1995 President’s Trophy Air Race
Held at Port Alfred – 11 to 13 May 1995
Pictures and article by John Miller
44 year old consulting engineer, Nigel Townshend, leans forward slightly as his immaculate Bonanza A36TC charges down Port Alfred’s grass runway 10, leaving a swirling cloud of disturbed grass cuttings behind. No longer than seconds after lifting clear, he reaches under the throw-over control column and flicks the gear lever to up. Staying low, rushing towards the marshal with his clipboard poised at the end of the strip, the leather-chaired turbo Bonanza accelerates hard towards its maximum speed. The throttle and propeller plungers are firewalled. Seconds later, the whiteshirted man with the clipboard blurs past and Townshend throws the A36 into a military wings-vertical left turn towards the north and snaps the wings back again, staying close to the trees, bushes and telephone wires passing beneath at close to 170 knots increasing.
In the right seat, navigator Rod Hering spreads his own clipboard,armed with two digital stopwatches, and quickly moves his head between a quarter million area chart to the the skyline. There is a moment’s silence between the heading instructions as the whitewashed Pig and Whistle Inn at Bathurst flashes past the left wingtip. Neither Townshend or Hering can see far at this height – the horizon disappears at the next ridge two kilometers away and the map, almost useless to a normal Bonanza trip, becomes everything to pilots and navigators competing in the Presidents Air Race.
The race is an exercise in precise navigation and for once flying skill is of secondary importance, but it helps. The first day takes competitors to Somerset East and Jansenville before returning to Port Alfred. The course on the second day takes the 49 crews 250 miles north across the Eastern Cape scrub to the first turn at Cradock, then east to Queenstown and south to the finish line at Port Alfred. A mere half mile off track is enough to put a competitor out of the running unless the handicap is favorable. There’s high ground between Port Alfred and Cradock, either forcing a climb from sea level to 4500ft or a mile detour along the north- stretching valley.
1995’s winners, Mike Howell and Sarel van der Merwe in their normally aspirated Beech A36, chose to take the extra mile rather than make the climb – it paid off, helped by a handicap speed 5 knots less than their maximum. For the first time in six years, the Presidents Air Race had been brought to the coast and away from its traditional home at Tempe airfield in Bloemfontein. The new venue promised, amongst other things, less predictable weather and a little advantage for turbocharged aircraft.
By the time all competitors had arrived at Port Alfred, the organisers had 50 aeroplanes lined up on the newly mowed grass adjacent to Jim Davis’ 43 Air School premises. Furthermore, the weathermen were predicting near-perfect conditions – CAVOK and little wind for the weekend, giving lower-powered aircraft a chance to match the handicappers and take home some trophies.
The air race organisers have been struggling to maintain numbers for the once popular event and 1995 saw a further decline in entrants, which only a few years ago attracted over 150 aeroplanes. As usual the keen competitors, many of whom appear year after year, voiced strong concern over handicapping. It’s generally accepted that aircraft of identical model and year manufacture can have different maximum cruise speeds of up to five knots. Competitors are dissatisfied with handicap speeds that bear little resemblance to published figures, and in cases disagree with the committee’s policy of basing speeds on past race histories. There’s no doubt that the existing system leaves a great deal to be desired and it’s discouraging entries. Moves are afoot to change next year’s handicapping criteria in an effort to boost entries.
Nevertheless, many top competitors spent time before the event practicing their low-level navigation. Although the winners, Howell and Van der Merwe from Hotazel didn’t practice, they came right with the handicappers and navigation. It was their sixth race and their Bonanza completed the course at 171.95 knots – 5.75 knots above handicap speed. Those serious about winning will know how best to fly their aircraft. Light crisp turns at the check points are quicker than long broad sweeps. A Baron flown with the correct technique can gain as much as ten seconds on a turn which can save 60 seconds over the entire event or three miles – a valuable advantage. Some competitors go as far as switching off unnecessary electricals – hoping that by unloading the alternator, the engine has more power to the crank.
Flying technique did little for Townshend and Hering. The Johannesburg team became confused with the topographical information halfway to Cradock. The two pulled up and unable to recognise Bedford, turned hard left in an attempt to reestablish the track and were almost immediately out of the running after a good first day.
The 1995 event was sponsored by aircraft financing group MLS Bank. As usual NAC were there in force, as were others to help with organisation and time-keeping. Kassie Kaseleman from Bloemfontein, long time organiser, had arranged another successful event.