Words By Daniel
By Anthony Johnson
When it comes
to toys for boys, Michael Beachy Head's got the best in the neighbourhood.
He's bought 10 fighter jets: for tourism, for profit and for acrobatic
You'll black out
and puke,' Michael Beachy Head warns me. 'But don't worry, it's perfectly
normal, you'll come round.' Beachy Head is one of only three civilians
in South Africa licensed to fly fighter jets. He's explaining what will
happen if I accept his offer to come up with him in his Buccaneer S2B
when he's performing acrobatics. 'When you puke make sure it's inside
the flying suit and not in the plane,' he adds. Then he reconsiders.
'Maybe we should fly straight on your first flight up.' Maybe he's right.
He waves his hands
about in intricate patterns, twisting and turning them to reveal the
manoeuvres he has planned for a future display. I'm convinced. I'll
be watching from the ground, thank you.
Beachy Head is owner
of Classic Jets - based at Cape Town International Airport - which takes
part in airshows and displays around the country. His grand plan is
to establish South Africa on the lucrative international airshow circuit.
The UK and US currently
dominate the industry, with the UK specialising in World War II aircraft
such as Spitfires and Mustangs and the US concentrating on the home-built
market and vintage propeller-driven aircraft. The heavy-duty jets in
which Classic Jets specialises could provide South Africa's own niche.
The answer will come in March/April next year - the date of the first
Cape Town international air festival. Beachy Head is convinced the jets
will attract large numbers of people from around the world.
'I want to make
South Africa the world centre for this type of aeroplane,' he says.
'They don't fly anywhere else in the world. If you consider we got 27
000 people here for the rugby World Cup, I reckon we can do that every
year. I don't think the South African public has woken up to what a
huge industry this is overseas. This a four billion dollar industry
in Europe. That's the gates, the rides and all the associated activities.'
At present Classic
Jets is building up its fleet so that Cape Town can comfortably fly
in formation with international airshows such as Farnborough, England,
and Oshkosh, US, which attracts three-million visitors - including 250
000 foreigners - during its four-day show.
jets are currently at the airport. Another seven are being refurbished
in the UK, the main source of 'second-hand' jets for Beachy Head. Securing
the planes is not an easy task - it's not as if they feature regularly
in the classifieds. 'Old jet, was used in bombing raids, no longer needed.
One careful owner. Offers invited.'
'In this arena everyone
else knows what everyone else is doing out there, so if something happens
in Australia I know about it,' says Beachy Head. 'Equally, if anything
happens to this Buccaneer,' chief engineer Terry Cook adds, 'they'll
know about it in England.' Beachy Head is also on the 'hit list' of
the Ministry of Defence in the UK, which means he is contacted when
an aircraft becomes available for sale. Assuming he's interested, the
next step is to ensure that the jet can be refurbished to flying standard.
'The capital cost of the aeroplane is actually irrelevant,' he says.
'It's only worth something if it flies and has a full support kit and
all the documents. In its base state a plane's worthless, just scrap
metal. So they go from zero to priceless.'
Getting a priceless
jet home involves a long hop; these planes may be fast but they also
burn fuel at a rate of about two and a half tonnes per hour. When the
Hunter T8 was flown out from England there were eight legs: to Genoa,
Italy; Iráklion, Crete; Luxor, Egypt; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia;
Nairobi, Kenya; Lilongwe, Malawi; Pretoria; Cape Town. Many authorities
can't believe these jets are civilian planes - Tanzania, for instance,
refused the Hunter air space - but a strong link with British Aerospace
generally helps smooth the path.
Okay, let's imagine
the international airshow is a big success. Mr and Mrs Wealthy Tourist
have already visited Cape Town to see these monsters in action and they've
got the simulator on their computer at home. They might come back for
a bit of the same each year: fast planes and slow beaches, wild Kruger
Park and calm Table Mountain. Then again they might want to get up there
with the action. This is where the big money-spinner comes in for Classic
Jets. Please fasten your seat belts for the ultimate joy ride (puke
and blackouts optional). Would it be fun? Yes. Would it be exhilarating?
Yes. Would it be expensive? US$20 000 (R91 000) worth of yes.
For that money Mr
or Mrs Wealthy Tourist would get an hour's familiarisation in a Hunter,
an hour in a Lightning, and half an hour's air-combat manoeuvring in
which two jets 'fight' each other. If you don't get your dollars' worth
you'll certainly go the full distance. The 440 kilometres from Cape
Town to George takes all of 19 minutes in a Lightning and the trip to
Arniston (two hours' drive) can be covered in six minutes. Getting kitted
up takes longer than the flight itself. Astonishingly, the great white
hunters are already queueing up: there is a list of more than 100 people
from around the world ready to splash out US$20 000 on this lavish fly
in the sky.
For those without
that sort of money, this collection of jets still has many attractions.
The Lightning Preservation Group in England, for instance, has about
17 000 members. There are only two English Electric Lightnings in the
world that still fly. Classic Jets owns them both. 'An operational museum,'
is how Beachy Head sees it.
And for all those
people who think Beachy Head is simply keeping all the best toys for
himself, well, he's inviting the poor kids to play too. Have no doubts,
this is a commercial venture, but it's also fuelling something positive.
At the weekends, a volunteer ground crew is gaining experience and gaining
valuable training, as well as being close to something that would otherwise
be out of reach. On a grander scale Classic Jets operates an RDP initiative:
it plans to use commercial sponsorship money to train three commercial
pilots in 1997 and one ground engineer is already undergoing training.
'I knew we'd be
generating revenue out of this and that it's an avenue for raising sponsorship
[Shell pays for the fuel], so why not channel some of those funds into
doing something for greater aviation and underprivileged communities?'
Beachy Head says. Cape Flying Services in George is being used to screen
potential pilots and will also train the successful applicants. 'Obviously
someone can't go straight from high school on to a fast jet like this
or there will be a big smoking hole in the ground, but there will be
nothing to stop them progressing if they've got the aptitude.'
Beachy Head also
believes a company that can generate so much enthusiasm and excitement
because of the nature of its business needs involvement in the RDP for
its own credibility. 'It shows it's not just a bunch of yuppies screaming
around the sky in a fast aircraft. A lot of people get wrapped up in
the fun side of aviation and like all the fast bits and the pilot's
swagger and all that, but there's a lot of hard slog and hard graft.
The amount of books I've got on that aeroplane would cover the floor
of the average lounge and you've got to know all that stuff.'
But make no mistake,
these jets turn heads. Even the ground staff at the airport - who, you'd
imagine, would be pretty blasé about flying machines - stop and
stare in anticipation when Beachy Head climbs into the cockpit of the
Buccaneer - the only one in the world that is still flying. This time
he's teasing; the thunder of the engine is simply a routine test. They'll
have to wait for the next time, when he goes up and puts those elaborate
hand displays into action. He climbs out smiling; he's clearly enjoying
himself. I ask him about a story that was in the news recently. It involved
a display at a high school fête, a budgie that fell off its perch,
an angry old lady and a noisy jet. 'I just wanted to give the people
watching a bit extra,' Beachy Head laughs.