DOWN MEMORY PLANE
By Johan Lottering
Doing research for a book invariably takes one down memory lane. It breaks my heart to see Voortrekkerhoogte, once Roberts Heights now Thaba Tshwane, has become a dump. The buildings, especially the living quarters, clearly have not seen much maintenance in years. Here and there a house stands out, the garden neatly kept. The occupant must be an officer with higher personal values. A headless horse sign warns of the crossing before the once proud, now dilapidated Military Stables. As children we occasionally got lessons from Brig. Jan Blaauw. He was a decorated war hero who had flown P51D Mustangs in the Korean War. True to his character of discipline and thorough grounding, he made us jump triple combinations cavalettis without stirrups to improve our seat.
We drive towards the War Graves Memorial. Members of the Bond of Veterans have sacrificed their Saturday to create order. I come across the headstone of the late Commandant Attie van Schalkwyk. I was indirectly related to him on my mom's side. We used to admire the Mach Club and other prestigious certificates lining his hallway. He was among the privileged few who had flown F86-F Sabre Jets into inverted supersonic dives, before applying the dive brake for a steady five-G pull-out. I vividly recall his casket draped in the old South African flag on the cannon wagon. The way I recalled, an artery in his mid-brain ruptured shortly after a record-breaking flight in an Impala Jet from Pietersburg to Waterkloof. He was only 37 at the time.
I am saddened by one particular headstone, of a young stewardess. She used to be a little older than us. We sort of all admired her from a distance at the stables. She was barely 21 upon losing her life, after being invited along for an unofficial airshow in an Air Force C-47 Dakota. The pilots attempted a stall turn, having taken off from Zwartkops Air Force Base shortly before for a routine maintenance test flight.
One epitaph marks the grave of a young lance corporal. He had just received his Springbok colours in rugby before becoming one of eleven crew members who perished when three Mercurius HS-125 Jets flew in formation into Devil's Peak on May 26, 1971. The inquest later placed the blame on the wing leader and commander of the lead plane. However, he was following standing orders to do a low level orbit if need be, for spacing. He was never supposed to lead anyone into clouds. The overall commanders, who had worked out a set of rules for the mass fly-past, requiring an orbit towards high ground at low level notwithstanding the high probability of poor visibility and turn radius variations with speed, were never implicated.
Our memory lane meandering leads us to the Air Force Memorial at Bays Hill. The names of 41 pilots who had lost their lives in the Korean War are commemorated there. I was proud to have known yet another from their ranks, who had survived them. One of his wingmen, 2Lt. Jessie Verster, appears on the plaque. Lt. Gus Marshall, my elderly friend in later years, was decorated by the US Air Force for bravery under fire. Having partially lost his hearing, Gus, better known as Gordon to his family, became involved in the Mission Aviation Fellowship in South Africa after the war. His real-life feats, saving many lives in more ways than one, are recorded in a book 'Hope has Wings' by Stuart King (1993; ISBN 0551 02551-4).
On the unofficial SAAF website that evening, I read about the C-130 Hercules' narrow escape after being flown to a 90-degree nose-up angle at an aerial display in October 2013. A female captain and loadmaster were injured. I log off with a sense of trepidationÖ Could there be more budding Bud Hollands out there? He had gone up in flames while trying in vain to roll a B-52 bomber at an airshow in 1994. Going down memory lane alerts one to the thin-line between real-life heroes and legends in their own mind. Do not become yet another 'memory plane'! (Do attend the Stellenbosch Flying Club safety talk on February 6, 2014)
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