The team arrived at Rand Airport in drips and drabs on Wednesday 18 May 2011, we had split up into elements of 2 throughout the week with myself and Gerhard routing via Durban on the Monday for a meeting that has a potentially exciting outcome – but I’ll leave that for another post.
Joining Downwind at Rand as a 2-ship we were asked by a certain ATC (who will remain nameless) to report our persons on board and registration numbers of the 2 aircraft. As the lead aircraft, Gerhard duly replied with the tail numbers and indicated that we were 3 on board. He was then asked to confirm, “That’s two in the one aircraft, and one in the other?” I am still trying to work out how (logistically) that could be any different in a tandem seater aircraft! The aircraft were hangared at “Hangar 50” which sounded suspiciously close to “Area 51” for me, but fortunately we didn’t encounter any aliens! All together again, we spent Wednesday evening catching up with each other and friends from up north before getting a good night’s rest for what promised to be a hectic few days ahead.
Thursday was validation day at Swartkops. The sheer volume of air traffic in the Gauteng area always amazes me. Having done 90% of my flying in either KZN or on the West Coast, I always find it daunting trying to pick your way between the various controlled zones and reporting points in that very congested airspace. Validation went well and it was great to fly together again as a team after a break of nearly 2 weeks (since Tempe air show).
Having 2 Air Shows in the same weekend can be difficult to co-ordinate, especially if bad weather plays a role, but fortunately Friday’s weather was good, and this time we needed to validate at Rand for our show there on Sunday.
A quick note on Validation: Any SAAF display that is going to take place, at any event, needs to be validated. This is because different venues have different characteristics. For example, elevation, obstructions, crowd lines, display lines etc. As such, a safety officer (normally the Air Show Safety Director) has to watch the full display, at the venue, prior to the actual show day, in order to assess any potential hazards, provide feedback and ultimately “approve” the display. Any flying is inherently dangerous and when crowds are involved the risks increase, but safety is always paramount and as a result everything possible is done to minimize the risks.
Rand’s validation was reduced to a 4-ship as Gerhard was not feeling well and needed to rest in order to be ready for the weekends flying. The rest of us (Med-Lemon formation) made some minor changes to the sequence and continued with the validation. With Gerhard missing, I got to spend more time in the “box” than I usually do, and I was reminded of just how precise, and tight, Heybrech and Buti sit on Roy – it’s really inspiring, and awesome to watch from the back! And that was Friday, the airfield was staring to buzz by the afternoon as more practices took place and air show fever started to set in. It was around this time that rumours started to surface of a possible Falcons/SAA 737 – 800 formation at Swartkops…
Saturday morning. Approval for the formation was granted and Roy had to be up early to plan the sortie with the Captain of the 737, the legendary Pierre Gouws. And so my first ever formation sortie with an airliner was a go. We met up over the Rietvlei Dam just east of Pretoria to form up and head over to Swartkops. Seeing that huge aircraft approaching was a beautiful site, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little bit apprehensive! I would be flying in the “box”, behind the beast, and that brought with it a few concerns from my side. For starters there are two rather powerful engines spewing hot jet blast towards you and just above them, two massive wings generating an equally massive amount of lift – and that means just behind them (where I wanted to be) an equally massive amount of turbulent airflow! But after a thorough telephonic briefing from the highly experienced “big aircraft box pilot” Maj Nico Frylinck, the night before, I was more confident about how to approach it safely. The join up went smoothly, and I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable it was at the back. For a few seconds I allowed myself to take in the scene and enjoy it. A massive civilian airliner, piloted by two giants of the SA Aviation scene, Pierre Gouws and Nigel Hopkins, a couple of meters in front of me, flanked on both sides by my team mates – an image that will remain seared into my memory for ever. And almost as quickly as it began it was all over and we broke off to form up for our first display. The Swartkops crowd was huge! By far the biggest I have flown in front of in my short time with the team. I have heard some estimates at 70 000 people! Our 2 shows were conducted relatively close to each other which unfortunately left very little time in between to mix with the public, but I stayed a little while after the 2nd show and was overwhelmed by the amount of public support for the SAAF and the team – thank you to all who attended. On a personal note I found it very humbling flying at Swartkops. It is the oldest Air Force Base in South Africa and the birth place of the SAAF. I was filled with an immense sense of pride when I thought about all the fantastic airmen and support personnel who have been bred in the SAAF over the last 90 years and to play a part in that legacy feels amazing. Well done to the Museum for capturing this spirit and displaying some of the iconic aircraft that have formed a part of the SAAF’s rich and esteemed history – it was a great show.
And then we did it all over again on Sunday…
Rand was also exceptionally well attended, and I was surprised at how many people were there who had been at Swartkops the day before. We did 2 shows again and another interesting “collaboration” formation sortie with 3 Harvards. This was a very good idea, as the Harvards were still painted in their SAAF training scheme and thus the formation represented the “old and the new”. Once again the lead Harvard was flown by Pierre Gouws – In fact, he led the Falcons almost as much as Roy did on this weekend! Our final run-in was at 1630 and while some of the guys don’t like flying late in the afternoon, I love it! The lighting on the aircraft and the airfield is spectacular and it’s generally a lot smoother as well. Thank you to all the people who stayed until the bitter end to watch us. It was a really enjoyable day and great to mingle with all the other pilots from the air show circuit, as well as the photographers like Irene, Justin, Charles, Jens, Athol, Frans and of course Christo.
And so ended a long weekend of Air Shows. Pilots were tired, ground crew were worked to the bone and even Brian (Emmenis) had lost his voice! But with the end of a few days hard work always comes the satisfaction of a job well, and safely done, and the pride and honour of being part of an organisation and team that possesses such committed and talented individuals. Also a big thank you must go out to Arnie Meneghelli , as well as Sam and Ashley Spolander for their hospitality and running around over the few days.
Next Display: Newcastle Air Show – 4 June 2011, see you there!