats that did a survey of the upper Zambezi River above the Victoria Falls in beautiful Barotseland. But there were no cruise ships harboured there, nor sleek yachts in the basin!

The following is an account of a Beaver flight which may conjure up twinges of nostalgia, I suspect, for anyone who has flown in one. It appeared in the Scanner magazine of 1962, the magazine of Central Africa Airways:

“In this day and age of jet travel most places are but a few hours (or two beers) apart, leaving little time to study the scenic beauty of the terrain below. And in any case the countryside, if visible, seems well-nigh featureless from 18 000 ft in a Viscount.

It was my good fortune, therefore, to get a lift home to Salisbury from Lusaka in a Beaver, cruising along at a leisurely pace at 2000 feet. The rugged hill formations of the Zambezi escarpment stood out clearly in bold relief, and the river itself could be traced for many miles into the hazy distance. Everything; farms and mines and villages, drifted slowly by below. Time seemed to stand still as the distant prospect of Salisbury remained stationary on the horizon and the city only became clearly visible in the sloping shafts of the late afternoon sun when we were about twenty minutes out. We slipped down quietly and landed on the cross-runway; and what perfect timing, a Friday afternoon at 4:30 when all the other CAA staff were packing up for the weekend and heading for the Airways Club.

The age of elegance may have ended with the passing of the stagecoach, but its twentieth century counterpart can be experienced in the graceful progress of the Beaver. So if you ever get offered a lift in one, seize it with both hands.”

Photo: Beaver “Eland” at Balovale, Barotseland, 1950’s.

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But now, as I’m lost in thought, strolling with dogs and their owners around lovely Macauley, more stories come to mind that bring the aviation heritage of Canada and Africa closer and closer.

You may remember that after the Second World War, many ex-servicemen and women moved from the United Kingdom to her colonies. Canada and Australia and Southern Rhodesia were favourite destinations, and my own parents moved from Scotland to Salisbury in sunny Southern Rhodesia where new immigrants were encouraged to help build a young, growing nation.

Our little family moved into a hostel that had been used as barracks for the many airmen from all over the world who trained there during the war. Southern Rhodesia was second only to Canada in training thousands of pilots and navigators and bomb aimers in what was known as the Empire (later Commonwealth) Air Training Scheme.

At our new home in these old Cranborne barracks, I began to learn about the wonderful history of the men who had passed through this place. In a young school boy’s imagination I could sense their presence in the bits and pieces of discarded aviation, left over from times gone-by.

The nearby primary school I attended was called Nettleton and it was dedicated to the memory of these men, and named after Squadron Leader John Nettleton (VC) who led the fateful low level bombing attack on the MAN diesel engine factory at Augsburg in 1944. Six Lancaster bombers of 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF were engaged in the attack; only one came home! There were two Canadians in those downed Lancasters; F/Sgt AE Ross and Sgt PJ Venter.

Years later, I was to meet some of the surviving pilots of the war, in the cockpit of an Air Rhodesia Vickers Viscount, when I was a young and rather nervous first officer. Pilots, who had flown Lancasters, Hurricanes, Spitfires and Typhoons and received many medals of honour for bravery; DFC’s and DSO’s and many more, were now sedately flying passengers around. But ‘flying around’ with some of these war-hardened old boys was not always easy, as one of our new ‘boy-pilot’ first officers discovered.

“Sir, what shall I call you in the cockpit?” he asked.

“You will address me as captain”

“And after flight, on the ground, should I still call you captain, or Sir, or Mister, or may I call you by your first name?”

“You don’t speak to me on the ground”

There’s no doubt these men formed a group of tough individuals, highly-skilled and professional, but they also grew flowers and loved classical music and wrote lovely poetry. They were old-school officers and gentlemen, and their frequently naughty behaviour and their practical joking became legendary in aviation circles. I guess that’s airmen the world over.

Now, the Vickers Viscount; there’s a thing of beauty. They remain close to many hearts and were used by Canadians for many years.  The first one in Southern Rhodesia arrived at Salisbury’s old Kentucky airport (now Harare airport, Zimbabwe) in 1956.

More Viscounts were to follow in later years; a total of 14 in all. But VP-YNA, christened ‘Malvern’ and decked out in silver, dark blue and white, became the flagship of Central African Airways, the forerunner of Air Rhodesia. In her long and distinguished life she carried hundreds of thousands of passengers, her engines were changed 139 times, and she made more than 25 000 landings. On her retirement in 1985, in the colours of Air Zimbabwe, she had flown 40,737 hours.

I carried out its valedictory flight as captain, so it is little wonder that I feel a strange tingling sensation up and down my spine, and a wee tear comes to my eye when I view and touch a Canadian Viscount on display in Victoria’s fascinating Aviation Museum! Her sister ship ‘Malvern’ sleeps peacefully, I hope, in the Aviation Museum at Gweru, Zimbabwe.

All the Viscounts in the fleet were much-loved by pilots and passengers alike. They were gracious old birds and they deserved every word of the compliment paid to them, ‘you can balance a coin on its edge during flight’.

All this makes me realise that old Canadian and Rhodesian pilots have much in common. They have the same pioneering spirit that opened up wild places and they flew a number of the same aircraft types that grace our history books today.

Now, when are these Macauley blackberries going to ripen? 

Mitch Stirling, a career pilot, and his wife Lyn, an artist, are African immigrants to Canada who settled in Esquimalt in the Craigflower Road area last year. Previously a resident of Zimbabwe and Malawi, Mitch produced a book called “They served Africa with Wings”. Mitch jokes that he has lived in two Victorias: one in Zimbabwe and the other one that we are all more familiar with. Email Mitch at m.stirling@shaw.ca

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Responses

  1. A great story. Not only because as a fellow ex-Rhodesian it brought back such poignant memories of our old country, but very well written by a man with a broken heart. What will history say of the rapidly vanishing but the greatest of the white tribes of Africa? Who were you, just a blink of time in history’s course? No matter, an exile’s home will always be home.

  2. This is an excellent article, written with passion and grace. I appreciate the fact that the author was able to take me on a trans-continental journey, and still left me with that invigorating feeling of nostalgia without any jet lag. I wish Mitch well with his Canadian ventures as an author. Please post more articles from this guy. He paints with words.


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