Lightning Strikes Cape Town
Rare high-performance British jets are drawing fans to a new airshow on the circuit.
- By Bill Garvey
- Air & Space magazine, May 2000
(Page 2 of 5)
(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.