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Gunfight at the OK Corral, the CFS saga and some bizarre statistics


The tale of two specific years

Coen van Wyk


This article contains a brief reference to Wyat Earp’s historical gunfight at the OK Corral, a similar South African, aviation related, and South African Air Force (SAAF) related scenario, and an event that paints an interesting mathematical picture. The article also juxtaposes certain events in 1951 and 1957, hence the alternative title, The tale of two specific years”.

The tale of two years

The year 1951

The date was the 27th of September 1951 and it was early morning in Korea when the four fighter pilots strapped into their P51 Mustangs at the K16 airfield. They started engines, did the necessary checks before taxiing out and getting airborne at 05h55. The leader of the formation was a young South African Air Force (SAAF) pilot, who had just a few months earlier put his childhood years behind when he celebrated his 21st birthday in Korea. On the particular occasion the mission of this young officer was an armed reconnaissance. For the benefit of the uninformed it needs to be mentioned that during an armed recognisance sortie the pilot is given an area to reconnoitre and if any targets are found in the process, then they are to be attacked. The formation pilots were actually based at Chinhae K10 but they had been on a forward mission and on the particular morning was flying out of K16. In due course one of the formation aircraft developed engine trouble and had to head back to K16. The remaining three aircraft had been flying for about two hours and had just bombed a bridge when the formation leader noticed an Quad-50 anti-aircraft position, thought it worth giving it a go, and subsequently launched a rocket attack on the anti-aircraft position.

During the attack the formation leader received three Quad-50 hits from ground fire and his aircraft started to loose glycol engine coolant rapidly. By using the primer pump to cool down the engine he succeeded in remaining airborne for quite some time in an endeavour to reach the safety of his own lines. When it eventually became clear that the engine was going to quit, he bailed out. At that stage he was very close to Kaesong and the front line.

Since the hapless pilot had already alerted the rescue helicopter, soon after being hit, of his misfortune, the helicopter was already airborne when he bailed out. His one formation companion climbed to altitude to get a communication channel going and the other stayed low to protect him. There were a lot of ground troops enemy in the area and their paranoia concerning the downed United Nations pilot was clearly manifested by the fact that they were frantically blasting into any thick cover with machine guns and throwing in hand grenades. At this point I wish to make a personal comment, being that the communists were obviously aware of the fact that there were a fair number of SAAF pilots manning the Mustangs and they must have been aware of the awesome capabilities of the South African pilots. One could therefore not blame them for being anquished about the downed enemy pilot. The stricken young pilot therefore had to avoid thick cover . Although he had badly injured his knee badly during his the parachute landing jump, he had to keep moving because he could not risk staying where he parachute was. He succeeded in evading capture for about seven hours but was eventually captured.

He subsequently spent nearly two years in a communist prison camp.

The year 1957

Having survived the constant pressure and trauma during his tour of duty as fighter pilot during the Korean conflict and his stint as capitalist (reactionary) Prisoner of War (POW) in a in a communist POW camp, it would not have been too much to ask that this intrepid aviator, who then held the rank of lieutenant, be afforded a less stressful life after he returned to South Africa. But it was not to be, for reasons that will soon become abundantly clear. It all started at Central Flying School (CFS) in Dunnottar when this lieutenant climbed into the back cockpit of Harvard 7171 on the 24th of May 1957. Seated in the front cockpit was a “poepol pilot” (the popular Afrikaans version, at the time, of “pupil pilot”) and the lieutenant was going to be his flying instructor. In the normal course of events this situation would endure until death do them part, until this round headed animal in the front cockpit, who is barely out of high school, has metamorphosed into a pilot, worthy of wearing the South African Air Force wings. The endeavours of this courageous instructor can truly be equated to Wyat Earp’s participation in the October 1881 shoot-out at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. I say so because the pupil in the front seat was this journalist, fully equipped with the usual impetuousness of an 18- year-old boy. An lo, the bold instructor was no less than Lieutenant Dennis Earp, to whose rank the Air Force had since added the word, “General”. And nearly 45 years after Lieutenant Earp and I boarded Harvard 7171 for the first time, and despite not having had any contact with one another since 1963, my erstwhile flying instructor and I arrived at the gate of the Swartkops Air Force Base (AFB) at the same time on 5 February 2002 to attend the 17 Squadron Aviation Excellence Day Function. This simultaneous arrival is particularly bizarre, for reasons that follow herebelow.

An interesting excursion into some bizarre statistics

The chance confluence of our paths at the entrance to AFB Swarkops presents an interesting mathematical and statistical reality, since the following considerations apply:

·        Neither the General, nor I, had any idea that the other person would be attending the function.

·         On the particular day I departed for Swartkops from Sandton, and General Earp travelled from within the Pretoria area to Swartkops.

