I think it goes without saying that we’re all a little bit fed up with this virus… The constant news bombardment, added to the constant fights we as frontline providers are having with hospital groups and government with respect to the provision and availability of PPE, the constant threat of infection and quarantine and the effect on ability to earn are all taking their toll. What I’ve found is a major stress reliever is flying. Which has been a problem.
South Africa went into hard lockdown on the 26th of March 2020, after 6 reported Coronavirus deaths. The flavour of hard lockdown chosen here was confinement to home, only allowed to leave to buys groceries and essential goods, no alcohol sales, no tobacco sales. Most significantly, a total closure of airspace apart from rescue and essential flights. No airline traffic. No charters. No general aviation. Initially this was to be for 3 weeks, but it was later extended a further 2 weeks, then relieved slightly for the month of May – but still no general aviation was provided for.
The reality of single engine piston operations is that one tends to be at the mercy of the vagaries of the weather. This shouldn’t be news to anyone really but it was brought home to me last weekend on an attempted flight to meet a friend for a quick coffee at Rustenburg (FARG).
After some days of marginal weather (and, it must be noted, some spectacular weather weekends where there was simply no time to fly), it finally looked like my schedule and CAVOK were lining up. The plan was to fly from Baragwanath to Rustenburg, have a coffee and head back.
The 2019/2020 Speed Rally season opened on the 23rd of November with the first race being held at the Springs Airport (FASY). This would be our second speed rally, the first one having been at Secunda in August.
This time my son Scott was unable to navigate for me because he was studying for exams so I recruited my friend Steve who is also mad about flying and is fairly useful around a map! As is the usual scenario, the weather forecast for the morning of the race looked pretty lousy – low ceilings, narrow temp/dew point spread and generally not amenable to VFR flight. My plan was thus to move my aircraft to Springs on the Friday afternoon – but once again, Mother Nature simply laughed at my plans and some of the biggest storms we’ve had this year arrived. They at least had the good grace to start well before I left for the airfield unlike previous occasions where storm cells have pitched up as I complete my preflight.
Steve and I resolved to get up at the crack of dawn to make the 50nm trip to Springs – fully expecting to bin the whole affair, but Saturday was clear and we easily made it across to Springs in time for the 07h30 briefing. The race has become really popular – 40 entries were received including, for the first time, 2 helicopters.
After the briefing we joined the start lineup and waited for our ‘papers’ – our map, photos of turnpoints and the route to be flown. These are given 20minutes before the scheduled takeoff time, which essentially gives you about 8minutes to look at the map outside of the aircraft – the rest is done while taxiing to the runway.
We had an uneventful start this time after the shenanigans of the previous race and were soon at top speed heading for the first turn point. The turn points are generally road/rail crossings, stations, grain silos etc. These are hard to find in the bleak expanses of the western regions of Mpumalanga. We navigated by open cast mines, slimes dams and highways. To our credit (mostly Steve tbh), we missed only one turn point, picking up a 1minute penalty. The racing is so well handicapped that losing a minute meant the difference between finishing 4th and 14th. Ah well, c‘est la vie.
We had a fantastic time and the 150nm of the course passed so quickly we couldn’t believe it when we crossed the finish line. It’s a dangerous time to be relaxing though as the handicapping is so good that invariably there are 12-15 aircraft in the circuit on arrival – courtesy and keeping your wits about you go a long way….
After we landed and handed in our loggers, we watched some spectacular aerobatics and then had to hustle to get back to Baragwanath as a rather mean looking storm had popped up on the radar and was making its way towards our route. The next race is in March – we’ll definitely be there.
On the 15th of November, the Johannesburg Light Plane Club (JLPC) celebrated its centenary. This makes it one of the oldest flying clubs in the world. Aviation in South Africa has ebbed and flowed, but the club has been a going concern for 100 years which is no mean feat.
The South African chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year. Every year there is a flyin to the Brits Airfield (FABS) but this year promised to be even more special. Any excuse for a flight is a good one, so it was off to Brits I went.
As summer starts to take hold it’s getting light earlier and I was able to pull the plane out at 6h30, in pleasant conditions with the low morning clouds clearing away and only the slightest breeze. I should have realised it was too good to be true…
As I rolled down runway 13 (into the sun – of course…) I noticed 3 Guineafowl taxiing out onto the runway ahead of me. Now a guineafowl is not a small bird – they probably weigh around 4 kilograms and stand about 35cm high – I didn’t fancy the idea of one of them going through the prop or hitting a wheel. In retrospect I made the wrong call by rotating 2-3kts below nominal rotation speed (50kts) but IBM eagerly kept into the air and disaster was averted. It would have been better to stay on the ground, wait for normal rotation and try to ignore the birds than to take off early and potentially stall out. Fortunately I was so close to rotation speed that it made no difference but definitely something to think about for lower speed incidents – better to hit a bird on the ground than stall it in.
The other concern is that the birds could have tried to fly and then I may have been in the situation where I’m flying at low speed and then hit a bird….
