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Laurie Kay – The Man, The Legend

As we sit on the eve of yet another Springbok Rugby World Cup Final one can’t help but to cast your mind back 24 years to the iconic flypast at Ellis Park Stadium. Many of the Springbok players of that victorious team conceded that the flypast of the Boeing 747 over the stadium inspired them to go for gold. The man behind the yoke was Captain Laurie Kay, a humble soft-spoken man, who was instantly propelled to hero status alongside the team and of course our president Nelson Mandela.

Laurie's love for aviation was born at a very young age, possibly at conception he jokingly added when asked. At the tender age of six he joined The South African Air Boys Club in Malvern Johannesburg and often rode from Kensington to Rand Airport on the crossbar of one of the older boys' bicycles to spend the day watching the comings and goings of the Aircraft operating there, he also spent time at many SAAF bases and fondly remembers going for “flips” in Dakotas and other SAAF aircraft. Laurie did some flying at Brits and was sent solo at only six hours proving his natural ability as a pilot. As he got older the Passion didn't decrease and if anything, it became stronger and by the time he left school all he wanted to do was fly.

Laurie applied to the South African Air Force but was not successful, being so driven he refused to let this setback kill his dream and applied to every air force in the western world. The Royal Air Force accepted him and he commenced his pilot's training in 1967 at RAF Church Fenton, on De Havilland Chipmunks. Laurie's then moved to Jet Provosts at a base called RAF Linton-On-Ouse. He did so well there that he was given the choice of where he wanted to go. Laurie decided to fly helicopters and started training on Bell 47G's.

On his return to South Africa Laurie joined the SAAF on a short service contract and was stationed at 5 squadron in Durban, where he did a conversion on his beloved Harvard. He later took up a post as an instructor at Central Flying School Dunnottar. While at Dunnottar Laurie met and instructed many of the people that would shape the future of aviation in South Africa. Upon completion of his short service contract, Laurie remained at the SAAF as a Citizen Force Pilot based at 4 Squadron first at AFB Waterkloof and later at Lanseria Airport.

Laurie made the big switch from military to civil aviation in 1974 when he joined South African Airways as a “boy” pilot on Boeing 707s. It was in a 707 that he made his first of many overseas flights from South Africa to Perth. He very quickly moved to co-pilot on B727 and this he achieved within 20 months, 10 months of which were spent doing conversions and soon followed by the co-pilot position on the 747, an aircraft that would become a major part of his life for many years to come.

Laurie once again returned to instructing and became a training Captain on the Hawker Siddeley 748, Boeing 737-200 and the Airbus A330. The love affair with the Boeing 747s continued when he became a senior training captain on the 747SP, Classic, 200 and 300 variants.

Aerobatics has always played a very big part in Laurie's flying life, in the early 1970's he flew competition aerobatics in an aircraft designed and built by Mr Maitland Ried called the Ried Rooivalk. This was an extremely heavy, hi-powered Bi-plane which he operated from Virginia airport in Durban. Laurie joined Scully Levine, Chris Rademan and Jeff Birch to make up the Winfield aerobatic team which later became the Chubb and then the Shirlock Pitts team. The team is still very active on the airshow circuit, known now as the Taillifts Flying Cows.

In 1995 the “New” South Africa Rugby World Cup fever overtook the nation as the Springboks made it all the way to the final in their first ever World Cup. SAA decide to join the Nation Building effort by allowing Laurie to do a low-level pass over the Ellis Park stadium as part of the closing ceremony.

“GOOD LUCK BOKKE” was stencilled on the underside of the Boeing 747, the fly-past was a very closely guarded secret and the whole world was caught by surprise as the aircraft came low over the stadium and powered up as it climbed out, the stadium shook as an unforgettable moment in history was created. Laurie was joined on the flight deck by Senior First Officer Billy Fourie, Senior Flight Engineer Don Coppard, and Senior Training Captain Selwyn Thomas, who was responsible for getting the time over target correct and they all did an impeccable job.

A painting of President Nelson Mandela, Laurie Kay, Francois Pienaar and the Boeing 747 was painted by Christo Bekker to mark the occasion. The painting was signed by all except Francois Pienaar. Even the 747 made its mark by taxing over the bottom right corner with a paint-splattered nose wheel.

Later that same year Laurie did a similar flight over the FNB stadium for the opening of the Africa Cup of Nations. The three-ship formation at the Presidential inauguration of Thabo Mbeki once again had the Nation and the world in awe, never before has a spectacle of this kind been attempted. Laurie was flying the lead 747 Classic with Scully Levine and Johnny Woods on either wing both in the 747-400. In 1996 Laurie flew around the country in the brightly painted Olympic Boeing 747 “Ndizani” which ferried the Olympic team to Atlanta. During the display flight, he was joined by four Mirage F1s from the South African Airforce. In 2000 Laurie was asked to display the 747 at Duxford, another highlight of his illustrious career.

Clint Eastwood contacted Laurie and invited him to help in the production of “Invictus”, a movie made about Nelson Mandela at the time of the Rugby World Cup. While filming the movie Laurie and Morgan Freeman became good friends, Freeman, up until Laurie's passing, came to visit him regularly. Laurie questioned Clint Eastwood on the phrase used in the movie “Let the record show I have taken control of the aircraft”, Mr Eastwood's answer to this was a humoristic “Laurie, this is Hollywood”.

Invictus was by no means Laurie's first exposure to the world of film, Laurie had done stunt flying in movie such as “Die Sersant en die Tigermoth”, “African Express”, “Freedom Fighter” and “King Solomon's Mines”, which was the launching point of Sharon Stone's Career.

Laurie’s untimely passing on 24 April 2013 shocked the entire aviation world, a day I will never forget we received the devastating news as we left a funeral of another SAAF legend, Col Bakkies Smit. Laurie suffered a fatal heart attack while volunteering his time to assist in the fight against rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park. At the time of his passing Laurie had logged over 23000 flying hours and was still actively flying at the Harvard Club of South Africa and many other organisations.

Laurie will be remembered by many of the current generations of aviators as their mentor, as he was passionate about assisting and developing young aspiring pilots to reach their full potential. Laurie thank you for the honour of knowing you and the privilege of calling you a friend. Rest in Eternal Peace, my friend.


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