By Lionel Friedberg author of
The Flying Springbok: A history of South African Airways since its inception to the post-apartheid era
For over six decades a stylized springbok gazelle with outstretched wings was the official logo of South African Airways (SAA.) The insignia—eventually redesigned and modernized—was emblazoned against a bright orange background on the tails of the airline’s entire fleet. Affectionately dubbed the ‘flying springbok’ the symbol was renowned around the world as a token of one of the world’s truly great international carriers, familiar to the travelling public on all six continents. It was a beloved logo to millions, representing the highest standards of safety in the industry, consistent on-time efficiency, reliability, dependability and unsurpassed comfort and style in the air.
The origin of the airline goes back to a small but ambitious private airline known as Union Airways. It was founded by Allister Macintosh Miller in 1929. Flimsy airplanes pioneered routes throughout Southern Africa carrying mail and passengers until financial difficulties forced the government to step in and take it over in 1934. It was then renamed South African Airways. That name would eventually stand proud and tall among all major international carriers and make SAA one of the longest-surviving airlines in the world, unabashedly outlasting many famous carriers in Europe, the United States and other parts of the globe.
After its formation the airline grew by leaps and bounds. It was soon trailblazing its way deep into the African hinterland. But there were always challenges, sometimes technical and often due to adverse weather. Many a time small aircraft would have to land in hostile and unknown terrain, including farmlands, on vast plains teeming with wildlife, in deserts and even on the slopes of Table Mountain when rain clouds obscured the city of Cape Town. On some flights hippos, elephants and lions had to be chased off grass airfields before a plane could land.
SAA was a partner with Imperial Airways—the forerunner of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and later British Airways—in establishing air routes between London and South Africa. Those were the days when the color pink dominated maps of the world, signifying the enormous spread of the British Empire. South Africa was one of the most distant outposts of that empire and so the development of long distance air travel was deemed essential. Thus was born what later became known as the Springbok Service, a regular schedule of flights between Johannesburg and London. The early years of flying in Africa was a hazardous, time-consuming and daring affair. But amidst the indomitable pioneering spirit there was always adventure, excitement and a liberal dose of romanticism. After airfields—or ‘aerodromes’—were carved out of jungle, veld, rainforest and savannah plain passengers could take high tea, cucumber sandwiches and five-course meals served by white-coated waiters at isolated guesthouses and lodges on the ground along the route or on the banks of enormous pristine lakes and rivers where wildlife abounded. In the early days no meals or refreshments were served during flight. To aid in the genesis of air travel on the continent many brave and fearless men and women flew solo up and down the largely undeveloped ‘Dark Continent’ in the early years of the 20th century. Their tales are the proverbial stuff of dreams. Many of them are told in the pages of The Flying Springbok.
During the war years South Africa aligned itself with Britain. Air travel was placed on hold and SAA air crews and aircraft were sent to the battlefront. They fought valiantly alongside the Allies in North Africa and Europe. In fact, the first action between a German vessel and an Allied aircraft took place between an SAA airliner adapted for maritime patrol duties and a German liner off the coast of the Cape of Good Hope in December, 1939. In August, 1944 one of the first altercations between an RAF aircraft and an early model of the Luftwaffe’s brand new Messerschmitt Me262 jet fighters took place over Leipheim in Bavaria with an SAA pilot at the controls of a Mosquito reconnaissance airplane. SAA crews fought with distinction in both the RAF and the South African Air Force (SAAF), garnering numerous honors, awards and decorations.
After the Nationalist government came to power in 1948 and because SAA was a state-owned operation it was often perceived by local and foreign critics as the ‘apartheid airline.’ This was because it was under the control of the ruling all-white government’s Department of Transport. During the height of international condemnation of South Africa’s divisive racist policies the country became a pariah nation, an outcast in the arena of world affairs. Eventually it was even banned from participating in the Olympic Games. For a short period of time non-white passengers within South Africa’s borders were required to fly on separate aircraft in comparison to their white counterparts. But these draconian regulations were eventually dropped. However, it took years before non-whites were employed as ground, cabin or flight crew. Despite having to conform to government policy over the years SAA developed its own distinct identity and carried out its duties autonomously and largely free of political interference. It was the recipient of numerous international travel and aviation awards and was for decades consistently voted the best airline in Africa and the top international carrier flying from abroad to African destinations. Its first class cabin service, wine list and sumptuous meals were the envy of many competitive carriers.
Most people believe that passenger jet travel started with equipment from the stables of major American airplane builders but in fact high speed pure jet flights began with the British-built de Havilland DH.106 or Comet 1. The very first service linked London and Johannesburg as early as 1952. The Comet revolutionized air travel. Services were operated by BOAC in tandem with SAA. The Comet proudly carried BOAC’s name together with the flying springbok logo on its streamlined nose and the lettering SAA on its tail. Unfortunately, a serious design flaw caused two Comets to break up in mid-air and in 1954 the entire fleet was grounded. This opened the way for the United States to become the dominant player in the bold new world of mass jet travel. SAA ordered its first Boeing 707s in 1958.
Apartheid was always the Sword of Damocles that hung over the airline’s head. When the ‘grass curtain’ came down over Africa in 1963 after most newly independent African nations closed their airspace to SAA traffic as a defiant measure to protest against apartheid SAA was forced to fly around the western bulge of the African continent to reach destinations in Europe, the Middle East and North America. If SAA aircraft overflew Africa they risked being intercepted and shot down. Flying around the bulge was an enormous technical and logistical challenge. To save fuel and to allow airliners to fly the additional distance without landing on the African mainland rapid innovation was the catalyst for foreign engine and aircraft manufacturers to work in conjunction with SAA’s technical engineers to come up with new, long-range equipment. Despite the odds, SAA changed its routing to fly around the bulge of Africa without incident and without cancelling a single flight.
After the demise of South Africa’s vilified racist system in the mid-nineteen-nineties many icons and trademarks in the country underwent a process of redesign to reflect the introduction of a fully democratic system of government headed by that great champion of freedom, Nelson Mandela. To herald the end of the apartheid era in 1997 the flying springbok logo was replaced by a bold new design inspired by the country’s new national flag. But the long-established spirit of the flying springbok prevailed. Even the call sign for radio communication between controllers on the ground and pilots of every South African Airways flight anywhere in the world remained ‘Springbok.’
As was the case with many airlines Covid-19 grounded the airline in 2020. Its future remains uncertain. But it can look back on over 90 years as a flourishing and efficient international carrier, proudly flaunting its identity as the airline with the revered heritage of the iconic flying springbok.
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