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Lightning Strikes Cape Town

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

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.

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