1985 State President’s Air Race

1985 Barnib State President’s Air Race

Held at Virginia Airfield, Durban – 31 May to 1 June 1985

By Allan Blain and Colin Jordaan

For the first time in many years a coastal venue was chosen for the 19th State President’s Trophy Air Race. The coastal weather again showed its moody and unpredictable nature, but luckily held up and allowed competitors to complete the event.

Race 26 Junkers JU 52 pictured with the crew.
Race 26 Junkers JU 52 pictured with the crew.

Race 26 Junkers JU 52 pictured with the crew.Some early arrivals on Wednesday 29th May saw the dark, wet, cold and windy side of Natal weather, but preparation day, Thursday 30th, was magnificent. And as old friends from past races were reunited, aircraft were being tested by the handicapping committee, and slowly the old excitement always generated by the S.P., started building up.
As the route was only announced the day before the race, eager pilots and navigators filed into the Elangeni Hotel hall for the briefing that night. Most pilots were staying at the Elangeni and accommodation proved to be very enjoyable. That night the traditional Mayoral Cocktail Party was held, and was as drab as always.

This year the mood of the race was somewhat more staid and dignified as apposed to some previous years (Vryheid comes to mind immediately). Possibly the current economical climate made the entrants more aware of the costs of the Race, leaving them a little more sober. As it was, only 61 aircraft completed the event, substantially down on previous years. After giving the pilots their briefing, Mike Hartley stressed the safety aspects of the race, and wished all pilots godspeed.

And so the first race day, Friday, dawned and after a superb Southern Suns breakfast on the Elangeni pool deck, everyone set course for Virginia. Pilots were frantically polishing and preparing their aircraft to get just that extra knot or two that can mean victory. Some aircraft owners even go to the trouble of re-spraying their aircraft before every S.P., thats real dedication for you. Some go to even greater lengths to prepare their aircraft and its a pity that many don’t ever see the reward for those extra rands spent on being more competitive. Here we refer specially to a veteran of past races, Danie Pretorius. However take off time approached and the hot ships, who leave first for safety reasons, were fired up and ready.

Previous years winner Robbie Schwartz and the Trophy in 1994.
Previous years winner Robbie Schwartz and the Trophy in 1984.

At one minute intervals, starting at 11.00 am, aircraft left Virginia airport, and the race was on. Here I sign off and leave Colin Jordaan, veteran Springbok Pilot to give you his version of the first days route – Hibberdene – Kokstad – Weenen – Virginia.

Ever since the takeoff format for the first day was changed, (in the interest of safety the fast planes go off first) I have found the first day in the previous three races to be a bit boring. Having been placed at the back of a gaggle of Skylanes this year, my pilot, Harry Donde and I, were looking forward to “eating” a few before we got back to Virginia.

After take off on 05, Harry flipped it over the dune and was back on the deck in seconds, heading straight for the harbour mouth entrance. After quite a few test runs at Grand Central we had determined that our Skylane does absolutely no better one metre off the ground than at five. That’s of course if there is no headwind! We had a howling one.

Picked up the crane at the entrance, one degree left to take us around the outside. Decided to go over the top of the Bluff. Skylane in front of us had stayed low going around the left. His mistake. We “ate” him after about another four minutes. Total elapsed time, eight minutes and he had taken off one minute ahead of us.

Some of the competing aircraft at Virginia
Some of the competing aircraft at Virginia

Set heading to Hibberdene. The straight line was going to take us about two miles out to sea. We went for it. Scanning engine instruments suddenly took on a new meaning. By the time we dipped a wing over Hibberdene, we had “eaten” two more Skylanes and Donde and Jordaan were grinning like the cat that got the mouse. Total elapsed time, twenty-five minutes.

Set course for Kokstad. Heavy crosswind from the left, no choice but to climb slowly to get out of very heavy turbulence and also to clear the 7000 ft mountain 20 miles short of Kokstad. Height required over Kokstad – 5300 ft. 300 F.P.M. descent after the mountain should do it. We “ate” our fourth Skylane going over the mountain but he had more height and beat us into the turn. These were our old adversaries In ZS-KOW and last year they had proved to be faster than us in a straight line although we had beaten them overall. 50 Minutes gone and we had caught up 2 minutes on KOW. It was going to be a good race, or so we thought. Climbed high for the leg to Weenen to get the roaring tailwind. Quick ground speed calculation gave us 171 knots, 31 knots up on handicap.

Neck and neck with KOW over the right-hander at Weenen. Something was going wrong. We should have pulled away by now. We then realised that our plane was obviously faster at lower altitudes, so it was on the deck. All the way to Melmoth and Umhloti river mouth, which was the finish for day one. As we dropped into the thicker air, we managed to pull away slowly and crossed the line 7 seconds ahead of KOW, nearly “eating” an Arrow that was obviously out for a Sunday cruise.

Competitors attach race numbers in preparation for day one.
Competitors attach race numbers in preparation for day one.

Competitors attach race numbers in preparation for day one.That evening after a second briefing at 5.00 pm, pilots and navigators were treated to a cabaret show at the Elangeni. By now the customary bickering about all things handicapped, was well underway. This is one aspect of the race that should be turned into a commercial proposition. I am convinced a long-playing record featuring the mind boggling variety of criticisms, objections, advise and very occasional praise of the Handicapping Committee would go gold in months. The best way to confuse an S.P. competitor is to simply tell him not to come next year if he is all that miserable about his handicap speed. That, is naturally, out of the question.

