By Rob Russell
Every now and then we had the pleasure of entertaining an aircraft, or two, from the Luftwaffe. Invariably it was a Transall C160, The aircraft used to arrive via the East Coast and leave after a few days via Windhoek. The crews used to pop into the centre, on their way out and it was always great fun to speak to them. On the odd occasion, they even gave us a flypast when they arrived. Not sure what they did here, but it was something to do with the German Embassy logistical support. (I remember one Commander had a genuine leather pith helmet, which he used to wear on his visits to Africa and it was really funny to see him visit the tower, wearing it!) Occasionally we even got to see one of the A310 tankers as well.
It was in the early 2000s when we started to notice an increase in the number of C160s arriving down here. They would invariably route via Beira and then stop at Overberg and pop across to us for a few days, before the long haul back to Germany. We started to figure out that something was happening at Overberg and despite many phone calls to them, nothing was forthcoming.
But being ATCs, we chatted to the Transall crews and they told us the Tornado’s were coming for a visit. Wunderbar!!!! Fighter jets visiting. Time to prepare for some good fun, and have a few fighters flashing around. Our minds were already in overtime and we could not wait. It was the first of a biannual visit to the bottom of Africa, invariably involving a few jets culminating in a massive exercise in 2017. Primarily they came down to do weapons testing and for advanced training, but in the traditions of all Air Forces, time was allocated to do some recreational things as well.
Apart from the aircraft crews, there were many ground personnel that accompanied the deployments and it bought a very big, and most welcome, boost to the Overberg economy. Guesthouses were taken over, restaurants and wine farms were frequented and the tourism industry was very appreciative of their visits. They used to stay as far afield as Hermanus and the Marine Hotel became a very popular place to stay!
Of course, we controllers had other things on our minds!
I remember one of the first jets arriving was one Saturday afternoon. At the best of times, Cape Town is not busy then and the jet was formatting on a KC135 of the USAAF. Their last in-flight fuelling was done just off the coast at Alexander Bay. The jets stayed in a loose formation and once the Tornado was assured of making Overberg, the tanker bade him farewell and came down to land at Cape Town. This became pretty much the standard procedure for arriving jets. The Germans made use of the USAAF through a NATO agreement, hence the Yanks arriving as well. Both KC125s and KC10s were used. They came from RAF Mildenhall if my memory serves me correct.
The tanker crews used to love coming to Cape Town – I mean who wouldn’t? The chance to do some gentle training, cooperating with another NATO Air Force, and spend a few days down in the Cape. Does it get any better? I doubt it! I remember counting over 50 (yes) crew getting off one KC135. I inquired if they needed too many people to man a refuelling flight and the answer was to the effect that that Boss said it was necessary, as it was inter-Air Force training and also area familiarisation. And it involved a weekend stop at Cape Town! I bumped into the guys at Quay Four and they were saying this was the closest they would get to heaven! Well if you can use the system to your advantage, why not! But I digress.
That Saturday afternoon, Uncle Paul was on duty in the tower and bored as anything. A quick look on the radar and a chat with the area controller and we persuaded the Tornado crew to come and give us a fly by. It was to be the first of many. One had to feel a bit sorry for the crew. They were tired and in a foreign country. So it duly appeared on a long final for runway 19, flew down the runway and left us anything but happy! I mean you don’t fly at 1000ft with the wings out and at 200kts. A quick question to the crews from Uncle Paul about remaining fuel and instruction to come and do it again. But properly! So they tried. They came back, wings folded in and 800ft and about 250kts. Now you had Uncle Paul upset. One thing about Uncle Paul is that he could profess to speak a bit of German. So he muttered something in his German tones about come back and do it again and you will do it until we are satisfied!
Well, the crew got the message. Nerves over, message understood, smoke on and go. Hells bells, third time lucky, They flashed down the runway barely about the ground, going flat out! It turned out to be a stunning fly by. “off to Overberg you go” said Uncle Paul.
A phone call later that afternoon, apologising for the first few attempts – we did not understand their nerves, and they did not know we don’t have rules when it comes to flypasts! They were used to flying in Germany, where Greta and her Green friends don’t like them, so they did not want to upset the local population. Apologies accepted and the start of a good working relationship was developed!
