30 June 1957 - 21 May 2017
“If you are not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”
Mike Beachy Head lived a life far above and beyond that which mere mortal pilots can even dream of.
He was a pilot’s pilot – a man who lived life at full afterburner with his private squadron of jet fighters and strike bombers. He was the man who made the impossible happen and created the world’s last repository of airworthy cold war fighters – from the awe-inspiring Lightning and the magnificent Buccaneer to the gorgeous Hunter.
Flying fighters, particularly supersonic Lightnings, is demanding. Yet Mike would take a Hunter, Buccaneer and Lightning to airshows and hop from one to the next – a physically exhausting and mentally taxing task that he was happy to do for the hundreds of thousands he thrilled at airshows. And he shared the ineffable blast of fast jet flight with countless fortunate flying enthusiasts and thrill seekers. From billionaires like Richard Branson, to humble aspiring pilots with stars in their eyes, to aviation journos like me, who had the honour of sharing fast jet flight with our readers.
Yet Mike was not just a one-track man focussed on flying, above all else. He made time for everything – especially his family and diverse business interests, from boat propulsion to property development. The pictures of his life screened at his memorial service, which filled the cavernous Thunder City hangar, showed a man who cared more about his family than anything else. He loved his family as much as he loved life itself.
Outnumbering pictures of Mike with his jet fighters were pictures of him as a family man: playing cricket with his children at their holiday home in Knysna, a touching photo of him teaching a son to shave, and being an Englishman who really knew how to braai.
His love for speed was not just about planes – he regularly drove his brutal Porsche 917 replica with great gusto at the Simola Hillclimb. Mike was the real deal, the whole package, a man who was genuinely admirable. Long-time friend and fellow fast jet pilot Ian Pringle provided some personal insights into Mike the pilot and entrepreneur who made things happen: “Impossible or unthinkable – never! This type of phrase was a direct challenge to Mike, and he saw it as an invitation to prove the naysayers wrong.”
Ian goes on to share Mike’s first flying lessons and says that he was regarded as a difficult student by some of the instructors. Debby Mann said, “I quickly realised that nobody could tell him how to fly; our role was just to get him through the legal requirements.” Even so, Mike became impatient with Cape Town’s delays and aircraft booking, and went to Gerald Todd at CFS (George) for a cram course, which included a twin conversion on an Apache. “He was just so much better than my commercial students,” said Gerald.
Flying small aircraft was never going to be enough. Mike had a vision; he wanted more. So he bought three jets at an auction in England and went to learn to fly the Hawker Hunter at Exeter. There he saw two Lightnings and climbed the ladder to the cockpit. “l want one of those,” Mike said, and as he does, he bought four and shipped them to Cape Town, so becoming the first and only civilian ever to fly the supersonic English Electric Lightning.
Mike’s favourite machine was the Buccaneer, and he bought three. He loved the complexity of the nuclear capable strike bomber. Especially as it only had one set of controls, so if he messed up, his instructor had one option – to eject.”
Ian Pringle recounts how, when Mike invited him to fly the Hunter at Thunder City, he pulled on his flying gear. “What’s that?” Mike asked, pointing Ian’s G suit. “Those things are for wusses. We don’t use them at Thunder City.”
In 2001, Mike bought three more Hunters, and flew them to South Africa, to bring his mini air force to 12 jets. Bringing them to Cape Town was an epic African adventure: Stuck in Egypt and then Eritrea, the military fighters aroused hostility. Thinking on his feet, Mike explained that they were taking the jets to Nelson Mandela’s private museum. It worked – and they even filled the tanks for free!
One of Mike’s proudest aviation moments was when four Lightnings ﬂew in formation at the Ysterplaat Airshow in 2006, yet again proving the many naysayers wrong ̶ not to mention putting all three Buccs up at Overberg. Mike was a helicopter pilot too, being the only student pilot to fly solo and qualify for his PPL in ZU-PUM, his personal Aerospatiale Puma. His whole family: Jane, Jake, Astin and Luke, enjoyed many flights to and from their Knysna house, with dogs, furniture, kitchen sink and all in the Puma.
His best aviation moments were with his family. His first date with Jane was a flip in the Hunter. On another flip, he rolled the Hunter inverted, proposed to her and held it inverted until she accepted. He had been a determined bachelor until the day before he turned 40 and then threw all his passion, love and loyalty into his 20 year marriage to Jane – which has been so cruelly cut short by his untimely heart attack.
Mike’s last public display flight was in Windhoek less than two years ago, where he flew AUJ and BCR. Mike’s Buccaneer display was pure artistry. Remember this is a 20 tonne aircraft – and fast. He put it succinctly: “You cover a kilometre every four seconds, so if you blink, you become a dot in the sky. Displaying the Bucc was a heavy-G affair, meaning that most of us would pass out.”
Mike’s sister Lynette shared how she stood in awe of Mike’s accomplishments, not just in flying and business, but at the passion he brought to everything in his life. “He lived large and redefined pushing the envelope.” Lynette tells how on a trip to England, he took all his friends to the best French restaurant, Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – the bill came to more than the then foreign exchange allowance for the entire trip.
Fly high Mike – keep the afterburners cooking!