A Sad Day in Aviation History – 45 Years Later…
It’s the time of year when the wind blows great guns in Cape Town – just on some days, though. Clouds spill down dramatically over the great Table Mountain that has been the Mother City’s signature feature for centuries. When the good old South-Easter tugs at hemlines and hairdos and we see the tablecloth descending over the mountain, we have a favourite story that we tell.
It’s about how Devil’s Peak got its name.
Viewed from the sea, Table Mountain may indeed have represented the Last Supper to religious seafarers, biblically bookended on the one side by Lion’s Head (representing Lion of Judah) and the Twelve Apostles – and the Devil’s Mountain on the other.
Today Devils Peak remains the path through which the Cape Southeaster howls, churning up the waves in the Cape of Storms.
The Legend and the Curse of Devils Peak
The legend of Van Hunks was based on an old slave tale heard while “gossiping with one of the old Hajis or Moulvis who “know so much that we do not understand”.
Once upon a time very long ago, long before we had the wonderful V&A Waterfront development, there lived at the Cape a formidable pirate from Holland whose name was Jan Van Hunks. Van Hunks had reached the end of a chequered career of plunder at sea, and he had retired to a better life on the slopes of majestic Table Mountain.
Van Hunks escaped his wife’s sharp tongue by spending his days smoking his pipe at his favourite spot on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. Smoking his pipe and enjoying the view – and isn’t it just great!
One day Van Hunks was startled to see a tall cloaked stranger sitting exactly where he normally sat. The mysterious stranger asked the retired pirate if he could spare him a little tobacco and Van Hunks started to boast about the fact that he was the only man who was able to smoke as large a quantity of it as he did. The stranger replied that he could easily smoke as much, if not more, than the old pirate. Angrily, an indignant Van Hunks challenged the man to a smoking contest.
It was not too long before huge plumes of smoke enveloped them and started creeping up the mountain. All day long the contest continued – some folks say that it actually went on for days. Eventually the whole mountain was covered as clouds of smoke poured over the mountain.
Van Hunks became tired, hot and frustrated but he noticed that his strange competitor was not looking too happy himself. Suddenly, unable to continue, the stranger leaned forward and his black hat was dislodged and Van Hunks discovered that his challenger was the devil himself. The devil was furious at having been beaten by a mortal and in a bright flash of lightning Van Hunks and the lean stranger vanished into the smoke leaving behind a scorched patch of ground.
In Colvin’s legend, the cloud of tobacco smoke they left behind became Cape Town’s famous tablecloth – and every year, Van Hunks is forced to repeat his duel. And so, for ever more when the clouds cascade over the mountain, we speculate whether Van Hunks and the Devil are having a smoke.
The Winter of May 1971
Today, on the Eastern slopes of Devil’s Peak you will find the Rhodes Memorial, to Cecil Rhodes, and the University of Cape Town. From these vantages one can gaze down upon the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town and over the sandy Cape Flats towards Stellenbosch, Somerset West and the distant Boland mountains. Other landmarks on the Eastern slopes are Mostert’s Mill, Groote Schuur Hospital and the Groote Schuur estate, including a number of presidential and ministerial residences.
A number of historic military blockhouses are situated on Devil’s Peak, and a number of cannons. These were intended to defend the city from attack from the South. There is an abandoned fire lookout high up on Mowbray Ridge.
The peak is very exposed to wind and mist, so hikers must always take care. A number of the descents on the Southern Suburbs side are very steep and wet, and are highly dangerous (particularly Second Waterfall Ravine, Dark Gorge and Els Ravine). These routes should not be attempted, as many lives have been lost by hikers taking the wrong route.
Devil’s Peak stands 1,000 metres (3,281 ft) high, less than Table Mountain’s 1,087 metres (3,566 ft). One can walk to the top (western slopes provide the easiest approach) but the ascent is more pleasant and safer outside of the cold, wet, winter months of May to August.
