The 2011 Durban air show, held at Virgina Airport, was the 55th staging of the event, making it the longest running air show in the country. Always one of the highlights on the annual air show calendar, this year was no different, with a jam packed line up of regular air show participants and some new displays, like Team Extreme in their very impressive MX2s.
For us as a team, it was a welcome return to the air show arena, as after the flurry of displays over the May/June period, it felt like we hadn't flown together for ages. For me personally this was the air show I had been looking forward to since I was selected to the team in august last year, but more about that later.
We arrived in Durban on Wednesday evening after a fairly uneventful (but slightly weather delayed) ferry up the coast, with a refuelling stop in Port Elizabeth. No matter how many times I've flown up or down the coastline of this beautiful country, it is always special, and one of the many experiences I will always be grateful for.
Virginia's single runway, whilst not the narrowest we have operated on, is definitely the shortest, and requires a good deal of concentration to ensure the correct approach, and to be able to stop safely at the end. Doing it at dusk adds an extra element of excitement but in no time at all, the 6 aircraft where all safely on the ground and closed up for the night.
Durban has a vibrant and enthusiastic aviation community and a well run and popular wings club. As a result there is always a very warm reception for the team and it was great to catch up with some familiar faces in the clubhouse that evening.
Thursday was "rust extraction" day, with a practice and a validation scheduled in fairly quick succession. I have not flown in the Durban area much since the opening of the new King Shaka airport, and was surprised at how difficult it was to find some airspace to practice in! Being the "local boy" I was tasked with doing the radio work, and found myself continuously busy talking to other traffic to ensure separation, sometimes during a loop, or barrel roll! However the professionalism of the local civilian and military pilots alike ensured that it all remained safe, and we were able to get in a decent practice. Having flown the last 20 odd displays on the Highveld (or at least at higher altitude) it took me a while to adapt again to how much power the aircraft has available and how responsive she is at sea level - but it was awesome, I'll take too much power over too little any day!
One of the real standouts of Durban’s General Aviation community is the Ecko Unlimited Yak Attack team. This bunch of prominent Durban businessmen have such a passion for flying and really embody the spirit of aviation. A great group of successful, yet humble men, they all own their own Yak aircraft and for a number of years have sought to broaden their horizons as pilots by taking up disciplines such as formation flying and aerobatics. To this end they have run an annual "yak week" for a number of years now. This camp is used to refresh and expand their skills by drawing on the knowledge of other pilots with experience in aerobatics and formation flying. This was where the Falcons first became involved with the "Yak Attack" team, by assisting in some of the previous yak weeks. Unfortunately, this year the team was not able to take part due to unforeseen circumstances but ex leader, Maj Scott Ternent, and current no 4 Capt Gerhard Lourens (who was on leave), were involved and lent their experience to what turned out to be an amazing display by the yak team on show day.
Dinner on Thursday night was hosted by yak attack team member Willie O’Driscoll at his restaurant, the Green Mango. It was an excellent occasion - great food, fantastic company and a chance to share in the enthusiasm of these men and their families, for the thing we all love - piloting aircraft.
Virginia was buzzing on Friday as air show fever really set in. Aircraft arrived almost continuously, and participants jockeyed for practice time at the airfield resulting in this tiny sea-side airfield closely resembling Heathrow for most of the day! Unfortunately this mad scramble for airspace meant that we were unable to fit in any flying on Friday, and sadly had to cancel a planned photo shoot with the Team Extreme MX2s - hopefully there will be another opportunity. The media coverage at the Durban air show is probably the most extensive we have experienced this year with TV cameras and photographers everywhere you looked. The show is normally edited into a half hour SuperSport programme so keep an eye out in the coming weeks.
And then it was Saturday... Show day.
We flew at 0930 and 1330 and luckily the weather held out for both and we were able to get in 2 good weather shows. We were very fortunate to fly twice, as the programme was so busy that most participants only got to fly once. For me personally, this was a massive highlight in my life. My first memory of attending an air show was at Virginia in the early 80s when I was about 4 years old. My dad was active skydiver in those days and often used to participate in the show. Since that time I have attended almost every year and in my high school years I used to spend all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday sitting at (or outside) the airfield watching all the air force displays (including the Falcons) and just long to be a part of it all. Even as an Air Force pilot at 15 Sqn, I attended the show in many different capacities – Safety Officer, Search and Rescue standby crew and even as a display pilot in my last year as an Oryx commander, so this air show has a very special place in my heart. When Roy gave the call to commence the sequence and we started the run-in for the first display, I found all those years of dreaming and yearning for this opportunity flash briefly through my mind, before settling into a cheesy grin that lasted the entire display. It is impossible to describe the way I felt for those 20 min, it is only pertinent to say that is such a great honour to be a part of this organisation and this team, and that realising a dream is an experience I will never take for granted and always be grateful for.
Being a Durban boy it was also great to have a large amount of family and friends in the crowd and it certainly added a bit if extra pressure to not let them down! Luckily it turned out to be a great day and both displays felt good. I must commend the team, as the wind proved tricky - particularly in the first display, but they really put on a great show and kept it neat and tight even through the bumps!
The show on the whole was a great success and despite the packed programme, ran like clockwork. The people of Durban were treated to an awesome variety of aircraft and displays, but for me, the highlight of the day was undoubtedly the Ecko Unlimited Yak Attack display. What those guys have managed to accomplish over the last few years is outstanding and really inspiring to watch. Other stand-outs was the Mustang (flown and owned by Menno Parsons) shown for the first time in Durban, and the insane display by Nigel Hopkins in the MX2 – absolutely mind blowing!
All those years ago, spending 3 days at every air show, there was always someone else by my side, being dragged to the airfield at 5 in the morning to ensure we got a good spot, and that's my wife Michelle. Standing on the balcony of the clubhouse on Saturday night, as a Silver Falcon, she reminded me of the journey that had got us to where we were, and I realised how much of it has depended on her love and support (and that of other family and close friends) in allowing me to chase my dream. I have so much to be thankful for, and I pray that I will always be mindful of that.
Chase your dreams everyone – relentlessly – the prize is worth it!