For the last 2 weeks the weather has not been conducive to flying. A tropical cyclone passed to the north of us and it seems to have set up a pattern where tons of warm moist air is being driven down from the ICTZ, bringing with it bouts of torrential rain and the odd embedded thunderstorm.
Definitely not weather for flying. Two flying events have been cancelled or postponed – one a fun navigation rally and the other a speed rally. The speed rally is now scheduled to take place next weekend and lots of us are anxiously scanning the long term forecasts to see what the likelihood of it actually happening is.
There are only three tricks to a perfect landing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are. It was in pursuit of these that I found myself 500ft over the threshold of Runway 36 at Brakpan Airfield (FABB), power off, flaps down and in an aggressive sideslip. Too low… damn it… 100ft up, still 1000ft short of the zero line, flaps up… nose up a little… not too much, she’s going to stall… better now.. hold it, hold it…. here’s the line, let her land (Windscreen fills with sky).. good – now full power, flaps 1 and off again.. Over the radio…“ZU-IBM, that was a +2, well done!”
It’s been quite a long time since all 4 of us flew anywhere. Mostly this has been because of scheduling issues and the requirement that flying be limited to essential crew only (good grief – every single post seems to start with a COVID lockdown reference).
Groblersdal flying club hosted their annual breakfast flyin on Saturday so we decided to take a look. Initially it was going to only be my son and I but my daughter expressed interest and then my wife developed FOMO and suddenly the plane was full.
We’ve been meaning to go to the Florence Guest Farm at Chrissiesmeer for some time now – the last few times we’ve tried we have been unable due to low clouds. The Eastern part of the highveld plateau in South Africa is plagued by morning mist almost throughout the year due to adiabatic cooling of moist air flowing in from the Indian Ocean.
However, on this instance we were to be blessed with fantastic weather. Roger and I are both in the same hangar so we set off more or less together to Baragwanath to pick up Matthew in the Mooney. Once the usual suspects were reunited we set off East for Chrissiesmeer. We’ve figured out the timing pretty well now – if I leave first then Matthew in the Mooney 5-10min later and then Roger in the Arrow 10 minutes later, we will all arrive at more or less the same time.
It was actually a beautiful morning for flying – so smooth in fact that my 14y old was delegated poling duties and he did a pretty good job – the difficulties of VFR in the morning haze notwithstanding. He is going to want to learn to fly so he might as well get some stick time and the advantage of doing it from the right seat is that there is less ability to rely on the instruments for attitude.
With ATC helpfully providing separation info between the three of us we made it to Chrissiesmeer in good time. The hamlet is known as the Okavango of South Africa which I think is pushing it a little, but there certainly are a large number of lakes in the area, and it is very pretty from the air. I suspect in summer it is even prettier as the winter landscape can be somewhat drab.
I was last to land having flown a very long downwind to give the others time to backtrack on the grass runway. These rural airstrips in South Africa almost always seem to have large eucalyptus trees on the undershoot which are always good for focusing your attention on glide path discipline – no dragging it in here…
The runway is well kept but in all honesty, its really pretty bumpy and the left side is quite unkempt. Backtracking, we parked up next to the other two aircraft and set off in search of breakfast.
Despite arranging for breakfast to be available the staff were somewhat nonplussed at our arrival but they quickly whipped up a reasonable egg and bacon breakfast while we had a look around. The venue is marketed as a wedding type place with some overnight accommodation – it looks like a great spot for the quick overnight escape from the city and we’ll put it on the list of potential destinations for this sort of trip.
With the obvious exception of the actual flying the best part of these breakfast runs is sitting around and chatting while eating breakfast. After breakfast I was able to fly the drone a bit (after making sure there was no traffic in the area!) and then we set off home. There was some discussion about heading to the EAA Taildraggers flyin at FAWA but since we’re all blessed with nosewheels we decided to give it a miss and head straight back to Rand.
Later that afternoon the first thunderstorms of the season struck but at midday when we were flying back we were very aware of the convective activity – this was easily the worst turbulence since my flight back from Cape Town – we couldn’t find a comfortable level and had one or two of those ‘bang your head on the ceiling and dislodge your headset type moments’. It’s always entertaining when ATC asks why you’re 200ft above your planned cruise level when you’re at idle throttle, 7degrees nose down with a 900fpm climb rate.
We landed at Rand about 10minutes before the first storm rolled through (from the other direction) and stuffed the plane into the hangar. Summer is definitely on it’s way and flying needs to start happening earlier!
After a successful navigation rally held some weeks ago the groundwork was laid for the resumption of Speed Rally flying. The season has been completely disrupted by the COVID pandemic with the second and third races being cancelled. There was much excitement when it seemed that we could continue with two further events this year.
And such it was that Steve and I found ourselves heading east on Friday afternoon to Secunda. Getting out to Rand Airport is a lot less of a schlep on a Friday afternoon than Baragwanath and the hangar attendant had pulled IBM to the front of the hangar so we were good to go – traffic levels at the airport are quite high and we were number 3 or 4 to depart for the short 70nm trip to Secunda (FASC).
Level 2 lockdown is real in South Africa. This allows further movement and (good news for some) the purchase of alcohol and cigarettes. Most importantly, the restrictions on general aviation have been lifted – we can fly between provinces (states) and can fly with other people in the aircraft.
To celebrate our new found freedom the three usual suspects (Matthew, Roger and myself) decided to do some interprovincial flying. A strong cold front had caused some scattered snowfalls earlier in the week in some high lying parts of the country and we were hoping to spot some snow on the Drakensberg.
Because we’d had good times on our previous trip to El Mirador last year, we decided to reprise the route.
The fluttering noise didn’t catch my attention as much as the white flash of paper passing before my eyes. Flailing wildly didn’t help as the paper in question – the photos of the start and finish gates – flew out the gullwing door of my Sling, and contrary to what would be expected, got sucked into the propeller from behind and shredded.
This was going to be a problem. One does not simply chase after pieces of maps while holding short of an active runway for a set takeoff time. Our Air Navigation Rally second course was about to get even more interesting. It wasn’t lacking in interest before the map shredding incident – the 30kt winds had provided quite enough entertainment already this morning.
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.