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AEROSPACE MEDICINE IN SOUTH AFRICA – A BRIEF OVERVIEW

Drs Ken Ingham and Chris le Roux

history-1Aviation in South Africa began shortly after the 1903 flight, of Wilbur and Orvile Wright at Kitty Hawk on 17 December. In 1907 John Weston built the first aircraft on South African soil at Brandfort in the Orange Free State. In 1909 Albert Kimmerling delighted South Africans with aerial displays all over the country in an imported Voisin. In 1911 E.F. Driver of Pietermaritzburg, together with Captain Guy Livingstone and C. Compton-Paterson, established the African Aviation Syndicate. Also in 1911 The Aeronautical Society of South Africa was formed in Pretoria. Candidates were required to have a good working knowledge of motorcycles and motorcars, and had to be single, under 35 years of age, and with perfect eyesight at short and long distances, without the aid of glasses. These were the first flight medical standards in South Africa.

In 1913 Brig-Gen C.F. Beyers and Gen J.C. Smuts signed an official agreement with Compton-Paterson at Kimberley on 10 September 1913, in terms of which the training of military pilots in South Africa was entrusted to Compton-Paterson. The world famous De Beers Company made available a suitable piece of land at Alexandersfontein just outside Kimberley, where the first fully equipped military airfield in SA was established. Training began on 28 July 1913 and ended in January 1914. The first instructor was an Australian, E.W. Cheeseman, who trained the first nine future SA pilots. Cheeseman also became the first SA fatality due to flying, after a fatal accident on 15 October 1913.

Causes of death were “fracture and internal haemorrhage, before the accident his physical resistance had been weakened by malaria”.

Dr Danie Craven of rugby fame and Prof Jokkel, later of “Physical Fitness” at Stellenbosch University, played a key role at Diskobolos near Kimberley in aircrew selection and fitness training!

In 1915 the South African Aviation Corps, with the pilots trained by Cheeseman, was formed for active war duty in German South West Africa. The first SA military aviation base was established at Walvis Bay.

During the first world war many South Africans, went for flying training in Britain. Later a flying training school was established in Kimberley using Phoenix aeroplanes.

The birth of the Royal Air Force in Britain was brought about by South Africa’s General Jan Smuts by virtue of the "Smuts Memorandum". He recommended the "Amalgamation of the Royal Navy Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps into a "New Air Service." the "Air Force Act" received royal accent on 29 November 1917.

The RAF was announced by “Royal Proclamation" on 7 March 1918. (THE OFFICIAL HISTORY OF WAR IN THE AIR. VOL VI-; H.A. JONES)

After the Great War (World War I ) the need was felt in South Africa to established an own Air Force. This task was begun in 1920 by Pierre van Ryneveld, one of those South African pilots who had distinguished themselves in this War.

In 1920, after helping the British during the war, South Africa received a gift of some 100 aircraft and hangers from the Royal Air Force. To this very day these hangers are still in use at Swartkops Air Force Base. This was the beginning of the South African Air Force (SAAF) under the leadership of Lt Col (later General) Sir Pierre H.A. van Ryneveld on 1 February 1920. Tthe shipping of supplies started in September 1919, giving rise to Zwartkop air force base outside Pretoria. On 4 February 1920 Lt Col H.A. van Ryneveld, with his companion, Flight Lt Q. Brand, took off in their Vickers Vimy “Silver Queen” from Weybridge in England, and after many mishaps and ordeals, landed in Cape Town on 20 March 1920.

In 1922 the Aviation Wing of the South African Medical Corps was established under leadership of Maj J. H. Porteus, a medical officer from the RAF, who was seconded to the SA Aviation Corps. He had to examine the initial SAAF pilots, and had to train local physicians in the selection of pilots. This was really the first step in the development of Aviation Medicine in South Africa.

The South African Airways was born in 1937. Since the medical evaluation of aircrew had been established in the SA Air Force and since most of the first civilian pilots of the SA Airways were demobilised Air Force pilots anyway, no need arose for the duplication of the scarce resource of medical personnel experienced in aviation medicine.

The Second World War added fresh impetus to the medical and psychological evaluation of air crew, particularly at ab-initio pupil pilots navigators level. The Central Medical Establishment (CME) had been established as a separate Air Force Unit in 1941 and the SA Common-Wealth Air Crew training program which produced 33 343 air crew between 1940-1945, kept this aviation medical organisation very busy.

The short recess in conflict was soon to be followed in 1949 by the Berlin Air Lift and South Africa’s involvement with the United Nations in Korea from October 1950 to September 1953. All the while the Institute for Aviation Medicine grew and continued to examine ALTP, COMM, and PPL pilots, as the only centre of excellence capable of doing so, on an agency basis for the department of Transport, Directorate of Civil Aviation.

In the period 1960-1990 the Air Force upgraded to Supersonic Aircraft and the need for Aviation Medicine grew a-pace. A new Institution for Aviation Medicine was built to house the new technologies including centrifuge, decompression chambers, re-compression chambers and other specialised equipment. Further training in Aviation Medicine took place and 1 250 doctors were trained to certificate level in order to conduct medical examinations in the private sector throughout the country. This was then the first time that the medical examination of civilian pilots passed into civilian hands starting with the South African Airways itself.

However, since the expensive equipment and technology was still housed at the Institute for Aviation Medicine, all disputes, reviews and appeals, were and are still referred to this organisation as the centre of excellence in Sub Saharan Africa. In 1995 IAM maintained 38 615 active pilot records: 32 380 civilian and 6 235 military.

