A year ago the Covid-19 pandemic seemed more imaginary than a real threat. When the state of disaster with its lockdown regulations was introduced in March 2020, there was general scepticism, and at best reluctant compliance, in many quarters. But now it’s hitting home – felling many giants in the aviation community. This column is about just three of the larger than life characters who have been taken from us by Covid-19

In December the second wave of the pandemic hit, and this time it’s far more virulent that the first strain of the virus. Yet the lockdown regulations have remained less restrictive than they were for the first wave. This is presumably in response to the decimation of the South African economy by the first wave restrictions. 

As an aside, South Africa has now achieved world-wide notoriety as the source of what has come to be called the South African variant. (It could have come from anywhere, but South Africa was the first to identify it).

The second wave has now hit home, killing people we know and love 

The second wave has now hit home, killing people we know and love. Where previously there was reluctant compliance, or even civil disobedience, against the Covid-19 lockdown, now people are voluntarily staying home and self-isolating, above and beyond the legal requirements.  This is because people we know are dying – and many of these are people we, in the aviation community, have grown to love and respect. 

I would like to take the opportunity to pay my respects to three stalwarts of the industry – who have had an immense impact for good on so many of our lives. 

Three stalwarts of the aviation industry who have had an immense impact for good 

Kim Pratley 

A man who quietly got on with making a vast contribution, yet without seeking any reward or acknowledgement, was Kim Pratley, who passed away on 19 January aged 66 after a long and debilitating battle with Covid-19.  

Kim was the son of George Montague (Monty) Pratley, the founder of Pratley Engineering, famous for its world-leading glue products, and for its advertisements – where Kim Pratley sat at his desk under a huge D6 bulldozer suspended above him with just Pratley glue. Pratley products have been used to fix everything from a NASA spacecraft to a million broken vases. 

In his obituary for Kim Pratley, Paul Lastrucci, Past Chairperson of Krugersdorp Flying Club and Aero Club of SA wrote:  

“Kimleigh George Montague Pratley was born in March 1954. His deep aviation roots go back as far as the development of the jet engine, where his father, Monty Pratley, was on the team with Frank Whittle in the UK that developed the jet engine as we know it today.  Kim also loved engines – any engine. In the museum at his beautiful home, he would start all of them and they would run chugging away in unison, whilst he was attending to them in his white overall, beaming a huge smile.  

Kim joined the Krugersdorp Flying Club in 1968 and learned to fly at Reef Air, along with his dad.  He was always an unassuming, yet remarkable man and was awarded honorary membership of the Club for the huge contribution he made over 50 years.   

Kim went on to earn a multi-engine fixed wing ALTP and Instructor rating and a Commercial Rotor Wing licence.  He represented Krugersdorp Flying Club (KFC) on a myriad of legal and regulatory battles over many years. He gave freely of his time and vast knowledge and could be called on at short notice to present very informative aviation topics and safety presentations. His in-depth knowledge filled the clubhouse to overflowing every time.   

As the long serving KFC Vice Chairman, responsible for the Safety and Legal Portfolio, he and the committee navigated many challenging times and attacks on the club. Kim was unfailingly the voice of reason, no matter how dire or frustrating the situation. His words were; “We must continue to do the right thing! The outcome will be perfect.” And indeed, under his calm guidance, it was. He was firm, fair and did not suffer fools easily. He was appalled by dishonesty, and his attention to detail was astounding. The support and guidance he gave to me along with Cecile, our longstanding secretary, and the KFC committee during my tenure as chairperson, I will cherish forever. 

“As Lt Col Kim Pratley, he was very active in the SAAF and was OC of the 104 Squadron. He flew support in the SAAF in the squadron and in later years flew a few of the SAAF museum aircraft as well.  Kim gave a lot of his time and expertise to make a difference in many people’s lives.  

“I was very privileged to get to know Kim during my initial PPL training some 35 years ago.  He would fly with the Reef Air students when the resident instructor, “Oom Frik”, was busy flying surveys for the mines at JCI.  Kim helped me and many others as fledgling pilots to better understand “HMS Krugersdorp’s” challenging approaches and landings, so that we were all able to use the aeroplane again.  

“I always jumped at any opportunity to fly with him in his beloved Cessna Robertson STOL 210, my all-time favourite aircraft. The Pratley 210 is probably one of the only one-owner from new, no damage history, Cessna 210s in the world today. His night landings at Krugersdorp in his Cessna 421 were unbelievable.  A man of many talents, he understood his machines.  

“My first ride in a piston helicopter was with Kim in his pristine Bell 47 that has been in the Pratley stable since the early 70s. For me, being a piston engine nut, it was fantastic, as he really took time to show how this ol’ warbird heli flies.   

“My last flight with Kim was in his Hughes 500, some months back. I helped pack the back seats of the heli with fruit grown from the orchard at his home. We flew to the Shalom Respite Care Centre to distribute to the care givers and residents at the centre.  Kim and Val over the years have provided much love and support to this facility.    

