Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sabre Crash in 1960

South Africa entered the Korean War on the side of the United Nations issued with their WW2 era Mustangs. During January 1953, Number 2 Squadron had their Mustangs replaced by North American F86F-30 Sabres on loan from the USAF. This would be the first jet flown by the SAAF. After the war, the SAAF would acquire Sabres. It was one of these that would crash in Port Elizabeth. On the 15th July 1960, Canadair CL13B Sabre Mk6 #379 was written off near the main airport after colliding with Sabre #353. Fortunately, the pilot, Lt HJW Bothma, survived.

Main picture: Crash scene  

SAAF Sabres in Korean War
The SAAF’s use of the Sabre started during the Korean War when 2 Squadron had their Mustangs replaced by North American F86F-30 Sabres. This was due to the high regard and respect that the SAAF pilots had achieved with their tenacity in the ground attack role with Mustangs. On loan from the USAF, the first machines were delivered in January 1953, and the last returned to the USAF in October 1953. 

These early Sabres, although F models, which in theory would have been fitted with the newly developed “6-3” wing were in fact mostly all fitted with the older slatted non-6-3 wing. There is photographic evidence though that at least one of the attrition replacement aircraft was fitted with a “hard 6-3 wing”. At the cessation of the Korean hostilities 2 Squadron returned all their remaining Sabre’s to the USAF. Aircraft losses amounted to four out of 22 Sabres. Serial numbers were in the 601 to 622 range.

SAAF acquires Sabres
Despite being an American plane, the Sabre was also constructed in Canada under licence with the designation CL-13 and this was the source from which the SAAF purhcased its aircraft. Thirty-four CL-13B 6s were delivered to 1 and 2 squadrons and could achieve a speed of 1143 km/h. Wheen the first five Canadair Sabre 6s arrived in Port Elizabeth in July 1959, it was with a thunderous roarfrom their axial flow engines and a flash of their swept wing flying surfaces. These machines epitomised the rapidity of developments in the field of high-speed technology.

These two SAAF units equipped with these aircraft regularly flew to Port Elizabeth on training exercises. Usually arriving before lunch, they independently took off for Waterkloof at dusk. Before heading north, each aircraft would execute a low-level beat-up of the Air Base. Coming in low, trailing smoke, but with no sound, their tail fins like that of a shark, their underslung tanks almost touching the runway, they would streak past with a tearing, thunderlike sound which roared and crackled through the evening calm.

Collision over Port Elizabeth (Per Herald)

Children scream as jet crashes in yard
Women and children screamed and became hysterical when a Sabre jet aircraft of the South African Air Force taking part in the Port Elizabeth centenary celebrations, crashed in the backyard of a Southdene home. After plummeting into a back yard at an angle of about 30 degrees, the aircraft finally came to rest against a car a few feet from four semi-detached homes. The aircraft flattened a communal toilet block, tore up about 30 yards of garden and came to rest against a car which was burnt out.

The semi-detached homes caught fire almost immediately. Within 50 yards of the impact were 20 to 30 small children who were watching the display from the centre of the road.

Miracles happen
It is a miracle that this crash did not result in many deaths.” Said a resident of Southdene. “The fact that only two women received minor injuries is amazing.” He was referring to Mrs. S.T. Potgieter, into whose backyard the plane crashed, and Mrs Q . Senekal, her daughter-in-law, who received minor burns from flaming fuel flung from the Sabre. The Herald reporter was the first newspaperman on the scene. When he arrived a few minutes after the crash, he found the women trying to control screaming children.

Baby’s food
Shaking and speaking incoherently, Mrs. Potgieter’s main worry was her four month’s old baby food. Closest to the crash were Mrs Potgieter, her mother-in-law, Mrs M.E. Bosman , her daughter-in-law, Mrs Q. Senekal, and her two babies, her three-month-old Charlene, daughter of Mrs. Senekal and four-month-old Nico, son of Mrs. Potgieter. When the aircraft crashed, pieces of metal were hurled over an area of 50 yards. One huge piece of metal landed on a roof  50 yards from the crash, made a big hole in the roof and bounced back 20 yards to land within feet of a group of about 20 children who were watching the display

21st birthday
A long piece of metal landed within a few feet of Mr. C.B. Betts, a war veteran pensioner who was watching the display from his garden. Mrs. Potgieter said later, “My eldest son turned 21 today and his birthday may have ended in tragedy. I was baking a cake for him when my four-year-old daughter, Beulah, ran in to say ‘the aeroplane is falling’. I held my mother with one arm and grabbed my baby with the other. As we ran out of the front door the aeroplane crashed into our back yard.

The four families whose houses had been destroyed in the crash have been re-housed. Messrs. D.J. Bester, B. van Vuuren, L. Richardson and two unnamed men raced from homes nearby, helped popel out of the burning building and carried out furniture. Fire engines and ambulances raced to the scene and the flames were put out within 30 minutes. But the car against which the aircraft came to rest was completely burnt out and the nearby building was badly damaged by fire. The pilot, Lieut. Manus Bothma, baled out safely. The crash resulted from two planes touching in mid-air during formation flying. When one of the planes involved landed, it had a dent in the nose.

The incident occurred just before midday as the Administrator, Mr. Nico Malan, and the Mayor, Mr. Alfred Markman, were being driven along La Roche Drive, Humewood to the airport to meet the Governor General, Mr. Swart. After the Governor-General had landed, he and the Mayor inspected the damage to the “surviving” aircraft. Undaunted by the crash, another display of formation flying was held yesterday [xxxxxxxx] afternoon. This time, seven Sabres jets took part. Nine had taken part in the morning demonstrations.

Smoke and flames
A Herald staff member who saw the incident at close range, said, “The jets were flying in formation when two of them touched. One peeled off from the formation after a distinct bang was heard. While the other planes went on, it rose into the sky. At the top of its climb, two objects fell probably the canopy and the pilot’s seat. Shortly afterwards, the parachute opened.

“When the jet crashed, smoke and flame rose to a height of more than 100 feet,” he said. The smoke was also seen by others miles away. An official enquiry will be held into the crash.

Seen by thousands
The crash was watched by thousands of people from all parts of Port Elizabeth. Hundreds of cars streamed to the scene afterwards. At a centenary luncheon aboard the City of Port Elizabeth, Mr. Markman said, “I am very grateful to Providence that the pilot of the jet plane which crashed, is safe. We could not possibly have pretended that we were having a joyous occasion if it had been otherwise.”

Allen Christopher MacKenzie recalls the incident vividly as follows: “I remember seeing the incident happen. We stayed in Forest Hill and were watching the Sabres performing. It was late 50’s early 60’s. Two Sabres touched wings and the one lost control. The pilot bailed out and parachuted onto the airport area and the Sabre crashed into a house in Southdene. The kids from Forest Hill took the short cut across the south/north runway between Forest Hill & Southdene to get to the crash. The airport guys in the red and white Landrover shot at them using shotguns with the cartridges loaded with coarse salt. Lots of kids ended up with stinging salt wounds.

Extant SAAF Sabres
CL-13B Mk6 367 “E” – stored at South African Air Force MuseumAFB SwartkopPretoria.

On display
CL-13B Mk6 361 “F” – South African Air Force MuseumAFB SwartkopPretoria.[45]

Children scream as jet crashes in yard (Herald,16 July 1960)
A Portrait of Military Aviation in South Africa by Ron Belling (1989, Struikhof Publishers, Cape Town)

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