The Forgotten Crash on Devils Peak

Analysis of a Disaster

Ysterplaat Air Force base with Devils Peak in the background
Ysterplaat Air Force base with Devils Peak in the background

Planning for the event had been going on for two and a half months, and because of the unsettled weather in the Cape at that time of year, senior officers had worked out five complex plans to put on the safest and best display possible. These ranged from a magnificant clear-weather displayvin which more than two hundred SAAF aircraft- Impalas, Mirages, Vampires, Canberras, Buccaneers, Skymasters, Shackletons, helicopters, Cessnas, Albatrosses and Dakotas- would fly past at different altitudes in ten action-packed minutes, to a display in thickly overcast weather of helicopters only, flying at five hundred feet. Three hundred and fifty pilots and crew were backed up by five hundred and fifty ground crew and communications staff.

The Operation had been planned with great precision. For the various aircraft to arrive over the dais at the right times, bearing in mind the great differences in their speeds, timing had to be calculated to split seconds.

There could be no overlaps, nor could there be large gaps between the formations. Precautions had even been made in the event of engine trouble, and pilots were instructed to head for the open sea where lifeboats and rescue squads were standing by.

Several plans had been worked out to make provision for variable weather. However all the plans were subject to the requirement that all flying was to be carried out in visual conditions, that is, the pilots would be able to see the ground at all times.

Electronic navigation aids were sited for the safe routing of aircraft, and all these were tested in practice. All pilots received written orders as well as detailed verbal pre-flight briefing, and were shown key points along the routes, from the air and on the ground.

The planners worked out holding areas for various types of aircraft, the routes they would take to the dais, the fly-past routes, the heights and speeds, the turning points and the routes from south of the saluting-base back to their bases, DF Malan Airport, the SAAF base at Ysterplaat and the Flying Training School at Langebaanweg. Summersfield was designated a reserve airfield.

Planners also made sure that routes, turns and altitudes would prevent collisions between aircraft and, if the weather should turn nasty, they would keep the aircraft away from high ground.

To make sure that the various groups of aircraft passed the saluting base within a certain number of seconds, aircraft with different speeds were grouped in blocks and instructed to fly at certain speeds and heights.

There were seven speed blocks, and the Mercurius aircraft were grouped with the Vampires and Impalas in the sixth block with a stipulated speed of 250 knots.

After the fly-past there was always the danger that the different aircraft might catch up with one another or collide on their return to base. To avoid that, formations were instructed either to fly straight on or turn to the left or right after the completion of the fly-past.

Aircraft with longer endurances, such as the Shackletons, Hercules, Dakotas, Skymasters, Albatrosses, Canberras and Buccaneers, were to fly straight ahead. Aircraft with short endurances- Vampires and Mirages- were to turn left and return to DF Malan Airport.

Turning right to return to their base at Langebaanweg, the Mercurius jets and Impalas took a breakaway route from south of the saluting base over low ground over the Swart River area. This was the safest route, for if they had turned left to return to base they would have had to fly over high ground, which would have been dangerous in bad weather.

The right turn for the Mercurius and Impala aircraft was calculated mathematically at a rate of one turn, that is, three degrees a second.

This at 250 knots, from a point thirty seconds flying time, also at 250 knots, south of the saluting-base would have given the aircraft a safe distance of two miles east of Devils Peak.

This calculation was tested in practice and found correct by the control staff. Leaders of formations were also given the opportunity to practice the turn and to comment on the practicability of this manoeuvre.

The leaders of the Mercurius and Impala teams flew the route and turned twice, once on the day of the accident, but neither made any comments to the control staff about the plan.

An aerial view of the Goodwood Showgrounds area - today the Grand West Casino complex
An aerial view of the Goodwood Showgrounds area – today the Grand West Casino complex

An extensive communications centre at Goodwood kept formation leaders and control staff under strict supervision, and the positions of formations could be ascertained and correlated with planned positions at all times. The communications system also allowed liaison between leaders of formations and enabled them to report changes in the weather and to receive new instructions from the control centre. There were no breakdowns in this communications system, and it worked perfectly.

