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As Ron is a pilot, air show performer and fan of warbird aircraft, we have been asked over and again to help with aviation law issues

The Hawker Hunter is a transonic British jet-powered fighter aircraft that was developed by Hawker Aircraft for the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was designed to take advantage of the newly developed Rolls-Royce Avon turbojet engine and the swept wing, and was the first jet-powered aircraft produced by Hawker to be procured by the RAF. The single-seat Hunter was introduced to service in 1954 as a manoeuvrable day interceptor aircraft, quickly succeeding first-generation jet fighters in RAF service. Successively improved variants of the type were produced, adopting increasingly more capable engine models and expanding its fuel capacity amongst other modifications being implemented. Hunters were also used by two RAF display teams: the “Black Arrows”, who on one occasion looped a record-breaking 22 Hunters in formation, and later the “Blue Diamonds”, who flew 16 aircraft. The Hunter was also widely exported, serving with a total of 21 overseas air forces.

During the 1960s the Hunter transitioned to being operated as a fighter-bomber and for aerial reconnaissance missions, using dedicated variants for these purposes. Two-seat variants remained in use for training and secondary roles with the RAF and the Royal Navy until the early 1990s. Sixty years after its original introduction it was still in active service, being operated by the Lebanese Air Force until 2014. The Hunter saw combat service in a range of conflicts with several operators, including the Suez Crisis, the Aden Emergency, the Sino-Indian War, the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the Rhodesian Bush War, the Second Congo War, the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War. Overall, 1,972 Hunters were manufactured by Hawker Aircraft and its successor, Hawker Siddeley, as well as being produced under licence overseas.


My love affair with Hawker Hunter jet fighters started in approximately 1963 when the Rhodesian parliament opening was marked by a fly-by of nine recently acquired Hawker Hunters in diamond formation.  The Wheeldon family was late as usual, my mother’s fault of course, so the formation was seen through the windows of the parental Vauxhall Victor and the jacaranda trees of Salisbury’s avenues. But it was enough – the bug had bitten.

My life’s plan was crystal in a second – future steely eyed fighter pilot. No problem. “Dad,” I said”, when recriminations about lateness were over “I’m going to have one of those”.

“No you won’t, don’t be bloody silly”.

Parents are like that. Mark you, it seemed he was right. My advance through school shortly became an advance towards the blackboard. When that did not work anymore, i.e. when the blackboard was still a blur from the detested front row, Rivron Opticians were visited, and the steely eyed fighter pilot became ”Four eyes”.

“What are those things on your nose – milk bottle bottoms?”


OK then, I’ll be a steely eyed lawyer. Rumpole of the Bailey type, keen of wit, sharp of tongue, rich as Midas. No-one calls him “four eyes”.

Well it did not go quite like that, but trade mark law is a whole lot more fun in the real world than criminal law is. It took ten years to afford an aircraft of any sort, but in 1992 I bought a 1946 Piper Cub J-3 and started my training. What fun it was! The Cub can work itself up to about 130 km/h on a good day, and totters around with a 45 litre fuel tank, barely defeating gravity and with a payload of barely 400 lbs so it is a bit limited as a means of going places, but it is an iconic little plane and its good for learning to fly. Easy to fly but hard to fly well. Not exactly a fighter – although it was a L-4 Cub that was very improbably credited with the last allied air to air victory in Europe!

During 1994, I mentioned to God in prayer that I’d really like to fly a Hawker Hunter (as one does with hopeless causes). I should add that this was not a random request. I had the distinct impression that he had asked me how He could prove to me that He was real. This, I felt, would be proof positive! What I asked was, at the time, “impossible”.  Hunters, while past their prime, were still very credible fighting machines and not the sort of thing that a middle-class trade mark lawyer in South Africa (where no Hunters existed) could expect to fly.  Still all sorts of people have importuned the Deity to stop the sun, slay Philistines, resurrect the dead, heal horrible diseases, deliver up Mercedes Benzes, part the Red Sea and other quite challenging tasks with varying degrees of success. Not that I really expected that He would do anything of the sort for me.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the Swiss government handed me one as a present. Obviously, there was a bit more to it – meeting a chap by chance on a train in a foreign land who happened to be a real Swiss fighter pilot and who gamely fielded  enthusiastic questions from me because I knew that the Swiss Air Force was the largest operator of Hunters in the world and I wondered if my new acquaintance had had the privilege of flying one of these aircraft.  He had not, he was an F-5 pilot, but he gave me the awful news that the Swiss were, even then, converting their Hunters into pots and pans, razor blades and the like.  The entire fleet was to be scrapped! 


