Fifty Thousand Feet Per Minute
Mike Beachy Head was not satisfied when he became the first and only private citizen in the world to own a supersonic plane, he then went and bought another three. Ready! Fire! Aim! Not good advice if you are flying a warbird in a conflict situation but with those words South African Mike Beachy Head sums up how he started the worlds only licensed supersonic civilian aircraft squadron.
We are sitting in his boardroom with a wonderful view into a large, modern hangar based within scrambling distance of Cape Town Internationals main runway. Inside the hangar his fleet of seven Hawker Hunters, three Buccaneer strike aircraft and four English Electric Lightning Interceptors gleam in the early morning sunlight. Alongside them stand a BAC Strikemaster and a French-made Puma helicopter.
It was Sotheby’s sale of two surplus RAF Hawker Hunters in 1994 to Beachy Head that formed the nucleus of his collection and that was only the beginning of the dog-fight with bureaucracy to get his machines flying commercially. It had, after all, never been done before, anywhere in the world and there certainly was no precedent in South Africa. He managed to fly the Hunter to South Africa down the length of the continent, after nearly being grounded in Nairobi where the authorities needed some persuasion that he was not flying a fighter jet on operational duty. His next purchase, in 1996, was the Buccaneer, Britains iconic multi-purpose jet first introduced in the early 60s, but the growing fleet in Cape Town remained constituted only of sub-sonic aircraft.
It was at Cranfield, where he saw a Lightning doing run-ups to keep the engines serviceable but no longer flying, that Beachy Head decided to add this supersonic fighter to his collection. The British authorities refused to let him fly any of these aircraft out of the UK so he took some technicians with him from South Africa and crated four of these machines out of the country. Today, they are the only examples of this aircraft that are flying in the world.
I was mindful of the fact that to make a small fortune in aviation you have to start with a large one but decided to put the passion first, ahead of the cash, he says. Fourteen years later he heads up a lucrative business at Thunder City, Cape Town Airport which caters for the aviation enthusiast, movie business and those wishing to experience the extreme thrill of jet flight. In the Lightning we can take you up to 50,000 feet and more, in the vertical, where you see the darkness of the sky and the curvature of the earth. At the end of the flight, approaching the airport, with a high angle-of-attack, well push the nose forward and accelerate from 150 kts to 550 kts, and end up back at 25,000 feet. It’s a sustained kick up the arse, believe me.
He becomes very serious when I ask him about safety. We’ve flown 1,600 sorties and have a 100% safety record. After seven years of negotiations with the local Civil Aviation Authorities, South Africa has proper legislation covering commercial operations for non-type certified aircraft and those guys are no soft touch. There is the necessary ground-support equipment, proper maintenance schedules, special tooling and a thorough legal and administrative process, including complete manuals and, obviously, log books. Our serviceability is excellent and for every hour flown, some 75 man-hours back that up. After 7 landings in a Lightning, we change the tyres. The English kept meticulous records of every aircraft flown and we follow that example.
Of course, all this costs a lot of money. Only the rich can afford the excitement of supersonic flight in a combat jet like the Lightning or a more sedentary trip around the beautiful Cape Peninsula in a Hunter. Some who have flown in Thunder Citys jets include Richard Branson and Bilal Musharraf. You can choose to do aerobatics or break the sound barrier, depending on the beast that you are riding.
The ticket to fly may cost you some £10,000 but yours is the excitement of pulling 6 Gs while pounding through the mountains off the Western Cape. To see planet Earth upside-down, hanging on the straps of your ejector seat, is not for the faint-hearted or for those with weak stomachs. Perhaps that is why you get your own personalised flying overall, because you are advised before leaving the ground that if it is necessary to be sick you should do so on the inside of your suit in order that you do not short out the planes electronics. Not that this is something to be ashamed of, as it happens quite often.
We only fly during the day, and in VFR (Visual Flight Rules) conditions (i.e. good weather) and don’t undertake operational work, says Beachy Head. Of course, that is the job of the Air Force. But then every Air Force pilot knows who Beachy Head is, having seen him perform many times at major air shows around South Africa. His jets are a huge, noisy drawcard, and compete very favourably with the Mirages and BAE Hawks of the South African Air Force (as well as the occasional Airbus passenger jetliner of South African Airways) for attention from the thousands who flock to these displays. Who can deny the thrill of seeing (and hearing) the after-burner of a Lightning as it disappears into the blue, pushing out 36,000 lbs of thrust and combusting some 500 litres of Jet A-1 per minute.
The pilots at Thunder City come from diverse backgrounds. Some, such as Mike Beachy Head himself, cut their teeth in the field of General Aviation and others came from the Air Force. We look for sheer natural ability and skill in aircrew and don’t have a place for the pilot with an ego. One of our pilots, ex-Air Force Dave Stock, runs the test-pilot programme and is responsible for quality evaluation.
I ask Beachy Head how he manages the differing ergonomics of the planes he flies, given that each has a unique cockpit design. He nods, An aircraft cockpit is like a poem just remember the first line and the rest follows on. The Buccaneers cockpit is systems critical but unbelievably well-designed. It is academic flying, hard work, it must be correct otherwise like a big Rottweiler it will come back and bite you. The Lightning, well, its supersonic and that has its specific demands. The Hunter and here he pauses, almost respectfully is the most beautiful aircraft, incredibly graceful.
So, three very different machines, three very different experiences and, it seems, that is so for both pilot and passenger alike. A seat in the back or, in the case of the Lightning, next to the pilot also earns you a full briefing, survival training, ejector seat training, oxygen management, as well as kit and equipment necessary for the flight. In a Lightning the flight lasts approximately 30-40 minutes and can include breaking the sound barrier and climbing almost twice as high as a Boeing goes. The Buccaneer is slightly cheaper at £9,000 a flight but, for this, you get 50 minutes of being pushed at just below the speed of sound by two Rolls-Royce Spey bypass turbofans.
For me, the agile Hawker Hunter, with one of the prettiest wings in aviation and at a price of just 4,500, is the preferred warbird. You can train on it, perform aerobatics in it or just fly it. And, just for that hour, dream that you are an ace of the sky.
Julian Melck is a pilot, farmer, lawyer, pig hunter and bon vivant who lives on his farm near Cape Town. Information on Thunder City can be found at www.thundercity.com.