Saturday arrived and competitors woke up to a dark broody and overcast day. The take off was postponed until 1.00 pm to enable the dignitaries to enjoy the sights of the start. There was naturally some muttering about that. Even though it was cool, take off at midday still meant a bumpy ride, and the weather looked more threatening as 1.00 pm approached. But the rain stayed away and with a few slower aircraft dwarfed by the junkers on the threshold, the flag dropped and the second and last stage got underway. I was on board Iron Annie, but more about that next month. The route for Saturday was Umhlanga, Ulundi, Piet Retief, Wakkerstroom, Virginia, and I’ll let Colin tell you more.

It was obvious when I opened the curtains of my hotel room that it was going to be a fast plane’s race. Low cloud and blustery south easter blowing. We might as well have been In Cape Town.

Just touching the waves, a competitor completes day one at Umhloti.
Just touching the waves, a competitor completes day one at Umhloti.

Just touching the waves, a competitor completes day one at Umhloti.Harry and I were lying in seventh place in his Cessna Skylane. I had calculated that we were 2 min 25 secs down on our handicap time for the first day. Marius Els and Vic Dickerson in their B55 Baron were already in the lead, having bettered their handicap time on the first day by 1 min 54 secs. It is amazing how you throw away tried and tested strategy when you know you have no chance of winning. Our first two legs to Ulundi and Piet Retief were forecast to have tailwinds. Instead of climbing, we decided to stay low and utilize ridgelift to improve our speed. It didn’t work. By the time we got to Piet Retief, KOW was catching us fast. We were starting to pass quite a few planes now and at Piet Retief we got our first glimpse of the Junkers. They were going great guns and although their handicap was 20 knots slower than ours we hadn’t overtaken by the time we turned over Wakkerstroom. It was actually a beautiful sight to see those three loaned Harvard engines belching out smoke as Capt. Gus Schoeman wound up the boost to clear the mountains on the way to Utrecht. We “ate” the Junkers clearing the mountains but found ourselves being zapped by Alan & Cecil Hodgson in ZS-FHA, a Cherokee 235. This was the first plane to pass us and we still had 155 miles to go. Only two other planes ahead at this stage. The Navion and the Doves in their 235. Beautiful up-draughts over the Buffelsrivier, saw the ASI almost going up into the red. Our big wing seemed to be giving us more lift than the Hodgsons 235 and we started to gain again slowly.

Race Winners - Maruis Els and Vic Dickerson with State President P W Botha.
Race Winners – Maruis Els and Vic Dickerson with State President P W Botha.

Race Winners – Maruis Els and Vic Dickerson with State President P W Botha.At this stage, Brian Wallace in the right hand seat of the Junkers, calmly informed me (in between mouthfuls of caviar) that my boss, Capt. Schoeman, was ordering me to do two 360’s to the left, starting NOW! Hardly heard him because we had just spotted Marlus Els and Vic Dickerson shooting through underneath us, and this with still another 100 miles to go. There was nothing left to do now but pray.

With only 15 miles left to go, the visibility was dropping fast, with quite a few showers in the Hazelmere Dam area. The Barons were coming through thick and fast but we were still the leading Cessna. Suddenly this Cardinal RG was filling our rear windscreen and slipping through past us to beat us across the line by mere seconds.

Left turn heading 060°, maintain 300 ft to the rocks, climb to 1000 ft and left turn back to the field. By this time 4 planes had slipped in front of us but what the heck. The positions over the line were all that counted. Our 10th place enables us to keep our boast about the only team flying the same aircraft being in the first ten, four times in a row.
We’ll be back next year like all the rest, bitten by the bug. We’ll have to think about a different aircraft though. We’re convinced no Skylane will ever win the race for quite a while. Mind you, that’s what all the losers were saying about their aircraft. To Marius & Vic, well done, see you again next year.

Aeronews cover page - Virginia 1985
Aeronews cover page – Virginia 1985

And first over the line, literally seconds ahead of the 2nd placed Navion (Ret Orsrnond ’83 winner) was ZS-KKZ, a Beech B55 with Marius Els and Vie Dickerson taking the ultimate prize in Power Flying. A word must be said about Vic, as I don’t think there is a more deserving winner. He has been very well placed many times in the S.P., and is extremely competitive, and works extremely hard. This competition was very rough, with 2nd and 3rd going to the winners of the last two years races.

And another Race ended, another victory for one lucky pilot and navigator. But as our State President said at the Prize giving banquet during a rather entertaining speech; in essence, all the pilots are winners, and its a pity there can only be one Victor. Aero Club Chairman, Major General James Gilliland, introduced President Botha, who handed the trophy to an overawed Vic Dickerson and Marius Els. He then presented the President with a number of prizes and it was gratifying to see President Botha’s appreciation, and hear the words of praise he had for our Aero Club Chairman. It was also good to see such a senior group of dignitaries present at the banquet, that apart from a dreadful consomme soup, was a very elegant occasion. The evenings prize-giving continued and finally, dodging all the paper planes, happy and sad pilots said farewell for another year. And one more in a long line of fine races drew to an end.

P.S. A special thanks to Barnib for their sponsorship, thanks to Mike Hartley, Charles Wotherspoon and Jane Davidson, thanks to the Handicapping Committee and all the judges and marshals and timekeepers. Thanks to Trevor Conlyn for a lift on the B19, to Joe Papke for being the nice guy he is. Absolutely no thanks to Glen Ball and Paul Botha who by means of forcing a dozen milk stouts down my throat, made me a vary confused editor.

Flying the Junkers in the Air Race