The history of Nigerian aviation will be incomplete without the mention of Maiduguri and Kano city, where the first aircraft landed in Nigeria on November 1, 1925.
It is exactly 90 years since the historic flights, involving three De Havilland DH 9A aircraft belonging to the Royal Air Force, RAF.
Vincent Orange’s book, the “Coningham: A Biography of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham”, vividly captured the expedition.
The air trip, led by the then Flight Lt. Coningham, began from Helwan (a town in Egypt) to Kano, with several stopovers with Egypt, Sudan and N’Djamena – then known as Fort Lamy.
Excerpts from pages 44 to 46 of the book revealed details about the journey, including how the pilots played polo with Emir of Zazzau, Ibrahim Kwasau and how Shehu of Borno Sanda Kura offered them rams.
“By 1925, interest was growing in the problems and possibilities of opening up the African continent to civil aviation. The French and Belgians had plans for their own territories and Britain did not wish to be left behind. In September, the Air Ministry announced that three DH 9as of 47 Squadron (stationed at Helwan, near Cairo) would fly from there to Kano in Nigeria ‘for the purpose of gaining experience in long distance flights over tropical countries, where few facilities in the way of the ground organisation required by aircraft exist, and with the object of allowing Nigeria to see the capabilities of British aircraft’.
“The venture would be led by Squadron Leader Coningham. His major problems would be navigation and engines. Although there were wireless telegraphy stations at some points along the route, the aircraft carried no transmitting or receiving equipment and had to rely on compasses and on maps which were nearly useless. The engines, reconditioned American ‘Liberty’ engines of 400 hp, had an unreliable record, so Coningham decided to run them gently, reducing the DH 9a’s normal cruising speed from 90 to 80 mph.
“The aircraft took off from Helwan at 7 am on 27 October, waved away by a large gathering of soldiers and airmen and landed at Wadi Haifa – 644 miles south of Helwan – after eight hours and twenty minutes in the air, all three pilots aching in arms and chest because, as Coningham frankly admitted, he had misjudged their weight distribution and they flew tail-eavy. Fortunately, this first day of their journey was both the longest and hardest of the sixteen they spent in the air. At Wadi Haifa, Coningham boldly reduced the load carried and, taking off at 4.50 am next morning, they reached Khartoum at noon. With a lighter, better distributed load, it proved a faster and more comfortable journey.
“En route due west to El Fasher, a ‘considerable range of hills’ soon appeared and perturbed Coningham, for it was not marked on his map. Believing El Fasher lay east of such a range, he looked for it in vain and then decided to press on towards another range, some twenty-five miles farther west, which was marked. After fifteen anxious minutes, the town appeared and the flight landed safely (despite three punctures), everyone much relieved. Refuelling began at once, ‘assisted by the officers, who had cancelled their polo, and the men of the garrison’. It was while in El Fasher that Coningham again contracted the malaria that would plague him at intervals during the rest of his life.
“’The country from this point onwards,’ he wrote, ‘had never been traversed by aircraft.’ Visibihty as far as El Fasher had been ‘phenomenal’, but westward fires had been deliberately started to trap game ‘and at times it was so smoky that at 4,000 feet one was now and then taken unawares and compelled to make sure that nothing in the machine was burning’. For some time after leaving El Fasher, they were able to follow a well-worn camel track, used by Muslim pilgrims making for Mecca, until it ran into mountainous country. After an overnight stop at Abecher, they flew over the landing strip at Fort Lamy, for Coningham had intended to press on to Maidugari, but noticing that more smoke than usual was coming from Herbert Rowley’s exhaust, he decided to turn back. At Fort Lamy, he learned that Rowley had lost most of his fuel: had they kept going, ‘he would have crashed in rather thick forest twenty miles beyond’. Not surprisingly, Rowley remembered the incident vividly, as we shall see.
“It was not until 10.20 next morning that they were able to leave Fort Lamy and French territory for Maidugari in British Nigeria. ‘Crowds had been out on the main road from Maidugari to Kano from dawn looking up into the sky,’ he wrote, ‘and people assembled in the towns on that road, coming in from considerable distances north and south.’ Coningham landed to apologise for not having arrived the night before, but soon regretted his generous impulse because all three machines got stuck in soft yellow earth on the landing strip and it took forty-five minutes to free them, by a combination of engine and muscle power, and run them on to a harder polo ground. More harm was done to the engines during those minutes than would normally occur during at least twenty hours of flying time.
