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Bethlehem Airshow – Aviation Awareness in the Free State

Photos by Andre Venter and Sharon Cassidy

The airspace above the central Free State town of Bethlehem came alive this past weekend with the staging of yet another instalment of the annual Bethlehem Airshow. It was evident on Friday that this Airshow had all the ingredients to be one of the best airshows seen in South Africa in the 2019 season. The South African Airforce had sent a large contingent of aircraft to Bethlehem and having a Gripen do a practice flight on the day before the show really piqued the interest of all the locals.

Show day finally dawned and on our arrival at the airfield were met by long lines of people waiting to get in a and claim their vantage point for the days action. While the public were filing smoothly into the airfield display teams were still arriving from up North, unfortunately one of the Harvards from the Puma Flying Lions had a flat wheel on landing and ran off the runway. No one was injured and with the help of the technicians from Orsmond Aviation it was quickly removed from its dangerous position, the aircraft was slightly damaged and unfortunately it could not take part in the show.

A 9:00 all the pilots gathered under a marque tent for the safety briefing and a short address by the Executive Mayor of Dihlabeng Local Municipality, cllr Lindiwe Makhalema.  Then it was time to get the show on the road.

The show was officially kicked off with a para drop consisting of the SAAF Golden Eagles and SA Army special forces path finders, they were dropped from a Casa 212 from 44 Squadron who are based at AFB Waterkloof.

As soon as the canopies were safely on the ground the first of the aerobatics teams took to the sky. The Tailift Cows, flying three Pitts specials and an Extra 300, got the excitement levels up and created anticipation for the rest of the days flying.

The Raptors, this time in a three ship formation, were ready to take over where the Cows left off the growing crowd enjoying every minute of their fast hi-energy display. The RV Raptors team fly Vans RV7’s and RV 8’s and have become a regular feature on the South African airshow scene.

When the smoke from the Raptors display cleared Gary Whitecross started his perfectly executed aerial ballet in his Pilatus B4 Glider, Gary is the only glider pilot to compete against powered aircraft in local aerobatics competitions and he gives them a run for their money. Gary was towed into the beautiful blue Bethlehem sky by Derek Hopkins in a Lambada motor glider.

The Goodyear Eagles increased the pace of the show once again in their Pitts Specials, these tiny aerobatics aircraft dominated world aerobatics for almost fifty years and have been the school masters of many of the Aerobatics Legends throughout their seventy plus years of flying, truly a magnificent design.

Free State provincial emergency services showed their abilities with a simulated motor vehicle accident, one “Patient” was trapped in the wrecked car and a joint effort from fire services and paramedic quickly extricated the patient and they were airlifted to hospital by one of Free State Emergency Services’ Bell 222 helicopters.

The airspace was the filled with the roar of radial motors, the Puma Energy Flying Lions have been wowing crowds in their Harvard for as long as most of the spectators at this show have been going to airshows, I certainly know this is the case for me.

Andre van Zyl astonished the crowd with the manoeuvrability of the Magni Gyro, Andre has been spending time with Len Kloppers, the gyro master, and judging by his display it was time very well spent.

Soon after Andre landed the Bethlehem was shaken by the rumble of a jet motor at full power, Major Mohau “Dobaman” Vundla and his backseat man Major Kevin “Safron“ Chetty form 2 Squadron “popped” over from AFB Machado for a quick visit to Bethlehem in the SAAF’s JAS39D Gripen primary fighter. The Bethlehem crowd loved this display of air power.

After all the hi-speed excitement things were slowed down very much when Ivan van der Schaar in his Boeing Stearman joined Juba Joubert and Jon-Marc Hill in the Anatanov AN2, for a display in radial Bi-Plane formation flying. Ivan then broke off and held to the East while “Little Annie” did a solo display. The Stearman re-entered the box and performed a beautiful aerobatics display, 1940’s style.

The Silver Falcons, Team 82, got airborne to thrill the crowd, unfortunately only a four ship formation and not the usual five aircraft. Nevertheless, the performed a brilliant display, especially the solo upper air work was next level.

The Tailift Cows then took to the air for a second display which as always was right on the money, Scully Levin, Arnie Meneghelli, Ellis Levin and Sean Thackwray never fail to disappoint.

For all the lovers of WWII fighters, the P51 Mustang flown and owned by Meno Parsons is always a treat and a cause for many cases of Goosebumps. Watching Meno throw this iconic aircraft around the sky is enough to raise the blood pressure of any aviation enthusiast, even more so when its coupled with a series of big explosions and lots of flames.

Once Meno’s targets were successfully extinguished it was time for a group of civilian skydivers to show their stuff. Ralph Ridge flew a massive SA Flag, all 83 kg of it, and as he descended Brian Emmenis from Capital Sounds played the National Anthem. It was encouraging seeing the young children singing along and encouraging their parents to do the same.

George Orsmond, son of legend Ret Orsmond, took to the air in a Turbo Thrush to demonstrate the water bombing and crop spraying capabilities of this versatile agricultural aircraft. The Orsmond Aviation company have been active in Bethlehem since 1973 and currently operate a fleet of thirty-five aircraft, servicing the farmers in the area.

After a short break in the programme Derek Hopkins once again aerotowed Gary Whitecross to altitude for yet another display of Glider aerobatics. While Gary was busy with his display Bruce “One Hip Wonder” and Brent “One Wheel le Riche” from le Riche Racing entertained the crowed with a trail riding display, jumping 3,7meters on to the top of the truck amongst other stunts.

Pierre Gouws arrived with Richard Lovetts L-39 to add a bit more excitement to the jet lovers, Pierre flew to Middleburg after h the raptors display to fetch this wonderful example of soviet engineering.

The Puma Energy Flying Lions went out for a second display followed by Andre van Zyl, the Goodyear Eagles and a Solo RV 7 display by Trevor Warner. Meno Parsons took Mustang Sally out to stretch her legs once again and as always, the sound of the Rolls Royce Merlin had everyone on their feet.

After a display by a Bell 222 it was time for, in my opinion, the highlight of the show. Derek Hopkins assisted by Ivan van der Schaar got airborne in “Delany” the beautiful Douglas DC3 Dakota and did a series of flypasts, this iconic second world war machine is probably the most successful aircraft ever built. It is a great pity that the planned formation fly-past  with the Goodyear Eagles didn’t take place it would have been the cherry on the top of a good airshow.

Elvis Manene one of the commentators from Capital sounds, manged to get the children worked up into a near frenzy in anticipation of the now famous marshmallow drop by everyone’s favourite orphan, Little Annie the Antonov AN2. The children, of all ages, were shouting out “Hello Little Annie” on que as the giant Russian Bi-Plane approached and drop her cargo of marshmallows.

The show was then closed of with a second display from the SAAF’s cockpit ambassadors, The Silver Falcons, followed by a para drop by the Golden Eagles and SA Army special forces and a sunset display by Ivan van der Schaar in his Stearman. Ivan’s display in the late afternoon sun immediately triggered memories of the opening scene of the movie Pearl Harbour.

Congratulations to Stephan Fourie and his team for producing yet another successful Bethlehem Airshow, we will be back next year to enjoy yet another one with you.

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