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South Africa’s pioneering air show display pilots

A Gripen in formation with the Silver Falcons.South African aviators have pioneered an astounding number of aviation stunts, such as the Flying Lions team water-skiing four Harvards across a dam. These brave pilots bring the same skill and bravado to the airshow circuit, and have performed physics-defying feats over and over again for thousands and thousands of spectators.

There are many examples of daring display flying over the last seventy years, such as when three legendary SAAF pilots, Tinky Jones, Fritz Johl and Fred Potgieter tied the wingtips of their Harvards to each other with painted ropes and performed formation aerobatic displays over the Rand Easter Show in the early 1950s. This feat was not repeated until fifty years later, when Scully Levin, Ellis Levin and Chris Twyford joined their Pitts Specials together with chains and performed an aerobatic display at Durban’s Virginia Airshow.

In 1964, Major Cliff Melville broke the sound barrier in a Mirage IIIC at about 100 feet above ground level over the runway at the Pietersburg Air Force Airshow. The sonic boom was heard for miles around and broke hundreds of windows in the town. Despite this, the publicity and excitement that the event generated far outweighed the damage that was done.

One South African aviator to have racked up many firsts is Scully Levin, who was SA National Aerobatic Champion three times before the age of 29. He started the first civilian aerobatic team in South Africa in 1985 with Jeff Birch, Chris Rademan and Laurie Kay. One of Scully’s most daring feats is landing an aircraft on a moving vehicle, a feat he first performed in the early 1980s using a Piper Cub with famous racing driver Bob Olthoff at the wheel of the truck. Another breath-taking feat was the first inverted ribbon cut, which Scully performed in a Pitts Special S2S over a new runway at Grand Central Airport during its opening in the 1980s.

South Africa arguably became the first country in the world to allow full-on displays using an airliner. While South African Airways (SAA) Captain Kenneth ‘Toddy’ Bain conducted a flypast at the Baragwanath Airport Airshow in a Boeing 707 in the 1960s, it was much later that Scully and Captain Doc Malan that put on a full demonstration at Durban’s Virginia Airport. Scully says these spirited displays became very popular at major airshows around the country and were flown in most of SAA’s aircraft types. Other pilots that would fly these displays were famous names such as Laurie Kay, Dennis Spence, Johan Dries, Johnny Woods, Grant McAlpine, Pierre Gouws, Ellis Levin and Nigel Hopkins.

The late, great Glen Dell was one of South Africa’s best aerobatic pilots and one of the things he will always be remembered for is flying his Extra 300 down the runway while motocross athlete Nick de Wit ramped over it with his motorcycle – the first time that such a stunt took place in Africa. Glen was also the first South African to compete in the Red Bull Air Race World Series. He was also responsible for the development of the Slick 360 and Slick 540 aerobatic aircraft, made in South Africa from composite materials.

Pilots from the Goodyear Eagles aerobatic team, led by Dennis Spence, pioneered inverted parachute drops, rolling their Pitts Specials upside down to eject the skydivers. The first triple inverted parachute drop took place in 2009. This stunt was recently seen again at the Airlink Adrenaline Show at Wonderboom in June.

As someone who has several decades commentating at airshows in Africa and across the world, Brian Emmenis has seen plenty of firsts and oddities. The biggest first occurred in November 2007 during the Bredasdorp airshow. As Air Force Base Overberg is located next to the Denel Overberg Test Range near Bredasdorp, it was possible to fire live missiles from Cheetah fighter jets as well as drop live bombs in a very unique airshow experience.

There are many other highlights for Emmenis, such as during Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) 2008 when Rooivalk and Mi-24 Super Hind attack helicopters flew in an East meets West first. Other firsts Emmenis recalls include the Silver Falcons team flying in formation with not one but two Boeing 737s from SAA at the 2009 Zwartkopairshow; Chris Esterhuizen rolling and looping a Bell 407 helicopter at the 2008 Virginia airshow (against the manufacturer’s stipulations), and what Emmenis describes as probably the biggest Mexican wave at the SAAF’s 75th anniversary celebrations at Waterkloof in 1995, which attracted an estimated 300 000 people.

South Africa’s airshow stunts even extend to man’s best friend. Guinness World Records recently recognised a German Shepherd called Arrow as the world’s first skydiving anti-poaching dog. He made his maiden jump on 17 September 2016 with handler Henry Holsthyzen at Waterkloof during Africa Aerospace and Defence. He has also been trained by the Paramount anti-poaching academy to descend by rope from a helicopter.