It has become a tradition for the Highveld’s second weekend meeting in April to be held in honour of the victims of the Henneman Air Disaster.
Older racing fans will never forget the numbing shock they woke up to one Wednesday morning in April 1988.
Today’s Turffontein Inside nine race meeting duly has most of the races named in the victims’ honour.
The bereaved have different way of dealing with the tragedy.
However, a number of the families have always been grateful to the racing industry for never forgetting the 24 people who lost their lives.
Clyde Basel spoke to Turf Talk at this time last year.
Clyde’s brother Keith, who had come out of his apprenticeship two or three years earlier, was among the no fewer than 13 jockeys who lost their lives.
Clyde said, “At this time of year you remember all of the actions surrounding the accident. It becomes very real in your mind and you never forget it. You vividly remember the terrible circumstances of the accident and the post-happenings are probably even harder to forget because it pointed to how unnecessary it was.”
It was discovered afterwards the right fuel pump of the plane was withered away, which resulted in a fuel leakage which may have instigated the crash.
The log book also showed the aircraft was well overdue a service (it hadn’t been serviced for thousands of flying hours) and it also became apparent the company who owned the aircraft, United Air, was insolvent.”
Legal action was taken by the bereaved, led by Clyde’s father, Geoff.
Clyde emphasised this was for no other reason than the families wanting answers.
Clyde said, “But the judge ruled it was an Act Of God! How can a failure to service a plane be called an Act Of God and the plane was very old anyway, it was used in the movie Wild Geese in 1941. It was obvious this plane should never have been allowed to fly.”
Clyde said in a recent Air Crash Investigation documentary aviation experts concluded the crash had occurred due to mechanical failure, which backs up the bereaved families belief that there was culpability.
Clyde continued, “It was long ago but you still can’t ever come to terms with it although it does become a little bit easier with time. When you say goodbye to somebody in the morning as if they are going to work and they never return … every death is hard but one you know is coming you can brace yourself for, whereas a tragedy is sudden and harder to digest.”
Clyde in a recent interview told of the harrowing hours following the first news of the crash and how he and his family had ultimately learnt there was no more hope via the tele-data that used to be streamed on TV.
Unforeseen circumstances had also played a part in the tragedy.
The race meeting had initially been set for Thursday the 7th and the jockeys, trainers and other personnel had been booked on to an SAA Flight. However, it was rained out and postponed to the following Tuesday and with no SAA flights scheduled a plane had to be chartered.
Clyde was 15-years-old at the time and was at home on the Monday when the phone rang. He had just started doing some commentating at the time so had gotten to know the Bloemfontein staff including the receptionist Mrs.Botha. She said she was phoning for Keith and because he knew her so well he decided to pretend he was Keith and take the call.
She told Clyde the flight was no longer SAA, it was United, and she provided the departure location and time.
He recalled, “I was sitting in my Dad’s TV chair which was next to the phone and taking down all the details on a piece of paper. I then left the piece of paper on the TV chair tray and completely forgot about it. But then at about 7 or 8 at night Keith happened to see it and said ‘Hey what’s this?’”
Clyde apologised for forgetting and gave him the details.
He said, “I think back on how he just happened to come across that piece of paper. If only it could have blown away or got lost or something …”
Keith had also shortly beforehand moved from Durban where he had been riding for Clodagh Shaw.
He had one family connection in Durban, his Uncle Dudley Basel who was chairman of the Clairwood Turf Club and the head of the National Federation Of Owners and Trainers.
However, Keith began missing his young family who were still living in Johannesburg and after coming up to Johannesburg to see them and do some riding he made a commitment to Jean Heming to ride for her in Bloemfontein.
He had thus moved back to the Highveld in October 1987.
One of the biggest tragedies of the accidents was that so many of the deceased jockeys were at an age where they had just begun families and had young children, including Keith whose son was just one year old.
There were also some riders who seemed destined for greatness, including the Transvaal champion at the time Johannes “Rooies” Fourie.
There were some lucky stories.
Clyde said Paul Whitmore and Lucky Houdalakis were supposed to be on the flight but had cancelled and asked other riders to replace them.
He added one of the Transvaal’s top jockeys Rhys van Wyk had decided to drive to the meeting.
However Rhys’s father, the trainer Hennie, was unfortunately on the flight.
Danny Lombard was the unlucky one who went as a substitute.
Basil Marcus, who was subsequently a multiple Hong Kong champion jockey, also could have been on the plane and explained to the Sporting Post a few years ago, ““I had been away, riding work in Santa Anita in America. I had just got home and as I walked in the door, the phone rang and it was Cliffie Miller, asking me to come for that meeting (Basil regularly rode for him in Bloemfontein). Under normal circumstances I would definitely have said yes in which case I would have been on that plane, but I had promised my wife that when I came back from America I wouldn’t travel as much, so I turned Cliffie down.”
“As it happened, I actually did go up to Joburg that week. The National Yearling Sales were happening at the same time and we had horses running there on the Saturday (I was riding for Herman snr), so I went up early. My family still thought knowing me I might still take some rides and work my way to Bloem. They phoned me late (on the night of the crash) at my hotel and were relieved that I answered. I was honestly exceptionally blessed not to have been on that plane.”
Intriguingly, Basil had a further racing connection to that plane. He continued, “If I remember correctly, and I think this is correct, that is the very same plane I flew down on when I won the Met on Model Man. We made a stable for Model Man in that plane and my wife, Pat Lunn and everybody flew down together on the Thursday before the Met. And then Model Man flew back again in the same plane. Just talking about it now really gives me shivers. I’ve got a lot of strong connections to that disaster.”
Covid-19 put a stop to the annual invite the victims’ families had sent to them for the memorial meeting.
The practice will hopefully have resumed today.
Clyde concluded, “My Dad used to love that meeting. It was an occasion for all of the families to gather and was a day full of memories. He always used to make a speech after the main event.”
The details of that tragic event which left a nation stunned were well captured in an article by the Citizen’s Mike Moon a few years ago (click below).
Picture: The aged Dakota which crashed into a mealie field at Henneman.(aviation-safety.net)