Friday afternoon, 22 February, saw a gathering at the Air Mercy Service complex, at Cape Town International Airport. Staff, past and present pilots, both full time and volunteers came together to wish a fond farewell and, in both cases, a semi-farewell to two legends of the AMS – Frans Grootepas and Rene de Wet. Whilst they have hung up their headsets, they will still be very much involved in the organisation – as trustees and advisors.
L to R Frans Grootepas, Rene de Wet, Dr Ashley Stoner (retired aviation medical doctor), Dr Philip Erasmus, CEO AMS, Graham Smith, Alan Marshall, John Martin, John Stone and Danie Loubscher
Professor Frans Grootepas, a maxillofacial surgeon by profession, joined then then Red Cross Society over 38 years ago. In those days, the Service was an entirely voluntary Society, being run from the Red Cross Society in Wynberg, with its chairman John Stone and administrator, Sister Nicky le Grange. He joined when there was a small little office at the then Air Cape complex and the aircraft was a Piper Aztec. A few years later, the Aztec was replaced by a Piper Chieftain, which for the volunteers in those days was a long range wide-body!! It was fitted with extra tanks to allow for fuel to be carried for both legs. The work slowly expanded, and a need was identified for a bigger and better aircraft and soon thereafter a Citation 550 was ordered and replaced the Chieftain. The days of single pilots came to an end and all volunteers became used to the world of 2 pilot operations!
The Citation remained in the Society until 1999, when the first Pilatus PC12 joined the fleet. It was at that time, that the Society changed and grew to a full time Air Mercy Service.
AMS Pilatus PC12
Frans has completed a total of 853 sorties for the Red Cross over a period of 38 years – as he said that’s almost half the time of powered flight! Indeed, something of a record. Frans is returning to full time lecturing at the Stellenbosch Medical School. When not fixing faces, or flying with the Red Cross, Frans takes to the air in his home-built Busbaby Safari, his other passion, and hobby.
Rene de Wet and Frans Grootepas alongside Fran’s Bushbaby
Since Frans joined the Red Cross Society, is has grown from a voluntary organisation, with one administrator and volunteer pilots, to a Service that has grown to two bases, two sub bases, with five fixed wing aircraft and eight helicopters, with a staff of just over 100 people countrywide.
Rene joined the organisation in 1999, when he was still a director and Vice Chairman of Pick and Pay and had his own Cessna 425. He has flown with them since then and was a highly and well-respected captain on the PC12 bringing with him all his wealth of multi-engined Cessna’s to the Red Cross. Rene will be in semi-retirement and flying will continue to fly his Bonanza around the skies.
Dr Philip Erasmus addressing the Gathering
The gathering was addressed by Dr Philip Erasmus, CEO of the AMS, who thanked the two gentlemen for the devoted service over they years, their leadership and advice to the newer generation pilots and for the countless lifesaving missions they performed. “We can only stand in admiration to Prof Grootepas and Rene de Wet for their longstanding commitment to fulfil the mission of AMS to save the lives of those in need. Captains we salute you, may your legacy continue to inspire those in our system and fellow South Africans to lead by the example you have set to serve our fellow man. May we continue to walk in your footsteps to improve the quality of life for all”. Dr Erasmus concluded with a quote from Heber J Grant. ‘When one is giving service for the advancement of humanity, when one is working without money and without price, with no hope of earthly reward, there comes a real, genuine joy into the human heart’
The purpose of AMS is to facilitate access to healthcare to those rendered most venerable by Geographical, Social or Economical inequity, and in so doing, reduce vulnerability of at-risk communities and judiciously improve the quality of life. The Mission of the AMS is to support State-run programmes, AMS will innovatively render rural outreach programmes, clinical and development of Stakeholders and Emergency Aero-Medical/ rescue services
A scene inside the AMS hangar complex, with one of the Augusta helicopters ready for a call out.