Ray's SAAF story part 2

By Ray Watts

We had only one trip to the shooting range and this was the only time I ever got to actually fire a R1. The problem with this was that I was still officially on light duty (from the appendix op) and wasn't supposed to be there, but I wasn't going to miss the opportunity. I got into trouble for this because the cut opened up slightly and there was a little blood on my overall. The flight sergeant (Naas Ferreira) wanted to know what was going on and I stood to attention to answer him and grabbed my rifle by the barrel. Not a good idea as not only was the cut on my stomach hurting but I also burned my hand - that barrel was hot.

Fort Skanskop

We also did a trip to the old fort at Skanskop where we practiced climbing walls etc. Great fun but then the instructors decided that after all this strenuous exercise we hadn't lived up to expectations and had to run the 7 or 8 miles back to base. This was sheer hell. We started out as a disciplined squadron and ended up a complete rabble, and all arrived back at the gym at different times. The instructors didn't try this one again as they were chewed out by the RSM for wasting time. We were late for supper you see, and this wasn't tolerated. The instructors got their own back on us by making us do an extra two or three hours of rope climbing in the Melville Hall the next day (Swine).

There were certain Saturday & Sunday nights where the canteen wasn't open but there was a fish & chip shop just down the road (it's still there but these days I wouldn't eat anything from there that wasn't sealed before it went into the shop). We were not allowed out of camp, but this didn't stop us. There was a large storm water drain that ran from the bottom parade ground under the fence out onto the Old Pretoria Rd and once through this pipe the shop wasn't too far away. We were never caught but I did notice, some years later when I went passed the gym that they had put a heavy steel grid across this exit (spoil sports).

While I was there, they decided to teach us how to jump off moving vehicles - disaster. The way to do this was when the truck was doing about 10 M.P.H. one would run from the cab end of the truck and keep running over the end of it. The idea was to keep running until you hit the ground and to then roll over, stand up and keep running, gradually slowing down until you came to a halt. This exercise turned into a disaster. Two of the guys with me broke legs in the process and the exercise was stopped. Thank goodness I never got to do the exercise, having the letter W in your surname sometimes helps - typical military fashion this exercise was done in alphabetical order. I think they got as far as C before the exercise was called off.

I also remember a funny incident; it was on a Wednesday, and I was told to report to the admin block to have my photo taken for my military I/D card. This required that I wear a collar and tie, but the problem was that on a Wednesday the uniform of the day was open neck khaki shirt and shorts. I put on the blue shirt and tie and had my photo taken and was running back to the bungalow to change when I was stopped by a Captain who asked what the hell I thought I was doing and when I explained the situation to him, he actually understood and let me go.

We were based at the gym for three months and then mustered into our "callings" as they were known and as Schalk Reed, Basil Killian & me were employed by DCA as trainee ATC's we were sent to the SAAF ATC School at Pietersburg. There were some other guys mustered with us as well and one of them, Richard Herd, and I became good pals.

On the day we left for Pietersburg my family came along to see us off at Pretoria station. The train trip to Pietersburg was a non-event except the food was a damn sight better that the gym. We arrived very early in the morning at Pietersburg Station and wonder of wonders the military arrangements actually worked, there was a truck there to pick us up and transport us to the airfield.

We were housed in tents with concrete floors but more about them later.

Sabres on flightline AFB Pietersburg

It was such a great feeling to be on an airfield again with the wide-open spaces and fresh air. I think that once anybody has worked on an airfield, working in an office is not the most pleasant way of making a living. I still enjoy getting out onto an airfield and just walking around in the fresh air. I do this regularly at Grand Central & Swartkops, it's great.

The food at Pietersburg was a tremendous improvement over the gym and I'll tell you about the Chef at a later stage.

When I went into the Air Force the parents were very against me hitch hiking home on weekends so, whenever I had a weekend off Dad made a plan to pick me up. This was fine while I was based at Valhalla in Pretoria, but my first posting was to Pietersburg, which is far away from Kempton Park, a different plan had to be made.

The first weekend that I had off, my friend Richard Herd and I hitched as far as Pretoria. On this trip we were picked up by a farmer who promptly told us that if we tried to take his car from him, he would overturn it and kill all of us. We eventually got to Pretoria station and with the last 5c coin that I had phoned home for the folks to come and fetch us. It took seemingly forever for them to get to us, but Mom brought a whole bunch of food with her, and as Richard & I had not had anything to eat, apart from breakfast, this was extremely welcome.

