Flying aces Alewyn Burger and Steve van der Merwe piloted the ‘Bok plane’ to the various city parades
17 NOVEMBER 2023 by MARK ETHERIDGE
When the World Cup-winning Springbok rugby side embarked on a countrywide trophy tour on their return from France, precious few people realised another high-flying team was ferrying them around the nation.
Capt Alewyn Burger and long-time flying companion Capt Steve van der Merwe were entrusted with flying the green and gold liveried FlySafair Boeing 737, known as the “Bok plane” to the various city parades.
It’s hard to believe, but just a few weeks before the Rugby World Cup kicked off in France, Burger and Van der Merwe had celebrated with a medal of their own, and that in France too. They placed third in the Landings Category of the FAI World Rally Flying Championships held in the city of Mâcon.
Burger was born to fly. A proud product of Hoërskool Charlie Hofmeyr in Ceres, he was steering gliders by the age of 15 and already had his private pilot’s licence in his matric year.
At 20 he had his commercial pilot’s licence after a stint at 43 Air School in Port Alfred. That was just the beginning and his first job came at Naturelink Aviation in Wonderboom, Pretoria.
“There I was privileged to fly a whole range of aircraft … you name it, I flew it,” says Burger, who only turns 40 in 2024 while fellow pilot Van der Merwe is 41.
There followed stints at Anglo American as a Corporate Learjet pilot and SA Express in Johannesburg before returning to Cape Town. At the same time he married Lisa, who was by profession — wait for it — an airline pilot on various commuter routes through Africa, though now is a full-time mom to the couple’s two young children.
Covid-19 grounded Burger’s career for a while but he’s been an airline captain at FlySafair for almost two years now and has close to 12,000 flying hours, of which about 8,000 are for airlined.
“Even though my job is airline flying … I’ve never stopped flying light aircraft — you could say I have a small flying ‘problem’”, laughs Burger.
Enter Van der Merwe, who brings about the same number of air hours to the flying party. Burger also flew competitively in national aerobatic competitions but Van der Merwe got in touch with him about three years ago to ask him about rally flying. “It’s a completely different discipline but I’m seriously hooked on it. It’s been a phenomenal journey but I can’t get enough of it.”
Stellenbosch Flying Club is his home from home. “I often go straight from work to the club. There are a lot of very generous people who let me fly their aircraft just to keep them airworthy, etcetera so I must have more than 60 different types of aeroplanes on my licence, which is pretty cool.”
Sporting aviation is not exactly for the average Joe as it’s prohibitively expensive for most. Ask Burger, who has even had to dip into his home loan to fund his competitive instincts and believes his trip to the world champs set him back more than R100,000 despite funding from the SA Power Flying Association, an affiliate of the Aero Club of SA, and a few other private donors.
“We’ve been trying to lobby to get some sort of spotlight on the sport as it’s a popular sport both nationally and worldwide.
“Steve lobbied within our own company that when the Boks win the Rugby World Cup then it should be the company’s two Proteas who fly the champions. Luckily Steve is both fleet and training captain so when it came to who was going to fly the Boks around, we gave them a friendly reminder and got the go-ahead.”
And Burger says it was such a privilege. “We made sure they were well looked after and flown ‘nicely’ — but to be honest I fly every passenger the same way. At the end of the day I have children, who I come home to, so it’s all about respect and self-preservation.
“It was just the Boks and SA Rugby … people and their sponsors on board so only about 50 people or so on the whole 737!”
Burger says that one of his highlights was reuniting with Van der Merwe in an airline environment. “We obviously often fly rallies together but the last time we flew an airline plane was about five years ago on one of my training flights, so that was really cool. We would have been happy just flying around by ourselves but it was a very proud moment to have the Boks on board.”
Their long background went a long way to their success at the world rally flying championships. “Because of our airline background we have almost 23,000 air hours between us and are pretty relaxed and very rarely get on each other’s nerves.
“Some of the teams lose their cool in the air but our resilience is very good and we’re able to look at the task ahead and get the desired outcome in really flying.”
The most favoured plane at the world championships was probably the Cessna 172, but of all the planes he’s flown he’d probably opt for a Piper Cub.
“It’s one of the hardest questions to answer as it depends what the mission is … but if I’m forced to say, I’d say: a Piper Cub as it’s so simple, you fly with the door open, there are only four instruments [of which three really don’t interest me]. On a beautiful calm afternoon … it’s pure, blissful flying at its best.”
It would seem that rally flying is something like doing motor rallying on a high, and literally from up high!
“It’s also a bit like orienteering in the sky! You sit in the aircraft on the strip, an official brings you an envelope with maps, a task sheet and photographs. As navigator on this occasion, Steve starts figuring out the route and believe me there are many riddles thrown in to throw you off track.
“There are pictures of points you have to reach within two seconds of a designated time so the window is very small. Sometimes that target is a bridge but the photo could be of a different bridge or taken from the opposite angle so it’s really demanding.”
Speaking of the landing category in which they won their bronze, Burger says: “South Africans generally do well on landings, we did well because we’ve been flying for so many years, though I don’t fly Cessnas as often as I used to.
“The observation facet was really hard because the French terrain is so different to here in SA. It’s a bit like spotting a kudu in the bush. It’s very difficult until you spot your first one, then it’s a lot easier.”
One thing’s for sure, by winning bronze in France and jetting the Boks around the country, Burger and Van der Merwe have most certainly put their beloved rally flying on the global map!