Spitfire 5553, AX-K of the SAAF Museum: A sad day

Article by Lt Col. Dave Knoesen. Lt Col Knoesen served as Commanding Officer of the Museum from 1st January 1994 to 31st December 1998.

Faces turned to the sky, eyes expressing delight and wonder, ears revelling to the sound – the sound of the two Rolls Royce Merlins in unison.

Swartkop Airshow, 15 April 2000, aviation fans abound and two Supermarine Spitfires are going through their paces in line astern formation. The leading Spit is TE – 566 flown by Andrew Torr, close behind is, 5553, AX-K of the SAAF Museum, flown by, Lt Col Neil Thomas. The crowd is thrilled to see such a rare and exciting display.

Both aircraft have long and varied histories, but our FOCUS is on AX-K, the SAAF Museum’s flagship, OUR SPITFIRE.

What is her story:

After WW II, in terms of the London Agreement of 1945, 136 Spitfires IX’s would be transferred to the SAAF, as interim fighters. Out Spit, original number 5518 was one of them. After serving at various units in the SAAF, 5518 was withdrawn from service (1954) with the rest of the remaining Spits, most of which were scrapped. Luckily 5518 was not scrapped and was used as a gate guard at Air Force Station Waterkloof. There she remained, until 1978, when she was acquired by the SAAF Museum, where she was put on static display until 1987 when it was decided, to rebuild her, to flying condition. She was sent to 1 Air Depot where good progress was made but slowed down, due to the SAAF’s operational commitments.

Reutech, a member of the Armscor Group, made a generous donation and Denel Aviation offered to complete the project at their Atlas factory in Kempton Park in 1993.

There was only one good reference for the colour scheme at the time of completion and this was of AX-K 5553. So, 5518 changed identity, and became 5553.

The first test flight was completed on 7 October 1995. Engine problems ensued and she was only flown again on 10 April 1996. She was delivered to the Museum on 18 April l996 and served as the Museum’s flagship, flown by Lt Col Dave Knoesen (Museum Officer Commanding) until the end of l998.

She was then flown by Maj. James Feuleharde and later by Lt. Col. Neil Thomas who was flying at the Museum show on 15 April 2000, the story continues…

The two classics turn towards the crowd, still in line astern, a puff of dark smoke is emitted by the AX- K. He falls back, turns left, slowing down, something is not right. He starts a right turn, positioning for a high downwind/base leg, the undercarriage is extended, he is descending fast, turning on a high base leg/ finals.

The faces on the ground, express confusion and concern:

What’s happening? Is he going to land?

Will he make it?

Please let him make it!

Short finals, nearly there…

He disappears behind the ridge on runway 02 at Swartkop.

He’s gone, just short of the threshold.

Has he crashed?

We wait for the fireball, the silence is broken by expressions of horror, surprise and hope. No fire.

We wait…

19 seconds…

19 seconds from the puff of smoke to destruction.

Later, we are notified that Lt. Col. Thomas the pilot, had survived, slightly injured, but safe.

The next day I view the wreck of AX-K, my trusty stead for two and a half years, a sad observation.

Our Spitty had crashed through the security wall, short of the runway and into large boulders.

She is in pieces, heartbreaking, but, there is a glimmer of hope. Many warbirds flying today, have been in a far worse condition prior to their restoration. Can she fly again?

Yes, it has been done before and can be done again. Because there are only about 50 Spitfires flying today, it is essential that every effort be made to restore and display our very own symbol of aviation history for generations to come. With the right attitude, sponsorship and support, she may grace our skies once more.

My very best wishes to everyone involved with this project.

My everlasting gratitude to all.

David Knoesen (Lt Col. Ret.)

Former Spitfire Pilot of 5553