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Lightning Strikes Cape Town

Rare high-performance British jets are drawing fans to a new airshow on the circuit.

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The place was familiar immediately. The broad expanses of macadam. The gaggle of bright Pittses, hulking warbirds, and fragile ultralights in the center. Thousands of people, all in T-shirts and ball caps and sunglasses, slurping soda and pointing and gawking and standing in queues to inspect parked aircraft and hangar displays. Rock music and DJ chatter blaring from loudspeakers, the sun baking everything to bubbling. And permeating the scene, the odor of kerosene and the whine of turbine engines.

Yup, another airshow. But not quite like any I’d ever attended.

First there was the razor wire. Three feet high and bristling with blades, it snaked along the ramps and taxiways like a huge, evil Slinky, guarding the airplanes from the gawkers. Further ensuring the separation was an unsmiling young man in a dusty blue uniform, a machine gun cradled in his arm. Were the crowds to suddenly riot, hurdle the wire, overwhelm the soldier, and make a mad rush for, say, a Pegasus trike or Pilatus trainer, the armored vehicles scattered about could put things to order quickly. There was no question the military was in charge here (it was their property, after all).

Then there was the food: Amid the omnipresent Coke and candy concessions were booths hawking vetkoek, rootie, and samoosas.

Finally, there was the odd date. It was summer, of course, but the calendar said that it was October 30.

Clearly, I was a long way from Oshkosh—actually, 78 degrees of latitude, eight time zones, and about 8,600 miles away—and happily so. For, with all due respect to Wisconsin’s airplane Mecca, there are few places more naturally beautiful than Cape Town. A sun-soaked metropolis at Africa’s southern tip, the city marks the merging of the chilled South Atlantic with the warmer Indian Ocean. Famous for its magnificent Table Mountain, excellent wines, snazzy waterfront, and rich sea life, Cape Town is a magnet for European tourists, particularly during the winter months.

These days, some South African entrepreneurs are working to expand the city’s attractions, and the show at the Ysterplaat Air Force Base, now in its second year, is a major component of that expansion.

As I wandered through the crowds, I ran into a compact, middle-aged fellow wearing a black flightsuit and drawing pensively on a little cigar. This was Mike Beachy Head, one of the key figures involved in the 1999 show. The event was sponsored by the South African Air Force Museum, which is located at the base, and a Beachy Head enterprise called Thunder City.

(Since everyone asks, here is the story behind the peculiar surname: Beachy Head is descended from 18th century French aristocrats named Rhenard. When the Revolution erupted, M. and Mme. Rhenard told their governess to board a ship and escape across the English Channel with their two young sons. They advised that once safely landed, the boys should be renamed, after the place of their deliverance. As it happened, the nanny and her charges landed at the East Sussex town of Beachy Head. Since he didn’t end up Mike St. Mary’s Bay, he doesn’t complain.)

Beachy Head is an entrepreneur of the first order, involved in everything from an international student employment company to inboard/outboard engine design. One of his last major business successes was turning around a failing overnight air cargo operation, which he subsequently sold. During that undertaking he became interested in flying, and in 1992 he earned his private pilot’s license and his multi-engine rating simultaneously. Keen for aerobatics, he bought a homebuilt Stolp Starduster II open-cockpit biplane. Soon he replaced that with a 300-horsepower Zlin 50. Eventually, that too was not enough.

Several years ago, his freight company’s business agent gave him a call. The agent was in London, attending an auction at Sotheby’s. Knowing of Beachy Head’s interest in high-performance aerobatics, he asked if he should bid on a Hawker Hunter. “I didn’t even know what a Hunter looked like,” Beachy Head recalls. But he was impressed by the catalog description of the early British jet fighter, and decided, I’ll take a hack at it.

As we spoke that Saturday in Cape Town, he turned and look skyward, appraising his shiny black Hunter as it streaked down the flightline, then pulled up to the vertical. Fans often describe the Hunter as “graceful,” “elegant,” even “beautiful.” “Lucrative” is an equally appropriate adjective, for the Hawker turned out to be one of Britain’s most popular exports, having been sold to about 20 countries. Its military service includes combat in Pakistan and India. It was the Royal Air Force’s first transonic fighter, and in 1953 it reached 738 mph, a world record. Various versions specialized in interception, ground attack, and reconnaissance, and thus the Hawker has been characterized as the first genuinely multi-role combat jet.

An hour or so later, another black jet, this one a Blackburn Buccaneer, screamed to center stage. A beast of a high-speed strike fighter, the Buccaneer had been designed in the early 1950s for the Royal Navy to use for low-altitude attacks on warships. When Britain retired its carriers in the 1960s, the Royal Air Force took over the Buccaneers, using them for maritime strike missions in Beirut and the Gulf war, during which they both identified bomb targets and dropped bombs themselves. The Buc roaring past us now was the only one in the world still flying. At the controls was its owner, Mike Beachy Head.