The forgotten Crash on Devils Peak
It was on such a cold, wet misty winters day On 26 May 1971 a formation of four South African Air military aircraft, flying by sight along the N2 highway, in close formation, was practicing for a fly past during the upcoming 10th anniversary Republic Day celebrations on 31 May.
The jets were a variation of the Hawker Siddeley H125, a twin-engined executive transport jet. They were the VIP flight of the South African Air Force. The SAAF called them Mercurius, but they were the ninth version of the HS-125, which first flew in 1962. They had a crew of two and, depending on their configuration, could take from seven to twelve passengers in airline seating. The cabins were pressurized and the cabins were fitted with drop-out oxygen masks and toilets.
They were technically still on the secret list, to be shown to the public for the first time at the tenth Republic Festival celebration flypast on 31 May. On the day of the crash they were taking part in a rehearsal.
Eye-witnesses saw the three jets fly over the saluting dais and then do a right-hand sweep that took them into the clouds.
“I was on Goodwood showgrounds that day,” remembers Johan Frierich, “ when those three flew over, leading one each of all the other types of aeroplane that would be taking part in the flypast on the 31st May. They disappeared into the low cloud…”
They were flying in mist. They had a pre-arranged flight plan to pull right and gain altitude after a few seconds. But on the day the weather was not so great but they went ahead.
Several witnesses still remembers what happened next. “I was attending a lecture in an upper lecture room at UCT when it happened – we just heard this terrific explosion, and didn’t know what had happened – very sad.”
Tony Weaver recalls “ I was actually on the field at SACS doing a cadets practice for Republic Day – we all heard the bang.
The explosion shook the tearoom at the Rhodes Memorial and was heard over a wide area. The impact was heard throughout the surrounding suburbs.
The first news to reach DF Malan Airport came from a switchboard operator at Groote Schuur Hospital, who saw two of the jets smash into the mountain. Confirmation came a few minutes later when a game guard reported that he had seen the explosion on the mountain.
Danie Lombaard was a SAAF pilot from Pretoria. At the exact time of the crash a glass window cracked at his home in Pretoria….and the shape of the crack was that of Devil’s Peak.
Immediately police and rescue personnel went into action, but there was little that could be done. The side of the mountain was clothed in thick fog. It was raining and the slopes were muddy and slippery, which made searching almost impossible. After a cold, wet climb, rescuers reported back on the grim scene on the mountain. So completely were the Mercurius jets destroyed that probably only the pilots could have had a split-second look into the face of death. The passengers knew nothing.
It really was a mess. The first two planes impacted within 20 metres of one another and that was clear by the gouges in the earth-seen even from kms away. So the ‘blast factor’ must have been considerable. The ground and surrounding surviving trees and bushes reeked of fuel and it was all burned down to nothing over a wide radius. There was still metal sharding everywhere and probably still is today. Well it was bad over 2 areas actually. Not so much at the third impact site. It seemed that the pilot of the last plane must have seen the explosions of the first two in front of him and tried to pull up. He almost made it but crashed in about 200 metres further along. Another 20-50 ft and we would have been clear. A Mountain Ranger had seen the explosions from the Rhodes memorial site and what he reported was borne out by what I saw. The aircraft banked to the right three seconds to late, narrowly missed the University and Rhodes Memorial and ploughed into the side of the mountain. Three South African Air Force jets, on a practice formation flying above the peninsula, in preparation for a massive 220 aircraft flypast for a Republic day display , slammed into the mountain just above Rhodes Memorial with the loss of eleven lives. The aircraft impacted about 200m apart. There is no one spot – the impact area of the aircraft is the size of two rugby fields. The mountain was shrouded in mist and smoke and scars in the ground can still be seen today. Two straight in and one higher up after a failed attempt to get altitude. The location somewhere between the blockhouse and Rhodes Memorial.
So what went so terribly wrong on that practice flight on Wednesday, 26 May 1971? To understand the disaster, it is necessary to look at some of the planning in greater detail.