At the various bases and over the saluting dais the weather was suitable for the rehearsal. However, during the fly-past, the base of a broken layer of cloud south of the dais was down to eight hundred feet, and approval was given by control center for formation leaders to reduce height to maintain visual flight. This was in accordance with instructions to formation leaders, including the leader of the Mercurius jets.

While flying towards the dais, the leader of the Vampires radioed to the leader of the Mercurius jets. He was thirty seconds behind the Mercurius jets, but he wanted confirmation that they were not behind time according to the tight schedule.

When the Mercurius leader confirmed that they were ten seconds late, the Vampire leader increased speed to 280 knots, at which speed he flew over the saluting dais. The distance between the Vampire and Mercurius formations at first decreased, then remained constant, which meant that the Mercurius leader also probably increased speed.

When the Mercurius formation flew into the broken cloud soon after flying over the dais, it maintained its planned height of a thousand feet. In doing so, the formation leader chose to ignore the overriding instruction that visual flight was to be maintained at all times.

Why did he do that? We can only suppose, as the board of inquiry did, that the leader regarded the flight in cloud as a common occurrence, for as a transport pilot he had complete confidence in his own ability and his instruments.

The Impalas, however, which were following the Mercurius formation, were taken by their leader below the clouds where they were able to maintain visual flight as ordered.

The Last SAAF Impala flypast
The Last SAAF Impala flypast

And what about instrument flying?  The Mercurius had weather radar, but even if it was switched on, it is doubtful whether the leader would have had time to pay much attention to it.

The board of inquiry ran through the fatal flight in every detail. It flew the identical course in an identical aircraft. Then, together with evidence from eyewitnesses, it was able to reproduce the exact flight path of the Mercurius formation.

It showed that the principal cause of the accident was simply that the formation turned much wider than had been planned and which the leader had been instructed to do in his briefing before the flight.

The formation was flying faster than had been stipulated in its attempt to make up the few seconds that it had lost in the fly-past.

The Mercurius formation had to break to the right thirty seconds after flying over the saluting base and then fly back along the same bearing to Langebaanweg. Thirty seconds was adhered to, but the turn began farther south than the point planned. Again, the higher speed also resulted in a wider turn than had been planned, and the leader had not made allowance for that by turning more steeply.

The last, fatal error was in not maintaining visual contact with the ground. That would almost certainly have warned the leader that he was two miles west of his planned flight path and on a collision course with the mountain.

The board of inquiry found that the disaster was caused by the leader of the Mercurius formation not maintaining visual contact with the ground, and during the flight in the clouds, making an error of judgement by turning too wide, which resulted in a collision with the slopes of Devils Peak.

The story continuous on the next page …

13 thoughts on “The Forgotten Crash on Devils Peak

  1. Hi there
    Just spotted this article today. I was at Ysterplaat on the day this happened. I was a corporal and was out holding up telephone lines so that Super Frelon helicopters in packing cases could pass through the side gate near the RSM’s office. (‘Bubbles” was the RSM at that time). I reported the flashes I’d seen through the cloud and shortly thereafter the RSM organised a search party, which I was in, to retrieve the bodies, or bits thereof. I have very bad memories of the afternoon / evening on the mountain and can remember being a bit shaken up by what we saw and did up there getting the parts into body bags until we reached the approximate total weight of the 11 victims. I was 18 at the time. I was very pleased to see your article as there does not seem to be much written about the event. I remember an elderly lady walking her dog late afternoon seeing the remains and becoming quite hysterical. One of the more senior NCO’s had to slap her face to bring her back to reality and then asked her to leave asap.

  2. The picture you caption as being “Ysterplaat Air Force base” is actually Cape Town International Airport (or, as was back then, D.F. Malan Airport). Ysterplaat lies further to the north and west of this location, and Devil’s Peak and Table Mountain would loom much larger as a backdrop to a photo of Ysterplaat. The photo you show is more obviously showing what Cape Town International looked like back in the 1960s, and the approach road to the airport from the N2, with the car parks on the far side of the airport buildings, is still evident today’s layout of the much-expanded airport site. Your photo also shows civilian SAA aircraft. Definitely not Ysterplaat.