“The flight had been expected to arrive at Kano about 10.00 that morning and would have done so but for Rowley’s faulty carburettor. The Resident Representative in Kano of the Government in Lagos told the huge crowd which had assembled that the aircraft would now arrive about 5 pm. It was a rash promise, but Coningham redeemed it, landing on a polo ground outside Kano’s ancient walls at 5.10 pm on 1 November 1925, the sixth day of the journey. The Resident, greatly relieved, afterwards told Coningham that ‘we had saved their prestige’. The machines were carefully roped round to prevent damage and the whole airfield completely surrounded by troops holding back a crowd of at least 20,000 people. The airmen had flown the official distance from Helwan – 2,904 miles – in thirty-six hours and fifty minutes, but the actual distance covered, ‘allowing for finding the way’, was well over 3,000 miles at an average speed of about 83 mph.
“Throughout the journey, Coningham closely observed the character of the country over which they flew and concluded that good landing grounds were few and far between. Distances and the time taken to cover them impressed him deeply. If a machine had come down near Lake Fittri, for example, the crew would have had to sit tight near the crash, living off what they could shoot or buy from the natives until rescued – and that would have taken at least forty-five days from Fort Lamy or Abecher: a distance the aircraft covered in two and a half hours. However, there was no possibility of a successful landing between Kaduna and El Obeid, except for a short stretch west of Abecher. ‘The knowledge of this,’ wrote Coningham, ‘becomes a cumulative strain.’ And yet, flying sometimes seemed to him the slowest means of transport. ‘At 3,000 feet with visibility up to 150 miles, a hill comes into view quite two hours away. You know that your destination is some way beyond. There is no sense of speed and for hours the hill seems never to get any nearer.’ The temptation to hurry, to risk damage to elderly engines, became difficult to resist towards the end of a long day, especially when an airstrip lay in view for up to an hour.
“Flying from Kano 130 miles south-westward to Kaduna on 6 November, the airmen were met by ‘everybody in full dress’, taken to Government House and ‘lived in the greatest comfort’ until the 10th. ‘A special grand- stand had been erected and the preparations were such that the natives were convinced that the Prince of Wales liked Nigeria so much that he had come back … I was again given two days very good polo and well mounted.’ Coningham took up the Emir of Zaria, Flight Lieutenant Humphrey Baggs took up the Sergeant Major of the Regiment and Rowley the Sergeant Major of the Police, a Hausa. ‘He looked slightly thoughtful as he clambered into the machine,’ wrote Rowley, ‘but once in the air he broke into a great smile and then sang at the top of his deep voice until we landed.’
“’The Qualities of a Senior Officer’ the machine,’ wrote Rowley, ‘but once in the air he broke into a great smile and then sang at the top of his deep voice until we landed.’
The three aircraft left Kano for Maidugari on the first leg of their journey home at 7 am on 12 November. They flew at 1,000 feet for much of the way ‘to give the people a better view of the machines’. Having flown low over the native town, they landed or the same soft yellow sand as before, only this time making sure to run on to the polo field before stopping. The airmen were presented to the Emir of Bornu, who presented Coningham with two huge white rams, which he accepted with an enthusiasm made all the warmer by his knowledge that the Resident’s staff would have to find some means of hiding them until long after he had gone.
“They retraced their outward course without incident (except for strong head winds and punctures at every landing) until arriving safely at Helwan on 19 November 1925. Coningham and his men had flown on sixteen of the twenty-four days spent on the total journey, covering a distance that he estimated as about 6,500 miles. Exactly eighty hours were spent in the air (apart from a few courtesy flights) and all three of their much-maligned engines ‘ran faultlessly’ throughout, a fact that greatly pleased the crews for ‘fifty-three successive hours were spent over country ordinarily called impossible’. The Air Ministry proudly announced two firsts: the first east-west crossing of Africa by air and the first appearance of aircraft in Nigeria. That same journey, ‘by the normal methods of rail, steamer, camel and bullock transport’, would take about six months,” wrote Orange in the book.
However, Kano residents only saw plane again ten years after the Coninghams’ departure when Imperial Airways aircraft landed during the reign of Emir Abdullahi Bayero in 1935.
Coningham was presumed dead on January 30, 1948 when the airliner he was flying, G-AHNP Star Tiger, to Bermuda got missing off the coast of US. Coningham remains one of the unsolved mysteries of the aviation history as his whereabouts remains unknown till date.