 I asked him how this…….well sacrilege… was possible and how it was that the aircraft were not being offered for sale to enthusiasts as the Swiss Vampires and Venoms had been. The difference, he said, was because Hunters were still considered perfectly credible as weapons of war.  Nevertheless, he said, there was an outside chance that a few might be donated to museums. My tenuous claim to fame at the time was that I displayed what I fondly imagine to be encyclopaedic knowledge of old aircraft by announcing at air shows for the South African Air Force Museum and it occurred to me that there was a chance of saving at least one Hunter from the cutting torch.  My new-found friend, Stefan, agreed to send me the name and address of the people responsible for the disposal of the aircraft, which he did, and, with all the museum staff by then on leave in December 1994, I wrote an unofficial letter suggesting that there might be some interest at the SAAF Museum and that an official letter I hoped would follow on the return from leave of the officer commanding the museum.  That hope was dashed.  He pointed out, not unreasonably, that the SAAF had never operated Hunters and that no effort or resources could be expended in acquiring one. Also, quite crucially, he could not go writing happy epistles to foreign governments if he hoped to get his pension.  So no official letter followed and I thought a great opportunity had been wasted.

In March 1995, though, I received a letter from the Swiss Ministry of Defence informing me that they were in a position to “leave me” a Hunter if I still wanted one!  I ‘phoned the man who had written the letter to ask him if there wasn’t some mistake. The South African Air Force Museum, I told him, did not want it.

“I don’t care” he replied, loudly, “do you vant zis aircraft, or do you not vant zis aircraft!?”.

“I vant ze aircraft” I shouted back, “very much” (I’m a bit of a mimic when excited).

 That was sufficient for him, he was thereby satisfied. The aircraft, he said, was mine and would I kindly remove it as soon as possible! A quick round of quite hard pinching of limbs and I determined that I was very much awake – and in shock. This of course was wonderful incredible unbelievable news but there were a few small problems.  I was now the proud proprietor of ten tons of military equipment sitting on an airbase five and a half thousand miles from where I was.  Something I had never quite expected or budgeted for.  Even at my most optimistic estimates of the cost of moving the aircraft it was going to be about a year’s salary. I still had to live on something in the interim.

I was still puzzling about the problem when the boss of Alfa-Romeo SA phoned and asked if he could be my partner – in the aircraft, I hasten to add. I told him that, if he was prepared to fit the civilian avionics to the aircraft, pay the cost of bringing it to South Africa, and provide a home for it once it was here, he could have half.  He thought that sounded reasonable and, after many trials, Hawker Hunter F-58/J-4059’s dark shape dropped from the night sky over Johannesburg’s Lanseria Airport and taxied in to the bright lights of my partner’s hangar. Much more pinching of self was required on this occasion since it is a big item and the reality of standing next to a combat jet that has just flow “x” thousand kilometres to be with you is quite intoxicating.

Of course, I couldn’t fly it. I could sit in it (nice), breathe the air in it (old rope, hot oil odours), wiggle the controls, turn on the gunsight, etc., (fun), but attempting to take off would have resulted in my immediate death (not fun). I DID manage to start it – eventually. This is a bit unlike starting a car, but perhaps somewhat akin to starting an early E-Type. Here’s there’s no key, but a diligent search eventually will guide you to a switch labelled “Accus”. Not “accused”, this being Swiss military jargon for “master switch”. Lights come on, things whirr, but then you find and click another switch. More lights, urgent sounds – now the E-Type bit – there’s a starter button. Push this in, hold it there 2 seconds, let go. For a moment nothing happens – then there’s a sudden cacophony: there’s a shrill scream (no, not me), loud clicking and WHOOSH, accompanied by acrid smoke. As the cacophony subsides there is a deeper rumble as the starter finishes its bit and the main turbine lights up. You anxiously watch the rpm and the jet pipe temperature (“JPT”) gauge as the needle races from nothing to 590 degrees C. If it is going too fast an “over temp” may be on its way, so the throttle needs to be cut before that can happen. You have about 1 second to decide!