  3. Sad. I remember hearing that story that night. So the next day I had ‘News’ for teacher. I was 9 at the time. Not many in my class believed me…..

  4. Sad. I remember hearing that story that night. So the next day I had ‘News’ for teacher. I was 9 at the time. Not many in my class believed me…..

  5. I have never forgotten that crash – it was dreadful. And every year I think of it. I never drive along that boulevard without looking up at the mountain where it happened and thinking about it. Thank you for this amazing article.

  6. I was in the South African Air Force at that time. We were doing a full practice march on May 26, 1971 and I witnessed the whole thing, which is not as is described in the article.

    As we were marching, a single aircraft (the lead plane of each group for the May 31 fly past) flew over us, one at a time and then banked off to the right. Each lead plane banked off to the right at the same location.

    Then the 3 Hawker Siddeleys flew over us in a V formation (the rear two following the leader) and they did not bank to the right at the same point that the previous planes had done. They kept going straight and only banked to the right as they started to disappear into the low hanging cloud – just a few seconds beyond the point were they should have turned. The next plane to fly over us, shook its wings and peeled off sharply to the right. The next plane peeled off to the right as it flew directly over us and the next plane peeled off to the right before it reached us. After that, no other planes flew over us.

    We continued our marching until we reached our destination. When we got back to our tent city camp (10,000 soldiers) we heard that there had been a crash and they were asking for volunteers to go to the crash site. Luckily my father who served for many years in the British military taught me to never volunteer in the military.

    Some of my friends from my tent volunteered. When they came back later that night they were in shock and did not eat for a few days. They told me that the reason why there were 3 Hawker Siddeleys is because some of the top military brass were in those planes with their families and they wanted to get a view of the parade from the air.

    I will always remember the horrific descriptions they spoke of. With the 10 year Republic festival taking place on May 31, very little publicity was given to the crash.


  7. Never forgotten – I was in the Old Chemistry Building when the crash occurred. Having just looked out of the window towards the mountain after hearing this roaring sound/fly-past and ….. bang!
    thank you for this excellent article, finally an explanation after 47 years.

  8. 31 Januarie 2019 en ek onthou dit soos gister,
    Ek was saam met my beste vriend vanaf graad 1, André Wasssermann en Iris Henning in die Matriek klas, 1971, toe hulle na die skoolhoof se kantoor ontbied was waar hulle ingelig was oor die vliegtuig ongeluk teen Duiwels Piek waar Iris se pa (Kommendant LAS Henning) en Andre se broer (Private GH Wassermann) omgekom het…
    Iris was my matriek afskeid metgesel daardie jaar (1971)
    Ek en Andre is nog steeds in kontak met mekaar – het geen inligting wat van Iris geword het nie…..

  9. I was an Argus photographer at the time. Was returning to city from Goodwood rehearsal. As we approached Devils Peak I commented to my driver about a “strange” ball of smoke which seemed to roll out of the cloud. As we got back to the Argus (10mins) a call came in from someone on one of the Navy ships in the harbour to say one of their ratings had seen the aircraft go into the cloud and not reappear – “had we heard anything?” Put two and two together, went back to where I had seen the “ball of smoke” and headed up the mountain being one of the first there. Do not intend documenting the scene suffice to say rather horrific. The first military only arrived on the scene a about half an hour later and removed us from the scene.

  10. My brother in law was Renier Grobler.
    I am tryinh to locate his wife.
    Can you pse help me

  11. I remember it vividly, too. It’s not something that ever fades away.

    Although I was in Pretoria, the habit of formation pilots to blindly follow the leader came under much discussion because there is no way that the planes in the formation would break off unless the break-off point has been reached or there is a command or distress call.

    It was truly sad …

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