It is 06:00 in Gaborone, April 22, 2017, and the air already has the sharp crispness of winter. Yet, neither this nor the low cloud have deterred the thousands of Batswana who are already queuing for entry to the national stadium for what is the venue's most popular event of the year - the annual Botswana Defence Force Day.
In fact this year's event celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the formation of the BDF in 1977. Whereas many police forces in the region can trace their heritage back to military units, Botswana reversed the trend - using the Special Support Group of its police service as the basis of the new Defence Force. Initially its main role was border protection as it was adjoined on three sides by white-majority ruled countries that were undergoing internal strife. With the changing political scene the BDF has come to find anti-poaching as its central role, something vital for a country that relies heavily on its tourist trade. However, it has also proved itself in disaster relief and on peacekeeping missions, earning an international reputation for its professional attitude.
The Air Wing component was for many years the baby of the current president, Ian Khama, during his time in the BDF. A keen pilot of both fixed and rotary wing, the Air Wing has benefitted from his continued interest. It is a little known fact that, while Botswana has not found itself at war since independence, the BDF has had two aircraft shot down. During a Rhodesian incursion in 1979, a Britten-Norman Defender was forced to crash land at Francistown after an entanglement with a Rhodesian Alouette III helicopter. In 1988, then President Quett Masire had a lucky escape when an Angolan MiG fired two air-to-air missiles at his BAE 125. The first blew clean off one of the engines and the second heat seeker tracked this falling flaming mass instead of the main airframe, allowing its pilot, Captain Arthur Ricketts, to make an emergency landing to be made on a bush strip at Cutio Bie.
Back to the modern day and the inside of the national stadium in Gaborone was full long before the official opening with families making up the majority of the crowd. Sadly, several hundred late-comers were turned away disappointed. However, those that had gained entry were kept entertained by various displays, including several low passes by a single F-5 that must have woken up the entire capital.
The show opened officially with the welcoming of the president and he was greeted by a flypast of two 412 helicopters bearing the national flag as well as the colours of the BDF. The unseasonal low cloud had threatened this as visibility at their holding point over Gaborone Dam was near their minimums.
The stadium show then continued with an eclectic collection of march-pasts, drill training, formation marching, military bands, dog training, horsemanship, force demonstrations and the not to be missed snake handling unit. This unfolded over three hours and the crowd were glad of the cloud cover that kept the sun off them for most of the morning. On show were all the machinery of the BDF, including tanks and heavy artillery.
However, it was the flypast that many were looking forward to. This had been rehearsed over the past ten days and fortunately the earlier inclement weather had cleared by the time the BDF fleet took off from the nearby Sir Seretse Khama airport. Split into four main formations that approached on marginally different headings, the impression was given of the entire Air Wing arriving over the stadium at once.
The leading group represented the helicopter force, with four Bell/Boeing 412's and two Eurocopter/Airbus Squirrels. The former included two VIP examples. As the rest of the aircraft departed the two standard 412's reappeared to do smart wingovers over the stadium.
Second in line were the King Air and Dornier Do-328 with an escort of four PC-7II's in a tight V formation. After they passed the stadium, the PC-7's pulled away in preparation for their part-piece.
The transport wing came next, with a C-130B flanked by two CASA-235M's and they were in turn closely followed by the final group - and my personal highlight.
OK-1, the designation given to the presidential jet - a Bombardier Global Express - made a low flypast with a close escort of three F-5 fighters. This is always a remarkable sight, and to see it so close to the city centre makes it all the more impressive.
As the two 412's cleared the stadium the PC-7 display team made their run in from the direction of the parliament buildings. Flying low over the stadium they then pulled up in a vertical break with two aircraft rolling off the top of their loops back over their engaged audience.
Eyes then turned south towards the specks that rapidly turned into the F-5's saying farewell with a low and fast flypast.
The show came to an end with a parachute drop from a second C-130 that saw the BDF skydivers land successfully on the grass of the national stadium. This was a fantastic display of skill, especially given the stiff breeze, which showed how far the BDF has come in 40 years.
This could well be one of the last major public events for the ageing F-5's as it was widely reported towards the end of last year that they are to be replaced by 8 to 12 Saab Gripens. This would give the Air Wing a quantum leap in terms of capability although it could prove politically controversial as there are many who question the need for such expensive systems in such a peaceful environment. However, it is worth noting that several of Botswana's neighbours still have a politically uncertain future.
Notable absentees from the day were the last remaining Britten-Norman Defenders along with the much newer Bat Hawks and Super Puma. The latter was delivered just in time for last September's BOT50 celebrations which marked fifty years of independence. The ex-Spanish Police Airbus EC-225LP was last seen wearing a white VIP scheme with temporary Botswana Government markings.
The South-African produced Bat Hawks were delivered in several batches last year, with four going to the BDF. They are being used for border patrols and in the anti-poaching role. While ideally suited to both jobs, perhaps they did not have quite the speed to keep up with rest of the flypast!
The final, and most poignant, aeroplane missing was the Airbus/CASA-212, one of which crashed in February this year not long after taking off from its base at Thebephatshwa, near Molepole, en route to Gaborone. Sadly, all three on board were killed. A government spokesman confirmed that the Vice-President was due to have flown in this aircraft the following day. This year's BDF Day provided a fitting tribute.
The author would like to thank the Botswana Defence Force for its helpful, friendly and professional assistance.
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