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 4 of 5)
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.