Two top pilots die in air crash at Swartkops Air Force Base, Valhalla in Pretoria
Wednesday, 17 March 2021, will go into history as a sad day for South Africa’s military aviation fraternity, marked by the death of two top pilots in a crash while apparently attempting to land a one-of-type aircraft at AFB Swartkop in Centurion, Pretoria. The single-engine Patchen Explorer reconnaissance aircraft was reportedly on final approach when it crashed short of the runway. The pilots were retired South African Air Force (SAAF) Major General Des Barker, widely known as having by far the most aircraft types of any SAAF pilot in his lengthy logbook and former Indian Air Force (AIF) fighter pilot Rama Iyer. Before moving to the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), Iyer was part of the Air Force’s training directorate and a regular visitor to the SAAF Museum where he was current on a number of aircraft, including the Patchen Explorer. This is the aircraft with himself and Barker aboard that crashed on approach, killing both.
The Directorate: Corporate Communication of the National Defence Force, said in a statement, “The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Military Command is saddened to learn of the untimely death of two Reserve Force pilots as a result of a fatal Patchen Explorer aircraft crash during the scheduled General Flying day at the SAAF Museum in Valhalla, Pretoria. The fatal crash happened on Wednesday, 17 March 2021 at approximately 09h30am”.
It notes high level condolences to family, friends and colleagues of Barker and Iyer from Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula; Deputy Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thabang Makwetla; SANDF Chief General Solly Shoke and acting CAF Major General Mzayifani Innocent Buthelezi.
An investigation into the crash is, according to the statement, “currently underway” to determine its causes.
An eyewitness told the Unofficial SAAF Website the single-engined, high-wing aircraft flew over his house “sputtering badly”, possibly as a result of carburettor icing and went in short of runway 02 on the oldest Air Force base in South Africa. A person who was on the base at the time of the crash said, “It was not a good day for flying. The cloud base was low, very low and there was steady rain at Swartkop since early”.
Barker had an extraordinarily successful career in the SAAF. He was a pilot and leader of supreme capability. After flying Mirages, he became a test pilot flying extremely hazardous test missions, launching missiles at twice the speed of sound.
Barker was the world's leading expert on air show aircraft accidents, said Leitch, a subject on which he had written two books and articles, including a regular column for SA Flyer. During his career, Barker had commanded the fighter base at Louis Trichardt, later Makhado, as well as the Test Flight Development Centre (TFDC) at Bredasdorp in the southern Cape. He also served as SA's air attaché to the UK. Later, while working for the Council for Scientific and Industrial research (CSIR), he played an instrumental role in the Aeronautical Society of SA (a division of the Royal Aeronautical Society), presenting lectures, papers and arranging internationally-acclaimed symposia and conferences, said Linden Birns of aviation consulting firm Plane Talking. Barker was recently awarded an honorary fellowship of the prestigious Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS), one of only two South Africans and 200 people worldwide to have received the honour in the society's 100-year history. “His death is a huge shock and a massive loss for the entire aviation and aerospace community. He was always generous with his knowledge, wisdom and time and never shy to exercise his wonderfully dry sense of humour,” said Birns.
Iyer, a former fighter pilot for the Indian Air Force, had a 24-year career flying MiG fighters behind him when the SAAF employed him in 1998. Iyer, whose call sign was “Dynamite”, and his family moved to South Africa, where he was responsible for setting up the flight training and class work for the new Hawk fighters. Iyer stayed on in South Africa after the programme was completed and continued to fly for the air force as well as for the SAAF museum's Historic Flight, which operates a varied collection of classic military aircraft. “Rama was an incredibly friendly and generous person,” said Dean Wingrin, a journalist who runs an South Africa Air Force internet forum and who flew with Iyer in the museum's restored De Havilland Vampire jet fighter. “He is fondly remembered as a Vampire jet pilot, which he flew at various air shows and displays. He made a huge impact on both the SAAF training syllabus and the historic aviation scene and will be sorely missed,” said Wingrin.
While both men had retired from full-time roles in the SAAF, they were both reserve pilots at the time of the crash.
The Explorer, serial 2000, was one of the aircraft in the SAAF Museum historic flight. It was the only one of type ever built and came to South Africa in 1975 with plans to put it into production. This reportedly did not materialise and the aircraft was offered to the SAAF for evaluation as a reconnaissance asset.
The aircraft was designed for aerial surveillance and photography and patrolling pipelines.
Only one example was ever built. The prototype was brought to South Africa in 1975 and evaluated as an observation aircraft for the SAAF. The aircraft was found to be too noisy to use as a reconnaissance platform and the air force instead chose a two-seat, high-wing plane which became locally known as the “Bosbok”.
Between 1976 and 1979, the Patchen Explorer was employed as a communication aircraft with Test Flight Development Centre (TFDC) at AFB Waterkloof. Plans to build the type in South Africa did not come to fruition and the aircraft sat in a hanger for many years until it was acquired by the SAAF Museum and restored to flying condition.
It found a home at AFB Waterkloof, at that time home to the SAAF Test Flight and Development Centre (TDFC) later moved to AFB Overberg in Western Cape, where the world’s only Patchen Explorer was put into service as a communications aircraft. It stood idle and deteriorating for some seven years before it was moved to nearby Swartkop and put onto SAAF Museum strength. Many hours of work by SAAF Museum staff (regular and Reserve Force along with volunteers) brought the Patchen back to full airworthiness in February 1987. Two years later the aircraft was grounded for repairs, finally regaining airworthiness in 2013.
Sources: DefenceWeb, Times Live