The show continued with, among other things, a ghostly appearance by a single Spitfire, lovely aerobatics by a squad of South African air force Pilatus PC-7 Mark II trainers, an energetic performance by a team flying Pittses, an anti-terrorist demo that briefly set the airport’s veld aflame, and even a flyby by a DC-4.

Between acts, I made my way to the VIP tent, taking sustenance in the form of dainty egg-tomato-and-cheese sandwiches and an icy glass of dry cider. Outside the seating area I found the VIPs themselves—dapper men in blazers with crests, smiling women in bright sundresses and halters, officers in crisp uniforms, and ultra-cool flyboys in flightsuits of various colors.

I strolled on among the hangars, which were jammed with a wide variety of exhibitors and activities, exemplifying the many cultures that have converged in the Cape over the centuries. Located 25 miles north of the Cape of Good Hope, the area was first settled by Europeans in the 1650s, when the Dutch East India Company set up a station to supply its merchant ships bound for India and beyond. After that, the place began bringing sailors and settlers—some arriving by choice, others not—from near and far.

The food at the show reflected all that variety: vetkoek—a bread pocket with some sort of filling, rootie—an Indian pancake with mutton or curry, samoosas—triangles of fried mince. One stand sold little English pork pies, baked to perfection by a catering concern called the Delisha Sisters. Another sign advertised something called biltong. I asked a passing air force officer to translate. He waved the beef jerky he was chewing; “It’s this,” he said. And one food stopped me cold: the option of “monkey gland sauce” for my hamburger. Upon seeing my distress, a young woman reflected momentarily, then began to laugh. “It’s ketchup with chutney and Worcestershire,” she explained.

More surprises awaited me. The Ysterplaat show included an assortment of road machinery: a World War II Harley, a grand vintage auto called a Hupmobile, and a Bullitt-ready Mustang GT350, among others. It was a dazzling collection, and it struck me as decidely, well, un-African. (One pretty girl with a tattoo on her midriff set me straight, remarking, “People think that because we’re in Africa, we’re unsophisticated.” Then she began punching buttons on her tiny cell phone. In the course of a few days, I became convinced that there are more cell phones per capita in Cape Town than in Hollywood.)

More proof of South Africa’s sophistication appeared at a booth for the country’s Association of Virtual Aviation (www.ava.org.za). Nearby was a South African air force recruiting set-up, which for some reason included a formal dining table with candelabra. The 22 Squadron, the search-and-rescue group that is stationed at Ysterplaat, showed off an example of its Oryxes (license-built Super Puma helicopters). Nosing out of one of the hangars was a Dakota—“C-47” to Americans—fitted with a pair of Pratt & Whitney PT-6 turboprop engines. (For more on such conversions, see “High Mileage,” p. 30.) Some two dozen of the ancient Douglas transports still serve South Africa’s air force. In fact, the first airplane to fly at the show was one of those C-47TPs, which proceeded to drop paratroops, much to the delight of the throng.

Unlikely as it was to hear a turbine whine emanating from a DC-3, the sound that followed was even more distinctive: the thrumming “Griffon growl.” A unique sound produced by four Rolls-Royce Griffon engines turning counter-rotating props, the 48-cylinder growl was the signature of the Avro Shackleton, a patrol aircraft operated by the South African air force until 1984 and the Ysterplaat museum’s pride and joy. This one was the last airworthy example; just 120 flight hours remained before the Shackleton’s spar would need replacement—an undertaking considered prohibitively expensive. What the crowd was hearing was the end of an era. A haunting sound.

The attraction that probably pulled in the most visitors, who came from as far as England, Eastern Europe, and the United States, arrived thunderously from the northwest. It was another one of Beachy Head’s all-black jets. This muscled banshee was once—and for many it remains—the pride of British military aviation: the English Electric Lightning.

Although little known in America, the British interceptor so utterly outperforms the World War II airplane of the same name that the P-38 could be renamed the Lockheed Languid. A few of the Brit’s numbers explain why: max speed, Mach 2.1 (it’s the Royal Air Force’s only all-British fighter capable of Mach 2-plus flight); initial rate of climb, 50,000 feet per minute; power plant, twin Rolls-Royce Avon 301s rated at 16,300 pounds of thrust each. In service with the Royal Air Force in Germany, Cyprus, and Singapore between 1960 and 1988, this screamer of a cold warrior was designed so that the pilot could shoot air-to-air missiles via a steering dot on the radar display and still control the aircraft. During the cold war, the Lightning was used to intercept Soviet aircraft overflying the North Sea (the one performing at Ysterplaat had in fact intercepted a Tupolev Tu-95 Bear there).

