G-VAAC in the shadow of a South African air force DC3 in Mozambique

Laurie Kay: a tribute to one of the greats

On my 60th birthday my wife

handed me an envelope. "It's your birthday present. Stop moaning about being 60" 

It was a flying lesson. It took me 18 months to get my pilot's license. 

I can't say  I became a great pilot. Not Biggles. But I managed. I bought myself a gorgeous Piper Archer III. G-VAAC. That's her in maroon and white trim beyond the Dakota. She now belongs to a lucky Dutchman. 

In 2011, after my prostate was yanked out, I sat in bed wondering what to do next. 

I signed up for the first ever flight from England to South Africa and back. As one does.

I kept a diary written every night over 2 months and 18000nm. It was quite a trip.

May 3, 2014

Swartkop Air Base

Pretoria

 

Laurie Kay touched my life as he did the lives of many other pilots and aspiring ones. He was, forgive the cliché, a legend among pilots.

 

Laurie died of a massive heart attack while teaching helicopter pilots the art of tracking poachers in South Africa's Kruger park. He had retired as Chief Pilot for South African Airways. He flew sorties with the SA air force during the war in Namibia in the days before Mandela.  

 

Perhaps his most celebrated moment was when he piloted a 747 slow and low over Ellis Park stadium in 1995 to mark the opening of the rugby World Cup final between SA and the All Blacks. 'Go Bokkies' was painted on the aircraft's belly. Mandela was there. South Africa won.  

At the memorial to his lifee a Swartkop Air base near Pretoria which I attended with hundreds of others -  a reminder more than anything of how many lives this exceptional man touched- we listened in a darkened hangar to a haunting replay of the exchange between Laurie and Johannesburg Air Traffic Control as he approached the stadium.  

I owe, as did thousands of others, a huge debt to Laurie. With the help of a couple of young pilots he helped to organise a rescue when I was stranded, fuel less, in Quelimane, Mozambique in 2011 a quarter of the way through a flight from the UK to Johannesburg and back circumnavigating Africa in my single-engine Piper Archer with a small squadron.

 

I had met him before, first at a mutual friend's birthday party where Laurie gave the wittiest speech and later when he took me joy-riding in one of his beloved Harvards.

Laurie was generous, modest, even heroic, courteous, a gentleman, funny, occasionally (very) mischievous, a man who grabbed life, embraced it and lived it to the full. In short all the things you'd expect from a great aviator.

Just before our return leg to the UK up the west coast of Africa Laurie sat us down and with that simple, knowing charm gave us a masterclass in how to fly through the ITCZ. Actually what he said was" Alain are you sure about this?" No, I replied. "Well you'd better do your homework" he grinned. 

LOGBOOK

Aran: next parish
west Boston
Flying with
Maverick in African skies
Nearly home 
after 18,000 nm
Desert oasis:
figs, oranges and Al Qaeda

I had just 22 hours flying in my logbook when I embarked on this epic journey. It had never been attempted before. We were 8 aircraft 7 fixed-wing and one whisk. I learnt a great deal mostly about myself, about resilience and the vital importance of team work. We were poorly led but what got us through was respect for each other even if at times tempers frayed and egos got in the way of airmanship.