Aero Club of East Africa

Posted by Warbirds Pilot on 26 April 2015 | Comments

Tags: , , , , , ,

IMG 4766

Current Foreign & Commonwealth Office advice is to avoid ‘all but essential’ travel to the Eastleigh area of Nairobi, due to the risk of grenade, bomb and armed attacks by terrorists.  Heeding such advice would lead to missing a real gem of African aviation heritage, so your correspondent has become a regular if infrequent visitor to the Aero Club of East Africa at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport.  

Once Nairobi’s main airport, Nairobi West was renamed Wilson Airport in 1962 and is now a busy General Aviation airfield.  Its name honours Florence Wilson, a shrewd businesswoman and formidable billiards and snooker player who pioneered commercial aviation in the region.  She and her husband emigrated from Liverpool after the First World War and became successful farmers; after her husband’s death in 1928, Florence Wilson needed to return to England on business.  The short version of the story is that she was introduced to former WW1 pilot Tom Campbell-Black and their 14-day journey from Ngong landing field at Dagoretti to Croydon became the first civilian flight from East Africa to the UK.  Wilson Airways was formed in July 1929 with a dH60G Moth ‘Knight of the Mist’, with Campbell-Black as Manager / Chief Pilot and Archie Watkins as Chief Engineer.

The Aero Club of Kenya was formed on 31 July 1927; in March 1928 it became the representative of the Royal Aero Club and was renamed the Aero Club of East Africa in May 1928.  It advised the Kenyan government on the location of the new airport (now Wilson), which opened in 1929.  Lord Wakefield, the founder of Castrol, donated a Gipsy Moth and flying commenced.  The 1930s were certainly the glory years, with aviation in East Africa developing and a number of the Club’s members making names for themselves on the world stage.

Last month, I was driving to the RAF Museum at Hendon to research the history of ‘our’ Percival Q6 and listening to ‘Desert Island Disks’ on Radio 4.  The guest was music producer Robin Millar, whose book choice for his desert island was Beryl Markham’s West With the Night.  Millar concluded an entertaining programme by describing Markham as “The most adventurous woman who ever lived”.

Already a successful racehorse trainer, Beryl Markham was taught to fly by Tom Campbell-Black, making her first solo in a Gipsy Moth in 1931 and becoming the first woman in Africa to gain a commercial ‘B’ Licence.  Gaining experience as a freelance pilot throughout East Africa, she returned to England in 1936, departing from RAF Abingdon in a Vega Gull, attempting to reach New York.  Engine icing led to her force landing 600 miles short of New York, but she had crossed the Atlantic against the prevailing wind and was celebrated for her achievement.  Markham lived in America until 1952, when she returned to Kenya and re-established herself as a leading racehorse trainer; she died in 1986.

IMG 4773

Tribute to Beryl Markham

The worlds of the ‘Happy Valley Set’, whose decadent lifestyles were depicted in the 1987 film ‘White Mischief’, and the aviation community certainly overlapped during this period.  In particular, one ‘interesting character’ from this group was Irishman John Carberry, the tenth Baron Carbery who renounced his title, added an ‘r’ to his surname and preferred to be known as ‘JC’.  It was Carberry’s Fokker in which Florence Wilson travelled to England in 1928 and his Percival Vega Gull in which Beryl Markham crossed the Atlantic.  His second wife, Maia, was killed flying her Moth ‘Miss Propaganda’ at Kenya’s first air fair in 1928, while his third wife was a close friend of Diana, Lady Delves Broughton, a central figure in the still-unsolved 1941 ‘White Mischief’ murder.  Carberry spent a period in jail (describing it as “the happiest period of my life”) as a result of ‘currency offences’, which may well have been connected to the sale of aviation assets to a known German agent; he was a known fan of Hitler.  Carberry died in South Africa in 1970.

In 1926, Carberry purchased dH51 G-EBIR and shipped her to Mombasa.  She became the first aeroplane to be registered in Kenya, VA-KAA. She was purchased by Tom Campbell-Black and others and named ‘Miss Kenya’. G-EBIR, ‘Miss Kenya’ has been restored to airworthiness and is flown regularly by the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden.    

IMG 4089

G-EBIR at Shuttleworth

Campbell-Black became known for his 1931 rescue of German war ace Ernst Udet from the Sudanese desert. In 1934, he left Wilson Airways to return to England to work as personal pilot for Viscount Furness, a shipping magnate and racehorse breeder.  He won the 1934 London-Melbourne MacRobertson Air Race, flying dH88 Comet ‘Grosvenor House’, which today flies with Old Warden’s Shuttleworth Collection. Tom Campbell-Black was killed in 1936, when his Percival Mew Gull was involved in a ground collision with an RAF Hawker Hart at Liverpool Airport.

IMG 4771

IMG 5519

IMG 4777

Today, the Aero Club of East Africa gives a respectful nod to its colonial past while its website claims it “continues to be a voice for the aviation community, keeping the regulators on their toes to ensure a safe and pleasant flying environment”.  Displays within the Club include sectioned engines and a tribute to Beryl Markham. For the visiting pilot, it can serve as a starting point to validate one’s licence for flying in Kenya and also provides conveniently-located accommodation for tourists wishing to overnight prior to catching a flight from Wilson to their safari destination. For my money, and depending on the time of day one is visiting, its either a fine place for brunch or a good spot for an early evening beer in a welcoming aviation environment.  Well worth the detour off the beaten track.