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The ABSA Lowveld Airshow 2024 – Celebrating 30 Years

By Garth Calitz

Photos by Garth Calitz, Rayno Snyman and Trevor Cohen

When the times for the Lowveld Airshow were released I had serious doubts about whether I was going to travel to Nelspruit for a four-hour show, I am really happy that I decided to go. The Airshow was scheduled to start at 3:00 on Saturday afternoon and “officially” it did, however, the spectators that made their way to the airfield early were well rewarded.

Various display pilots were required to do validation flights as they didn’t manage to get them done the day before the show. The first validation was Johan “Juba” Joubert in the Ex-SAAF Alouette III, Juba as always delivered a brilliant display for the officials.

Between the validation flights the local RC Club, Lowveld Model Aircraft Club had the opportunity to fly some of their favourite machines. Two extremely fast pylon racers were unleashed and did a few passes at well over 300 kph sadly trying to photograph these speedsters is almost impossible as they just move way to fast. Once they were safely on the ground an RC Jet took to the air, and this is a real jet, not a ducted fan cheaper option.

The Jet was followed by a stunning scale model of the WWII spitfire complete with Douglas Bader's famous DB registration. The Jonker brothers from Potchefstroom would be very impressed with a rather large model of their JS4 sail-plane, the turbine used on the full-scale machine has been substituted for a ducted fan engine on the scale model.

The RC aircraft highlight for me was the perfect scale model of a Saudi Airforce BAE Hawk 65A, this model is so well made that it looks and sounds like a full-scale aircraft when airborne, I was accused of telling long stories by some people on social media when I posted a photograph of the aircraft, as the “Saudi Airforce have never visited Safrica”. The last RC aircraft to take to the sky was the large-scale Aerobatics Extra 300, watching this aircraft one realises that the limiting factor in full-size aerobatics is not the aircraft but what the pilot can endure.

Andre van Zyl then got airborne to get his validation out of the way, he was visibly enjoying the thicker Lowveld air. Andre’s signature move had the ever-growing crowd gasping as he fell out of the sky. The last validation flight was Darryl Sloan in the SAAF Agusta A-109, it is great to see SAAF participation at the country airshows considering the budgetary restraints they constantly battling.

As we all waited for the official opening of the show the display pilots all started getting airborne, the banter thrown around was that the pilots all got upset about something and were going home. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case as we found out after the supporting services parade. Vehicles from all the supporting services drove down the runway accompanied by the Bell 407 air ambulance from Mpumalanga Emergency Medical Services.

Once the parade exited the runway everyone was treated to the best opening flypast of an airshow that has been seen in many years. The four Goodyear Eagles Pitts Specials led a formation of the four Puma Energy Harvards followed by the Marksmen Aerobatic team followed by three Vans RVs and the Nashua Extra 300 brining up the rear.

The mass flypast marked the opening of the show, while the aircraft were landing the Goodyear Eagles commenced their display. Nigel Hopkins led the formation with Jason Beamish, Johan von Solms and Trevor Warner, they delivered a great display and finished off with the double heart drawn in the blue Lowveld sky.

While the Pitts’ were landing attention was drawn away as the distinctive sound of the Leading Edge Aviation Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk taxiing was heard. The Black Hawk spends summers in the Western Cape and winters at Nelspruit all in the name of fighting fires. Peter, son of owner Mark Jackson flew a stunning display in this monster of a helicopter, he was accompanied by Co-pilot Joe Meyer and Crew Chief Peter Fetting.

Nigel and Jason quickly jumped out of the Pitts’ and into their Extra 330s while the Black Hawk was flying ready for their Hi-energy display as soon as Peter landed. The Extra Duo were sporting the new Master Power Technologies sponsorship that commenced at the beginning of this Airshow season. Nigel and Jason had the crowd gasping in disbelief as they threw their agile aircraft around the sky. The Extra 330SC and 330LX are widely regarded as the best aerobatic aircraft in the world, a statement that is backed up by winning every unlimited aerobatic world championship, bar one, since 2009.

The Puma Energy Flying Lions were ready to get airborne as soon as the duo landed and as always Scully Levine, Arnie Meneghelli, Ellis Levin and soloist Sean Thackwray delivered a top-notch display in their T-6 Harvards.

