Previously known as the Governer General’s Air Race, the State President’s Air Race and now the President’s Trophy, this event is one of the oldest air races in the world. It has gone through a number of iterations and alterations over the years but has run, more or less uninterrupted, for almost 75years.
As a prestigious event in the South African flying calendar, the race has always been on my radar, but this is the first year that I’ve been eligible to take part as there is a requirement for a minimum of 250h PIC time from competing pilots. Last year’s race was cancelled due to COVID and thus we found ourselves in the sleepy Eastern Mpumalanga town of Ermelo on Thursday morning.
Ermelo (FAEO) lies approximately 110nm east of Johannesburg and is typical of towns in that region of the country – heavily reliant on agriculture and mining (coal for the large number of coal fired power stations in the area). As is common at these small airfields, the flying clubs are active and there are a number of high performance singles and twins based on the field – I guess if I was a farmer in Ermelo I’d want a fast aircraft to get me somewhere else in a hurry! The president’s trophy air race (PTAR) was hosted by the Ermelo Flying Club and they went all out to make us welcome.
Thursday was set aside for arrivals and handicapping test flights. I had initially planned to do another handicap test flight but by the time I arrived at Ermelo, it was quite bumpy and to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of running flat out (which puts us deep in the yellow arc on my aircraft) in unstable conditions so I was content to watch the arrivals and chat to passers by. We were able to use our Speed Rally handicap for the PTAR and it’s been pretty accurate of late.
The actual race is held over two days. The first day is a ‘circular’ route, approx 250nm, returning to the start airport. In order to sort out any handicapping issues, the fastest aircraft departs first, followed by the next fastest and so on.The second day is a crossover (figure-8) route, also about 250nm where the slowest aircraft (based on day 1 performance) depart first.
Thursday evening was the official opening of the event – teams are introduced and numbers are handed out before a delicious dinner laid on by the flying club – the only downside being that this was in a marquee with open sides – it’s cold at this time of year, so the indoor pub was well patronised although we decided to make an early night of it and be ready for day 1.
Day 1 dawned clear, cold and windy – 5 Celsius with a very high wind chill factor. There was a mad rush from about 7am to get all the aircraft into their designated parking spots – 57 competing aircraft and not one was parked in the correct spot – we had to taxi very carefully with lots of spectators around and many aircraft moving up and down the narrow taxiway. This was followed by a briefing where the route was revealed, safety considerations were reinforced and start times confirmed. Then it was off to the aircraft to await the scrutineers.
The scrutineers go around and check for ‘contraband’ – portable GPS devices, iPads, iPhones and smart watches. These are put into a sealed bag and given to the competitors – the bag is presented, still sealed to the race officials after landing. GPS use is allowed provided only GPS track is used and no raster/moving maps are utilized. Autopilot use is not allowed and flight paths are analysed post hoc – anyone with a track variance <3 degrees has to prove they didn’t use an autopilot – competitors are encouraged to use GoPro cameras trained on their instrument panels.
This did create some unhappiness with the old hands, as previously the race has been more navigation based – maps and coordinates were issued the night before and pilots had to plot and fly their own courses. This was changed about 3y ago to the current format where a survey map (1:250 000 non aviation) is provided with the course and magnetic headings plotted. The aim is to fly the course as accurately as possible and as close as possible to handicap speed. In speed rally competitions, flying faster than 101,75% of your handicap speed incurs a penalty. This is not the case in the PTAR – so handicap speed is critical – and often the first question you’re asked is “What is your handicap speed?”, followed by some tooth sucking if you’re in a similar aircraft with a lower handicap speed…..
Our plan was to have me look at the map first – highlight the route with a sharpie and pick out prominent features, while Steve looked at the turnpoint photos and added the altitude gates and turn directions onto his route template. To make manipulating the map easier, my routine is to fold it as small as possible in a number of directions – essentially an elegant scrunching up of the map – and poor Steve is presented with a suddenly tired looking map on which to add minute markers. We’ve found that putting minute markers on the map is critical in the event of getting lost – this prevents one sailing off into the distance looking for a turnpoint – if you haven’t seen the turnpoint at the expected time, turn to the next heading and try to locate the route again. The minute markers are for 120kts GS so we adjust our expectations along the leg based on our actual ground speed.