Of course, whilst most of the sorties were related to their flight testing, it was necessary to get familiar with the area – don’t all fighter pilots do that? It was only a matter of time before we had Tornados flying all over the Western Cape. Each visit bought a few more pilots, and the message was soon passed on that the Cape Town, George and Port Elizabeth controllers expected daily visits. And not at 1500ft and 200kts.
We were treated to some amazing flypasts, And from all directions. Literally, they called a few minutes out and requested a fly by. Never a problem. I think that airport management hated us. Who were these jets and where are they from, was the standard question! And why don’t they know about them!
For the crews, to fly down here must have been heaven. Does it get better than flying around the Peninsula, past Cape Town up the West Coast to Langebaan, and then inland and return to Overberg? Through all the valleys, around the Western Cape, with no restrictions. I doubt anyone would say no. And when they realised we welcomed them and were not interested in any red tape, it was great fun. To see those Tornados streaking past Cape Point at over 400kts and a few hundred feet was incredible.
I can recall one day being called by two of them to the Northeast of the field requesting a fly by. The only traffic I had was a Comair 737 on the ILS. Traffic insight said the crews. Miss it, I said and make it good! Well, they did not disappoint. Of course, the 73 crew did not mind having jets pass them at those speeds. Once they had flown by, it was often followed by a request to fly by at Ysterplaat. That was also never refused and they flashed past Ysterplaat and were seen a few minutes later going past Cape Point on their way home to Overberg.
One thing that did impress me was how professional they were and how much pride they took in getting it right! They never failed to disappoint and we thoroughly enjoyed their visits.
They soon realised that the George controllers were even more accommodating than us and it became almost the norm to flash up to George and give them an impromptu air show. George was only a few minutes from Overberg, so just about every sortie that had extra fuel left ended up passing George at breakneck speeds.
Of course, mistakes happen and somewhere along the line, we forgot to let PE know about the Tornados. Well, imagine the chaos that one Monday morning, when the crews called PE requesting a fly by and PE did not know about them. So the request was denied! The Germans were not happy! However, a quick phone call to the PE manager and on Tuesday the Germans went flashing past PE as well. Much to the pleasure of the PE controllers and others, on the airport.
Over the years the Germans got to know the airspace and they even spent a bit of time doing some low level flying around the Northern Cape. There was an urban legend that some of the guys flew a little bit too low over Oudtshoorn and the airfield there and whilst giving a fly by went over one of the ostrich farms and killed a lot of unfortunate birds, from shock. A quick visit by the German Embassy staff was arranged and after meeting the farmers, all the claims were settled and the pilots were asked to avoid overflying the farms, I think that was the only incident in all the years of them flying around here. Even the seagulls knew to stay out of their way!
I remember these visits were a nightmare for the Airports Company. It started with all the logistical aircraft that came to stop at Cape Town. I mean you don’t fly down Africa to Overberg and then go home without stopping at Cape Town. Several of the KC135 and 10s spent a day or two more here than planned! And it did not help having fighter jets flashing past the airport every day. The complaints they got from the public and the local useless press weren’t our problem. ACSA, in their defence, knew nothing about them and referred them on to us and we, in turn, referred them to the Thunder City – they weren’t SAAF jets after all! Sometimes we referred the complaints to the SAAF... Of course, the SAAF at Ysterplaat weren’t in with the Germans, so they did not know anything about it. Sorry to all those public that complained but you must not interfere with an ATC when they having fun. That was one of the highlights of their visits. Batting all the complaints into touch and creating confusion.
I think one of the highlights of their visit was the massive exercise that took place in March 2010. It involved both the Luftwaffe and German Navy, as well as our SANDF... It really was quite an exercise. It had many intentions – to test deployment to a faraway place, test interactions between their various Armed Forces, as well as with other countries.
Apart from the missile firing and training, there were also various exercises between the two air forces and navies. Most of the naval stuff was in Southern False Bay and off the Overberg coast. Maritime aircraft were involved and it was great to see all this going on.