“Kim was a devoted husband to Val, father to Charles and Andrew, and all-round family man who really enjoyed spending time with his grandsons, having a literal blast teaching them all kinds of science-related mischief. He loved his dogs and taught them extraordinary things. The family golden retriever could taxi a Cessna 172. One fine Saturday afternoon, a 172 with no one but a dog at the helm taxied past the clubhouse.  From bar stool level you couldn’t see that in the right-hand seat Kim was crouched down, hiding from view to keep it straight, whilst the Big Dawg was casually glancing out the pilot’s window and over the instrument panel, seemingly doing a great job of taxiing out.  One of the regulars welded to the pub leapt off his bar stool and yelled “Waar gaan daai hond in Pratley’s se aeroplane?!!!”  

Paul Lastrucci concludes. “We are all deeply saddened at your passing. We take solace that Val and your special family will continue the Pratley legacy in business and aviation with the solid family values you so steadfastly entrenched and portrayed. You always said “Impossible is what nobody can do …. until somebody does it.”  

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Dr Robbie Nel 

Dr Robbie Nel was an institution in the Lowveld when he died of Covid-19 complications aged 77. He was the region’s favourite Designated Aviation Medical Examiner and a pilot of great accomplishment, who selflessly ploughed much unsung work into the Lowveld flying community. Robbie moved to Sabie in the early 1970s and obtained his PPL soon afterwards. He immediately immersed himself in his new practice and his flying passion. 

His late father owned a J3 Cub for many years, so Robbie grew up with a love for the old Pipers. His own 1946 Super Cruiser, ZS-BOX was his favourite steed, with a V-tail Bonanza sharing the hangar at Hazyveiw. Robbie was both an accomplished fixed wing and helicopter pilot. He owned many types, including a Cessna 337 push-pull and an Alouette 2 helicopter. 

The Lowvelder newspaper writes that, “Dr Robert Gustav Nel (77), whose practice was based in Hazyview Junction Mall, passed away after battling Covid-19 since he was diagnosed with Covid-19 on 26 December. 

“Robbie Nel was supremely fit. Doctors said that, although he recovered from the viral infection, the damage to his lungs was too severe. The cause of his death was secondary Covid-related pneumonia. According to his wife Linda, Dr Robbie Nel had no other medical issues. 

Dr Robbie Nel had boundless enthusiasm and passion when it came to his work, using his flying and medical skills to help out wherever needed in the world – from the 2000 Mozambican floods, to the Tsunami in Indonesia. 

His friend, Ken Robertson, says that when the Tsunami struck Indonesia, Robbie flew over to help at his own cost. He just wanted to help – that’s the type of person he was.  

The question to all who have depended on Robbie for their medicals is, what now? The answer is: Late last year, Robbie met with Doctor Kobus Hugo, a very accomplished doctor in his late fifties, who was to be a partner in the practice. The new partnership would start in early January 2021. Coincidently, he started the day that Robbie went to hospital. Following Robbie’s passing, his family have had a very successful meeting with Kobus, who will take over the practice with immediate effect. He also does flying medicals, along with a General Practice. 

Robbie received an award for his exceptional contribution to aviation from the Lowveld Aero Club in 2015. As an indication of the high esteem the Club held him in, Danie Terblanche organised a missing man flypast over Robbie’s farm with 15 fixed wing and three helicopters. It was particularly moving, as most of the pilots had their medical service done by Robbie. 

“He was a doctor by profession and a pilot by choice,” Robertson added. “When he wasn’t running the Comrades Marathon, or competing in the Iron Man challenge, he would be flying his 1946 Piper Super Cruiser, ZS-BOX.”  

Fitness, farming and flying were a few of Robbie Nel’s great loves, apart from his wife, his three children and his two grandchildren. 

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Giovanni Maiorana

 Flying is not only about pilots. Thousands of people on the ground are an essential part of the broader fabric of the aviation community. No one embodied this more than Giovanni Maiorana, a restauranteur and host extraordinaire – who made Wonderboom Airport something special, and a place always worth flying to. 

Giovanni Maiorana was born in modest circumstances in 1946, into a family of 13 children in immediate post-war Italy. When Giovanni was twelve, he left school and got a job in a bakery. He went on to work as a tool and die maker, and when he turned 21, he started his own company on the side.  

He met and married Maria and had two children, Luca and Christian, before leaving Milan for South Africa. After the ship carrying all their possessions was wrecked, they started with nothing, working at a friend’s restaurant. In the early 1980s he managed to get a position at the then Wonderboom Airport café, where he astounded everyone with his food quality and work ethic, despite having very little English – and no Afrikaans.  

And the rest is history. This industrious immigrant family went on to build Villa san Giovanni into an attraction for those from all around the country who would fly in for the famous $100 dollar hamburger – or in this case – pizza? 

The business has steadily grown and expanded to include a hotel in the terminal building run by Christian’s wife Tanya Maiorana. This one family – lead by the entrepreneurial Giovanni has touched many lives in aviation – and almost certainly anyone who has been though Wonderboom Airport in the past 50 years. 

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