Ninety years on golden wings


airshow-text Looking like a hornet about to strike, the
Mirage IIICZ “Black Widow” prepares
for takeoff.
(Image: Christo Crous, Patrick’s Aviation)

airshow2-text The Silver Falcons thrilled the crowd with
their daring aerobatics.
(Image: Justin de Reuck)

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Janine Erasmus

The South African Air Force (SAAF) celebrates 90 years in the air this year – a milestone marked in August with a spectacular air show hosted by the South African Air Force Museum. The event was the only one scheduled to be hosted by the air force in 2010, and took place under the theme 90 Years on Golden Wings.

SAAF is one of the world’s oldest air forces, established on 1 February 1920. The annual Air Force Day, held as close as possible to this date each year, was therefore especially meaningful in 2010.

According to SAAF spokesperson Colonel Bill de Pinho, the air force is extremely proud of its history.

“Over the years we’ve become known for our expertise and our fighting ability and fighting capabilities,” he said, “especially during World War Two and also during the Korean War.”

De Pinho felt the air force should rather describe itself as “90 years young”, as there is still a long way to go.

“We’ve gone through a lot of changes and I think especially that the acquisition of new aircraft has helped the air force to develop in a very positive manner.”

The SAAF played an important role in security operations for the 2010 Fifa World Cup, which took place around South Africa in June and July.

Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano, chief of the air force, said recently at a media briefing that during the World Cup the SAAF deployed over 2 200 personnel, conducted aerial surveillance, and provided backup for the police in terms of transport and supply.

Operation Kgwele (Setswana, meaning “ball”) was three years in the planning, and began in May. The SAAF entertained the air show crowd with a few procedures from Kgwele, including soldiers skimming down ropes from locally developed Denel M1 Oryx helicopters, a hijacked bus rescue, and a hijacked civilian craft forced to land.

Distinguished service

The show, which is thought to have attracted a record crowd, took place at Swartkop air field near Pretoria. Established in 1921, Swartkop falls under the management of Waterkloof air base, about 6km away. It is a proclaimed heritage site and home to one of the three branches of the Air Force Museum – the other branches are found at Ysterplaat air base in Cape Town and at the Port Elizabeth airport.

According to the SAAF, Swartkop is the oldest air station in the country and the second oldest in the world, as well as being the oldest currently operational station in the world.

Two squadrons, the SAAF Museum Historic Flight and the Airspace Control Unit, make their base here. Swartkop also hosts a range of craft, both operational and in the museum. This facility boasts over 150 distinguished craft such as the Mirage IIIBZ and IIICZ, the DHC-1 Chipmunk T MK 10, the Shackleton MR.3 and the Spitfire Mk IXe.

The SAAF’s Mirage IIICZ, the Black Widow, is the only one in the world still flying. It retired from the air force in 1990.

Memorable occasion

A number of other anniversaries made this year’s SAAF air show memorable. Among them are the 75th anniversary of the first flight of the Douglas C-47 Dakota, which has served the SAAF since 1943, the 60th birthday of the De Havilland Vampire T55, which was the SAAF’s first training jet, and the 50th birthday of the Alouette helicopter.

Further afield, 2010 marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the German air campaign that took place in August and September 1940, and 50 years since the Korean War, which broke out in June 1960.

Other operational craft on show included the Saab Gripen D dual-seater fighter, which debuted at last year’s Swartkop air show, Agusta A109 helicopters, a Lockheed Martin C130BZ Hercules, and the Cheetah-D two-seater, developed in South Africa. The single-seater Gripen C fighter, which arrived in February 2010, was seen for the first time. The Gripen features the new IRIS-T air-to-air missile.

In the vintage department, crowds got a glimpse of a Vampire, a C-47 Dakota, Puma and Alouette II and III helicopters, and more. In addition, the museum’s hangars were open to the public all day. Civilian-piloted craft included a De Havilland DH82A Tiger Moth, an Impala Mk1 fighter craft, and Pitts Specials, among others.

The Silver Falcons, the air force’s aerobatics display team based at Langebaanweg in the Cape, put on a performance of virtuoso flying in their Pilatus PC-7 MkII Astra trainers, as did the Flying Lions in their Harvards.

“It’s excellent to see the number of people here,” said De Pinho, “especially youngsters.” He estimated that around 50 000 people attended, substantially more than the 30 000 who were initially expected.

The air force’s annual Prestige Awards, held to pay tribute to the outstanding achievements of SAAF units and personnel, were also handed out at the air show.