Guy Leitch

THERE IS AN ENDURING PERCEPTION in Africa that general aviation (GA) is the plaything of rich whites. So we continue to lose airports to population pressure and land hunger. This is exacerbated by the location of informal shack settlements – often right up against the fences of small town airports.

Gliding clubs have been hardest hit by the failure of law and order in South Africa. Donaldson Dam was overrun by squatters. As a former member said, “One day they were on the outside of the fence, next they were walking on the runway. The rest is history.” Some years ago Estcourt Gliding Club was burned down by adjacent shack dwellers. Before that it was the Kranskop Club at Odi Airport that was burned, also with the loss of its gliders. Seeing the burned remains of their cherished planes makes any glider pilot weep.

The latest airport to be lost is Harrismith, where the hangars were petrol bombed by a mob. Talk is that the local politicians let the shack dwellers know that the CAA had issued a NOTAM closing the airport, so vandals accelerated the takeover by burning the hangars to destroy the ‘white mans’ toys.

Not even towns’ power aircraft airports are safe. Hermanus was closed by squatters years ago and Nylstroom has recently been de-registered and all but shut down. These closures do untold damage to the town’s economy.

The point the politicians miss is that small planes beget big aeroplanes. People have to learn to fly. Business people may need to get to a place that takes two hours by air and two days by road. A patient needs to get to hospital quickly and efficiently. A business may want to invest millions in opening a new branch – but if the CEO can’t fly there, it won’t happen.

The remains of Estcourt Gliding Club’s Olympia glider after the airfield and hangars were vandalized and destroyed by local rural inhabitants.

All these missions and many more, require small planes. And all these small planes need pilots, who need training. The aircraft require regular maintenance, which needs engineers, and they need skilled managers as operators. All these little aeroplanes need airports. And the whole thing needs a regulator – albeit not one overpaid and overstaffed.

So the whole heaving industry needs to be protected from stupid government if it is to be safe from short-term venality and long-term mistakes which destroy lives.

The point is that GA is not just the poor stepchild of the airlines and the military. It constitutes a significant part of the economy and forms a key component of its transport infrastructure, without which many other key components will be constrained or just not be possible. GA is highly skills and capital intensive – and both skills and capital are notoriously fickle and transportable. GA needs government care and protection, yet it is all too often left to incompetent officials with self-serving political agendas in rural towns to protect and grow the key GA infrastructure – their airports.


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