In the United Kingdom, the Lightning’s feats have earned the aircraft legendary status. Fans recount a 1984 NATO exercise in which a Lightning intercepted a U-2 reconnaissance jet at 66,000 feet—-an altitude at which the U-2 had always been thought safe from interception. And the following year, during a British Airways trial over the North Sea, a Lightning proved it could overtake the Concorde supersonic transport at 57,000 feet.

There’s one more number relevant to the display that day at Ysterplaat: Total number of flyable Lightnings in the world—one. This Lightning had served in the Royal Air Force from 1965 through 1988, when it was decommissioned; it then passed through several private owners. The British government declared it would not permit any civilian-owned Lightning to fly there. But the South African civil aviation authorities took a different view: They will consider a civilian registration to fly such an airplane if the craft meets scrupulous airworthiness and maintenance criteria and the pilot has been trained to the highest standards.

Beachy Head bought the Lightning in 1996, had it dismantled and shipped to Cape Town, then had it reassembled—rebuilt, really. Meanwhile, he spent six months at British Aerospace in England training to fly the aircraft. He first took it aloft in March 1999 with test pilot Keith Hartley of British Aerospace (which had assumed support for the Lightning). The performance at Ysterplaat was the jet’s first public appearance under Beachy Head’s ownership.

Computer programmer David Griffiths was one of a handful of Brits who had spent around $1,500 and traveled the length of Africa to see a Lightning fly again. The sight of that icon, as well as the show’s other aircraft, kept him and his similarly impassioned companions chained to their seats. Despite the sun’s intensity, they remained there, necks craned, from the show’s 8 a.m. start to the finish seven and a half hours later. At the close they were sunburned and satisfied. Griffiths’ assessment: “Although not the largest, it rates as the most amazing of hundreds of airshows I’ve attended.” The event had been “beyond our wildest dreams,” he said—an opinion loudly endorsed by his fellow Brits. They all said they planned to return.

And that is precisely Mike Beachy Head’s goal. A concept began forming in his mind the first time he flew the Buccaneer in Cape Town. He had bought the craft because it was configured as a tanker, and he intended to use it only to refuel the Lightning. He was taxiing the Buccaneer to the active runway at Cape Town International when he noticed that cars were parked all along the field and people were standing on their roofs. At first he figured that the Concorde or some celebrity was arriving, but when none showed he realized it was the Buc that was the cause of the commotion. “I thought I ought to be charging them for this entertainment,” he recalls. He began giving the idea serious consideration.

The initial result was pretty straightforward: Sell rides. Today you can contact Beachy Head or Incredible Adventures, his U.S. agent, to book a ride aboard the Lightning, Buc, Hunter, or little BAC Strikemaster. Beachy Head has been the principal jet tour guide, though Keith Hartley and other BAe pilots have taken some of the flights.

But before you sign up, you might need to extend your credit card limit. A ride in the Hunter will cost you $3,000 an hour; the Buc goes for $8,000, and the Lightning a thousand more.

Simon Wells knows the cost. A power plant engineer from Greatstone, England, he saved for the better part of a year to ride the Lightning. But after arriving in Cape Town, the 28-year-old bachelor had serious misgivings about his investment. “I thought, This is a bit over the top—that I’d been ripped off,” he said. But that was before he departed Cape Town International with his nose pointed 70 degrees skyward, afterburners alight, and, once level, boring straight through the cerulean sky at a satisfyingly shocking Mach 1.4.

“Excellent!” the new Mach-buster reported. And despite a fare of £100 ($160) per minute, he said, “I would do it again.”

Of course, not many are as able or willing as Wells to ride one of the black rockets, so Beachy Head and Alan Ramsay, publisher of Car and other slick South African magazines, have come up with a lollapalooza of a scheme to pull in the rest. Thunder City is to be, among other things, an entertainment center, based at Cape Town International, filled with airplanes and cars of every description, from every corner of the world. In addition to watching videos, playing with touch screens, and oohing at fighters on display, visitors will be able to get blasted in an ejection seat, race a dragster, pull Gs in a dogfighting roller coaster, and make muddy doughnuts in real four-wheelers. And at the center of it all will be Beachy Head’s fleet of jets: the Buc, the Strikemaster, and four Lightnings—that’s right, four; he’s so pleased with the aircraft he’s gone back to England for another three, all of which he hopes to return to flying condition in the near future.

“Our mission is to make Cape Town the jet Oshkosh of the world,” Beachy Head says. “This is where all the jet junkies will come.”

He may be right. Bookings for rides in his jets spiked after their appearance at the Ysterplaat show. And at the next show, scheduled for October 27, 2000, there should be two Lightnings flying.

If you attend, remember two things: First, bring plenty of sunblock, and second, if a pretty girl offers, say yes to the monkey gland sauce.

 

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