a personal memoir

Selling airplanes in South Africa during apartheid

By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet

Dinner with the Thanings. (L–R) Ann Thaning, Alex Kvassay, Otto Thaning and Celia Kvassay in Capetown, South Africa

During the apartheid period of South African history, all sorts of embargoes restricted trade with that country. Most involved weapon sales. There were no legal barriers against selling commercial aircraft and the market for Beech, Cessna and Learjet type aircraft was quite active.

The problem was not the selling of the aircraft—the question was how to get it there. Because the African republics prohibited overflying enroute to South Africa, it was necessary to have a long-range airplane to get around this. Of course, there is always an exception to every rule.

Very quietly, without any publicity, even South African-registered aircraft with South African crews were welcomed to land at ABJ (Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire), but they were warned not to talk about it.

Going to South Africa in a Learjet, we did avoid the main continent of Africa a couple of times by island hopping—going via the Azores, the Canary Islands, the Portuguese São Tome & Principe Islands and then on to South Africa. This was an easy route—if you had enough fuel for it.

One of our commercial customers for a Learjet 24 was Hugh Stocks, chairman of the Stocks & Stocks Construction Company of Pretoria, himself a qualified pilot. I was tipped off that he was in Alton IL for a church meeting and flew up there for a demonstration flight. Stocks said, "If you come to South Africa and land on the grass strip at my farm, I'll buy it."

Next time I was in Europe with Tom O'Meara and a Learjet 25, we decided to run down to Pretoria and see if we could collect this order. My office arranged the enroute clearances—but with a major error. The telegram requesting a refueling stop at BGF (Bangui, Central African Republic) included the words "enroute to South Africa."

On landing at BGF, we were welcomed by the police chief, who started out by taking our passports and then negotiating a fee for which we could stay overnight. He even drove us to a hotel in Bangui with the stern warning not to leave the premises and to leave the country first thing next morning. This was fine with us—except that the following morning no one could find the police chief, and he still had our passports. Finally, we were much relieved to depart around noon.

Of course, one could not file a flightplan to Johannesburg, RSA. We filed to Lusaka, Zambia. Enroute, we managed to make radio contact with the captain of a KLM DC8, who had long-range HF radio equipment, and he gladly changed the destination in our flightplan to Johannesburg. It was safe to do it then since we were both in the air at the time.

On arrival in South Africa, we picked up Hugh Stocks and landed on his grass strip with no problems. Actually, we had a Learjet 25, which was a heavier aircraft than the 24 he intended to buy, so the demonstration convinced him completely that he could operate from his grass strip. During dinner at his house the same evening, he turned to me and said, "Well, you landed on my farm—where's the contract?" He was a real gentleman.

A few months later, a call from Stocks told me that he'd run the aircraft into a gopher hole on the farm and broken the nose gear. I arranged for Whitey Tolberd, our master technician, to leave for South Africa immediately with the necessary spare parts.

There would have been a delay obtaining the necessary South African visa for him. Hugh Stocks said, "No problem. Send him—I can get him in without a visa." Everything happened as he predicted and the aircraft was back in service a week after the incident. This was great news for us. Stocks was telling everybody about the fast service provided by the Learjet factory. This kind of news was always welcome.

Another commercial customer in South Africa was Otto Thaning, a cardiologist and assistant to the surgeon Christiaan Barnard, who performed the first heart transplant ever. Thaning had gone on a camping vacation with his father—an immigrant from Denmark—to the deserts of Southwest Africa (now called Namibia). While there, they discovered a diamond mine which ultimately paid for his Learjet.

The South African Air Force was looking for a small jet transport and, after demonstrating the Learjet, they gave us a letter of intent for 6 machines. The problem was how to get an export license—while this was clearly not a weapon, the customer was the South African military. The Dassault Falcon 20 had the same problem, having US-built engines.

We contacted our senator at the time, Bob Dole, who arranged a meeting in his office in Washington DC with Undersecretary of State Alexis Johnson. We explained to Johnson that if we didn't sell our aircraft, the Brits, having no such restrictions, would sell their Hawker Siddeley HS125. For a long time nothing happened, except the South Africans purchased 6 HS125s.

A year after the meeting in Washington, Senator Dole personally called Charles Gates in Denver CO with the news. "You can go ahead and make the sale." This was good news, but it was a year too late—they'd already bought HS125s.

The sad ending of this story was that, while practicing for an air show in Cape Town, the HS125s, flying in tight formation, followed their lead aircraft right into the side of a cliff. There were no survivors.

Alex Kvassay sold corporate aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 85, retired and living in Wichita KS, Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure—recent solo trips have taken him to Libya, North Korea and Cuba.