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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 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.

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