The Rolls-Royce Avon 207 in the Hunter is however known for behaving itself, and my two always have. I soon became very adept at checking the aircraft over, starting it up and taxiing it around on the ground at Lanseria airport.  Others flew it at air shows on my behalf. I got used to the sort of put down that starts “Oh, you have a Hunter do you?”

“Well, yes”. They look you up and down… “Who flies it for you?” {Captain subtext: “Obviously not you, you old duffer”).

I then got a two seater – an ex-Swiss T68 Hunter, so I could actually learn to fly Hunters myself. I went to fetch it in Switzerland and Stefan and I set about flying it to South Africa from Altenrhein on Lake Constance. When you strap a plane like this to yourself and seriously take all the safety pins out of the ejection seats, knowing you will soon take to the air, it feels like I imagine someone feels half a second after stepping off the bridge on you first bungee jump. “Oops, oh no, why am I doing this?”. Describing the excitement of that first take off really defies words.  The aircraft gathered speed quite slowly at first and then in a mighty rush as the road at the end of the runway rushed up to meet us and I began to think the calculations were wrong and we wouldn’t survive!  But the aircraft lifted off as planned and seconds later we were skimming over the deep blue waters of Lake Constance.  Forced, in Swiss airspace, to remain below 20 000 feet, we threaded our way through the Alps toward Italy in what has to have been the most spectacular flight of my life during which Stefan let me take the controls and my dream had come true – I was flying a Hawker Hunter!

My first impression was of the relative sensitivity of the Hunter to the slightest control input – it is really powerful in both roll and pitch response and was quite a revelation after the Cub.  Nevertheless, after a few minutes of over controlling, it began to feel at least relatively natural.  The Hunter is without an automatic pilot of any description and was therefore to be hand flown all the way to South Africa.  Although this may sound easy, it was really, initially at least, a terrific challenge for a Cub pilot with a total, at that stage, of about 110 hours.  On that first leg there was not much difficulty because we were at relatively low level and Stefan did most of the flying anyway as we were diverted from our initial destination of Bari to Ancona del Falconara.  It was quite amusing as we came in to land at Ancona because the control tower saw that the aircraft was camouflaged and called us “confirm military flight?” to which we replied “negative, civil” to a certain amount of incredulity as the tower kept repeating its question and we kept repeating our answer more or less as a mantra.  There was also the little problem about my lack of an Italian visa as no stop in Italy had been planned (a South African passport is all but useless without a visa)!  Nevertheless, once they had satisfied themselves that we were not the spearhead of a Swiss invasion force, the Carabinieri were very helpful and pleasant and arranged an overnight visa for me which was a relief as I was not looking forward to sleeping under the wing.

The next day saw us climbing to 41 000 feet (12 kilometres) for our transit down the Adriatic to Crete.  This was very challenging flying for me as the Hunter is ten times as sensitive at that altitude compared to lower down, especially with four full drop tanks hanging under the wings.  It seemed like thinking hard was enough to drop a wing and I found myself fully engaged in trying to keep the wings level, while maintaining the exact altitude we had been set and remaining on course. Stefan, in fact, had to intervene a few times which had a trimming effect on my ego.  I have written the story of the journey elsewhere – so suffice it to say that our route took us to Luxor in Egypt, on to Asmara in Eritrea, thence to Addis Ababa and, finally, Nairobi where we joined my single seat Hunter that had travelled up from South Africa for the Nairobi air show at Wilson airport.

Two Zimbabwean Hawks had come up from Thornhill and it was decided that there’s be a six ship formation – two Kenyan F-5Es, two Zimbo Hawks and two Swiss Hunters. The practice was awesome whizzing around the storied Ngong Hills in closed airspace, but the Kenyans couldn’t start their F-5E’s(!),so we ended up as a 4 ship, but what a 4 ship! After an exciting weekend, we took off together and proceeded via the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Lilongwe airport in Malawi to our final destination of Lanseria airport in South Africa.  By this stage, flying the Hunter straight and level had become second nature but there was a lot more required if I was ever going to be competent to fly the aircraft as pilot in command.