Because the fastest aircraft were going first, we had a to wait for papers – teams were launching every 30seconds so it wasn’t too long before we were taxiing to the active runway. Close behind the aircraft in front, watch them depart, taxi up to the line, watch for the flag to drop and then the race is on. The first turnpoint is at the end of the runway to the right, so we offset left, building speed since we’re off the 4500ft runway in about 900ft. Hard right over the numbers and course set for turnpoint 1. This is a long leg, 19minutes so we have time to get off course, but we don’t – we have a 3 distance scan – far out, close by, and directly below. Yes, we can use the GPS track (and to be honest, we probably use it more than we think we do because it’s always front and centre), but my approach is to identify a landmark on the map and in real life and fly over that in as accurate a position as possible. We love road intersections because they allow precise positioning. Dams are also good. Settlements not so much because they expand and contract as the years pass.
Leg 1 has us into the teeth of the wind so we’re hugging the terrain – not much variation in elevation here, but turnpoint 1 is a 135degree tight turn – we spot the turn beacon from about 4nm out and drift up to the minimum turnpoint altitude. It’s a left turn, the best ones for me as I can position the aircraft accurately with the turnpoint in sight the whole time. 60degrees of left turn, see the turnpoint marshal waving up at us and we’re off to turnpoint 2. Now we have a tailwind so it becomes a game to see where we get the best tailwind. 50ft up, 100ft up, looking for a knot here and there.
We’re in a unique situation in the Sling in that our flat out Max continuous thrust cruise is 10kts below Vne – so if we climb, we can’t make up the lost speed on descent. And so it goes – dam, opencast mine, intersection, power line, railway station, grain silos, rivers, ridges, turnpoints – 3 more tight turns, 5 ‘chicane’ turns including one where the beacon that was supposed to be there is inexplicably NOT there – but the photo and what we see look similar so we turn. Over the field at 500ft we join the downwind behind the aircraft ahead of us – we haven’t been passed and we haven’t passed anyone else…. an indication of a good handicap? Or maybe we got lost? Maybe they got lost? Who knows?
After landing and securing the aircraft we take our loggers and contraband bag to Race Control to have it opened. Then we repair to the pub to dissect our race, and to let the adrenaline wear off over a quiet lager or two. No more flying for us today. The longest part of the day is the wait for the results.Rumors swirl about delays in results, disqualifications and weather radar interference in GPS tracks. Finally, we get our printout. And it’s…….passable! Estimated flying time 02:08:33.79, actual flying time 02:09:03.60 – giving us a +29.8 second time loss, fortunately we flew a clean round – no penalties (missed turnpoints, altitude busts etc) with a 1.3% Nav accuracy over 251nm.
There is much comparing of results while we are treated to an evening aerobatic display by the Flying Lions aerobatic team – 4 T-6 Texans (we call them Harvards) – what a sublime experience. The images do no justice to the beauty and precision of the display.
An early night is called for because we are in 15th position overall and would like to do better. Day 2 feels warmer – but this is only because a low cloud bank has moved in and blanketed the earth – ceilings are 400ft at 7am. Still, we all dutifully move our aircraft to the new parking spots – today’s race is slowest first so we’re all the way at the other end of the airfield. Briefing is only slightly delayed and the crossover route is revealed.
Start times are based on yesterdays performance and it’s anticipated that the majority of aircraft will completed the course at the same time. Lots of attention is paid to reinforcing the safe arrival procedures. We go to our aircraft, the scrutineers arrive and then we wait for the clouds to lift. The forecast calls for flyable conditions around 10am so the start is pushed back by 30minutes.
