It was a tough assignment. The sun beat down mercilessly. All around me powerful engines growled and rumbled, seeking to break loose from the shackles and restraints that held them back, braking their spirits and testing the cooling systems. The temperature rose up and up and up – until, checking the air conditioner I found I had only the fan switched on! I pressed the button, the green light glowed, and the temperature fell once more. In moving formations we crept onwards, passing the Mead of Wood, and the Dale of Allan until, suddenly, the pace began to increase and the engines to sing. We swept onwards, Centurian was within our sights, under the curving bridge that would carry the Gautrain, and then banking left I faced the once desolate waste of Snake Valley, arched around even further, and came at last to my target.
The Pretoria Branch of the South African Air Force Museum is based at the Swartkop Airfield. It is a fascinating place and I spent far more time there than I had expected. My first objective was the aircraft themselves, particularly those of the Second World War and later. Some of them, like the Mirages, were slim, elegant and lethal. The Sabres were squat and pugnacious, whilst the Buccaneer was big, brooding and deadly. Next to its larger brothers the Vampire seemed almost like a toy, until you stood beside it, whereas the Cheetah, painted accordingly, was undoubtedly an attack aircraft of vicious capability. Parked in the hangers, or on the tarmac outside, they all seemed to be waiting, just waiting….
Outside was the large Avro Shackleton. Powered by four Rolls Royce Griffin engines, each with contra-rotation propellers, they were capable of moving its mass of 45 360 kilograms at 486 kilometers per hour, and had a range of 6782 kilometers. It carried a crew of 13 and was variously described by some of them as, “”This aircraft looks like a box of frogs”; “The Shack reminds me irresistibly of an elephant’s bottom – gray and wrinkled outside and dark and smelly inside;” 10,000 loose rivets flying in close formation”. It was nevertheless an incredible and respected aircraft, a descendent of the mighty Lancaster.
Leaving these majestic machines behind I went on to the Display Hall where I met more aircraft and parts of aircraft, a helicopter with the vicious machine guns ready to spit destruction from the open door, pictures, paintings, models, uniforms, summaries of significant events – including the sacrificial Warsaw Airlift commanded by the South African, Brigadier James Durrant – profiles on various famous airmen and leaders, as well as maps and a host of fascinating detail. I was quite surprised when I left to find that the sun was still up!
Col. PJM McGregor was the driving force behind the establishment of the museum in 1973. He put together a small staff to document the history of the Air Force and gather together whatever relics could still be found. They have obviously done an amazing job.
The Website is worth looking at, and contains some good photographs, interesting information, and a map. For those interested in flying machines, the men who flew them, and all the history, tragedy and bravery involved, it would be worthwhile paying the Museum a visit. There is secure parking, a small restaurant, and public toilets conveniently placed. Donations are welcomed. Hats are advisable.
For further information follow the links alongside.
It is given to man to choose how beauty should be used – choose wisely.