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Fields of Air

Truimphs, tragedies and mysteries of civil aviation in South Africa

Author: James Byrom

ISBN: 1-919874-12-7

Reviewed By: Dean Wingrin

South Africa has a rich aviation heritage dating back to the first glider flights by Goodman Houshold in the 1870's. It is a story full of courage, heriosm, glamour and record-breaking flights. From those early days of man's foray into flight, South Africans were introduced to the world of the aeroplane by foreigners being brought to the country for shows, gradually building up to the stage when local residents purchased their own 'flying machines'. Suddenly it was no longer a novelty, scheduled airlines were started and the age of jet transport was brought into the grasp of the average person.

The age of flight brought not just glamour, but danger too. Flying in the early days was not safe, with crashes accuring with regular monotany. With each incident, lessons were learnt and air transport grew to become efficient and safer. However, no matter how safely you build the aircraft, accidents still happen, be they the fault of the aircraft themselves or the failure of man to recognise the dangers.

The book is split into two parts. The history of flight in South Africa occupies part one, whilst stories of rescues performed by aircraft and an anlysis of various aviation accidents and incidents occupy part two. Despite the sub-title, the SAAF still features in this book, both as hero and villian when a SAAF aircraft has crashed.

Interesting as part one is, the reader will in all probability be fascinated by part two of the book. The SAAF is mentioned when well deserved praise is given to the heroic pilots that put their lives on the line in order to rescue trapped hikers and rescue personel from downed aircraft. Numerous accidents are discussed and analysed, ranging from crashes in the 1920's to more recent events. Aircraft structural failures in flight, weather related crashes, mid-air collisions (and they have been a few), pilot erros and  navigational errors are all discussed. The numerous cockpit transcripts make chilling reading which totally captivates the reader.

Incidents which are discussed in detail and which readers may be able to remember include the October 1951 crash of the SAA DC-3 Paardeberg, the June 1962 collision between a SAA DC-4 and a SAAF Harvard (who's crew were exonnerated of all blame)near Durban, the June 1983 crash of a Baron B-55 near Cape Town International Airport after the pilot falsified his flight experience and the SAA Boeing 707 crash outside Windhoek. Even the SAA Viscount crash is described. The SAAF features in numerous incidents, including the apparent suicide of an Impala pilot as well as the 1971 tragedy when three HS-125 Mercurius aircraft flew into Table Mountain. Although numerous mid-air collisions are mentioned, nothing is said of the night of 14 July 1982 when a SAAF Swearington Merlin collided with a Navajo over Pretoria, with the loss of all on board both aircraft.

Two topical crashes are recounted in considerable detailed: the crash of the Tupolev 134A of President Samora Machel of Mozambique and the SAA Boeing 747 Helderberg in 1987. With both crashes being political hot potatoes, the author must be commended on his handling of the Samora Machel crash. However, the reviewer was left a little open ended after reading the account of the Helderberg crash. The author, a Durban based journalist, makes no mention of the rumours regarding the disappearance of the tapes recording the conversation between the Helderberg and SAA Radio in Johannesburg, the alleged transport of sustantances on behalf of the defence establishment or if there was an earlier fire on board the aircraft.

As a special treat, the crash of the DC-6B carrying Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary-General of the UN, is explained whereby it appears that the aircraft was not shot down. 

As the late Justice CS Margo states in his foreward, 'as in every work which involves the condensation of technical details, the fastidious reader may find some details too simplified.' But do not let that detract you, this is a fascinating book and can be safely recommended to anyone interrested in in aviation safety or civil aviation in South Africa.  

228 x 147mm, 316pp, 73 b/w photos, 7 maps

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