Thunder City: A pilot’s playground

By Anthony C. LoBaido

CAPE TOWN, South Africa – In an era marked by increased military action and concern for airline safety, a maverick South African entrepreneurial experiment has opened a new chapter in the history of aviation.

Adjacent to the sleepy Cape Town International Airport rests Thunder City, the world’s largest privately owned collection of combat aircraft, put together by Mike Beachy Head, a South African businessman and pilot.

Yet Thunder City is not merely a playground where the rich and famous – like Mark Shuttleworth, Africa’s first spaceman – take to the skies. Military test pilots from no less than 11 nations, including the U.S., journey to Cape Town in an effort to hone their skills at Thunder City’s National Test Pilot School. This school is affiliated with the NTPS in California.

“When I first came here and saw those jets flying and heard the roar of the engines, I knew this was the place for me,” Bron Roets, chief of Thunder City’s public relations, told WorldNetDaily. “There’s nothing else quite like it on earth.”

“In addition to training military test pilots, Thunder City offers anyone the chance to fly in combat fighter jets such as the British Electric Lighting, a supersonic high level interceptor, the BAe Buccaneer, a low-level strike attack aircraft, and the Hawker Hunter, an advanced air combat trainer,” Roets added.

Roets also says that Thunder City, in conjunction with the Witwatersrand Graduate School of Business, offers a special course aimed at honing business skills called “Executive Flight Path,” which she says recognizes “the synergies between flying fast combat jets and piloting a fast land corporation.”

The right stuff

Steve Dent, the man who kept the former Rhodesian Air Force flying, is Thunder City’s chief engineer. Dent told WorldNetDaily that military test pilots use Thunder City’s 1940s vintage DC-3 and other older jets because “they are less computerized and more hands-on.”

A DC-3 at Thunder City

Said Dent, “The DC-3 was designed in the 1930s. McDonald-Douglas made thousands of them during World War II. It uses a Shafer turbine engine and is of course a propeller plane. Yet its insides have been totally refurbished with state-of-the-art radar and sonar equipment. Mapping, infrared – it’s all there. It is a special prototype, and there is no other plane like it in the entire world. As I said, it is a World War II era plane, but it is still quite useful in the high-tech 21st century.

“Australia, Norway, Italy, Canada and South Korea have all sent military test pilots here from their respective air forces to train,” continued Dent. “These militaries are in effect outsourcing their training to the National Test Pilot School in California, which in turn outsources some of that training to Thunder City here in Cape Town.”

Some South African flyers train on various types of surveillance equipment that are featured in Maritime Dakota aircraft. These planes are used to stop poachers from countries like Spain and Japan from fishing offshore as far north as Angola.

“By impounding foreign ships and seizing their cargo, many millions of dollars can be acquired,” one Thunder City employee commented.

Dent, who was trained by British Aerospace, explained to WorldNetDaily that the fighter jets housed at Thunder City are unique in many respects.

“The British Electric Lightning is a high-altitude interceptor. Its climb rate is 50,000 feet per minute, and it established a climbing record in the 1960s which still stands. It flies at Mach 2.2 – which is more than twice the speed of sound – and more than 1,500 mph. It has two Rolls Royce Avon 302-3 afterburning turbojets and uses so much fuel that it doesn’t have bingo lights (lights that warn a jet is low on fuel) because these lights would come on immediately after takeoff because of its rapid fuel consumption,” Dent said.

“The Lightning features 30 millimeter cannons which fire 1,000 rounds per minute. Each bullet has the force of an exploding hand grenade.”

The three British Electric Lightnings housed at Thunder City are the only three serviceable ones left in the entire world.

“It takes 75 engineering hours per one hour of flight to keep them operational,” Dent said. “We follow a military maintenance schedule at Thunder City.”

The BAe Buccaneer served on British aircraft carriers and thus features a “folding wing.” It was used at Boscombe Down, the famous training base of the Royal Air Force.