The SAAF deployed a few Hawks and some inter air force exercises were held, mainly within the Overberg and Langebaan restricted areas. They really did not bother us – most of the stuff was low level and out of controlled airspace, but knowing fighter pilots, any excuse to come and flash around the Peninsula. I remember that year we were treated to flybys by both Air Forces.
I think at one stage it was a case of who could do the better one! They popped up all over the place and wanted to beat the tower up. I can vaguely recall one day a Tornado being chased by a Hawk through the zone. Great fun it was. The exercise culminated in a mass fly-by over the German Navy ships, lying in Table Bay, on a Saturday morning. The salute was taken by the German Navy Chief Admiral if I can remember. I was off that morning and can remember spending some time at Camps Bay, admiring the local topography, as one does, and seeing some of those jets streak by. To say it was impressive was an understatement. I remember two Tornados flashing past Camps Bay maybe a hundred foot or so above the sea and going at speeds just a touch above the special rules area speeds. Not even those Thunder City jets could get that fast!
I think it was that year too, that the Germans bought a pair of Lear 35 drogue towing jets with them. They were operated, if I remember, by a company that was contracted to provide the service to the Germans. Of course, they also did not want to miss out on the action, so we had a couple of flybys from them as well. I mean if you flying this far, you don’t give up such an opportunity to have fun!
2017 also bought a spectacular exercise to the area. That was also a massive deployment and it involved a few flights by Antonov 124 jets. Much to our delight, and the horror of ACSA.
My memory has faded a bit over time, but there were two flights before the exercise commenced and two afterwards. There was also a gaggle of USAAF KC135s and some German A310 support aircraft. The airport was a hive of activity that Feb and March. I think the Antonovs were tasked to bring a whole lot of German Navy helicopters to partake in the exercises as well. It was great to see them as well. Of course, some ACSA staff went into meltdown and they threw anti-tank mines in their way and made it difficult for the poor chaps to operate, but it was great to see them here. They popped in at Overberg to drop off their loads and then came across to Cape Town to have a technical stop. For some reason ACSA thought they were a major problem to operate here – sure there were a few taxiway restrictions and it took time to push them back and take the towbar off and move it into the aircraft, but they are amazing aircraft and it certainly was a highlight to see them operating here.
Of course in the time-honoured traditions, the Tornados lived up to their reputations and delivered another round of spectacular flybys, here at Cape Town, even more so at George and Port Elizabeth. I think the chaps at East London also got to see them as well.
We knew when the visits we coming to an end and the exercise to recover the jet to Germany was about to begin. The tankers arrived a good few days beforehand. It takes time to prepare everything and visiting wine farms, filing flight plans and briefing ATCs can’t be done in a day!! On the appointed day, the tankers would depart and enter a loose hold over Cape Town at about 20000ft. They often pulled spectacular contrails and we used to get many phone calls from agitated members of the public about what is that aircraft doing and why isn’t it landing! Once they were safely up there, the Tornados left Overberg and the jets met up just north of Cape Town for the first refuelling. We were told this was necessary to test all the equipment and if there was a problem, the jets could get back to the departure points and have the problems sorted out. Could you imagine being over the Atlantic and not being able to get some gas!!! In turn, all the Transalls and other logistical aircraft followed and after a day or two in the Cape also set off back to Germany. I remember seeing many a familiar shaped cardboard box being loaded onto the Transalls! Proof we have good wines down here!
But like all good things, the Tornado was slowly being phased out by the Germans, and so the visits came to an end. I think the German Air Force certainly had a great time at Overberg, it is one of the best missile testings ranges in the world, free of busy traffic like many ranges in Europe, a great opportunity to travel, test their operational preparedness and missiles and have fun at the same time. Surely every fighter pilots dream!
To all those crews that visited us, thank you – we certainly enjoyed having you as much as you enjoyed flying and visiting here. It was a great time and also thank you to our management for allowing us to have so much fun with them. I doubt those in ATNS now would be able to get away with what we were able to do in those days. And management would certainly not allow it!
Notes - more info can be found about some of the exercises here.
Thanks to Dean Wingrin and his excellent reporting.