Monday, May 30, 2005

Those magnificent men in their kites of sting

Often it takes a special visitor to let us view our itineraries through new eyes. An aircraft fundi I happened to meet shared some interesting insights with me.

Of all the fields of human endeavour there are few that stir the imagination like aviation, the sound of the engines and smell of oil and fuel. It conjures up images of men in fabric kites powered by lawnmower engines, pushing the limits of imagination and sanity.

Some of the towns with a claim to fame in South African aviation history may come as surprise.

A world first in aviation history was the use of an observation balloon during the battle of Magersfontein near Kimberley. This boom town was also to play host to the first attempt at a training school for pilots. Instruction was given on the Patterson biplane which in many ways resembled the famous Wright flyer.

From these humble beginnings, flight training in South Africa got an additional shot in the arm during the Second World War with the JATS or Joint Air Training Scheme which was principally centred in the Eastern Cape in particular Port Alfred and Port Elizabeth.
Well worth the visit is the small museum attached to the eastern “wing” of the airport. JATS aircraft were clearly distinguishable by their yellow wings as pilots were put through their paces in our uncrowded South African skies. JATS veterans still make the pilgrimage to South Africa for reunions every four years.

The HQ of the Air force museum is in Pretoria, based at Air force base Zwartkop, in an interesting piece of history in its own right. The museums hangars formed part of the original Imperial Gift which birthed the air force in the 1920's.

One of the aircraft yet to be restored is the Lockheed Ventura affectionately called the widow maker by those who flew her. This was due to her exceedingly heavy engines in relation to her short stubby wings causing her to roll into a steep dive should the one engine cut out in flight.

In spite of its poor statistics, the aircraft was used by SAA as a passenger plane and even Jan Smuts chose it as his backup transport during tours of inspection to North Africa, with the mainstay being an Avro York.

Another interesting aircraft in the collection is the Piaggio Albatross. Apparently a very smooth aircraft in terms of handling, the sound from the pusher engines did not enjoy the same reputation. This earned the aircraft the nickname “Converter” as it apparently converted Avgas into noise. Most of these short-range maritime patrol aircraft are today in private hands, when the air force de-commissioned them in 1992.

While restoration work continues on new projects, the museum continues to aspire to greater heights, echoeing the air force motto, Per Aspera Ad Astra. (Through struggle to the Stars.)

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