The next morning Dad and I bought the Star Newspaper and went through the Used Car section quite diligently. We found a number of suitable cars and went off to look at them. Some of them were really not fit to be seen until we came to a dealer called Canadian Motors in Jules St., Malvern, (Where else?). They had this delightful little 1964 Morris 850 Mini. It was Dark Blue and in quite good nick. It drove nicely and sounded good, no untoward clonks etc. The price was R500-00. I had enough money saved up (I was being paid by DCA while I was in the SAAF) to put down a 25% deposit. We rushed to the local Trust Bank (in those days Banks closed very early on a Saturday), drew the money and went back to the dealership. The deal was concluded (R125.00 down & R28.00 p.m.) and it was agreed that we would put the car through the roadworthy and that enabled me to drive my "new car" home on the very day that I bought it. Great Excitement.

I was quite ready to drive the little car all the way back to Pietersburg that Sunday, but Dad put his foot down and said I was going nowhere in the car until it was roadworthy and licensed. That resulted in a quandary for me, I didn't want to hitch back to Pietersburg and there was Richard to consider as well. He was to travel back with me. Dad obviously had a plan up his sleeve however and he lent me his car to get us back. What an opportunity. Dad's car was a Ford Zephyr 6 Sport which had the 3 litre straight 6 engine coupled to a Ford Granada 4 spd box. This thing could fly. Being so powerful, this car drank petrol, as I found out. We filled the car in Birchleigh, and I pulled away very quietly, after having been warned to drive sensibly. When you're 19 and in charge of a fast vehicle driving sensibly lasts about 5 minutes then the foot goes down. Well, the Zephyr's thirst showed itself. We had to fill up in Nylstroom and again in Potgietersrus before we got to the base in Pietersburg - an expensive lesson.

My Dad's Zephyr

I had the Zephyr for two weeks as we only got every second weekend off. On the weekend we were in camp we were allowed to go into the town only, and the MP's actually set up military check points to check that we didn't even try to go further than we should have. On this weekend Richard & I took a long tour around the town and visited the civvie airfield as well. We were made very welcome at the local Flying Club but because we were in uniform, they would not serve us any liquor. They did however treat us to a fantastic braai and considering that we were existing on Air Force food, this was the best food we ever had (apart from Mothers Home Cooking). If memory serves me correctly this was the first time I had tasted Mieliebrood - it's still one of my favourites specially when served with lashings of butter (not margarine). The steaks were cooked to perfection and the salads just right. We were told that we were always welcome there but unfortunately didn't get the time to go back. I found a rather strange aircraft in one of the hangars and didn't know what it was. It turned out to be an Orlican Aero Super 45 and if memory serves me correctly it was ZS-CYC, which now belongs to Anthony English and is at Krugersdorp, being restored to flying condition (2005)

SAAF Transalls

At the time there were Vampires & Sabres based at Pietersburg and we received visitors such as Hercules, Transalls, and Mirages etc. Both Richard & I were in the ATC School there and this was a 6-week course. We were in the classroom in the morning and after lunch in the tower itself. This was fantastic for two young enthusiasts. The day started at 7am (after breakfast & PT) with the morning parade after which we went to the classroom. Around 8:30 the Vampires would start up and everything came to a grinding halt in the classroom as the high-pitched whistle that the Goblin engine produced was deafening. Until they were all gone off on their daily tasks one could not hear oneself speak. Somehow the Sabres, although also very noisy, never disturbed the class. There weren't any crashes on the airfield that I can remember while we were there.

There were of course some "excitements" that I can remember. One was when a Sabre that landed without brakes had to be caught in the barrier net. This was a large net, attached to two substantial poles that lay flat at the end of each runway and when required was activated from the control tower, the poles would spring upright and of course the net would then span the width of the runway and catch any aircraft that went into it. There was usually minimum damage to the aircraft and no injury to the pilot. This system worked very well, but I had never heard of it being used at any civvie field.

SAAF Vampires

There was also an incident with one of the Vampires. If one studies the Vamp armament system, it's typically British. I have a theory that British engineers have a system of how they do things. They think of a difficult way of doing something, multiply that way by 10 and then build it that way (ever tried changing the clutch master cylinder on a Morris Minor - but that's another story). The Vampire's rockets were all mounted on their racks under the wings by the armaments staff but were not plugged into the electrical system until the aircraft reached the holding point of the runway. At this stage an armourer would duck under the wings and attach all the "pigtails" to their respective outlets. On this particular day, this system was followed but somehow something went wrong because as the aircraft rotated the rockets went off by themselves and blasted their way into the blue. These rockets proceeded to flatten a local farmer's barn. Luckily nobody was hurt.

There was one spot on the airfield, behind the armament section, where one could collect empty 20mm Cannon shell casings (ex Sabre) and I still have one somewhere. This of course wasn't allowed which made it far more fun.

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