Lightning Strikes Cape Town

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

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The place was familiar immediately. The broad expanses of macadam. The gaggle of bright Pittses, hulking warbirds, and fragile ultralights in the center. Thousands of people, all in T-shirts and ball caps and sunglasses, slurping soda and pointing and gawking and standing in queues to inspect parked aircraft and hangar displays. Rock music and DJ chatter blaring from loudspeakers, the sun baking everything to bubbling. And permeating the scene, the odor of kerosene and the whine of turbine engines.

Yup, another airshow. But not quite like any I’d ever attended.

First there was the razor wire. Three feet high and bristling with blades, it snaked along the ramps and taxiways like a huge, evil Slinky, guarding the airplanes from the gawkers. Further ensuring the separation was an unsmiling young man in a dusty blue uniform, a machine gun cradled in his arm. Were the crowds to suddenly riot, hurdle the wire, overwhelm the soldier, and make a mad rush for, say, a Pegasus trike or Pilatus trainer, the armored vehicles scattered about could put things to order quickly. There was no question the military was in charge here (it was their property, after all).

Then there was the food: Amid the omnipresent Coke and candy concessions were booths hawking vetkoek, rootie, and samoosas.

Finally, there was the odd date. It was summer, of course, but the calendar said that it was October 30.

Clearly, I was a long way from Oshkosh—actually, 78 degrees of latitude, eight time zones, and about 8,600 miles away—and happily so. For, with all due respect to Wisconsin’s airplane Mecca, there are few places more naturally beautiful than Cape Town. A sun-soaked metropolis at Africa’s southern tip, the city marks the merging of the chilled South Atlantic with the warmer Indian Ocean. Famous for its magnificent Table Mountain, excellent wines, snazzy waterfront, and rich sea life, Cape Town is a magnet for European tourists, particularly during the winter months.

These days, some South African entrepreneurs are working to expand the city’s attractions, and the show at the Ysterplaat Air Force Base, now in its second year, is a major component of that expansion.

As I wandered through the crowds, I ran into a compact, middle-aged fellow wearing a black flightsuit and drawing pensively on a little cigar. This was Mike Beachy Head, one of the key figures involved in the 1999 show. The event was sponsored by the South African Air Force Museum, which is located at the base, and a Beachy Head enterprise called Thunder City.

(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.

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