Flying in a Harvard is an item on everyone's bucket list and I checked this box today when I flew with the best of the best “The Eqstra Flying Lions” formation team during the commemoration of Zonderwater on the 4th of November 2012.
Zonderwater, situated in Cullinan and known today as Zonderwater Correctional Service maximum security prison, was the largest of the eighteen known World War II Italian POW camps. From April 1941 to January 1947 the camp hosted more than 100,000 Italian soldiers captured by the British on the North and East Africa fronts. Col. Hendrik Frederik Prinsloo, a South African in charge of Zonderwater at the time had been interned in a concentration camp by the English during the Anglo-Boer War and thus he had first-hand experience with the harshness of segregation. Because of this he displayed a sense of strength and humanity by having the prisoners build a small city of 14 Blocks, each with 4 Camps of 2,000 men each, each camp having 24 barracks with sheet metal roofs, 30 km of roads, mess halls, theatres, schools, gyms, hospitals and churches where the internees could be kept occupied and avoid hunger and despair.
Here, every first Sunday of November, the Italian community come together in the presence of diplomatic authorities of both countries to commemorate the approximately 109,000 soldiers who sacrificed part of their youth as they waited and yearned for their return home ten thousand kilometers away.
Every year the Eqstra Flying Lions fly a “missing man” formation at his event and the only exception this time was that I was flying in position 1 with Scully Levin. Arnie Meneghelli flew in the number 2 slot with Ellis Levin in 3 and Sean Thackeray at the back in position 4.
I have seen the Eqstra Flying Lions perform many times and I have often wondered if they realize how fortunate they are to fly Harvards almost every weekend of the year and today I realized that this is exactly the reason why they are the best. They extend their bodies when they strap the Harvard on and the moment number 4 calls “airborne” they all turn sharp into “line astern” to establishing the formation and they become one. On our way to Zonderwater we were doing some really low flying in tight formation and being with the best I was of course not concerned about safety but still curious about it. When I asked Scully, his reply was “because we are having fun!!!”. It is not amazing that after so many years of flying and thousands of shows that they still enjoy it this much? It's not their talent but rather their mentality and culture that make them who they are.
During airshows we sometimes hear the leader's voice over the public address system and are intrigued by the rest of the team's disciplined and precise execution of the commands but little do we know that hand signals during the formation are far more frequent and important than the radio communication. There are hand signals for almost every manoeuvre or action and in addition to safety, this is another reason why the rest of the formation will never take their eyes off the leader. With simple hand signals the leader will guide the formation into a turn, climb, descend or even changing from one formation type to the next without any radio transmission.
Considering that these aircrafts are more than half a century old, you would expect them to show the signs of age after so many years but these Eqstra Harvards are in pristine condition. Nothing is broken, missing or out of place but I do suppose that some of the avionics are updated from the original equipment. But it is a beast! When you are seated and you look down between your legs, you see way down into the fuselage and notice seriousness of the structure making this probably the most iconic aircraft of our time.
Flying in a Harvard is one thing but flying it in a formation add so much more excitement to it and this was truly a “dream come” true for me. I thank Scully, Arnie, Ellis, Sean and everyone else involved with the Eqstra Flying Lions for this extraordinary experience and day I will never forget.