The Shackleton in the SAAF
And what is it then that this old “grey lady” does to all who come into contact with her? It defies logic, even the men who fly and maintain her are also tightly bound within that intrinsic aura that surrounds Pelican 22.
The aircraft has a long and illustrious history. The Shackleton was born due to the need for a long range extra endurance maritime reconnaissance platform. The German Navy of World War 2 had taught the British some harsh lessons in the North Atlantic in the opening stages of “the Battle of the Atlantic” when shipping losses due to enemy action in the form of surface raiders and submarines became unacceptably high. By 1943 a project was implemented to design an aircraft specifically to provide maritime reconnaissance and effective defensive and offensive aerial cover for the many shipping convoys between Great Britain and the rest of what was left of the then free world. The importance of the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope was a strategic issue then as it still is today. Shipping losses in South African waters were exceptionally high (105 vessels sunk due to enemy action) between 1939 and 1945.
Aircraft of the South African Air Force and the Royal Air Force patrolled these waters with aircraft such as the Sunderland, Catalina and Ventura PV1. At the end of the war, maritime operations were downscaled to a large degree.
Developed from the design of the AVRO Lancaster and subsequently the Lincoln, the first proto type Shackleton flew in the March of 1949. The type went into production for the Royal Air Force and was taken into service in February 1951.
The threat of the emerging cold war in the 1950’s again emphasized the importance of the Cape sea route and the ageing Sunderlands needed to be replaced. After a lot of consideration the Shackleton was identified as the right machine for the job, but only after a number of major modifications had been brought on. It must be kept in mind that the Shackleton was originally designed as a tail dragger, but the South Africans wanted tricycle landing gear, additional tip tanks to improve range and better soundproofing inside the aircraft. Considering that the British had improved upon the Shackleton Mk I and already had a Mk II in service, this new version for the South African Air Force was designated the Mk III as we know it today. Subsequently the RAF also bought Mk III’s, and only the two Air Forces ever operated Shackletons.
The SAAF took delivery of the first Shackletons in May 1957 and they arrived in South Africa in the August of the same year. The aircraft were numbered successive to the serial numbers of the Sunderlands, the first Shackleton of a total order of eight was numbered J 1716, an aircraft that was fated to die in a spectacular albeit tragic manner in the Western Sahara Desert on her ill fated trip to RAF Fairford in the early hours of 13 July 1994.
The second batch of Shackletons arrived on 26 February 1957, amongst them P 1722, the only one of eight still flying in the 21st Century.
The sound of the Shackletons was to become well known to the citizens of the Cape and the maritime community. Although the role of the Shackleton was primarily aggressive, it became better known as an ethereal angel of mercy to those merchantmen, fishermen and other sailors who so often found themselves adrift in the treacherous seas off the South African coast. Of the eight Shackletons that were operated by 35 Squadron, only two crashed, and only one with a total loss of 13 crew members when 1718 crashed into the mountains near Stettynskloof Dam on the night of the 8th August 1963.The remaining seven aircraft carried out front line service up until November 1984, by which time the Sanctions imposed by the United Nations against the Government of the day made it nearly impossible to keep the aircraft in service. At the time, Pelican two- two and her sister aircraft had patrolled both the eastern and western coasts of South Africa for twenty -seven years.
After the last fly past of three aircraft (1716, 1722 and 1723) over Air Force Base Ysterplaat the seven Shackletons were dispatched to various locations throughout South Africa for static display purposes. In the Cape Argus of the 22 November 1984, a cartoon appeared on the editorial page of this Cape Town afternoon newspaper. It was of a man in the water desperately trying to get the attention of the last Shackleton flying away from him towards Table Mountain. The accompanying editorial summed up the meaning of the Shackleton not only to the people of Cape Town and the Western Cape, but also, to the international maritime community. “No one can be happy, except possibly the Russians, at the news that after twenty seven years of meritorious service patrolling the Cape sea route the Shackletons, this country’s only specialized maritime reconnaissance aircraft have made their last flight”. ” During theses years the Shackletons became a living legend, famed for their reliability and honoured for the many lives they saved in search and rescue operations under the most difficult conditions”. Starved of spares by a UN arms embargo, only the great dedication and ingenuity of their Ground Crews have kept these aircraft serviceable for so long”. ” But now, they have had their day, and the world’s nations – and especially crews who round the Cape of Storms – could well be the losers”. And so ended the Shackleton era, but the stories and legends that proliferated around them live on today. Many of the men who flew and worked on them became legends in their own right, some still surviving and many passed on.
Shackleton 1716 and 1721 were sent to the SAAF Museum at Air Force Base Swartkop for preservation. For some obscure reason, 1722 remained at 35 Squadron at Cape Town International Airport and was quietly maintained by Warrant Officer Potgieter in his spare time. This single act of dedication to a machine he loved so much was going to provide the SA Air Force and it’s Museum with the world’s last flying Shackleton Mk III.
It is interesting to note that the SAAF Museum has been approached by the RAAF Museum and the Royal Dutch Air Force Museum for assistance relating to operating and preservation procedures and policies for their respective historic flights. Once again Air Force Base Ysterplaat to the rescue and leading the way. In Andrew Schofield’s Documentary “Shackleton 1722” the viewer of this film will also find it a love story between man and machine. The footage of Brig General Ben “Gun” Kriegler’s last flight is memorable. Attention is drawn to the end titles set to the classical “Highland Cathedral” performed by the SA Army Band and the closing landing of the Shackleton as the concluding footage.
The DVD is available at the SAAF Museum and costs R170.00. The SAAF Museum gratefully acknowledges the roles of CFS, 22 and 35 Squadrons and the many members of Air Force Base Ysterplaat for their roles in the making of this documentary.