A poignant tale of a boy who wanted to fly

Review: Archie Henderson

Gunship over Angola, by Steve Joubert (Delta Books)

gunshipThis story is not as gung-ho as the title implies. It is a charming, and at times even poignant, memoir of a boy who wanted to fly.

Steve Joubert grew up on the outskirts of Pretoria in Wonderboom. Watching the SA Air Force pilots, in a variety of aircraft, pass overhead every day, he had the classic little boy’s dream of becoming one of those men in their flying machines.

His dream came true early. Progress from the Air Force Gymnasium to the pupil pilot’s course was swift despite some amusing setbacks at the start. He literally stumbled in his interview before a pilot’s selection board headed by none other than the legendary Korean War fighter pilot General Bob Rogers. At the time, Joubert believed his dream to be doomed before it even took off.

He survived that inauspicious moment and was soon part of the strict 20-month pilot wings course at the Central Flying School in Dunnottar where vintage Harvards were the staple training aircraft for the “pupes”. The training was of a high standard; anything below 80 percent was deemed a failure – and the exams were tough.

Joubert survived the hard nautical miles, as aircraft distances are measured, but also managed a hectic social life. Each Wednesday night, he would race his VW Beetle to Pretoria – a considerable distance – to join a 10-pin bowling team where it seems that one of the women members might have been the real attraction.

Along the way to becoming a fully fledged air force pilot, Joubert falls in love as easily as taking off. It is part of his charm, and as a handsome, blond flight jock, with his sexy aviator shades, he must have been considered quite a catch by all the women he meets on his way in this “Story of a Maverick Pilot”.

After one late Wednesday night, and probably still a little hung over on the Thursday morning, his instructor inquires of him when the two are in the air over Dunnottar: “What the fuck do you do on Wednesday nights?”

When Joubert’s response was considered inadequate, the instructor told him: “Every Thursday lately you have been flying like a prick.” The generous instructor decided that from then on, they would fly on Thursday afternoons rather than early in the morning.

When he discovers that an old sporting injury has damaged his sinuses and ruled out a career of flying jets, the author opts for helicopters, and especially the Alouette III, the gunship of the title.

Before he is sent into big action, however, there is a hilarious chapter of how he was ordered to fly a grumpy army general to a parade in Amsterdam (Mpumalanga, not Holland). It is a series of mishaps from the start and leads to a disciplinary hearing where a sympathetic colonel brushes all the general’s complaints under the carpet, allowing Joubert to continue his flying career.

It’s stories like this that make the book appealing. Joubert comes across as this ordinary bloke, struggling to make sense of the complicated world around him (it’s still apartheid at its height and a bush war looming for pilots of the SA Air Force).

The final part of the book is about the war in Namibia and Angola. In a sense it is a dangerous bird’s-eye view of the grim fighting that took place on the ground. The war did not always go the way the propagandists told it at the time. There were terrible deaths on both sides and on one occasion, it causes Joubert’s reserve and military discipline to break momentarily when he assaults an army major who had shown no respect for dead Swapo guerrillas whose bodies were being shipped out of the war zone. Again, good common sense and humanity spare the author the wrath of military authority.

For those who were part of the war, the chopper pilots like Joubert were heroes. The sound of those blades whipping through the air – whether they were Alouette gunships or the big Pumas with reinforcements or medical succour – was the most welcome of the conflict. I clearly recall an Alouette finding our tiny base in the bush at night for a casevac. It was an amazing piece of flying. No wonder those chopper pilots were such mavericks. If they had played by strict military rules, they might have regarded such a hair-raising night operation as too risky.


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