It was a while ago, probably more than ten years ago, that Felix and my path crossed one evening at Grand Central Airport in Johannesburg. He was building night hours for his ATPL and I was a sky-junkie looking for any ride to hop. Not having met before we immediately hit it off as we explored the western side of Gauteng in the dark of the night in a hired Sling. What struck me about Felix right there and then, is that he expressed the idea of giving back. Giving back to children and less fortunate people. The makings of the popular and successful Childrens Flight were already in his mind at that moment in time. Little did he, I and many others know how many iterations there would be of this “giving back” idea and how many thousands of lives would be touched by this brilliant idea.
Roll on to the present day and the Elders Flight 2023, an initiative to give back to elders and military veterans. Felix assembled an astonishing team of experts from safety to event planning, marketing and a plethora of sponsors and a squadron of some of the finest pilots that can be found anywhere in the world.
I was honoured and privileged to fly to the event held at Brakpan Airfield courtesy of Heystek and Michelle Pretorius in their 1991 Antonov AN2 from Wonderboom Airport. I arrived at Wonderboom early on Saturday morning and awaited the arrival of Heystek and Michelle.
Taking runway 24 out of Wonderboom and turning in an Easterly direction we were soon on our way with Heystek, Michelle and their two young sons. The world was only starting to stir down below as we grumbled our way towards Brakpan. As the world slipped slowly below our feet, I could not help but feel a sense of excitement for the day that stood in wait for us.
Almost as quickly as we were airborne, Heystek and Michelle started configuring Anuschka for our descent and landing at Brakpan. I could not help but marvel at the deft touch and almost sixth sense CRM I saw exhibited by these two experienced aviators. A well-rehearsed dance of feet and hands between them saw us touching down at Brakpan like a butterfly with sore feet. Just beautifully executed.
I headed for the central hangar where the events were already taking shape. Tables were beautifully laid; a red carpet adorned the floor and there were many many elders checking in for the days' activities. This was also the venue where pilots, crew, ground crew and media could check in. With the formalities concluded I headed out to the flight line to see an incredible variety of aircraft. From the venerable Cessna Caravan to the luxurious Cessna 414. All other types of aircraft were present and an entire flock of helicopters. Two bladed, three bladed or four bladed machines you could want for a more diverse selection.
The clock was ticking, and an operations briefing was held in front of the Capital Sounds control centre.
Felix Gosher - Briefing the Pilots
Ricardo Afonso - Giving the ATC Briefing
Nigel Musgrave - Giving a Ground Crew Briefing
Santjie White - Giving a Safety Overview
Flights started to fill up and depart directly after the Lord's Prayer was observed and conducted by Felix himself.
During the “hot” turn-around process there was a buggy service to and from waiting aircraft. It was all smiles all around!
All the while, the Elders enjoyed the sounds of the various bands that provided live music in a beautifully made-up setting thanks to Belinda Gosher and her team.
The festive atmosphere certainly translated to the flying activities as the aircraft kept departing and returning with ever more smiling faces.
Then the following moment played itself out in-front of a group of photographers, not planned not rehearsed but it spoke to the theme of the day beautifully. Felix and fellow Pilot Greg Rooken-Smith walked an elderly lady out to the aircraft for her first ever flight. I am not sure who was chopping onions but there was more than one tough photographer that felt truly touched by this poignant moment.
Next followed another highlight of the day for me. Menno Parson who had arrived with his P51 Mustang Sally earlier in the day, had kindly invited members of the media for a flight around the patterns in his Tiger themed Bell UH-1 Huey. Needless to say, the excitement of all of us grew instantly at the receiving of this invite.
I snapped the following sequence of images during this unforgettable flight.
The adrenaline was flowing freely after the flight in the Huey, but it was not about to end anytime soon. The Flying Lions had arrived overhead the airfield to contribute to the day with their flat show display. Always a crowd pleaser no matter where in South Africa they are warmly received.
The formal part of the Elders Flight was about to start and the majority of the crowd gathered at the central hangar as the military veterans now had their moment to return to the sky.
I captured the following images of the military veterans and their respective pilots as they walked out for their sorties.
Brig. Gen. Mac van der Merwe with Richardt Lovett
Lt Ralf Boetger with Frederik Kotzee
Col Neville Parkins with Jeff Earle
With the wind picking up, myself and the fellow passengers, who accompanied Heystek and Michelle to Brakpan, were informed that we would be departing ahead of schedule to avoid the ever-increasing wind speed. I must say I could see why this call was made, the Antonov takes some man (and woman handling) on the ground with gusty conditions.
We took off in a northerly direction back to Wonderboom unfortunately missing the wings ceremony and departure of the elders, but my heart was full. I left Brakpan on Saturday afternoon understanding that once again lives were touched. People again believed in the kindness of their neighbour. I saw before my eyes, the kindness and selflessness of people that share the vision of Felix, the pilots, the ground crews, the sponsors and the many other stakeholders in this wonderful event. How beautiful the world can be if we can live our daily lives with this in mind.
I think back to a black night, ten or so years ago, somewhere in air in the west of Gauteng in a hired Sling, two, then strangers, solving the worlds problems, when Felix told me, “We have to give back Boytjie, we have to give back”.