1994 President’s Trophy Air Race

1994 President’s Trophy Air Race

Held at Tempe, Bloemfontein – 26 to 28 May 1994
Pictures and article by John Miller

Cold and windy conditions at Tempe for the 1994 President's Trophy Air Race.
Cold and windy conditions at Tempe for the 1994 President’s Trophy Air Race.

In Cessna’s 1979 model 310R brochure, the blurb at the back quotes a top speed figure of 207 knots at sea level and 195 knots at 75% power at 7500ft. That this year’s handicappers gave 1994 race winners Werner and Johan van Gruting a speed of 188.50 knots should, therefore, come as no surprise. Over the two days of the competition, the Van Gruting brothers managed an actual speed of 201.30 knots and yet competitors were still poking around the 310’s airframe for hidden speed mods. It didn’t help that the only other 3108 in the race, ZS-JOS flew at 193 knots which doesn’t explain anything.

Aero Club of South Africa boss and past race winner, Mike van Ginkel summed it up, “The only entrants ultimately satisfied with the handicappers are the winners”. This year, the competition, sponsored by aviation finance group MLS Bank, produced more than its usual bevy of objections, most of them aimed at the handicappers, which many thought they were running the race against. To make matters worse, weather conditions over the two day event should have favoured the higher powered aircraft – winds on the first day were gusting to 25 and 30 knots at times. Although the first three places were taken by a fast twin and two high performance singles, Free State farmer, Charlie Bosman’s fast B58 Baron was the next twin home at only 12th place. In between were plenty of ‘low powered’ singles. Last year’s winners, Steve Hartley and Joe Grove flying the same Baron B55, ZS-OOG claimed a compass malfunction, which left them well out of the race after the first day and second from last overall. Steve was seen consoling himself on the floor of the Bloemfontein Flying Club bar after the first day’s racing.

Chris Briers puts the wheels away quickly but still battles against the handicappers.
Chris Briers puts the wheels away quickly but still battles against the handicappers.

There were 67 competitors this year and judging by the show of hands at the prize giving ball, 50% were first time entrants. On the first day the fastest aeroplanes launch first at one minute intervals and the order is reversed on day two with separation based on first day results. The competition is essentially won by flying straight, accurately and figuring out the best height under the prevailing winds. Those serious about winning often practice low-level navigation for weeks prior to the contest and the top teams navigators will call out check points some two minutes before they appear along the course, also giving plenty of time to warn the pilot at each turn point – usually over an airfield. Needless to say, GPS is banned. Entrants further prepare by polishing their aircraft and extract maximum performance by flying with the ball in the middle at power settings a thin line from never-exceed limits. Winning can be a matter of seconds, and turbocharged aeroplane pilots have to decide if the extra time climbing to take advantage of their blowers is worth the effort – at around race heights – typically between 5000 and 7000ft, turbo’d engines have the barest advantage which is taken into consideration by the handicappers anyway. Van Ginkel, himself a winner in 1969 and 1972 has won by a nail-biting seven minutes and eleven seconds over a 1000nm course and reckons the first ten crews across the line on the second day will have made virtually no mistakes.

1994 PTAR - van Gruting: van Gruting Brothers - 1994 Winners.
1994 PTAR – van Gruting: van Gruting Brothers – 1994 Winners.
The race has an excellent record of safety, but isn’t always without incident. This year, Carltonville team Bill Stewart and Johann van Rensburg had an engine stoppage and skillfully forced-lobbed onto a dirt road near Ladybrand without damaging their Turbo Arrow lll. Bloemfontein Pilot Jack Onderstall made a successful precautionary landing in a field a few miles short of Tempe after suffering a fuel leak.

It was suggested by one long time pilot that the disatisfaction over handicapping has turned competitors away from the race – something which needs to be addressed. The system appears to be confusing and perhaps needs explaining – the race committee has recorded individual aircraft speeds throughout the past 30 years and many parameters are taken into account including crew experience. The number of entrants has reached 120 in the past and the organisers need to look at their publicity and media efforts to attract greater interest in the event. The air race is an exciting occasion for all participants and hones both flying and navigation skills – the weekend is strong on aviation-talk, the prize giving evening is splendid and the event attracts great support from NAC, the Bloemfontein Flying Club and Midwest Aviation, not to say those most valuable of sponsors – MLS Bank.