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The day East London soared into South African aviation history

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

It was the summer of 1909. Orville Wright had taken to the skies just four years earlier and around the world, interest in mechanical flight was growing rapidly.

In South Africa, writes Jade Davenport in Engineering News, the East London Town Council took the initiative by issuing a public notice inviting the demonstration of any aeroplane or ‘flying machine’ at the town’s forthcoming Gala Season in December.

"That invitation was duly taken up by the firm of Howard Farrar & Co, the well-known manufacturer of mining and general machinery, which offered to import one of the most modern aircraft and an aviator for the event.

Thus, a Voisin biplane and accompanying French pilot, Albert Kimmerling, arrived in East London in December 1909 to take up the challenge.

The show was held at the then-Nahoon Racecourse, now the site of Stirling High School, East London, where French aviator Albert Kimmerling piloted his biplane into the sky and travelled twice over the racecourse.

Such was the historic significance of the flight, writes Davenport, that a commemorative plaque was erected in 1978 on the corner of Gleneagles and John Bailie roads, just outside Stirling High School.

Following the hustoric flight, Kimmerling moved the plane up to the Transvaal where he made three more flights at Sydenham Hill near Orange Grove.

On the 19 March 1910 he flew the first fare paying passenger in South Africa, when Thomas Thornton of the South African Aero Club paid £100 for a flight.

Kimmerling returned to his native France later that year and settled in Miramas, in the south of the country, where he eventually ran an aviation school.

Sadly, Albert Kimmerling died in 1912 - just three years after his historic East London flight when he was still only 29 years old - when his 2-seater Sommer monoplane crashed during a test flight. On the 5 August 1912, the city of Lyon honoured him by named a street after him - Rue Kimmerling.

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