Archives January 2022

Narrow escape for a paratrooper at Nelspruit airport as told by Johann Pieterse, Course 41V, 1967

Two South African Airforce Dakotas crashed on the same day at the same airshow, Nelspruit 1967

On an ice-cold Free State winter morning, we departed Bloemfontein for Nelspruit in a Dakota (DC3), with serial number 6878. We were twenty-one paratroopers tasked to do a demonstration jump at an airshow in Nelspruit, celebrating the formal opening of the new airport on 29 July 1967[1]. Staff Sergeant G. Van Aswegen and Pep (Pepe) van Zyl were the two instructors accompanying us.

After a leisurely flight in the Para-Dak, we unbuckled as we came in for the landing and expected to come to a routine stop. But to our shock,  a few seconds later, the onboard mechanic shouted, “Brace Brace!. The Para-Dak landed downhill as the runway was sloped. The Para-Dak overshot the runway, nosediving into a banana plantation. The two instructors were standing at the back of the aircraft. Staff Pep Van Zyl was thrown the length of the cabin, hitting the cockpit partition. Pep van Zyl’s boot hit me on the head as he flew by. Luckily I was not seriously injured, apart from one hell of a headache. I remember his bloodied ear after hitting the partition. The DC3 came to a halt with its tail up at a 45° degree angle. Eight paratroopers were slightly injured. We were immediately instructed to evacuate through the back door due to the possibility of fire. The aircraft tipped back and sustained structural damage as we moved to the back door. The nose had a big dent, and the props were bent.

Afterwards, fellow bat Rfn. J.M. Potgieter and I were standing with the crowd, watching another Dakota (VIP-DAK, serial nr 6849) coming in to land from the opposite direction. Onboard were dignitaries and high-ranking air force personnel, including Gen H.J. Martin, Chief of Air Staff. Between 2000 and 3000 spectators came to watch the airshow. 

The plane had a very tricky approach due to the terrain. Upon landing, the right wheel struck a mound of sand at the edge of the runway. The landing gear on the right collapsed, the wing hitting the ground, and the right prop stopped abruptly. The left propeller still had a lot of rpm’s in it and quickly swung the plane toward the crowd with the buried wing acting like an anchor[2]. The continuing rotation of the propeller upended chairs and umbrellas, flinging them into the air. Several cars were damaged. Potgieter frantically shouted, “My parents are sitting there!”  Shocked, we ran to the scene. Mr Brian Lee, resident of White River, sitting in a deck chair, was instantly killed, his wife seriously injured, and their child sustained minor injuries. Another lady, Mrs F.J. Knowlans, was severely injured as she tried to escape from the car she was sitting in, having her leg severed by the propeller. Several other people were slightly injured.  

The air show was subsequently cancelled, and we were tasked to return to Bloemfontein. The air force refused to send another Dakota[3] to Nelspruit. Us parabats were loaded into the back of police vans and taken to Baberton, where Capt. Daantjie Lombard was waiting with another Dakota. We first went to Pretoria and then with another Dakota to Bloemfontein. By the time we returned to camp, we were dead tired and very hungry, but we were received like heroes and rewarded with a meal reserved for kings.

[1] Currently known as the Old Nelspruit airport

[2] SAAF DC3 Crash at Nelspruit Early 1960s – with acknowledgement to members Goga & Playchest on the Avcom forum for the insights and contributions

[3] A wing from the Para-Dak was put onto the Vip-Dak and it was flown out.  The Para-Dak went back by road.