2005 Imperial Bank President’s Trophy Air Race
Held at Tempe, Bloemfontein – 26 to 28 May 2005
By Graham Luppnow, FAWB ATC
ATNS recently took the bold step of entering two of its staff members in the President’s Trophy Air Race from 26 to 29 May 2005 to promote relations between ATNS and the General Aviation community. A really novel idea of putting two ATC’s in an aircraft and letting them compete on equal footing with other pilots on arguably one of the more important events on the South African aviation events calendar.
The two pilots chosen to represent ATNS in this absolutely incredible experience were Warwick Henley from Lanseria and myself, Graham Luppnow from Wonderboom. The aircraft we used was a C172, ZS-FUJ, from Lanseria Flight Center with cool decals on the side sporting the ATNS logo and the phrase “We don’t just push tin… We fly it too!”
For those you wondering (like we were when we first entered), just how an air race with an array of different aircraft types and performances works, here is a brief rundown. The various aircraft are given an average “Handicap” speed at which compete against on the prescribed race route. The handicaps are worked out either using historical data from previous races and applied to standard production aircraft, or through a method of doing test runs with non-production aircraft. As an example, a Beechcraft Baron may have a handicap speed of 200kts, where as our C172 had a handicap of 117kts. The handicap system is always the subject of hot debate, with some guys happy and others not so happy with their assigned speeds.
The idea is to fly the course in the shortest time possible and therefore at the highest possible average speed in order to beat your handicap speed. This is achieved through navigating smartly and flying accurately. No GPS’s may be used, so its a raw test of both the pilot and navigator’s skills. There is a school of thought that says the lower you fly, the more you negate a headwind and the faster your groundspeed will be. Conversely, when there is a tailwind it may be more beneficial to climb to take best advantage. The aircraft that displays the best time gain over their handicap speed is declared the winner.
Right from when we landed it immediately became apparent why this event can be compared to the Comrades marathon. The camaraderie and high spirit amongst the competitors was phenomenal! What really struck me was the fact that the experienced guys, with 5,6,7 or more races behind them were still more than happy to chat to newbies like ourselves and offer tips and bits and advice. This even before our off performance on the first day, which discounted us as serious contenders for any trophies!
On the evening before the first race day, we were given a comprehensive briefing on the relevant procedures to follow and then given our route to go back and plan. What’s quite amazing for this event the very little use of radio work. On departure, ATC (well handled by 2 of Bloemfontein’s Approach controllers; Evan and Conrad) provide an information “ATIS” type of service where they continuously broadcast wind and en route procedure reminders. Position reports are briefly made on 124.8 at the various turning points and then the ATC’s provide an information service for the landing where read backs are kept to a minimum.
On returning to our hotel, it seemed as if most pilots staying there had the same idea and that was to invade the foyer area with maps and equipment for the planning. I’m sure this really amused other guests and staff. Once again I was over-whelmed by the level professionalism of some of the teams in doing their planning. Out came the lap tops loaded with software to assist planning, together with updated weather information. Once again teams were more than willing to assist us with the planning and we got some good tips which really helped us out.
On day 1, the aircraft with the fastest handicap gets airborne first, followed by the rest of the field of 100 aircraft at 30 second intervals. Our route on that day was to take us from Tempe, southbound to the Tierpoort Dam, then over very large mountains to Barkley East, then Springfontein and back to Tempe.
All was going well on to start with, Tierpoort came and went with no problems whatsoever. In fact we even managed to shave a few seconds off our handicap. When we got abeam Zastron (we knew we were there cause of the large letters they placed for us on the side of the mountain!), we were slightly left of track, but not too much of a problem. We continued the climb heading straight for Barkley East. At about the point where we were supposed to start our descent, we realised that although we were in the right place, somebody had gone ahead and moved the little town of Barkley East. We spent over 40 minutes looking for its new hiding place, getting tossed more than a garden salad in the turbulence! After eventually finding it, and conceding that our competitive part in race was effectively over, we did some serious fuel calculations and decided to throttle back and complete the course anyway, rather than return straight to Tempe with tails between our legs!
We got to Springfontein and back to Tempe without too many hassles, seeing the odd aircraft here and there. After being the last aircraft to land, we were somewhat surprised to hear that 1 or 2 teams had fared slightly worse than us! A few aircraft got even more lost in the mountains than we did. One aircraft landed up in Bisho, which is about 4 maps away from where we were flying! The crew of that aircraft “Echo Bisho X-ray” at it later became known managed to get some “booby prize” trophies at the Awards function and were great sports.
For someone like me who had never done any low level flying, other than the odd low-level circuit, the whole experience was something new. The low level briefing we received on the Thursday really helped. Looking at some of the large power lines, I couldn’t help but think there must have been the odd Baron or so that was hugging the earth that elected to go under them!
The route for the second day was from Tempe to Edenburg then Koffiefontein and back to Tempe for the halfway check, then northbound to Bultfontein, Boshoff and back to Tempe. On the second day you are assigned a take-off time depending on your performance on the first day, taking your handicap speed into account. The idea is that the ultimate winner should cross the finish line first. This year the winner of the race was a Piper Cherokee, with C172 in second place. I heard that the finish was quite exciting as many of the faster aircraft which had later take-off times tried their best to catch these two.
Day 2 for us was a lot better. Our navigation was spot on and we generally set out to enjoy ourselves. Given our late take-off time and our slow aerie, we soon realised in our planning that we would be passing the halfway point at Tempe at about the same time the winners would be arriving! This would no doubt make things interesting, so we elected to stay high in race terms (about 700ft) to cross over Tempe. The rest of the route went well. At certain points we even had sight of our “company” traffic which an paper is a much faster aircraft, and very nearly overtook them! Once again we landed last, but results will at least say we were not placed last!
On the first day, we lost 1 hr 8 min mainly due to our explorations in the mountains, but on the second day we only lost a few minutes against our somewhat stiff handicap speed of 117kts. We landed having an average speed of 93.38kts over the 642 nm combined course for both the days, which equates to 1 hr 23 min later than our handicap speed. Our final placing was 92nd out of 95 finishers. A further 5 aircraft did not complete the course.
All in all, a truly awesome time. We made some good friends, learnt A LOT and I’m sure we earned the respect of members of the General Aviation community in the process.