Learning how to fly at the age of 18, aviation maestro Nigel Hopkins was inspired to take to the skies by his father, Derek. He used to fly in gliders with his dad, sitting on his lap before he could walk. Now at age 47, Nigel is a wonder in the air and without a doubt, one of South Africa’s most famous aerobatic pilots.
In addition to flying for the Goodyear Eagles, Team Northwest and Sasol Tigers, Nigel has flown for Team Xtreme, doing spirited displays in his Extra 330SC. He has claimed National titles in Aerobatics, Rally Flying and Precision Flying. He has garnered many other accolades, including ten FAI international medals and multiple Aero Club Pilot of the Year Awards. Despite being ranked as one of the best pilots in the world, Nigel says, “I still have to learn many aspects of aviation – it’s a lifelong journey of discovery!”
Usually Nigel has a busy air show line up every year and performs at most South African shows.
2020 sees many if not all air shows post March 2020 being cancelled or postponed with uncertainly about when these beloved events will be able to resume.
Smoke On…Go asked Nigel about some of his highs, lows and memorable moments over the last 29 years.
The highlight of my aviation career was winning the World Rally Flying Championships and joining South African Airways in 1996.
If I could fly any aircraft, they would be a P51 Mustang and the Concorde.
The most hair-raising moment in an aircraft was the inflight breakup of my MX2 during a training flight in August in 2015.
If I could display anywhere it would be the annual EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Wisconsin, USA.
My favourite air show is the Virginia Air show in Durban and the Botswana Air show In Matsieng.
I was taught aerobatics by Scully Levin in a Pitts S2B.
I knew the bug had bitten when I saw my first air show at a very young age. Since that day I have always looked skyward.
Your aviation hero? I am privileged to have had many mentors throughout my flying career. The first must be my father who taught me how to fly. On the local air show circuit definitely. Scully Levin, who taught me aerobatics in 1995. Internationally it would be guys like Rob Holland, one of the top freestyle pilots in the world.
Your favourite plane? A difficult question as it depends on what I am doing. If I am executing a four-minute freestyle aerobatics routine, then I love the Extra 330 – it is an amazing aircraft. When flying in formation I enjoy the Harvard, but then again, I also love flying the high-performance aircraft with Team Xtreme. Every aircraft has its own unique advantages.
Your favourite aerobatic manoeuvre? I enjoy the Hover, which is something an aircraft shouldn’t do, so it always surprises people. I have done a few tricks where we hover next to helicopters – it’s not difficult but always fun. I also enjoy the tumbling manoeuvres, and generally just exploring the boundaries of the aircraft.
Your key to success? Having an absolute passion for aviation and never giving up. Loving what you do will always get you to where you want to be!