The SAAF Museum Airshow at AFB Swartkop is always a big event. The air force base is slap bang between Jo’burg and Pretoria, and the SAAF throws its weight behind the show, so you know there are going to be vintage fighters, heavy-lifters, fast jets and explosions – plus the top drawer civilian display pilots and teams.
Media accreditation is a contentious issue for the show, so I decided to go as just another enthusiastic member of the large crowd. The public gets a fantastic deal at just R80 for adults, with kids under 16 getting in for free.
Gates opened at 07h00 and the show officially got under way at 09h00, although before then there were paradrops and the arrival of the SAAF Marching Band in the C-130.
Long queues for this show have been a complaint over the years, and we only managed to leave our home at around 08h15. I was grumbling to myself, expecting a long wait while all the action went on behind the air base walls. Traffic started building the moment I turned off the freeway, but it moved steadily. Soon I had a parking outside the northern entrance – Gate 2 – and it took less than five minutes to go through the security check, buy tickets and find a spot to open our camping chairs. I was in by 09h00.
Throughout the day the show ran like clockwork. Crowd pleasers were, of course, the Gripen and Hawk – the fast jets – as well at the vintage Vampire. Another SAAF highlight was the Alouette II and III aerial ‘ballet’. The SAAF and SANDF mini-war provided some ‘Hollywood’ entertainment, with strafing flypasts by two Hawks, air drops, paradrops, simulated air protection from the Rooivalk, rescue of a downed pilot by an Oryx and more, all accompanied by explosions and flares.
Each civilian and solo aerobatic display brought a unique spin. The Cows Pitts team, lead by Scully Levin, blended seemingly effortless tight formation aerobatics with a little light-hearted humour, as the accompanying soundtrack from Capital Sounds was the mooing of cows. The Goodyear Pitts Specials put on a high-energy display in their nimble planes. The Harvards rumbled the nostalgia of their decades of training in the SAAF, while Team Xtreme were faultless, performing dual knife-edges, bomb bursts, wing overlapping loops and rolls as though they were on rails, and then breaking off to approach from opposite ends of the field and flicking on their sides at the last split second as they passed each other. When it came to solo aerobatics, Nigel Hopkins, Patrick Davidson and Andrew Blackwood-Murray all put on exceptional high-G performances.
A noticeable absence was the Silver Falcons. The new Team 82 still has to hold fly-offs for the #2 position and then practise together as the new team before they’ll re-join the airshow circuit. Nevertheless, Maj. Bheki Shabangu of the Silver Falcons was there to fly a polished solo display in the SAAF’s trainer, the PC-7 Astra.
The crowd seemed bigger than the past few years and filled the base from north to south and from hangars to crowd line. A fun surprise was the ‘flash mob’ performance by the SAAF Band which gathered together from throughout the crowd as they put on funky marching-band remixes of current pop songs, much to the delight of spectators who enthusiastically sang along.
The Swartkop SAAF Museum Airshow is more than family entertainment on a Saturday. A youth exhibition was held on the Friday before the show to expose SA’s younger generation to aviation. Approximately 1,000 learners were bussed in from surrounding schools and taken around the museum hangars and exhibits and then the aviation industry information stalls, where they were offered information on careers in aviation and related fields.
The theme for this year’s airshow was ‘Our Indomitable Spirit’, and if the success of the show in anything to go by, the spirit of the SAAF will indeed live on.