1920’s – London to Cape Town

The route between London and Cape Town was regarded as one of the challenges for aviators. Parts of the route had been covered but no-one had flown the full distance.

Sirs Pierre van Ryneveld (left) and Christopher Quintin-Brand and crew, stand in front of the Silver Queen before departing. (Brooklands Museum collection)
Sirs Pierre van Ryneveld (left) and Christopher Quintin- Brand and crew, stand in front of the Silver Queen before departing. (Brooklands Museum collection)

In December 1919, the British Air Ministry announced surveys had been completed by the RAF and a string of airfields established on the African route. It was now open to aviators! Urged on by the successes achieved by Alcock and Brown, first non-stop flight across the Atlantic, and the Smith brothers’ first flight to Australia, the challenge began to gather momentum.

In January 1920 the London Times offered a prize for the first person to fly from London to Cape Town. The same reward was offered as had been earned by the two previously successful great flights – £10,000 – that’s £300,000 in today’s terms. Less than a month later, a Vickers Vimy set out from England for the Cape. Piloted by Captains S Cockerell and F C Broome, with Dr Chalmers Mitchell, Secretary of the Zoological Society

General Smuts wanted a South African to be the first so he authorized the purchase of a Vickers Vimy for this task at a cost of £4 500. Lt.Col Pierre van Ryneveld and Flight Lieutenant Christopher Joseph (Flossie) Quintin-Brand left London on 4 February 1920 from Brooklands Aerodrome in Surrey, England in the Vimy named the Silver Queen. The registration was G-UABA.

C J Quintin-Brand
C J Quintin-Brand


P van Ryneveld
P van Ryneveld

van Ryneveld and Brand had to do some night flying to catch up with the Vimy sponsored by the Times. They encountered bad weather over the Mediterranean so the crossing took approximately 11 hours. Their aircraft was written off in a forced landing at night due to a leaking radiator at Wadi Halfa in the Sudan.

A second Vimy F8615 was loaned from the Royal Air Force at Heliopolis, in Egypt, and they continued their journey 11 days later. They left from Cairo on 22 February. On 27 February the competing aircraft crashed at Tabora in Tanganyika, without injury. The Silver Queen II crashed in Bulawayo due to being overloaded on 6 March. The hot and high conditions over Africa were taking their toll.

de Haviland DH9
de Haviland DH9

But the South African Government and the two South African pilots were determined that they would be the first airmen to complete an end-to-end trip to their homeland. Another aircraft, this time a de Havilland DH9, part of the Imperial Gift, was flown to Bulawayo and handed over to the two pilots.

Their journey resumed on 17 March and the aviators landed three days later at Young’s Field, Wynberg, Cape Town. Their mail cargo of letters had been transferred from aircraft to aircraft and so safely reached its destination. van Ryneveld and Brand were knighted for their achievement.

Their flight took a total of 45 days with a flight time of 109 hours and 30 minutes.

In 1936 when Mr I W Schlesinger offered £10.000.00 in prize money for the promotion of an air race from England to Johannesburg. This race was held flown from 29 September to 1 October 1936 and was 6 154 miles in length. The winners were Charles W A Scott and Giles Guthrie in Percival Vega Gul (G-AEKE). It took 2 days 4 hours 56 minutes and were the only aircraft that completed the course.1

The first production Mew Gull (G-AEKL) was also entered in the race. The pilot was Tom Campbell Black who won the 1934 England to Australia race, co-piloting the DH Comet Racer G-ACSS Grosvenor House. G-AEKL was withdrawn ten days before the race when Black taxied into a military aircraft. Its propeller cut into the cabin killing him.

Alex Henshaw, Jack Cross and restored Mew Gull, 1978 (From The Flight of the Mew Gull)
Alex Henshaw, Jack Cross and restored Mew Gull, 1978 (From The Flight of the Mew Gull)

Two other Mew Gulls were entered but both failed to finish the race to South Africa. Maj Alistair Miller’s retired with a fuel feeding problem at Belgrade and the other, while flying with reduced visibility, flipped on landing to refuel in Africa.2


Miller’s aircraft, named The Golden City and having the registration ZS-AHM, was returned to England where it was subsequently bought by Bill Humble. Humble swapped it for a Leopard Moth owned by Alex Henshaw, and the Mew Gull was re-registered in Henshaw’s name as G-AEXF.

In 1939 Henshaw made an attempt to beat the record for the flight from London to Cape Town in G-AEXF. The flight to Cape Town was done in 39 hours 23 minutes and the return trip in 39 hours 36 minutes. This was in 1939 the fastest time for any aircraft or crew from Cape Town to England. It reduced the existing solo record by 66 hours and 42 mins. Not only were all Cape Town-and-return records broken but also for every stage en route and remain so in the solo classification to this day. The England-Cape Town-England (12,754 miles) was an all-time record.3 The aircraft was placed in the care of the Shuttleworth Collection in 1996, in flying condition.


  • 1  IN SOUTHERN SKIES – A Pictorial History of Early Aviation in Southern Africa 1816-1940. By John Illsley Jonathan Ball Publishers, Cape Town & Johannesburg, 2004
  • 2  America’s Flyways Magazine – January 2005 issue – Article by Gary Williams
  • 3 The Flight of the Mew Gull – By Alexander Adolphus Dumfries Henshaw