After an outstanding career, Martin Louw has retired. He has flown a wide variety of aircraft both military and civil, holds a B Mil degree and has spent many years with Comair as head of flight operations. World Airnews correspondent Mike Wright had a chat to him about his outstanding career and his plans for retirement.
Tell us about your childhood and upbringing
I was born in Bloemfontein in 1955 but grew up in Johannesburg, matriculating from Helpmekaar Boys High school in 1972. I have one older brother, a medical doctor. My dad worked for Shell as an engineer specialising in lubricants while my mother, although a commerce graduate, was the ultimate home executive. We travelled a lot during my childhood, mostly internally in South Africa, but we also spent six months in London and toured the whole of Europe for a month.
A little bit about your family
I am married to Adele and have two sons, a 31-year-old who studied music at UTC but is now in IT and a 16-year-old at Pretoria Boys High.
And when did your desire to become a pilot start?
My father introduced me to air shows from about five years old, of which I particularly remember a 16-ship Sabre formation aerobatic show at Baragwaneth and a Mirage 111CZ show at Waterkloof in 1963. From then on I was sold on flying and although my father wanted me to study engineering, I was adamant about flying for the SAAF, which I joined straight out of school at the age of 17.
Tell us briefly about your early aviation career
I completed three months of basics at the SAAF Gymnasium where the selection for pilot’s course took place. We were 77 who were selected out of a total of about 5000 to go straight to Dunnottar where we flew Harvards for 6 months before going to the Military Academy for an officer’s course and then on to Langebaanweg to finish our pupe’s course on Impalas. I received my wings in December 1974 together with about half of the original number who started at Dunnottar, with 231 hours in my logbook.
Thereafter you joined the SAAF. Tell us a bit about your time there?
I then went to study a B Mil degree at the Military Academy before joining 4 Sqn on Impala Mk2’s, first at Waterkloof and later at Lanseria. During my two- year stint at 4 Sqn, I completed the Impala Operational Training Course (OTC), Sabre OTC (unfortunately suspended just before we started flying) and Flight Leaders Course on Impalas, all at Pietersburg (Polokwane). I also took part in the first Impala deployment for operations on the border late in 1978. In January 1979 I started the Mirage OTC at Pietersburg on the Mirage 111DZ,D2Z,EZ and then joined 3 Sqn on the Mirage F1CZ at Waterkloof later that year. My happiest time in the SAAF was at 3 Sqn, being a very professional outfit at the sharp end of the Air Force.
All my operational sorties were with this squadron and I learnt a lot about leadership and management from the excellent Officers Commanding I had the pleasure to serve with during this tour, as well as my subsequent tour later. These skills served me well in my later airline career and I am very thankful to the SAAF for this. The SAAF taught you how to lead and manage different people, equipment and situations like no other institution, all at a relatively young age.
After my first tour at 3 Sqn ended, I went to Dunnottar for instructor’s course, the on to Langebaanweg for a three-year tour instructing on Impalas. Here I became Chief Flying Instructor and also had a stint with the Silver Falcons formation aerobatic team. I then re-joined 3 Sqn for another tour there as Operations Officer (2IC), before moving to Air Force Headquarters as Staff Officer Airborne Weapons, but still flying part-time at 3 Sqn. During this time I had the privilege to fly the Mig 29 in Russia, shooting down two Mig 21 drones with AA-11 missiles and also fly the F-16 in Pakistan. I left the SAAF permanent force in 1994 but remained on as first citizen force and later active reserve, flying the Mirage F1, Boeing 737 BBJ and the Harvard at the SAAF Museum. In effect, I have therefore served the SAAF for 47 years.
You flew the Mirage F1CZ as an aircraft. Tell us a bit about it and some missions flown by you?
The Mirage F1 is a wonderful machine, a real gentleman’s fighter but with amazing capability for its age. It is very fast with good acceleration and turn-rate, range and weapons capability. It was the backbone of fast fighter operations throughout the bush war. There is something very special about the look of a F1 in flight and as somebody once said, ‘if it looks good, then flies good.’ Operationally it was very capable, operating out of short-field basis at very high temperature with very few restrictions. I flew operations into Angola mostly out of bases such as Grootfontein, Ondangwa and Rundu, mostly ground attack with bombs and rockets and also escort missions with Canberras, Buccaneers and recce Mirage 111R2Zs. On my birthday in 1983 I shot up a MI-8 helicopter on the ground just south of Cuvelai with 30mm cannon. I’ve had the pleasure to fly the F1 on and off from 1979 till 2016 and have the honour of being the SAAF pilot with most hours on the Mirage F1.
