1984 State President’s Air Race

1984 State President’s Air Race

Held at Bethlehem Airfield – 1 to 2 June 1984

By Dietlind Lempp


Our official entry form for the State President’s Trophy Air Race 1984 looked a little bit strange, to say the least. Aircraft: Motor Glider Grob G109B ZS-VAB; Pilot: Brian Arton, hours on type: nil; Navigator: Dietlind Lempp, hours on type: 15. The Grob was the boss’ newest toy, one of only a few in the country, and the same boss had, on the evening before the race, ordered Brian and myself to enter. The Handicapping Committee, usually called “the people who everybody loves to hate”, didn’t really know what to do with us and had given us a handicap of 104 knots, which made us the slowest aircraft in the race and was still quite a few knots faster than we ever hoped to be.

1980 SP Air Race – Bethlehem Airfield: Bethlehem Airfield

Bethlehem AirfieldAnyway, after we had put our beautiful little motor glider with the long white wings on (Brian reckoned you don’t strap yourself in, this one you put on) we taxied out to the starting point, right through the dust of 72 other aircraft, who had taken off before us. Brian got the quickestconversion in history; this was probably also the first time in the history of the race where the pilot was pattered through the take-off. Shortly afterwards we had a small fight in the cockpit: wanted to get the prop into coarse pitch (airspeed 65 knots, rpm 2300, pull pitch control once) and Brian did not want to slow down to perform this silly “gear-change”. I won, and soon we were happily cruising along a couple of feet above the grass. This being my first introduction to crop spraying type operations I nervously called out every power-line, telephone wire or tree I saw looming up ahead of us, but Brian seemed to be quite used to this type of thing and I soon settled down with my maps. No ADF or VOR, no gyro, no DI in this aircraft; our maps were the only thing to rely on.

The leg to Vryheid was quite uneventful, except for a big “thump” all of a sudden: a little bird seemed to have committed suicide somewhere. I quickly released my harness (strapped in you can hardly scratch your right ear with your left hand) and turned around. After having established that both wings and the tail plane were still where they were supposed to be, all was well again. We made use of ground effect and also had the benefit of quite a bit of convective lift from some of the fields, and by the time we got to Vryheid we were quite happy with our groundspeed.

Vryheid to Ermelo was a different matter; we had to climb some mountains, which at an indicated speed of somewhere between 70 and 80 knots was not exactly a great pleasure. We also weren’t very happy about the comments of the spotters at Ermelo, which ranged from “Welcome, speedy” to “See you on the way home”. The latter they did and even had the cheek to wave to us, big deal when you fly a Cardinal! On this final leg to Bethlehem we struggled against a headwind, but it was good fun to observe the dassies dashing for cover (and a peasant woman walking on the fields as well). Once Brian went temporarily IF as I refolded my map, the Grob cockpit is not exactly designed to spread out three sheets of 1 : 250 000 charts.

Dietlind Lempp (centre), ground crew Jeroen Heimink and a spectator

Finally, we gloriously crossed the finish-line, only about 12 minutes late. On final there was again some confusion in the cockpit as I tried to get Brian to perform all sorts of tasks which he thought to be a bit silly. For an experienced crop-sprayer usually flying turbine powered brutes it was indeed strange to change gears and approach high and close the throttle and change hands and regulate his descent with the spoilers and approach at 62 knots and pull the spoilers out a bit more after the wheels touched. Brian crowned the confusion with an excellent landing! As we taxied in the homebuilt Condor UIM crossed the finish-line – and he had taken off just before us. We weren’t the slowest aircraft in the race after all!

At the fuel pumps we proudly signed the slip for 72 litres of Avgas, which compared favourably with the 45 litres OIL which Ret Orsmond (the boss) had used in the Bullthrush!

Day two saw us taking off first. Again we fought along at an average altitude of about 30 feet AGL. The topocadastral 1 : 250 000 brought some surprises, on the map everything was blue, on the ground it was brownish-grey. Geneva turned out not to be Geneva, but finally we were back on track. Then they started overtaking us, all those “fast” aircraft: the Cherokee 140s first, then the Cessna 172s. After Schweizer-Reneke the larger Cessnas zoomed past, then the Bonanzas and Mooneys and finally the Barons and our boss in the Bullthrush. Coming into Bultfontein, dead on track, a Mooney was overtaking us on our left, cutting in front to pass the turning point on the right hand side. We had some interesting moments, and I had my eyes more outside the cockpit on other aircraft than on ground-features and my map.

1984 SP Air Race – Competitor: Avron Bane – Navigator and Aaron Searle in ZS-LOD, a B36TC at the 1984 Air Race

On the evening of the first day our faithful ground crew had laborious replaced the aileron tapes to seal the gap between wing and aileron and make our little Grob faster. Those tapes now had decided to go their own way, at least partly. They were, half on, half off, trailing as long white streamers behind the wings, causing the most unwanted thing in any air-racers life: draaaaaaaag!

We scraped along the boundary fence of Willem Pretorius Game Reserve because of Air Nav Regs and minimum heights over game parks and all that. Then some nasty soul put some mountains right on our track, which we took on the upwind side, hoping for ridge lift. But the air was absolutely
stable and we had to rely solely on the 87 horses provided by our 2.5 litre converted Volkswagen engine.

Again we crossed the finish-line, with six or seven aircraft, including a Baron, coming in behind us. Our faithful ground-crew awaited us with beers, three cheers to them. They were a bit apprehensive when they saw the long streamers trailing from the wings and thought for a moment that we had interrupted some poor farmer’s means of communication with the outside world.

We had completed the 727 nm course over the two days in a total of 7 hours and 31 minutes, which worked out to be an average ground speed of 96.6 knots. For this we had used 150 litres of fuel or exactly 20 litres per hour, flying at full throttle from the moment the starter dropped his flag to the minute we crossed the finish line.

All in all, both Brian and I enjoyed the race tremendously. It was good fun, even though we did fly the slowest aircraft in the race. The Vickers Trophy (for the people who tried the hardest?) beautifies Brian’s untidy desk and reminds us of a very enjoyable weekend.