Kobus de Villiers – More than an Immigration Story

Caltech:  NASA’s Pasadena Jet Propulsion Lab campus.

I need time to think, and I take a walk down the hallway. There is a light on in Einstein’s office. I hold my breath and turn the big brass doorknob; the door slowly swings open. The pedestal lamp behind his chair radiates a warm yellow atmosphere throughout the room. The golden letters of the titles of the books glow with the encouragement of the light emanating from the old-fashioned reading lamp’s dull-white glass screen. The notes on his desk reflect the weak yellow-white light against the green worn leather back of the chair.

The old man’s voice whispers hoarsely from the sharp dark shadows between the books.

He lectures to wide-eyed students. He speaks carefully and intensely of the last big formula that is still to be found, the one that will connect everything, the great answer.

His presence runs cold fingers across my tightly strung backbone.

I feel a little shortness of breath. It was a long trek to get here for a barefoot Free State boy.

How did I get here? It is a long story.

It is always best to start at the beginning.

The Kikuyu grass tickled sharp fingernails through my thin cotton shirt as we lay on our backs staring into the warm black African sky.

A niggling mosquito buzzed noisily around my ears. I could hear Oupa breathing. “There it is!” He was pointing at the sky with his with his big, crooked finger. It was the finger that was caught in the baling machine before I was born.  Then I also saw the small little green light blinking repeatedly as it drifted across the black night’s face. Only the continuous movement let me pick it out amongst countless flickering stars.

We heard on the radio that the Russians had launched Sputnik I. Normally there would be news of wars and sport, or sometimes politics, but I did not understand much about it. But the launch of a satellite immediately grabbed my attention. We watched it travel across the face of the night. My cousin Hansie got up and said he was going inside; the mosquitoes were biting him. He was not really interested in aeroplanes and rockets. Only my Oupa liked it as much as I did. I had just turned 5 years old and the next year I would be going to school, Oupa said that if I studied hard, I could one day be able to build wonderful machines like that.

The rest is history.

Not quite. I went to school in Welkom. Somehow, I was often in trouble for daydreaming, setting things on fire with my home-made rockets, flying off the garage roof in my first aircraft and sending my brother’s white mouse into orbit. Well, that is what I told him when we could not find my lunch box, containing the mouse, that was on top of my rocket.

Army, varsity, and girls.

I did my military service at 6 SAI and 2 SAI. My family and teachers thought I was a bit daft to want to study engineering and planning to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab campus in Pasadena. Afrikaans boys from our family were farmers, or at best would become a dominie or a doctor.  Lawyers were seen as crooks, so that was not recommended. That is why I worked in the gold mines in Welkom during my student vacations to pay for my studies.                                                                                       

I had a lot of fun at varsity (since nobody from our town knew me there) and I was very good at darts and pool in the local pub. My one dream was to be a racing driver, so I designed and built a Formula Vee and tried to race it at Kyalami. That is a story for another day.

I also learned about girls and forgot all the things the dominies in our family warned me about. However, the girls were not interested in airplanes and rockets, so I graduated after 4 years at Tuks.

Atlas Aircraft, Italy, and all that.

I started working at Atlas Aircraft in Kempton Park, just when the weapons boycotts against South Africa were instated. My boss, an Irishman, on loan from Short Brothers Aircraft company, did not think I was as daft as my family did back in the day. He recommended that I be sent to Italy to work at Aermacchi and study further at the University of Milan. There I attended some US lecturers’ classes in English during their Summer School.

Israel and other strange places.

After Italy I worked at Atlas again and then they sent me to Israel and other places where I worked for several years. My first wife decided my family was right about me being a bit daft, so I continued working in these places on my own for several years. Most of what I did there, I still cannot talk about.

Russia and the exquisite French spy.

I was working on special projects for the SA Air Force when I met the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I quickly learned that she was very clever and French speaking, a language I had not needed on the farm. Luckily, we did not need to talk too much. Unfortunately, my security people were convinced that she was a honey trap and forbade me to see her. I was known as a ‘straight arrow’ by our security guys, but this time I was not going to comply.

