In May this year the Silver Falcons, to many the flagbearers of one of the oldest air forces in the world, touched down for the first time as a team at a civilian airport outside of performing a display.
The airport was Lanseria International, west of Pretoria and north-west of Johannesburg and the occasion was part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the SA Air Force’s aerobatic team. Lanseria was the selected landing site because it is home to the headquarters of National Airways Corporation (NAC) which has been closely involved with the team for the past four years.
“At the end of 2013 NAC announced it would be supplying the Silver Falcons with a complete range of team apparel to improve and bolster the team’s image and ensure the uniformity and professionalism shown in the air is also reflected in the team’s interactions with the South African public while travelling,” said Martin Banner, chief executive of NAC.
On completion of their tight and complicated aerobatic routines the Silver Falcon team members generally interact with air show crowds to fly the SAAF (SA Air Force) flag and contribute to the public image of South Africa’s military aviators.
The Falcons will in November this year have a reunion at AFB Langebaanweg to mark their 50th anniversary and plans are for it to be followed, a week or two later, by an air show at the Western Cape air force base.
What is also not widely known about the Falcons is that the team has its own commemorative medallion.
It was the brainchild of then team leader, Major Beau Skarda, who five years ago was instrumental in the design and production of the medallions.
Each and every Silver Falcon to date has been presented with one, carrying the name and team number of the pilot.
As with apparel and related items, the medallions were sponsored by NAC and are in the words of NAC corporate service manager Karin Roodt “a special item for the few that have earned them”.
The medallions are based on the challenge coin military aviators carry with them, Roodt explained.
“There are several stories detailing the origins of the challenge coin. The most common has it that challenge coins originated during World War I. American volunteers from all parts of the country filled the newly formed flying squadrons. Some were wealthy scions attending colleges such as Yale and Harvard who quit in mid-term to join the war. In one squadron, a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions struck in solid bronze and presented them to his unit. One young pilot placed the medallion in a small leather pouch he wore around his neck.
“Shortly after being presented with the medallion, the pilot’s aircraft was severely damaged by ground fire. He was forced to land behind enemy lines and was captured by a German patrol. To discourage escape the Germans took all his personal identification except for the small leather pouch around his neck. The unfortunate downed and captured flier was taken to a small French town near the front. Taking advantage of a night bombardment he escaped without personal identification. He succeeded in avoiding German patrols by donning civilian attire and reached the front lines. With great difficulty, he crossed no-man’s land and eventually stumbled onto a French outpost.
“Unfortunately, saboteurs plagued the French in that specific sector. They sometimes masqueraded as civilians and wore civilian clothes. Not recognising the young pilot’s American accent, the French thought him to be a saboteur and prepared to execute him. He had no identification to prove his allegiance, but he did have his leather pouch containing the medallion. He showed the medallion to his would-be executioners. One of his French captors recognised the squadron insignia on the medallion and his execution was delayed long enough for him to confirm his identity. Instead of shooting him they gave him a bottle of wine.
“Safely back at his squadron, it became tradition to ensure all members carried their medallion or coin at all times. This was accomplished through challenge with a challenger asking to see the medallion. If the challenged could not produce a medallion, they were required to buy a drink of choice for the member who challenged them. If the challenged member produced a medallion, then the challenging member was required to pay for the drink. This tradition continued throughout the war and for many years afterwards while surviving squadron members were still alive.
“This tradition is still kept alive today and, needless to say, no Silver Falcon team member will be caught without his or her medallion!”
In combination the Silver Falcons and NAC have 120 years of aviation history between them and the NAC chief is confident more milestones will be marked in years to come.
Banner sees the NAC/Silver Falcons association as natural. “We are always looking to engage new audiences and explore new affiliations beyond the traditional or the expected. We have been and remain delighted to sponsor the Silver Falcons. NAC’s vision of creating and maintaining a high performance aviation team aligns strongly with the Silver Falcons’ vision.
“Teamwork – whether in business or flying – inspires people and communities to have a collective vision and NAC has shown its commitment to encouraging an environment where businesses can create lasting economic value in their communities.”