BAe Buccaneers

“The Buccaneer used to carry two nuclear weapons. At Boscombe, it was used as a guinea pig to test various weapons systems, including cameras which were put in the nose,” Dent said.

“They were used most recently in the Gulf War against Iraq. When flying at low level, with their terrain-hugging radar, the Buccaneers can out fly enemy aircraft and accomplish their mission. Their top speed is about Mach 2.”

Perhaps the most interesting jet at Thunder City is the Hawker Hunter fighter. Dent told WND it is one of the world’s most popular fighter aircraft, offering “a transonic and aerobatic sortie.” Dent explained that the Hawker Hunter’s wings have a “dog tooth” leading edge that augments the jet’s “angle of attack.”

“It has been used by India, Switzerland, Chile, Belgium, Somalia and the Netherlands. It’s very durable. They’ve taken a SAM missile right through the wing and continue to operate. It was deployed initially in the 1950s. In 1953, it achieved, briefly, the world’s speed record. It was built in greater numbers than other post-World War II British aircraft,” he explained.

Dent said that the Hawker Hunter still has a vital role to play, even in regard to U.S. national security.

“These days, the U.S. Navy has put out a bid to acquire Hawker Hunters and crews to keep them flying because evidently this jet closely resembles – on radar – certain types of anti-ship missiles fired at the U.S. fleet by America’s would-be enemies,” he told WorldNetDaily.

During the Cold War, Dent and his wife, Aggie – a Swiss fighter pilot with 6,000 hours of flight time logged in the skies – fought as anti-communist mercenaries during Somalia’s war with Ethiopia (1980-1982), which was then occupied by the former Soviet Union.

“The only arms we had were those left behind by the Russians themselves, who had formerly supported Somalia before switching over to Ethiopia,” Dent recalled. “We armed a Hawker Hunter with Soviet-made missiles, which were copies of the U.S.-made ‘Sidewinder.’ Thus, this jet was the only Hawker Hunter in history to fire Soviet missiles in combat.”

Dent armed the Hawker Hunter with the Soviet missiles without the benefit of schematic diagrams or Russian-language training.

“We were often visited during the war between Somalia and Ethiopia by both the CIA and British intelligence,” Mrs. Dent told WorldNetDaily.

She said her instructors in the UK were former Royal Air Force pilots.

“I flew Hawker Hunters, but not ‘officially,’ of course. I was tasked to train Somalis to become fighter pilots, and that wasn’t easy, I tell you. But it was in Somalia that I met my husband. Imagine, a Swiss fighter pilot meeting a British aviation engineer by way of Somalia – talk about globalization.”

Aggie Dent, who speaks Swahili and several other languages fluently, said that the Swiss Air Force hides the Hawker Hunters “in caves, suspended on hooks” to protect them from enemy attack during wartime.

Said Mrs. Dent, “The Hawker Hunter is every fighter pilot’s dream. You can shoot them full of holes and they still fly. They are rugged and versatile and have a high roll rate. We Swiss used 160 Hawker Hunters from 1958-1994. The Rhodesians, the Somalis, the Swedes and other air forces around the world utilized them in combat. Nearly 2,000 in all were built.”

Thunder City also boasts an interactive aviation museum called “Technoland” that is open to the public.

Tyron Shultz, a chef from the Cape Town suburb of Observatory, told WND that visiting Thunder City was a once in a lifetime thrill.

“I always wanted to be a pilot in the Air Force. My favorite plane is the American F-14. At Thunder City, you can actually come face to face with fighter aircraft like the French-made Mirage, which our army used in the war in Angola against the Soviet Union and Cuba,” Shultz said.

Hillary Niks, a native of Cape Town who works as an advertising executive in neighboring Namibia, enjoyed her flight at Thunder City.

“For a short time the pilot actually let me fly the Italian-made Piaggio Albatross, which was used by the South African Air Force for coastal reconnaissance,” she said. “It was quite a thrill.”