Up, Up and Away

South African Air Force Airshow 2011

A day at the Swartkops Air Force Base in 2010 was my first real taste of an African-continent air show and I definitely underestimated just how popular a day like this would be. It’s safe to say that a large number of Saffers are closet plane spotters and even though I arrived early, I had to watch a great deal of the opening displays stood in a queue alongside Old Johannesburg Road.

This year’s South African Air Force (SAAF) Air Show returned to its home at Waterkloof Air Force Base following the completion of a major upgrade to the base’s primary runway; something which as an airfield designer I was lucky to be involved in. The base is a goliath in comparison to its neighbouring Swartkops and event organisers expected crowds in the region of 50,000. I can safely say that this was bordering on an underestimate – the place was packed – and even though I had left the house early, following last year’s faux pas, I was still  delayed in traffic. Next year I’ll most probably pitch a tent in the car park, or sleep in the back of the Navara, to avoid any form of queuing. Other spectators chose to leave their vehicles parked on roadside verges, opting for an early morning ‘stroll’; something which I contemplated and then rubbished, noting on my GPS that it was still a considerable distance to the main entrance. Following a long day in the sun, I would have viewed the 3km walk back to the car as a slight inconvenience.

I watched some of the opening displays whilst leant out of my car window; several helicopter displays, hawk jet fly-pasts and most notably, a mass exodus of 44 Parachute Battalion from the bay doors of two Hercules C130 aircraft. The latter was seriously impressive, seeing how close the guys were to one another as they exited and more-so how chutes managed to avoid getting tangling. I later learned that 14 of these troops had actually been taken to hospital after landing badly, i.e. in trees, on rooftops and from twisted lines, due mainly to difficult winds on the day.

The rest of the event passed without further incident and was very enjoyable. Air show crowds were treated to displays from the Silver Falcons aerobatics team; Vampire, Hawk and Gripen jet-aircraft tributes and a fantastic mock war display involving numerous helicopters, tanks and ground troops. There were two fly-pasts on-route to OR Tambo International by Lufthansa and Air France A380 passenger aircraft, complete with radio communiqué – very cool. Mustang Sally, a P51 Mustang and regular airshow fixture also featured on the day’s line-up, as well as an insane stunt pilot’s display (wasn’t concentrating on his name) who showcased some of the most amazing stunts that I’ve ever seen involving an aircraft, including the ‘falling leaf’ (aka a flat-spin). How he ever managed to recover from this ‘drop from the sky’ was beyond me. On the ground there was a mixture of commercial, military and private static aircraft exhibits and a host of hangar exhibitors if you happened to tire with the events in the clouds above.

I was lucky enough to sample the joys of an air show VIP ‘chalet’ (work those connections!), which offered a sundeck, complete with parasols and a great view of the runway, an air-conditioned indoor area (in case one felt like retiring to mop their brow sweat) and a buffet style lunch – rah rah, very nice. All-in-all, a great way to spend a Saturday.

Some of my photos from the event are featured below.

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