What other military types have you flown and what is your favourite?
I have flown Harvard, Impala Mk 1 and 2, Mirage 111EZ, DZ and D2Z, Mirage F1CZ and AZ. Obviously the Mirage F1CZ is my favourite, but I have a huge soft spot for the Harvard which was the first aircraft that I flew and after 47 years, I still have the pleasure flying it for the SAAF Museum.
And then Comair Limited – where did you start?
I started as a SFO on Boeing 737-200s in July 1994 and after seven months I was promoted to captain on the Fokker F-27. Four months later these aircraft were withdrawn and I moved to the Boeing 727-200 as captain, then training captain and the later fleet captain and chief training captain.
The 727 was a real pilot’s aircraft and I thoroughly enjoyed flying this great machine. When the 727’s were withdrawn from service in early 2003, I returned to the Boeing 737-200 and -400, followed later by the -300, -800 and the -8 Max. During my last years on 727s, I was promoted to Chief Pilot and Executive Manager Flight Operations.
As head of flight operation what was it like?
I became Director Flight Operations in Jan 2003, in charge of pilots, operations control and training and as an executive director on the Comair Board. Later cabin crew and then airports were added to my portfolio and my title changed to Director Operations in 2011. Responsibilities included pilots, cabin crew, airports, operations control, ground operations, training and standards, catering and toward the end, engineering as well. It was an amazing 17 years in charge of operations, where my team and I took Comair from literally a pre-fab operation just starting with jets, to arguably the most modern and advanced operation in Southern Africa. I held this position until May 2019, when I elected to step down from this position and finally retired from Comair in March 2020.
I have had an amazing time in Comair, with a management team with incredible skills and perseverance and colleagues that were truly committed to the family that was Comair. I believed that the head of operations should also fly to ensure credibility and intimate knowledge of the operation and that pilots are worth more to an airline than just flying and therefore I involved them in all aspects of the business.
What are your thoughts on the Boeing Max delivery flight?
We were four training captains that delivered the first Comair Boeing 737-8 Max from Seattle. We did this so that we could immediately start training on introduction on route. The pilots were captains Johann Bruwer (Flight Technical Manager and the project manager who did an amazing job with the Max and the previous -800 projects), Pieter Ackerman (Standards Manager) and Roy Clegg (Chief Training Captain).
We flew from Seattle to the Dominican Republic for a refuelling stop, then on to Sal Island for a night stop. The next leg was from Sal directly to Johannesburg, a flight of 9 hours and 10 minutes, with Durban fuel still available plus alternates. The aircraft performed perfectly and was an absolute pleasure to fly, with especially the fuel consumption amazing. We completed one week’s flying training on route when the aircraft was grounded.
The Max is a tragedy that should never have happened. An excellent aircraft that should never have crashed. I am not at liberty to expand on this, maybe at a next opportunity.
You also brought in some of the other B738 NGs.
Yes, I also flew the first new -800 delivery, back in July 2012.
Have you still got your models?
Yes I collect die-cast aircraft models and have built a few plastic ones as well, but not that many. Maybe I will have more time for that now!
How are airlines in you view going to survive COVID 19?
With difficulty. Airlines all over the world operate on very small profit margins and to be grounded and have no revenue generation while sitting with all the fixed costs, is going to near impossible to manage without some kind of financial aid.
Types flown and hours logged and which plane really stood out for you?
Just over 13 000 hours on about 20 types. Not that much but considering that I was involved in management most of the time, not too bad.
Give us your comments on good CRM and the importance of teamwork in the flight deck?
Absolutely required. You have to be able to recognise all your fellow crew member’s peculiarities and adjust accordingly, while still maintaining standards and operating procedures. Comair has been very good at promoting the team concept over many years and the safety record speaks for itself. We have always tried to also reduce the formality without undermining the responsibility in our operation.
Where to from here?
Hopefully still flying for many years. I am still flying at the SAAF Museum, I have just joined the Harvard Club and I recently purchased a RV-8, which is a brilliant aircraft to enjoy. I am also in discussions with companies outside of the airline business for possible project work which will probably also involve flying.