Bird excitement behind us, we climbed up under the Johannesburg TMA – cruising at 7500’ and routing to the west of the Lanseria class B airspace. We passed over Orient airfield (a major gliding Mecca), but it was too early for the obligatory powerless landers in their funny hats.
This dogleg set up a more or less direct course to Brits – and a routing directly into the teeth of a not insignificant headwind – 30kts on the nose meant we took a lot longer to get to Brits at only 90kts over the ground.
For the (anticipated) large flyins, the CAA usually declare an Aerodrome Flight Info Service (AFIS) which means that the usually unmanned airfield is manned with a tower operator whose role is to ensure separation but does not give explicit landing or takeoff clearances – it’s a little bit strange – the landing clearance usually sounds like “ZU-IBM, number one on the approach, land at pilot’s discretion”. Anyhow, as it turns out they were only opening at 07h30 and I arrived overhead at 07h25. This resulted in some confusion with arriving aircraft coming from 4 directions and all trying to ascertain if the tower was open or not.
I’ve been thinking a lot about risk lately. There was a recent fatal Cherokee crash in a reasonably nearby town – nobody knows yet what happened. As a result the local aviation forum is turning up all sorts of theories. One contributor opined that if the CPL/IR grade 2 instructor who was flying the aircraft couldn’t save himself, what chance did the average weekend warrior have?
I commented that I felt that the best way to mitigate the risk in GA was to ensure that we are all current and proficient, and the lack of experience (i.e lack of total hours) may not necessarily influence the outcome of what appears to have been an engine failure. Further, we need to make peace with the fact that there is risk involved in general aviation, in the same way there is risk involved in almost everything we do. Obviously there is some perceived benefit to undertaking the risk involved. I cannot earn a living, unless I am prepared to take the risk of leaving the house and driving to work. Risk, benefit. Likewise, general aviation. Yes, there is risk, and that risk is not insignificant. The benefits for the personal aviator (I hate the term Weekend Warrior) are perhaps more nebulous – but could include significant decrease in long journey time, a visual perspective on the world that few get to see, the satisfaction in taking control of a machine and flying like the birds, and in my case, a very definite improvement in my state of mind (I call it altitude therapy).
I really enjoy flying to new (to me) airfields. I’ve been wanting to go to Kitty Hawk since I got my aircraft. Kitty Hawk is located to the east of Pretoria – about 30min flying time from Baragwanath. It is a very active field with a large number of Vans RV’s based there.
The field has a little bit of a reputation as being ‘difficult’ in certain wind conditions. I’m always up for a challenge that fits within my personal limits and experience, so reputation aside, I felt it was worth the visit. I was able to muster up only one other plane from the JLPC crowd – Roger in his Turbo Arrow agreed to join me out of Rand airport for breakfast.
My aircraft is back from annual inspection – what they say about the first annual is all true, sadly – was a lot more expensive than I was anticipating due to the 5 year rubber change, but that at least is done (until the next time – when I may also be looking at a BRS repack……). On the plus side, my plane is back and fit for flying again!
On the basis of the sticker shock from the rubber replacement we decided not to do any cosmetic work apart form installing the sun shade film on the canopy which has helped a lot to keep the cabin cool. I did this myself – it only took 2hours to apply it – a very fiddly job but the end result is satisfactory and seems to do what it is supposed to. It’s a PVC friendly static cling film that advertises 5% visible light transmission. I think it looks quite nice.
I’ve previously written about flying in a speed rally – where we fly a set course against our aircraft’s handicap speed. It’s fast and furious and exciting with lots of close up flying. The other class of competition flying is the Navigation Rally, which I was lucky enough to be a competitor in this weekend.
My aircraft is still undergoing annual inspection (well, actually as I write, the inspection is complete – we are waiting on a post maintenance test flight for it to be signed out again), so I was to be the designated navigator for Matthew in the Mooney. Whereas a speed rally is simply flying a course as fast as possible (and reasonably accurately), the navigation rally is quite a lot more complex. The papers that are given to each crew contain turn point descriptions, a 1:200000 topographic map, a sheet of photos of turn points and places to spot and a time sheet based on a nominated speed.
Having an aircraft in maintenance does very little for the desire to commit aviation. Out of necessity (see previous posts on moving aircraft for maintenance), I had left my vehicle in the hangar when I took my plane to Tedderfield so I needed a lift back to Baragwanath – which Matthew kindly offered. Of course, why would anyone go to an airfield unless it was to fly an aircraft – and he was off to fly his (recently returned from annual inspection) Mooney M20C short body.
Matthew very kindly offered me a flight in the Mooney, to which I gave due consideration (about 500msec) and agreed. The Mooney is a very different aircraft from the Sling. The Mooney styling has always appealed to me, there is something about that forward swept tail and the low slung stance which suggests that it will go fast. The Classic Mooney has a very 60’s look about it (which it probably should!) – the very steep windshield and the ‘big gulp’ air intake are unique design features. Even this short body variant’s tail is very low to the ground and I must say that this would worry me quite a lot in the landing.