Two instructors then took over the task of teaching me, but the one was based in England (which was a bit limiting) and the other, Atlas Aircraft Company chief test pilot Rich Culpan was tragically killed in an unrelated flying accident after only one lesson.  Then, further disaster struck. The other instructor, the great Mark Hanna, was also killed – this time in an accident with a Messerschmitt 109 in Spain. Finally, in 1999, I was able to start training in earnest with the help of the late Mike Beachy Head (see the pattern here?) and his Thunder City Operation in Cape Town to which I moved both aircraft.  A qualified Hunter instructor in the form of Iain Fergusson, an ex-SAA skipper and training captain for Korean Airways, took responsibility for my training with lots of useful input from Mike Beachy Head himself.  I take my hat off to both of them as I had an enormous amount to learn and there were times when I felt my ambition was just beyond my reach.  On one occasion, I was on final approach to Cape Town’s International airport and in a sweaty funk trying to control the pronounced Dutch roll that the swept wing configuration, full “barn door” flaps and sensitive ailerons combine to produce in the Hunter’s landing configuration when in the hands of a non-expert.  As Mike decided that that particular approach was beyond salvation and I should take power and go around, the air traffic controller announced “I am waving too – can you see me?”  As the trick to landing a Hunter is all in the approach – maintaining the correct speeds and heights and damping the Dutch roll tendency, and tyres are expensive and have a limited life, the practise in training was to fly the approach until about 20 feet from the runway and then go around – without actually touching down – to practice another.  It was interesting, then, to hear the rumour that my training was not working out because I was constantly giving up approaches and overshooting!

After some 12 hours of this training, I noted decreased levels of nervousness in my instructors – they were even looking relaxed when I landed the aircraft all by myself!  Yet, now it was necessary to develop an ability to fly the aircraft if it got into unusual positions or if there were emergencies, such as an hydraulic failure, which transforms the light and sensitive stick into an all but immovable object which one would think was set in concrete.  While my instructors are themselves competent in these circumstances, they preferred that, if I was going to get the aircraft into really unhappy positions, that a complete lunatic with advanced skills and a total disregard for his own health and safety join me in the cockpit.  Fortunately, those at Thunder City, including me, can count among our friends exactly such a fellow – Keith Hartley, a former Eurofighter test pilot who had worked for BAe Systems and who had been flying and testing Hunters and Lightnings for decades.  Keith set about his task with gusto and, within several sessions had taken me to the limits of the Hunter’s flight envelope, satisfied himself that I could recognise them and keep away from them and taught me to force land the aircraft following failure of everything.  Having satisfied himself of this, he declared me ready to be tested by the person appointed by the CAA to protect the safety of all concerned – the terrifying Robbie Robinson.  Well, terrifying to me!  After each error I had made during training, my instructors had soberly informed me that, was I to repeat it with Robbie in the aeroplane, I would certainly fail my test as Robbie is a very precise pilot and requires that precision (not unreasonably) from all who would venture forth in high performance jets.

The amiable fellow who climbed into the right hand seat and bade me to get on with it certainly did not seem to be an ogre and, when we safely returned to terra firma an hour or so later made his calm and measured suggestions for where I might improve and then, to my delight, informed me that he felt I was safe to fly the aircraft and I should plan a solo sortie!  In the half hour leading up to the start for that first solo flight, I found myself unexpectedly nauseous, despite what by then had been a total of 57 hours flying Hunters but, once I was actually in the aeroplane, that feeling rapidly dissipated to be replaced by one of sheer exhilaration.  Treated with the normal courtesy and accommodation by the Cape Town ATC, I taxied out, took off and proceeded to fit ten circuits into the time when I was not shuffled off to a corner of the control zone to keep out of the way of arriving and departing airliners.  The flight was entirely uneventful but quintessentially wonderful.  I may have landed after barely an hour, but it was more than five hours before I came back down to earth!

Since then, in 2000, I qualified as a Hunter display pilot and flew both the aircraft (not simultaneously) at various air shows myself and had a fantastic time with them – the single seat fighter is the most fun to fly, but the T68 is a close second. Generally I aim to fly the single seater at air shows and reserve the two seater for flying friends – it really is a delight to be able to share the quite exhilarating experience with others. I now have over 200 flying hours in the Hunter, but the cost of fuel has slowed my flights to a trickle as it is now way beyond my pocket. Perhaps I should have added fly (and keep flying) Hunters to my request! So does it prove that Jesus is real? Does any miracle do that? If anyone is determined enough to find a natural explanation I suppose it could be put down to a host of happy coincidences which just happened to line up after a specific request, but for me it is VERY clear what happened.