·         When I arrived at the entrance to Swartkops, the General was about to be admitted to the base.

Given the fact that no arrangement to meet at a specific time, or at all, existed between the General and I; and given the fact that our respective journeys to Swartkops had vastly different origins, and yet we arrived at Swartkops at the same time, that chance concurrence can be expressed in terms of mathematical odds. Now, the mathematical odds that applies to this situation are calculated in a similar fashion as the odds that apply to a chosen number on a Roulette wheel, emerging as a winning number, and immediately being followed by a another chosen number, as winning number. In Roulette the odds against two chosen numbers emerging during two consecutive spins of the Roulette wheel is 1369 to 1. From the facts at my disposal concerning the number of motor vehicles that entered AFB Swartkops for the occupants to attend the 17 Squadron function on 5 February, it appears then the odds against the General and I arriving at AFB gate at the same time is at least 2000 to 1. And yet, it happened.

Note: If some of our readers wish to read more about the odds in gambling, how to improve the odds in favour of the punter, and the mathematics of gambling, then they must please email me at If it appears from the email response that there is sufficient interest in the topic then I will do an appropriate article in the next edition of SA Flyer. In that regard please refer to the editors note for particulars regarding the new format of this magazine and the type of articles that we will publish in the New SA Flyer.

A tribute to a remarkable gentleman

I would, under normal circumstances, have been reluctant to publicly bare my sole in the manner that I am going to do in this tribute. But then I witnessed the public accolades concerning very senior SAAF officers at the recent 17 Squadron function. I noticed that these songs of praise were delivered unabashed, and were well received by the subjects of the accolades. I also noticed that the tributes related to situations where young men derived personal growth and a solid foundation, early in life from officers who became their roll-models. And that is indeed the subject of this tribute to a remarkable, officer, gentleman, pilot, instructor, and human being. So, having shed certain inhibitions, here goes!

I met Lieutenant Earp (now Lieutenant General Earp) when I had just left school. I knew at the time that he had been imprisoned in a communist prisoner camp during the Korean War, but as a youngster the profound implications of his experiences were lost on me. Soon after I qualified as a pilot, the state called Lieutenant Earp as a witness in the treason trial that was held in the old Jewish synagogue. My late father alerted me to that fact and during our discussions I got a deeper perspective on his POW ordeal. With the gradual aging process I acquired more frames of reference and therefore a deeper appreciation of his awesome experience as prisoner of the communists. Then came the promotion to the position of Chief of the Air Force, and not only was I filled with pride, but I was also profoundly aware of the fact that the promotion was not the outcome of a “boontjies vir boeties” type of mechanism at work. I say so because General Earp is an English-speaking South African, and the government of the day was profoundly non-English. The promotion was therefore indubitably based on merit.

Having met Lieutenant Earp immediately after I left school, I found in him someone who epitomized the perfect officer and gentleman. Although his achievements evidenced the fact that he was a superb pilot, at the time I lacked the knowledge to form a meaningful opinion on the particular issue. When, however, I later I rubbed shoulders with pilots who had served in Korea and World War II, I became aware of how much I had benefited from my training in aerobatics and maximum rate turns, at the hands of my former instructor.

It is indeed a trite fact that, at the time, my opinion concerning my instructor’s abilities as pilot would have carried little weight. However, when it comes to his ability to instruct in the art of flying, I was more than capable of expressing an authoritative opinion. I will give one example: I initially had a problem with getting the hang of instrument flying, and had it not been for the patience of my instructor, I may never have qualified. Whilst giving me all the support and assistance that I needed, he allowed me to sort out the problem for myself and his extraordinary patience enabled me to conquer my instrument-flying demon. Over a period of many years thereafter, I never again had any problems with renewing my instrument flying ratings, both on single and twin-engine aircraft.

Without casting any aspersions on the competent team of instructors that had the misfortune of being exposed to bodily harm, and abuse at CFS in their endeavours to make pilots out of boys. I may mention that, despite my tender age, I was aware of the fact that my instructor stood out from the rest. From the accounts of my fellow pupil pilots it appeared that some of them were “buddies” of their instructors. My instructor was not my buddy, but he was my friend. What impressed me was his unique quality of possessing a reserved demeanour, a no nonsense attitude, and yet an absolutely approachability. My interaction with General Earp over a period of approximately eight months has not only taught me about flying but has also given me insight into “interpersonal” skills that stood me in good stead in my later life.

There were other incidents during my year at CFS that bears witness to the moral fibre of my first mentor, but they are not as illustrative as the courageous and principled stance that Lieutenant General Denis Earp adopted regarding the antics of the truth and reconciliation commission, but that is another story that I intend to tell in due course.

I thank and salute you General Denis Earp.