Forty years ago this month, the South African Air Force (SAAF) experienced what was likely its worst peacetime air disaster when three Hawker-Siddeley HS-125s of the VIP Flight crashed into Cape Town’s picturesque Devil’s Peak, killing all 11 aircrew.
The HS-125, called “Mercurius” by the SAAF, were from 21 Squadron, based at Waterkloof, Pretoria. The SAAF was planning to reveal the three jets to the public during the Republic Day flypast on 31 May 1971 when the accident occurred. Reports from the time say cloud conditions contributed to the crash.
The SAAF honoured and remembered the victims of this accident as well as all others who gave their lives in war and peace. Chaplain of the Air Command, Padre Arrie Burt, asked those assembled at Sunday’s SAAF Memorial Service at the Air Force Memorial the question, why have a memorial service? He said the answer was to pay homage.
He gave four reasons. “To see the value of our predecessors, their determination to stand for a particular value; to honour their bravery and even in some instances, those who paid the ultimate price.” In third place he put the heritage they bequeathed us. “The fourth one I could say to look forward with the past as our pride”, he said. The padre concluded: “To be good and to be successful, we cannot ignore the past. To build on the good that was entrusted to us, to keep it as a memory. To realise that we cannot stop here, that we can never be stationary in life. We are learning from the past, or making sure that our future is then secure.”
Two AgustaWestland A-109 Light Utility Helicopters of 17 Squadron flew the SAAF banner for the Salute Flight. The SAAF Band and the University of Pretoria’s Jacaranda Children’s Choir contributed music fitting for the occasion and after the message, the haunting strains of the Last Post were followed by the traditional two minutes’ silence.
A tight formation flight of four Cessna 208 Caravans from 41 Squadron performed a flypast over the Memorial to end the two minutes’ silence. The media had been told this would be a classic “missing man” formation, in which one of the aircraft pulls up out of the formation representing the “missing man”, or the air crew who did not return, but the Caravans flew a tight formation rather than a “finger four”, which is the usual configuration for this flypast.
Both 17 and 41 Squadrons operate from Waterkloof Air Force Base, Pretoria.
Wreaths were laid by, among others, Chief of the Air Force, Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano, South Korea’s Defence Attaché, Commander SH Ahn, a representative of Canada’s military attaché, Sergeant CS Radcliff and British Air Adviser CT Mitchell.
The veterans associations were also represented, with former Chief SAAF, Lieutenant General Denis Earp laying a wreath for the Korean War veterans and Lieutenant Colonel (ret) Marrietta Venter for the Council of Military Veterans Organisations (CMVO).