Air show gives wings to young dreams

[Image]The Pilatus PC7s of the Silver Falcons
have thrilled audiences around the world.
(Image: Crystal Watson)

Dr Crystal Watson
MTR Smit Children’s Haven director
+27 41 367 1103
Fiona McRae

The Port Elizabeth Air Show hosted at the end of October at the Algoa Flying Club, next to the city’s airport, once again helped to give wings to the dreams of underprivileged children.

The event has been staged in the Eastern Cape city every other year since its inception in 1998, raising an estimated total of R2-million (US$290 500) for the local MTR Smit Children’s Haven and other child-related charities over the years, says haven director Dr Crystal Watson.

This year’s show, the seventh edition, added more than R300 000 ($43 580) to that tally and once again garnered the South African Air Show of the Year title, repeating the success of 2006.

Responses on aviation forum Avcom clearly show that the Port Elizabeth Air Show has developed into a firm favourite on South Africa’s annual air show calendar, drawing interest and support from pilots and flying enthusiasts around the country.

One of the main reasons, says Watson, is the warm hospitality for which the Friendly City, on South Africa’s east coast, is known. “We take really good care of our show participants and supporters, to whom we are very grateful,” she says.

Other participants cite excellent organisation, good spectator facilities, commitment to children’s welfare, an innovative and exciting programme, and daring displays by highly skilled pilots as factors taking the show to the top.

Whatever its winning formula, the event first took the honours as South Africa’s Air Show of the Year in 2006, passing a set of 15 stringent criteria with flying colours to emerge the best of the 30-plus air shows held in the country annually. According to Watson, these criteria cover everything from pre-planning and media involvement to safety and the event’s programme.

In its next outing two years later, the show was placed among the country’s top five air shows for that year, having lost points due to the unavailability on the day of two aircraft that had been scheduled to participate but had to be withdrawn due to circumstances beyond the organisers’ control.

The organising committee aimed to stage a bigger and better event to again claim the national title. This feat was complicated by the month-long 2010 Fifa World Cup which kicked off in the country in June. As a result the organisers were unable to secure an appointment with the Airports Company of South Africa earlier in the year, leaving them with a mere three months after the final whistle to put the finer details of the event together.

However, the organisers were undaunted and the programme proved to be “one of the best ever”, said Watson, drawing more than 60 participating aircraft and some 120 crew members.

A 20 000-strong crowd flocked to the event to enjoy the exciting aerial programme featuring the South African Air Force (SAAF) and Police Service teams as well as a host of private fliers, along with static aircraft displays and the wide variety of on-the-ground activities that added to a fun day out.

Skill and daring

One of the highlights of the day was a display by pilot and aviation enthusiast Menno Parsons of Rustenburg, in the North West province. Parsons, the owner of one of the country’s largest private aircraft collections, was flying “Mustang Sally”, a P51 Mustang built in 1945 for the US Air Force.

The single-seater, long-range Second World War fighter aircraft, powered by a Rolls Royce Merlin V12 engine, was acquired by Parsons just weeks before the show, where it made its South African public flying debut. His rare war-bird is the only one of its kind on the African continent, Parsons has claimed proudly.

Lighting up the skies with a display of precision flying were the highly skilled pilots of the SAAF’s five-plane Silver Falcons show team. Based at Air Force Base Langebaanweg, near Cape Town, the Silver Falcons are the public pride of the SAAF, flying the high-performance, single-engine, tandem-seater turboprop Pilatus PC7 Mk II Astra training aircraft.

Also taking to the air in a show of skill and daring was the Goodyear Eagles aerobatics team. The Eagles have been thrilling the public for nearly three decades and are regular performers on the local air show circuit. The three team members fly Pitts Special S2B biplanes.

Amid the thunderous roar of the aircraft taking part in the show was heard the distinctive drone of two Harvards. The technical division of national carrier South African Airways (SAA) owns six of these North American Aviation aircraft, which are used by the SAA Apprentice School for aircraft mechanic training. Two of them are kept in airworthy condition and are regularly seen at the country’s air shows.

A host of other aircraft took part, including an L39 jet flown by Russian champion pilot Valery Sobolev, an Extra 300 Sea Fury 385, a C47 turboprop,  a C208 Caravan and a Fokker 28, as well SAAF BK 117 and Oryx helicopters.

Holiday entertainment

The Port Elizabeth Air Show launched 12 years ago after Watson was “guided by a higher hand” to contact local businessman, pilot and aviation enthusiast Stu Davidson, in an attempt to provide some holiday entertainment for 20 youngsters  who had to spend the 1997 festive season at the haven.

That fortuitous initial contact gave rise to the idea of an air show and was the start of a strong and successful professional relationship that has seen Watson and Davidson, along with fellow core organiser Glyn Rose Christie, arrange the biennial event ever since. With assistance from other dedicated supporters, Davidson is responsible for the flying programme, Rose Christie handles the related ground programme and Watson attends to all the other details that go into pulling a successful event of this nature and magnitude together.

The MTR Smit Children’s Haven has its origins in an orphanage established in 1922 in Ugie, in the beautiful northeastern highlands of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, after the Great Flu pandemic of 1918 decimated families and left many children without parents.

The haven – named after its founder – relocated to Port Elizabeth in 1987, in an effort to improve its capacity to render services to the community. The facility now accommodates 100 children aged between three and 18 years in an environment of quality and caring that allows them to “start a fresh life, free from the baggage of the past”, says Watson.

Each child is given an appropriate programme of care and therapeutic development, as well as opportunities to participate in sport, cultural and recreational activities. The haven also provides spiritual care and guidance for its children, and its programmes promote tolerance and mutual respect.

Its running costs amount to some R5-million ($725 000) annually depending on the specific objectives set for the year, and the air show is a major fundraiser.