Soon after I met her, I was sent on the most bizarre job yet. I had to go to Moscow, via a torturous route, to meet with Russian Mikoyan and Klimov engineers, to see if we could modify a SA Air Force Mirage F1 and Cheetah D2, to enable the installation of one of their powerful Mig-29 engines.

I assembled a small group of South African engineers and we lived and worked in Brezhnev’s dacha for a few years. We shuttled back and forth between Moscow and Pretoria. Every time, when it was my turn to fly home and rest, I met up with the Frenchie.

On the team’s return to South Africa, the aircraft were modified and flew perfectly. It later became headline news in the aviation industry after the new minister of defense, Joe Modise, announced it at the Farnborough airshow in the UK in 1994.

Soon after this, our security people were quite miffed when I informed them that I had married the French girl.

Canada, Pasadena, and Einstein’s office.

I had hoped that the New South Africa would lose its ‘polecat of the world’ status and that we could make it work. New contracts were negotiated for Military aircraft, and it became clear that there would be no more work for people like me. Add to that the systematic fortification of our house to Fort Knox status and still being burgled. We decided to move.

Dr Ballard’s company, in Canada, offered me a very interesting job. We packed our stuff, rounded up the kids (ours, yours, and mine) and emigrated. As most of those who have dared to do this can testify, it was not that easy, but I will not bore you with the details. Most of you could most probably tell better horror stories around this topic!

After a few years working on Proton Exchange Membrane Hydrogen Fuel Cells for my new company, I was afforded an opportunity to take part in a very interesting program at the famed Caltech campus, the home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Just like I told my high school Career Guidance teacher 25 years ago. She did not know where or what Caltech was and suggested I find a job near Welkom so that I could visit the family. I wished that I could send her a postcard from California.

That is how I got here. But as I said in the beginning, it is a long story. It also continued after the Einstein office visit

Germany, retirement and one last aircraft project.

Ballard’s Hydrogen Fuel Cell group teamed up with Ford and Mercedes Benz. Eventually I was transferred to Kirchheim unter Teck, near Stuttgart, where Mercedes develops their future vehicle technology. My wife was very happy, she could drive our company Mercedes at frightening speeds on the Autobahn to go and buy fresh French cuisine across the border. We could also visit her family on long weekends and Christmas, while our youngest son could continue his education at a German/American private school, paid for by the company. I commuted between Stuttgart, Detroit, and Vancouver on such a regular basis that the hostesses on Lufthansa would bring me my favorite drink without even asking what I wanted.

Of course, this was way too comfy, and it all came to an end after 2 years. We were back in Vancouver, and I decided to retire at 55. The job stress and endless commuting during the past 30 years had taken its toll. We just wanted a break and spend time together. My family also wanted me to start telling them why we lived in many and some strange places, and why I could not tell them what I did at work.

We soon realized that these tales had to be written down and had to be put in chronological order. My first book began taking shape, when a friend from South Africa, now a CEO of an aerostructures company in Canada, invited me to join him for a few months to win a contract for an advanced military aircraft project. The few months turned into three years, but it was an amazing journey and challenge to be involved in one of the most advanced aircraft in the world.

Writing my books, travelling, and sharing the best time of our lives.

My wife studied Linguistics and was instrumental in helping, guiding, and motivating me to write our stories. So far there are five books, both in English and Afrikaans. Since most of this stuff took place a long time ago, I could start talking about some of it. Other things will remain secret beyond my lifetime, but I could at least write about all the adventures, some danger, and the hilarious mishaps that took place along our journey. Mine from Welkom in the Free State, hers from Le Lavandou and surroundings on the Côte d’Azur.

Kobus de Villiers is a retired aeronautical engineer. He grew up in the Free State. After serving in the Bush War, he lived, worked, and studied in several countries around the world. He still does some consulting and builds contraptions in his workshop. He lives with his French wife in Vancouver, Canada. He shares his stories and photos with Howzit on this blog, aptly called “Slypsteen”

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