In order to raise and maintain standards, the IAM in co-operation with the Medical School of The Health Sciences Faculty, University of Pretoria; has introduced post-graduate training for medical doctors in this discipline. Honours, Masters and Doctorate degrees can be obtained. IAM still remains the key-player in this agreement which renders a service both to military and civilian aviation personnel in the SAAF and those under jurisdiction of the SA Civil Aviation Authority.

The Institute has already trained 6 Angolan doctors to diploma level and will be training many more from Sub Saharan Africa. It makes imminent sense for our neighbours to travel the short distance to Pretoria, than thousands of miles overseas. As relationships in the sub region normalise, it is possible that greater use is made of this facility, rather than duplicating it in neighbouring countries, at great expense.

South Africa can even be involved in Space Medicine through these graduate programmes mentioned above. South Africa remains very much on the map as a centre of regional excellence for Aerospace and Maritime Medicine (Baromedicine) and trust that this asset will be of mutual benefit to our region, encouraging interdependency, prosperity and peace.

THE FOUNDING OF THE AEROSPACE MEDICAL SOCIETY OF SOUTH AFRICA.

(LATER CALLED: SA SOCIETY FOR AEROSPACE AND ENVIRONMENTAL MEDICINE: SASAEM, AND AT PRESENT SAAsMA)

history-2Dr Harry Z Gelman, Ophthalmic Surgeon as the Consultant Ophthalmologist to the South African Airways wrote a letter on 10 June 1975 to Dr Marius v.d. Spuy, Director of SAA’s medical division suggesting that SA should host an International Congress of Aviation and Space Medicine.

In this well researched and motivated letter, Dr Gelman also suggested that SAA should become corporate member of the American Aerospace Medical Association – which to this very day is still maintained!

Based on his careful consideration and extensive experience i.r.o. the above two suggestions, dr Gelman even booked the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg provisionally on 27th June 1975 as conference centre to host the International Congress of Aviation & Space Medicine in 1976!

In the same spirit of wanting to achieve maximum advantage for S.A. and our science, he negotiated with the office of the then Minister of Tourism of the SA Government who enthusiastically and unanimously supported the idea and promised substantial financial and other support to dr Gelman.

Armed with all these “Go-ahead” greenlights Dr Harry Z and Mrs Joan Gelman managed against high odds to attend the 23rd ICASM conference in Mexico at the end of September 1975 in order to win the 1976 ICASM for South Africa. And they succeeded! Remember that that was during the years of SA’s worldwide isolation!

Harry and Joan knew most of the world’s major role players in aerospace medicine personally. Their combined skills, experience and diplomacy made them a formidable team. The fact that Joan Gelman has been chosen as chairperson of the International Reception Committee of the (big) American Aerospace Medical Association for 2 years in succession at that time underscores this. That in itself is quite a unique honour which has never been given to a non-American citizen at the time!

Dr Charles Berry writes about the “Gelman team”: ‘Your very superb presentation of the arrangement made thus far in so short time period ….shows your farsighted thought and motivation in planning………..’

Dr Marius v.d. Spuy, Director of Aviation Medicine of the SAA, writes in his letter of 20 October 1975 to the Minister of Tourism of SA:

“The fact that SA was awarded the International Congress of Aviation and Space Medicine by the Academy which was one of the prestige meetings any country could wish to have, was mainly due to Dr Gelman”.

In his letter informing the SA Minister of Tourism on October 24th , 1975 that the 24th ICASM has been awarded to SA, the President of the International Academy of Aviation and Space Medicine, Prof Dr Erwin A Lauschner, summarized the situation accurately:

“The diplomacy of Dr Harry Z Gelman and the eloquent and enthusiastic manner in which he addressed the Assembly together with your fine gesture of providing an official Banquet and the granting of a state subsidy resulted in a unanimous vote in favour of the Republic of South Africa”.

The fact is that for the first time in the history of the International Academy of Aviation and Space Medicine it awarded its prestigious International Congress to a non-member of the Academy!

At this stage Harry realized that SA should have its own aviation medicine association and he formed our society. He even designed the original logo himself! He used the American Aerospace Medical Association’s constitution as a template to write our own.

The first elected Executive Committee of the SA Aviation Medical Association at that time was:

Gen. Nichol Nieuwoudt (President)

Gen. James Gililand (President Elect)

Dr Harry Z Gelman (Honorary Secretary/Treasurer)

Dr M v.d. Spuy

Dr Labuschagne

Dr Giep Booysen

Dr Van Myburgh

Sir Humphry Hawkins.

For many years Dr Gelman served our society with dedication as its Honorary Secretary / Treasurer.

The SASAEM already hosted two International Aviation and Space Medicine Conferences. The first was held in Johannesburg in 1976.

The second one held in Cape Town in 1987 deserves special mention. During this meeting, the late Lt. Gen. Nichol Niewoudt who was also President of our Society was elected to the high office of President of the International Academy for Aviation and Space Medicine!!

The previous presidents of our society are:

1. Gen. Nichol Nieuwoudt +

2. Gen. James Gilliland +

3. Dr. Corrie Lategan +

4. Prof. D.P. Myburgh +

5. Gen. D.P. Knobel

6. Dr. Derek Winstanly

7. Gen. Giep Booysen

8. Dr. Eric Peters

9. Dr. Chris le Roux

10. Dr. Hannes Botha

11. Gen. Ken Ingham

12. Gen. Rinus van Rensburg

13. Col. Pierre Erasmus

14. Dr. Faan Rademeyer

15. Dr. Philip Buys

16. Col. Rob Bedford

17. Dr. Chris Opperman 

18. Dr. Rudi Britz (present)

Some of them served more than one term of office like Gen. Giep Booysen who served twice and others like the late Dr Corrie Lategan served one and a half terms.

 

To be continued…