We’re number 6 to depart, with a 5minute gap between us and the next aircraft – we’re the fastest of the slow planes. We launch 42 seconds after the Husky in front of us and set off for the first turnpoint. Another long leg this, now with a tailwind. We have the preceding aircraft in front of us for the whole leg, slowly reeling them in… It’s dangerous to follow other aircraft because it’s tempting to sit in trail and get lazy – there are many instances where one aircraft has led 3 or 4 others astray. We pass an unmarked radio tower with wide stay wires – it’s well above us and we pass on the message on the race frequency for people following us to look out. The Husky in front of us drifts off to the right after the first turnpoint and we slowly pass them.
We then spot the next aircraft – a low wing that I was hoping was the Evektor Harmony that we often race with, but sadly it’s not – it’s a 180 horse Warrior puttering along. We pull alongside them right at the turnpoint – there are strict rules that you can’t pass on the inside of turnpoints so we slingshot around the outside and set course for turnpoint 3 – this will be a difficult leg as there are few features to navigate by and the turnpoint is the intersection of some forestry roads. The minutes to the turn tick down and no sight of the beacon. We run out of time and I start my turn to the next heading – as we bank I catch sight of the beacon mostly hidden behind some conifers – we’re about 0,3nm wide of the turn so we quickly correct. Many, many teams will not see this turnpoint.
There is some excitement on the race frequency as one of the aircraft calls a mayday – they’ve lost engine power and they make a successful forced landing at one of the power stations we pass nearby (these all have airstrips).
As we tick off turnpoints, we pass over Ermelo at 500ft on the crossover. On the radio we can hear the chaos approaching from behind – there are clumps of aircraft and we can hear them complaining to each other about not holding height and heading – the signals are getting stronger as the faster aircraft approach us. We can also hear the odd “beep-beep” from our new friend Dieter as he screams past other aircraft in the Lancair at 210+ kts.
The first C182 passes us between turnpoint 8 and 9, followed by the Harvard. Then there is some respite as we race for the line – 2 miles out and two V-tail Bonnies scream past followed closely by a Baron and another C182 as we are about 0.5nm from the line.
The chaps in the control tower (who are only able to offer an information service – the airfield is usually unmanned) do a sterling job trying to line everyone up on downwind. 50+ aircraft crossed the finish line within a period of 5 minutes. When we turned finals we were number 6 to land. Fortunately everyone behaved and flew the required 90kt patterns alternating deep and shallow landings. For us a 90kt pattern requires only selecting flaps as we go over the fence but we had a BE58 behind us and with the long runway I was confident we could safely reconfigure and avoid him having to go around – which turned out to be the case.
More post-mortem’s of the flying occurred in the pub – with everyone waiting anxiously for the results which were not forthcoming – results would only be released at the gala dinner to be held in the evening. All of us crammed into the banquet hall at the local Holiday Inn in a decidedly covid unfriendly manner – pilots don’t seem to be too concerned about the virus – go figure…
In the final reckoning, we came 10th overall on handicap – out of a field of 60 aircraft. 4th place overall on Day 2. I think we may have gon into this thinking we’d do better but after the first day we adjusted our expectations and I’m happy with our result. Sunday saw many tired looking pilots readying their planes for the trips home to their various bases. The coffee was in short supply as the low IFR conditions slowly broke up and the few instrument rated pilots departed.
I hung around until about 10h30 then felt it was safe to depart – ceilings were 7000ft and I was able to remain clear of the terrain at 6000ft until Secunda (remember Secunda?). The ceiling by this stage had broken up completely. However, a bank of what looked like smoke (from the coal-oil plant there) at 6500 ft turned out to be solid under cast when I climbed above it so I decided to let discretion be the better part of valor and make a 180 to land at Secunda. Where I was joined over the next hour by 4 other aircraft also routing Ermelo to Johannesburg. Interestingly, all the doctors in the race all ended up diverting to Secunda. After about 90min on the ground the cloud had cleared and we all set sail again for home.
7 odd hours of flying over 4 days – I was finished, and quite glad to put IBM into the hangar and get home.