Words By Daniel Ford
Cover Photograph 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 fun.
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.
Three heavy-metal 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.
All material © copyright Independent Newspapers 1997.
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