The history of flight is without a doubt the most incredible story of technology and advancement known to man, from the Wright Brothers’ historical first powered flight in 1903, covering a distance of just over one hundred feet, a distance exactly half the wingspan of a modern day Boeing 747-8l airliner, to man conquering space with the first moon landing in 1969.
It is almost impossible to highlight one single event as “the” pinnacle in aviation history over the last 100+ years. South Africa, specifically the Cape West Coast, has its own tremendously rich aviation history and the world renowned South African Air Force (SAAG) “Silver Falcons” Aerobatic Team is undoubtedly one of the greatest contributors to this. Through decades of dramatic and spectacularly choreographed public displays of precision flying both nationally and internationally, the Silver Falcons have become a household name and an integral part of South Africa’s proud aviation history.
Birth of a Legend
The Idea of a military formation flying aerobatic team was conceived almost sixty years ago, and in 1953 the first team, named the “Bumbling Bees” was founded to represent and promote the SAAF by flying formation aerobatics in the De Havilland “Vampire” Jet. The team, stationed at Air Force Base in Langebaanweg on the West Coast, was also the first jet aircraft aerobatic team in history of the country.
In 1958 the team was temporarily disbanded, and after eight years of dormancy it was reinstated in 1966, flying the Italian-manufactured Aermacchi MB-326 Impala MK I, the SAAF’s newly acquired jet trainer. Due to problems with the translation of the team’s name in Afrikaans, the pilots of the team began to debate new possibilities, and on 22 November 1967, the team was officially named “Silver Falcons”. Just two days later, on 24 Novbember 1967, the team performed their first public display at the opening of the Atlas Aircraft Corporation. The team flew four all-silver Impala aircrafts under the leadership of Commandant Chris Prins. The other founding members of the first Silver Falcons team were Captain Fred du Toit (No 2), Captain Chris Prinsloo (No3) and Captain Hattingh (No4). On numerous occasions, Fred du Toit was also called Chris by confused fans and spectators.
In 1985 the aircraft colours were changed to orange, white and blue to be more representative of colours of the South African National Flag at the time. In the years following, the Silver Falcons built their public reputation as cockpit ambassadors of the SAAF by traveling across South Africa, displaying the skill and professionalism of the nation’s military pilots. After flying a tight 4-ship display, the pilots would mingle with the public and soon became role models, inspiring many a child to follow their dreams of flight.
March 1988 saw the addition of a fifth member and aircraft to the team. The new number 5 acted as a soloist during parts of the display, allowing for a more dynamic and varied routine. Sadly, however, during a display less than one month after the team’s expansion to five aircraft, Captain Kobus Griesel (Flacon 5) suffered an engine fire moments after breaking away for his solo display. This took place at the La Motte Wine Estate outside Franschhoek in the Western Cape on 16 April 1988. Unable to extinguish the fire, Capt Griesel ejected safely no more than 25 seconds after the first cockpit indications. The loss of this aircraft, Impala 470, was attributed to a malfunction of the smoke generator in the tailpipe.
At the end of April 1994, with the birth of democracy in South Africa, the country adopted a new national flag and thus the orange, white and blue colour scheme of the aircraft became obsolete. In order to embrace the new South African symbols, the Impalas were repainted. The new scheme maintained a similar design layout, but the colours changed to white, navy, arctic blue – the colours of the South African Airforce. On 10 May 1994, the new colours were displayed for the first time at the historic inauguration of President Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Six Impalas performed, trailing multi-coloured smoke in the colours of the new South African Flag.
The Falcons flew their last display on the Impala in September 1997. For the next two years the team again went dormant. In 1988 it was decided that the Silver Falcons would be the ideal tool with which to display the new SAAF training aircraft, the Pilatus PC7 MII “Astra”. On 30 October 1999, the first display utilizing four Astra aircrafts was flown by Team 52, led by the infamous Lieutenant Colonel Dave Knoesen. For the next four years the Flacons continued to operate as a 4-ship team in standard red and white livery of the SAAF Astra Fleet. Numbers wre applied to the vertical stabilizers of the aircraft to differentiate them from the training fleet. Although the Astra lacked the dramatic “jet-noise” of the Impala, the pilots were faced with new challenges in the form of the torque/slipstream effects and the ever-present risk of a spinning propeller only inches away from the control surfaces of another aircraft! One big benefit of the slightly lower speed and increased manoeuvrability of the Astra was that displays could be flown in a smaller “box” closer to the crowd.
In 2008, after a generous donation of paint by Mr Kuba Miszewski (MD of First African Paints), a long –awaited decision was made to again give the team their own identity by painting six of the Falcon aircrafts in a unique blue and white livery and at the same time, the team was again expanded to a 5-ship. On 16 September 2008 the new livery was officially unveiled to members of the media and dignitaries at a cocktail function at AFB Ysterplaat. The next morning the Silver Falcons opened the African Aerospace and Defence Expo in their new colours. The striking new livery, portraying a Falcon’s head and wings, was an instant success with local and international public, air-show aficionados and photographers alike. Within a matter of weeks the Silver Falcons made the front pages of numerous newspapers and aviation magazines as well as a number of TV Appearances. One of the greatest media coverage events for the team was the inauguration of President Jacob Zuma where the Silver Falcons performed and received acclaim from no less than six international news channels including CNN, Sky News and the BBC. The team continues to instil national pride by dazzling crowds at air shows across South Africa.
All members of the team are full-time flying instructors. Team membership is voluntary and to ensure the highest of standards, members applying for a position in the team are required to do a “fly-off” with the current team before being selected. Unlike most other international military aerobatic teams, the instructors who fly for the Falcons do so over and above their normal work duties and outside of normal working hours. To be selected for the Silver Falcons is an honour and as such the longer work days and frequent time spent away from their homes and families is considered a small sacrifice for this privilege.
The safety of the team is paramount and this responsibility falls squarely on the lap of the leader as he plans the smooth execution of manoeuvres whilst monitoring height, speed and position. Contrary to what many people might think, due to the proximity (about 0, 5 m at times) of the aircraft to each other, the members flying in the teams are unable to refer to their instruments during a display and can at times be unsure of their position and orientation to the ground or their surroundings, entrusting their lives to the leader. The leader also has the added responsibility of synchronizing the solo display of the number 5 aircraft when he separates from the team. To avoid catastrophe, the pilots getting into formation are solely responsible for maintaining specific postures and strict formation integrity as required by the leader. Internationally, the Silver Falcons are celebrated for the exceptional quality of their displays and piloting skills, something that requires absolute precision, dedication and professionalism from each member of the team.
Text and photographs supplied by Major Roy Sprout