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:: February 2008 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow Aircraft Safari Lovers,

There is one true test for the aviation enthusiast: propensity to spend $13,000 on a flight in an English Electric Lightning. I have faced this test and have been found wanting. Even if I had the discretionary cash, my wife merely pointed out that the money would purchase 100 bottles of $100 single malt scotch and a $3,000 barcalounger in which to drink it. There’s a company in Capetown, South Africa that offers flights, not just in a Lightning, but in a Hunter, a Buccaneer, and even an Avro Shackleton. This is serious vintage equipment, not some new-ish but unwanted MiG or L-39. And it’s intriguing—an African country with myriad old planes, kind of like Southern California and old cars.

This, of course, is my annual travel/aircraft market newsletter. Read on if you have nothing better to do.

Until a few years ago, some of these old planes were actually in South African Air Force (SAAF) service. It’s a funny story, involving less pleasant times. This wasn’t like Latin America, with castoffs and hand-me-downs uselessly taking up space and turning airfields into junkyards. South Africa had the latest and best new Western equipment, circa 1965. After the ‘60s, they were basically cut off, but they had the technological and industrial base to keep them in service and updated. They even had turbine-re-engined DC-3s. South Africa’s 1980s nuke program called for Buccaneer attack planes to do the job, an odd combination of vaguely terrifying sophistication and delightful obsolescence.

The South African military became a Galapagos Island-like repository of isolated creations that evolved along different yet parallel lines. Old planes effectively became new ones, with Mirages transformed into Cheetahs and Centurion tanks rebuilt as Olifants. If the old regime survived, the next step could have been purely indigenous platforms. Towards the end, numerous local weapons designs were on the drawing board. The most notable was the Cava, an all-local medium weight fighter. It never flew.

The only survivor of this baroque design period is the Rooivalk attack helicopter. This adorably menacing curiosity was typical of the military contraptions that defined the late apartheid regime. After defeats in numerous international competitions, the Rooivalk (Red Hawk in Afrikaans) is still on the market. Check eBay for the latest pricing.

This experience turned South Africa’s defense industry into a collection of technically adept upgrade, munitions, and electronics shops with a side business as museum curator, kind of like an L-3 for a very retro air force. Today, that industry is fading into obscurity, trying to maintain a shadow of its former self. It does its best to compete globally in a few high value niches, discovering just how meaningless industrial offset promises can be.

There’s a paramount rule about defense autarky: if you’re a small power and need to become completely self-reliant on home-grown weapons, there’s (how to say this gently?) something wrong with your country. South Africa’s self-reliance resulted from notoriously toxic domestic politics. At best, self-reliant nations wind up with second rate equipment, like India before they started to open up. The US and Europe stupidly give defense self-reliance the best possible shot, but they’ve never been forced to contend with a complete cutoff of external equipment, and they always had the industrial base to produce modern planes.

Since apartheid ended, South Africa has signed several notable weapons contracts. Local opinion is divided about these arms sales—some say they were modestly corrupt, others think they were unbelievably sleazy (for a good account from the latter viewpoint, see Terry Crawford-Browne’s Eye On The Money). Regardless, the result is that the SAAF military has transitioned from a random collection of charming upgraded antiques to a streamlined, smaller, modern force. All they’ll have is a few Gripen and Hawk squadrons, some A400Ms for transport and a few support planes. Compared to the old force, this will be better, less expensive, and much less weighed down by a grim history. It isn’t a great force for hunting guerillas or fighting the Cuban military, but it’s fine for maintaining a minimum-sized military for a medium power.

You can see Gripens around Pretoria. Sadly, I didn’t spot the elusive Rooivalk. The rest of that old and wonderful yet politically incorrect arsenal is in the museums, or there to please wealthy thrill-seeking tourists (for that mere 13K).

I have little to report on the civil aviation scene in South Africa, which features plenty of 737-200s (so THAT’s where they go…). We didn’t fly SAA, but it has a good reputation. During the bad old days, they acquired plenty of long range route experience—they weren’t allowed to fly over much of Africa, so they went the long way around. Since the rest of Africa is plagued by routine aeronautical carnage, South African air service is an oasis of safety. Given the country’s geography, high wealth concentration, and plentiful small airports, the private aircraft market looks extremely promising—assuming of course that the worrying political situation stabilizes.

Also, South Africa makes you cheer for route fragmentation. Capetown, an impossibly beautiful city (think San Francisco with nearby baboons) is hard to reach via non-stop or even direct flights. The new generation of smaller, long-range efficient widebodies—787s and A350s—will have a profound impact on the tourism business of Capetown and other out of the way medium-sized cities.

Travel tips. There’s an incredible choice of books to read about South Africa. I liked Donald Morris’s The Washing Of The Spears about the Zulu wars, and Bryce Courtenay’s The Power Of One. You’ll need Platter’s 2008 Wine Guide. In Johannesburg, contact Margaret Burns, who owns two lovely B&Bs and offers extraordinary personal tours of the city. There are many good safari options; we liked Kwandwe Reserve (ask for Alfie the guide). In Capetown, An African Villa and Les Cascades are both excellent hotel choices. In Franschoek, stay at the Plumwood Inn and dine at Le Petite Ferme. Also, Ruben’s, a great wine country restaurant, has a salvaged DC-3 wing as its bar. Try the mustard-crusted ostrich.

DC-3s and ostriches—that’s South Africa at its finest. Go and wish them well, and if you’ve got the rands, fly a Lightning. Let me know how it was.

This month’s Aircraft supplement includes updates of the fighter market overview, the F-16, B777, B-1, S-3, Challenger 300, and the newly dead Bell 430. Have a good month.

Yours, Until I Can Buy My Own Shackleton,
Richard Aboulafia

 

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