From the Tower Looking back……the good old days!

By Rob Russell

It was a Friday afternoon, late in the 1980s, nothing much going on, as it was in those days and we were all sitting around the DF Malan radar room waiting for nothing to happen! And the boss to leave early! After all, it was Friday and bosses always left early on a Friday, didn’t they!

DF Malan Airport Photo: Etienne du Plessis

The highlight of a Friday afternoon, in those days, was the SAA 747-SP that came down from Johannesburg, to do the weekly flight to London. It used to arrive at 4 pm and then leave at about 8 pm. In those days it was the only aircraft that could fly around the bulge and make it to London. I think half of Cape Town used to turn up, at the airport, to watch it land!

SAA 747-SP

It was also the days when there were not many flights to and from Cape Town to Joburg, so there were several corporate aircraft that made the daily flight up and down to Lanseria, from the Cape. (Believe it or not, when I started as an ATC "appie", there were only 6 flights a day to Joburg! 4 were A300s and 2 were B737s, and they went via Bloemfontein and Kimberley)


That afternoon, there was a Falcon 100 on its way back to the Cape and it was quite a way behind the 747SP. Being flown by two ex-fighter pilots, you knew for sure the race was on! Having one of the older more experienced controllers on duty, was just a coincidence. And you know for sure that something would be brewing.

Falcon 100

In those days we only had radar coverage, extending from Cape Town to about 140nm from Cape Town – roughly where the Sutherland VOR was situated, on the old UW95.

At about 100 nm from Cape Town, the SAA crew requested descent and was given FL150 with a speed not to exceed 280kts indicated. The crew happily accepted it and nothing much went on, in the centre again!

The Falcon appeared on the radar, at 140nm from the Cape, and the area controller anticipating the Falcon doing a visual approach issued them FL150 and a speed of 320kts or greater until 10nm Cape Town. I mean, it was a Falcon 100 with a bunch of fighter jocks in the front!


Game on! To us in the radar room, it was not even a race – we all knew who would land first.

It was just after the Falcon had acknowledged his descent, that the SAA crew woke up and very rudely asked the area controller, if “that pisscat jet behind us, was going to be number one?” Well, the area controller replied that it would. Well, all hell broke loose on the area frequency. The voice changed, from the SP and the senior older voice – the Captain? - demanded to know why they were being made number 2. To which the area controller apologised and said terribly sorry and told the SP to maintain a speed of 320kts until 10nm from Cape Town.

There was this stunned silence for a few seconds on the frequency, upon which the SP crew told the area controller that there was no way they could do that speed!

To which the area controller innocently, and with a dead straight face, replied: “now you know why you are number 2”!

Needless to say, the Falcon 100 flashed past the SP, a few words were said on the approach frequency and they were in the hangar when the SP turned final.

Those were the days!

(For the record, the now-retired area controller is still minding his beehives, the Falcon 100 co-pilot is still aviating and the approach controller is recently retired!)

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