“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered”. Nelson Mandela
On 7 March 2019 I got to return to a place unchanged and reflect on how my life had altered. It all Started with a Painting. Let me tell you my story....
On 18 June 1985 I completed my first solo flight in the South African Air Force in Harvard 7693. This was the start of an aviation career spanning some 34 years and 20,000 hours to date. On my birthday, 34 years after it all began, I again got to fly in Harvard 7693 at Thomaston Airport, just south of Atlanta, Georgia where she now lives. This amazing reunion, four years in the making, all started with a painting.
As a young boy growing up in Cape Town I saw and heard Harvards and Dakotas in the skies above Cape Town regularly. This ignited a passion for aviation which led to school years spent dreaming about flying.
After finishing high school, I applied to the Air Force and was selected for Pilots Course at Central Flying School, Dunnottar on Course 2/84. And so began my career as a pilot.
On 18 June 1985 I was sent for my solo check with Captain Terry Pike. After a few circuits we landed, I signed the DD702 and he sent me off for my first solo. I vividly recall being on Downwind, turning around and seeing no Instructor behind me. I shouted in excitement before settling down to the still somewhat new task of landing the Harvard safely.
I received my wings on 3rd July 1986 and spent 10 years flying in the SAAF at 41 and 44 Squadrons, before starting my Airline Career at Comair, then South African Airways and since September 2001, Emirates, where I am currently a B777 Captain.
My wife Kim is very inventive in finding new ways to surprise me with birthday gifts, and unbeknown to me had decided to commission Aviation Artist Paul Treleven to do a painting of my solo Harvard for my 50th Birthday. Paul posted a photo of the painting on Facebook, and that launched a chain of events. The current owner of my solo Harvard 7693, Dr Arnold A Angelici, was told about the painting on Facebook. Arnold commented on Facebook that he owned it, to which I replied that it was the aircraft I had soloed on. A discussion then ensued about the possibility of us visiting the USA sometime to see 7693. And Arnold also commissioned a painting of 7693 from Paul Treleven.
This all sowed the seeds of an idea that it would be an amazing opportunity to replicate a photo I had of me standing on the wing after my first solo flight 30 something years ago. Our communication continued for nearly four years until I managed to get leave in March 2019 – and so our very special journey started. Arnie had also told me that he had lined up instructors to take me for a flip and that I should bring my logbooks. Did he actually mean that I was going to fly 7693?
We flew to Atlanta and after a quick chat to Arnie, we made arrangements to pick him up at his home the next morning. I hardly slept due to the excitement. He welcomed us into his home and his voice cracked as he said we would be on our way to see 7693. He was as emotional as I was.
We drove about 55 minutes South of Peachtree City, through beautiful countryside to a lovely little county Airport called Thomaston (KOPN) where he kept his aircraft. As we pulled up outside his hangar, my excitement was building to a cresendo. I helped Arnie slide the hangar doors open. And there she was.... absolutely beautiful and looking exactly how I remembered her in her trademark SAAF Dayglo training colours.
I couldn’t speak and just walked around her and touched her again, all those familiar smells and memories rushing back. Kim and Arnie understood the importance of the moment and left me to it. Once I had composed myself, we took a number of photos before Arnie hooked the aircraft up to his golf cart and towed her out. Finally the moment arrived when I could hop into the cockpit while Arnie took me through a quick cockpit familiarisation and the engine start drills.
At this stage my Instructor for the day, Max Hodges, arrived. Max is an amazing guy who has flown most aircraft in the Commemorative Air Force - including the B17, B24, B25, Mustangs and Harvards among many others. After chatting a while it was time to fly. I still didn’t comprehend what was coming, as I figured we would do a quick zip around the circuit and come back.
I put on my old SAAF overall (it still fitted!) and stepped up onto the wing. Arnie helped me strap on the parachute, after which I climbed in to the front cockpit and strapped in. Arnie stood next to me while I started the Harvard for the first time in nearly 34 years. Throttle slightly open, unlock the primer and prime 4 times while at the same time pumping the wobble pump to get the fuel pressure up. With fuel pressure up, lock the primer, flip the starter and count four props before selecting mags on. (Memory is rusty so pardon any errors in the procedure).
With a throaty roar, the engine burst into life and after a few misses, settled into idle. Arnie checked I was okay, thumbs up to Max and hopped off the wing to wait and watch with Kim, who was snapping away furiously with her camera. Once the oil temperature rose to 40 degrees, we were away. Max told me to taxi so I quickly tested the brakes and we started to move. After 25 years of flying Boeings, I had to relearn the art of zigzagging a taildragger to the runway, as you cannot see over the nose and have to zigzag to be able to see what’s in front of you. At this point, I gave control to Max to do the power check as I was unfamiliar with the tail wheel lock, which was different to when I originally flew it. We did the power check, and Max gave control back to me and it was time to fly. I lined up on the runway, slowly advanced power and commenced the takeoff. I was careful to keep a bit of right rudder as the tail came up and before I knew it we were airborne, gear selected up and climbing away at 100 knots.
