Published On: March 18th, 2021By Categories: Feature, New, News4.1 min read

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On March 17, 2021 news broke that a light aircraft belonging to the SA Air Force Museum had reportedly crashed while landing at Swartkop Air Force Base, south of Pretoria.

The aircraft, a single-engine Patchen Explorer reconnaissance aircraft, was reportedly on final approach when it crashed short of the runway and burst into flames.

The aircraft – designed for aerial surveillance and photography and patrolling pipelines – was a prototype – the brainchild of David Thurston of Thurston Aircraft Corporation in the USA. It is powered by a single Lycoming 200 horsepower motor with a variable pitch propeller mounted – above the wing on a pylon.

It was brought to South Africa by Matiland Reeds National Dynamics Missions based at Virginia Airport, Durban, and in 1975 was offered to the SAAF as an observation aircraft. It did some time as a spotter during the bush war and later as a communications aircraft with the Test Flight Development Centre at AFB Waterkloof. Finally it was deemed not viable and left in a hangar until the SA Museum lobbied to take possession of it and moved to the Lanseria Airport at the time.

The aircraft sporting a civilian registration – ZS-UGF – was displayed at numerous airshows and built up 440 hours. It was repaired and restored to its former flying conditions in 2013.

Flying the aircraft were two legends of the skies – Major General Des Barker and Colonel Rama Iyer – that had a long history of working on this project and the aircraft.

Both have impressive histories and a list of achievements.

Major General Des Barker was awarded the Herman R Salmon Technical Publications Award presented to him by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP). This for his article entitled “Flight Test Report: Focke Wulf Piaggio P149D-Turbo Prop” published in the SETP quarterly journal Cockpit as 2020’s best technical paper.

Other awards include the European Airshow Council 2011 Paul Bowen Award, the Jock Maitland Sword of Honor 2018 and The Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Guillaumaud Trophy 2012.

Barker was the second only South African to be named an honorary fellow of the prestigious Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) – a multi-disciplinary international professional institution dedicated to the global aerospace community.

His citation at the time of the award speaks icons about his achievements:

“Major General Barker, the experimental test pilot, is admitted to Honorary Fellowship in recognition of the major role he played in establishing and developing a formal flight test capability in the South African Air Force (SAAF) and defence industry. In a flying career spanning more than four decades, Major General Barker also played key roles in a wide range of SAAF flight test programmes.

“He served as Chief Test Pilot (1990-1995) and then Officer Commanding (1996-2000) of the SAAF Test Flight and Development Centre.

“In addition, through his publications and presentations he made a significant contribution to display flying safety internationally”.

Major General Barker qualified as a pilot in 1969, a maintenance test pilot in 1974 and an experimental test pilot in 1984. He is a qualified flying instructor and a display pilot with 7 200 flying hours on 58 different types of aircraft.

He was Air Attaché to the United Kingdom in 2000 and Base Commander AFB Makhado in 2004. He retired in 2008 as Chief of Air Staff Operations and became the Manager Aeronautics Research at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) from which he retired in 2017.

In 2017 Barker joined the CSIR after retiring from the SAAF. He was contract research and development manager at its defence, peace, safety and security (DPSS) division.

His son Kevin Barker held the position as editor of World Airnews and Des Barker was a long-time contributor to the magazine. He and former editor Tom Chalmers were friends – spanning more than 30 years before Tom’s passing in 2018.


Col Iyer joined the South African Air Force in 1999, after having served for 23 years as a combat pilot with the Indian Air Force. He started his military career in 1968, started flying in 1971, and since then has flown a large number of aircraft ranging from elementary tail draggers to supersonic jets.

He has held various appointments in both air forces and has wide-ranging experience in the fields of operational flying, flight training, management, leadership and education.

Apart from having been an operational combat pilot, he has been an A1 category flight Instructor, pilot attack instructor, instrument rating instructor and examiner and aircraft accident investigator. He also holds ATP licences from India and the USA, now dormant because he never went the civilian flying route.

He holds a master’s degree in defence and strategic studies and headed up the airpower development centre of the SAAF before becoming its director basic flying training, which was the last post that he held before he retired.

As a display pilot, he flew the 1950s-era De Havilland Vampire jet amongst others and appeared at numerous airshows.

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