Harvards: The Iconic Sound of Summer

One forever associates sights, smells and sounds with where one grows up.  Sometimes they are pleasant and sometimes not so, but they all define our childhoods and underpin our lives in subconscious ways.  The sound of the surf is one of my most pleasant memories as much as I’ll never forget the rotten sulphuric smell of the aptly named Smelly Creek at the shunting yards in Deal Party.  But a distinctive sound that I oddly found soothing and comforting, probably because of its familiarity, was the otherwise harsh sound of Harvards flying lazily overhead, particularly on beautiful summer days.  Being a boy and a WWII buff, that sound would always bring out the Biggles in me and get my pulse racing.

Main picture: The iconic North American AT-6 Harvard (Texan to Americans) resplendent in SAAF colours

Apart from the pleasing Doppler effect of sounds approaching and leaving one, when the Harvards were overhead the sound briefly became quite harsh and syncopated before it quickly became a soft purring growl as it slowly drifted off.  I have never heard an aircraft piston engine sound like that.  Hearing that sound oddly left me feeling that everything was still right with the world.  What obviously also made them attractive to kids were the patches of dayglow orange/red that gaily accented an otherwise bare Aluminium fuselage.

The Harvards were developed by North American Aviation and first flew in 1935.  They also designed one of the best fighters of WWII, namely the P-51 Mustang.  The Havard was designed for basic training and was rugged and reliable with few awkward flight characteristics.   With the onset of WWII, Britain desperately needed to train pilots and so instituted the Empire pilot training scheme.  South Africa did its bit and was supplied with 633 Harvards from 1942. After the war we sent back 300 that were supplied under lease-lend but then procured a further 90 in the 50’s.  These constituted our basic trainer for all SAAF pilots until their final retirement in 1995.  At that stage we were the world’s largest user of Harvards.  In the 1995 75th anniversary of the SAAF airshow they were able to put 75 Harvards simultaneously in the air to form the number 75 as they flew over Waterkloof Airforce Base.  I was lucky enough to witness it.

PE wasn’t a SAAF training base but kept a squadron for the reserve pilots.  We had a connection there as Wendy (Uncle Fred’s daughter) was married to one.

Dunotter Flying school and massed Harvards

Dunotter Flying school and massed Harvards

Massed Harvards on the ground

Massed Harvards on the ground

 

The beautiful little plane brought out all the derring-do of Boys Own and Biggles in young boys

The beautiful little plane brought out all the derring-do of Boys Own and Biggles in young boys

Massed formation over the Highveld- SA was the largest user of Harvards in the 90’s

Massed formation over the Highveld- SA was the largest user of Harvards in the 90’s

 


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