Max and I spent the next 45 minutes familiarising me with the aircraft and getting used to using rudder again before practicing some manoeuvres. After a few turns and climbs it was time for some aerobatics. We did Chandelles, Figure of 8s and loops before I started feeling a bit queasy.
We then returned to Thomaston where Max pattered me through a landing and we taxied in and parked. After stepping out of the cockpit we recreated my original solo photo. At this point it really hit home how far I’d come both in career and in life. So much had happened since I stood on that wing back at Dunnottar in June 1985. Friends lost in accidents, raising a family, building a career. I had a huge lump in my throat. I then hopped off the wing and shook hands with both Max and Arnie, before giving them a huge hug in appreciation of the momentous occasion. They both had huge beaming smiles and I knew it meant so much to them too.
After a big hug and kiss from Kim, Max told me we would just take a 20 minute breather and go again. Again??? They weren’t done with me yet – and after a few minutes we saddled up again and Max and I flew for a second time. What a day! The excitement, the memories, the smells.
Back on the ground, Max and Arnie went through my logbook and wanted to know everything about SAAF training, about each badge on my overall and general history about SAAF squadrons after which Max signed out 2 hours Dual in my current logbook.
Later that evening Max, Arnie, his wife Alice, Kim and I went for dinner at a local restaurant after which I voiced my sincere appreciation and gifted Max and Arnie each a bottle of my favourite whiskey and a bottle of South African wine. I also gave Arnie a copy of Andrew Embletons’ book Facta Nostra Vivent (a book covering the role of the Harvard in training in the South African Air Force) at which point both Max and Arnie were quite humbled and appreciative. Max left early as he had a 4 am departure the next day to test fly a XP 82 twin fuselage Mustang about 5 hours’ drive away. A real gent!
The next morning Arnie took us to an aircraft spares shop, Aircraft Spruce, very popular with the SAA guys on layover in Atlanta, before heading out to a little museum at Candler Field just south of Atlanta, which was designed to replicate the Atlanta Airfield of the 20’s and 30’s. Here we had lunch at Barnstomers Grill where we met John “Skipper” Hyle who would be flying with me that day. John has his own Harvard hangared next to Arnies and is also rebuilding a Stearman from scratch.
All fuelled up we returned to Thomaston where we took 7693 out and got airborne with a nice little crosswind. We spent a lazy hour flying around the American countryside at 2000 feet, just enjoying the flight for the sake of it. I asked Skipper to do the landing as I didn’t feel comfortable enough yet to try to land in a crosswind. After taxing in and shutting down, Skipper signed my logbook for a third hour of dual. Unbelievably, Arnie then brought out the original DD702 tech logs for the aircraft and we went through them and found my original signature from my first solo in 1985. What are the odds that he would even have these?
A long-standing SAAF tradition dictates that a newly soloed pilot must be carried by their course mates from the wing of the aircraft to a mud bath where they are ceremoniously dumped. Arnie had seen my photos and started his own tradition by proudly presenting me with a piece of material covered in Georgian mud. Classic!
He really went all out to make this event special for us and in our many discussions about the aircraft it was very evident how passionate and determined Arnie is in keeping 7693 in her traditional SAAF colours to honour and respect, as he put it “those whose feet have touched her rudder pedals” She spent the bulk of her working life in the SAAF, from the early 1950’s till she was sold in the mid 90’s.
On our return to Peachtree we popped in at Thomaston Airport to see a branch of the Commemorative Air Force called Dixie Wing. They have a number of aircraft such as a Corsair, Curtiss Jenny, Douglas Dauntless, Fairchild PT19 and Texan T6, all of which are in mint flying condition.
By an amazing coincidence, hangared next to Arnie is another pristine SAAF Harvard, 7725. She was bought and shipped from Chile and later sold to the current owner. She was part of the SAAF Harvard Aerobatic team that was invited to FIDAE Air Defense Expo in Chile in 1994.
A great unintended consequence of my experience is that a number of colleagues are now tracking down their solo aircraft around the world to try and replicate my experience. The buzz around it reminds us of where our passion for this great industry began and is a reminder to savour every moment.
All in all it was an amazing trip down memory lane, sharing this experience with my wife, Kim, who has been by my side throughout my career, making new friends, flying my solo Harvard again after 34 years and seeing another SAAF Harvard.
I had returned to my original solo Harvard, which was as I remembered her from all those years ago and reflect on how much I had changed and experienced since that solo moment....and to think it all started with a painting.