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 3 of 5)
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.