Leon du Plessis from Capital Sounds has dreamt about taking an Audi R8 down the runway at full taps and it seemed as if his wish was going to be realised when he climbed in the car to race Juba Joubert in the Alouette III. Sadly for Leon, this was not to be as the owner, Clarence Aiyavoo from EL-CAR PANELBEATERS, swapped places with Leon as soon as they were out of sight of the crowd. The Audi reached speeds of very close to 300kph which is quite impressive on a runway that is only 1000m long. Juba was well beaten by the time they reached the end of the race which was surprising as the Audi left the runway on one of the turnarounds but was skilfully coaxed back by the driver in a display of drifting skill.

While Brian Emmenis was interviewing the triumphant winner the RV Raptors were taking to the blue skies. The Raptors team fly Vans RV7s and RV8s, all home-built aircraft, The team is led by Nigel Hopkins with Johan von Solms and Dion Raath on his wings and Trevor Warner in the box.

The newest Hi-Energy Aerobatics team on the Airshow circuit, The Laett Marksmen were next on the card. Mark Hensmen is the team leader and he was joined by Johnie Smith and Eugene du Preez, the latter fly Extra 330s and Mark flies an MX-2. The pace of their show is astounding and the crowd never know where to look.

The sun was setting very quickly and soon darkness would set in but before that, there were a few displays to get through. The unmistakable sound of the Bell UH-1’s (Huey) beating the air into submission meant Kishugu were getting ready for what is always a wonderful display. Kishugu Aviation operates under the “Working on Fire” banner and are resident in Nelspruit for the winter months before moving to Stellenbosch for the dry summer in the South. The team for this display was made up of a Cessna 172 spotter, 2 Air Tractor 802 Bombers and 2 Bell UH-1 helicopters equipped with Bambi Buckets. The two helicopters led the charge with dumping water with pinpoint accuracy, they were followed by the 2 Air Tractors one of which was filled with bright blue water. Just when everyone thought the display was over the Hueys came to the hover in front of the crowd, colourful daylight fireworks were then shot off behind them creating a beautiful spectacle.

Golden hour had arrived and this became very evident as Andrew Blackwood-Murray took to the now golden sky for his solo Extra 300, the colours reflecting off his Nashua-sponsored aircraft as he danced around the sky were amazing.

When Andrew landed things went a bit quiet for the first time in the entire show, Capital Sounds started playing “Paint it Black” and the anticipation grew with no one knowing what was about to happen, suddenly from behind the crowd the silhouette of an airliner could be made out. It was Airlinks Black Beauty, the graceful Embraer E195, expertly flown by Capt Jaco Henning. Watching this aircraft at such close quarters in the twilight was truly a privilege.

Andre van Zyl had to follow this act which wasn't in any way easy but as we know Andre, he wasn't phased at all and delivered a great display. The Magni Gyro surprises many people with its agility.

Darkness was truly setting in when LtCol Darryl got airborne with a 17 Squadron A-109 LUH he was immediately joined by Juba Joubert in the Alouette III, it was great to see the Alouette and its replacement sharing the airspace, sadly something we don’t often get to see. As Juba peeled off to drop our correspondent, Trevor Cohen, at Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport to catch a flight home Darryl put the A-109 through its paces. As the display was ending a series of explosions were fired off behind the chopper catching not only the crowd but Darryl’s engineer by surprise, Darryl “forgot” to brief him on the explosions.

The Puma Flying Lions had got airborne earlier and many thought they had left for home but when the haunting sound of Il silenzio was heard we knew we were in for a twilight display of note. What none of us knew was that the Pyro guys had another surprise up their sleeves. As the Harvards did their final individual flypasts another series of explosions were set off, what a fitting finale for an outstanding show.

But wait, there’s more. As soon as darkness had well and truly set in an incredible fireworks display was unleashed, which in hindsight should have been expected as the Lowveld Airshow is always closed with impressive Fireworks.

Once again the organisers outdid themselves with this show, every year we say how can they improve on the previous year's show and every year they manage to do just that. The safety team of Johan and Koos managed the show with precision and as a result, there was never a quiet moment, well done gentlemen you and your team are stars. As always Brian, Leon, Elvis and the rest of the team did a superb job on the sound and commentary even if no one saw the illusive Gripen flypast.

Looking forward to 2025 to see what Nelspruit will pull out of its bag of tricks.

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