By Rob Russell
For years, AFB Ysterplaat has played a very important role in the maritime and training sides of the SAAF. It has always been one of the smaller bases, but one of the most important bases in the SAAF. It was primarily a training base, which evolved over the years into an important part of the SAAF maritime world, where navigators were trained and many of the SAAF maritime squadrons at some stages in their lives, were head-quartered. It also played an important role in the logistical side of the SADF, being a major base for air logistical support for all the various services of the Defence Force and also had a VIP section, primarily to support Parliament and its associated services.
There was, however, always one big problem with Ysterplaat, and just about every pilot based there will testify to it. It was essentially a VFR airfield. Fine to operate out of, into and around in good weather, but when the weather turned miserable, it was a disaster to get into. As ICAO developed various procedures, in the form of let-downs and after that, precision approaches, like the ILS, none of these was deemed suitable for Ysterplaat, or the powers that be did not want to spend the money on them. So getting into it was always a problem in poor weather.
Over the years, with the help of some imagination and inventive ideas, ATC's at Cape Town, Ysterplaat and pilots came up with some very clever, although some would say, dubious methods to get into Ysterplaat. Of course, there was always the option of completing the instrument approach, at then, DF Malan, and landing there, but that was a logistical nightmare. The aircraft was there, but the support and everything else was at Ysterplaat! No damned good that was!
Of course, all these “approaches” were developed, honed and tested (dare I use that word) without any official permission, but as the old expression goes, “n Boer maak n plan”. The traffic was never really very busy and so these approaches were never really a problem and no one really worried if they did not work out and you ended up at DF Malan.
For those of you that don’t really know Ysterplaat, it had two runways. One, a grass runway, that was for most of the year unusable, because of the wet weather 15/33, I think it was and it eventually fell into disrepair. However, they also had an asphalt runway 02/20, which is a little over 5500 ft long. Ysterplaat is conveniently situated about 7 nm North West of DF Malan, or as it now called, Cape Town International, and about 7 nm South East of the Robben Island VOR navigation aid.
Getting in there was no problem in decent weather, The approach controllers at Cape Town, vectored the aircraft for the instrument approach procedures at Cape Town airport, and when the crews were in a position to see, and successfully attempt an approach into Ysterplaat, they would leave the approach and continue in visual meteorological conditions (VMC) to land at Ysterplaat, All fine and well in good weather, but not in bad weather! And we all know how fickle the weather in Cape Town can be!
With a southerly wind, runway 20 was in use and there was seldom any really poor weather. Not much fog, but often low cloud. So all it required was a vector onto runway 19 ILS, fly down the glide path until about 1000ft AGL, look out your right window and there was Ysterplaat about 3nm away. A quick steep right turn, followed by a sharp left turn and you were on final for runway 20. Simple and effective, and almost 100 % success rate. In fact, for the regulars, it was a non-event. Sometimes if it was really quiet, the crews would complete the approach, at Cape Town to minimums, go around, give us chaps in the tower a quick buzz and tootle off to Ysterplaat, with the standard “see you in the pub later” farewell! Of course, we were not innocent, sitting in the tower! Nothing like a C130/C160 or DC3/4 or something flying past the tower and waving at the crew. I remember the standard chirp was that the pilot’s gloves were dirty!
However, it was an entirely different kettle of fish, or seagulls, when one had to land on runway 02. Mainly because the wind was from the north. Locals and regulars, who flew in there, know that in the early mornings, late afternoons and most nights, the northwester would bring in some sort of fog and or low cloud. That was not what pilots wanted and it made for some interesting approaches to get into Ysterplaat.
Remember these were the days before ICAO came along with stabilised approaches and companies installed things like AIMS (Automated Instrument Monitoring Systems) or FOQA (Flight Operations Quality Assurance) in cockpits. I’m talking about the late 80s and early 90s. Those were the days when pilots sometimes had to think out of the box to get things done.
So with time, a bit of ingenuity, practise and some lateral thinking (yes that did exist then), a plan was made for crews to find Ysterplaat. Remember many of the pilots in those days spent a lot of time in the operational area and had to think out of the box to get things done!
In 1962 the City of Cape Town built a then large power station at Athlone, with 2 very large concrete cooling towers. It started to stop functioning around 2000 and the power station became a bit of a white elephant, as the City had to buy power from Eskom, apart from the fact it did not really generate much electricity and spewed black smoke into the air. Little did the City know that the Cooling towers would become part of the “arrival” route into Ysterplaat from the South!!
With the northwesterly winds, crews would have to complete the instrument approach at DF Malan. Being 7 miles away from Ysterplaat and the aircraft still a mile or two south of DF Malan, the chances of the crews actually seeing Ysterplaat was minimal. So a plan was eventually worked out, to assist the crews to find their destination. It involved a phone call or two before the aircraft was due to arrive. Ysterplaat ATC would phone Cape Town approach and let them know they could see the Cooling Towers. As these were about a mile and a half south of the threshold, they were a vital approach aid!
It was mainly flown by the jets of 21 Squadron and Safair L382 Herc crews, who in those days, as they are now, were consummate professionals and to them, this was really not much of a challenge. As long as you could see the cooling towers, not a problem! They would complete the instrument approach, then when they saw the lights of the N2, would leave the ILS, make a left turn and fly down the N2, until they passed the Cooling Towers. Once they got there, make a sharp right turn and you were on one and a quarter-mile final for runway 02! Simple and efficient and it worked 999 times out of 1000! If you made the right turn and could not see Ysterplaat, no problem, just make a gentle left turn, home on the beacon at Robben Island and come back and try again! I know many people driving along the N2 had heart-stopping moments when they saw these lights flash over them at a few hundred feet and we had many phone calls about lost aircraft!
Over time it was also unofficially “adopted” for use by various other transport Squadrons in the SAAF, and I am sure many a SAAF transport pilot will testify to the “cooling towers approach’ for Ysterplaat. And as there was not much traffic flying around, it was never a problem to have the occasional aircraft heading off to Ysterplaat. Many a pilot going to Ysterplaat, will remember them with fondness they being an integral part of the arrival at Ysterplaat, never mind us older controllers! Speak to a few Mercurius pilots coming down on a Sunday evening about 7 pm and how short they were of fuel and without this approach would have ended up in the pickle!
There was an urban legend that the flashing red lights on the towers were coded, as in Morse Code and flashed “Ons vir jou Suid Afrika”. This was of course not true! There were flashing red lights and they flashed “turn right now”!
Try that approach now and guaranteed, you will have done your last approach.
As I mentioned earlier, with the advent of stabilised approaches, more rigid procedures and, recently, approaches using GPS, together with the very much reduction in the number of movements into Ysterplaat, the cooling towers became a very much redundant navigation aid. And, so like many other old navigation aids, they were decommissioned, or in the case of the cooling towers, on the 22 August 2010, they were demolished.
All that remains of the power station, is the main building and the 2 brick smokestacks and the reason they have not been demolished, is because they are lined with asbestos. Apparently, there is an Ace chap willing to charge a lot of money to demolish them, but he is not too good when it comes to service delivery!