Article by Robin Spencer-Scarr, Pictures by Dirk de Vos & Chris Briers
The morning was crisp, clear and freezing cold. The nervous energy on the Klerksdorp Airfield could be felt miles away as the sound of more than 100 aero engines combined with the smell of burning Avgas heralded the arrival of the contestants on their way to do battle in the skies of the North West Province.
As Thursday grew older the Klerksdorp Pilots Association members changed into top gear and began the onerous task of ground marshalling, parking and refuelling over 100 aircraft.
It is always an impressive sight to see so many brightly polished planes ranging from the tiniest little Pipistrel to the huge and ungainly Albatross. Now we know that all things beautiful fly but there can be no doubt that the new little “plastic” planes like the Lancairs, Sambas and the ever popular Jabirus stand out amongst the prettiest.
Whilst the future looks “plastic“ it is still soothing to see the old favourites like Piper, Mooney and Cessna returning to push the envelope again. The most exciting to race and to watch however, still remain the heavy metal twins that go by the name of Baron and Seneca who were hunted down and beaten this year by the sleek and stunningly fast Aerostar.
Thursday also saw a small queue of handicap queries that were left over from those who had not already made arrangements for a test flight by e-mail. It was generally agreed that having the handicaps published as early as possible eliminated almost all the last minute queries. The aim of the PTAR committee will be to publish them even earlier next year.
The test flights were quickly and efficiently affected and the results passed through the hands of the handicap committee and the jury and communicated to the competitor. The last laugh in many cases was how many of those who complained that their handicaps were too high wound up getting higher handicaps for the race. There were absolutely no complaints in these instances because the logger tracks and figures as they were presented could not be disputed and most of the comments heard were jovial and light hearted.
Friday morning saw the pre-dawn temperature at minus 4 degrees. The air was thick and the wind sock looked like an old piece of cloth snagged on a barbed wire fence. The azure blue of the sky was only faintly broken by just a hint of stratus that looked to be easily at 30 000 feet. This was going to be a good day.
Briefing again and very few queries brought the meeting quickly to a close with everyone scrambling to get their steeds fired up, warmed up and ready to roll. The ground marshals did a sterling job to get every competitor out of his parking bay and onto the taxiway toward the starting blocks where Nellis Nel performed a magic trick with the dragster type lighting tree.
All but one got off the ground safely to put their heads down and go balls to the wall around the 320 odd mile course. The one who slipped up was as a result of a comedy of errors starting with the team leaving their aircraft keys in their hire car that had gone off to town. When they had recovered their keys, they found their Baron had a flat battery and couldn’t find jumper leads. When they found jumper leads they found their baggage compartment that housed the battery was jammed closed and they had to almost dismantle the nose of the aeroplane to get to it. At this point they must have been thinking that somebody must have been plotting against them.
Only two participants failed to make the finish in the allotted time. One because a rough running engine made them decide to land at Lichtenburg and the other because they became “temporarily unsure of their position” and also landed at Lichtenburg. Conspiracy? Will we ever know?
The end of Day One brought some interesting results with only four handicap changes being necessary. This is considered a record as history shows that the race has traditionally seen a multitude of changes that became a great source of irritation to the competitors and embarrassment to the organizers. Of the four changes, two were test flown again and two were changed on historical data. The day’s race also only saw two exclusions for missed turn points.
Day Two dawned with the nervous tension expected from a field of highly strung pilots and nervous navigators. The wind had picked up during the night blowing across the runway from left to right at about 10 knots. The creases on the Safety officer’s brow relaxed a little when the met man confirmed that the tail wind component was only about 3 knots and dropping.
Ready Steady GO! …. and a myriad of Lycoming, Continental and Rotax engines roared into harmonious life. Now the interesting bit started as there were starting times down to 6 seconds apart which is quite nerve-wracking for most pilots but absolutely intimidating for the newbie’s. It might be interesting to note that the handicaps and day 1 performance had put 70 aircraft within 7 minutes of each other. Obviously an ATC’s nightmare.
But, as the saying goes, they all made it into the air safely and after a steep turn they were on track again the only difference this time was that they could see the competition around them.
The race progressed well with the only unfortunate incidents being last year’s race winner having to land at Potchefstroom with a rough running engine and a C210 being skilfully parked in the Koppies Dam. Nobody was hurt in any way (other than egos of course). We eagerly await the report to see what actually happened.
The winner was a most surprised young C172 driver who kept saying he couldn’t believe it and that he’d spent the entire race looking over his shoulder for someone to pass him. He was Donovan Bailey who flew with navigator Oliver McLoed Smith in Race 53.
In number two spot was the very clean Aztec that obviously spent the entire race flying down a mineshaft in order to achieve the fantastic performance he did.
Number three was a very pretty Cirrus (Race 91) that was well flown and navigated by the team of Dirk and Marc.
There are a great deal of positives that came out of this weekend. First and foremost it is obvious that the handicaps are getting better and better. Whilst Chester and his team did another sterling job, a great deal of the credit must go to the GPS loggers that eliminate most of the old guesswork and brainstorming that had to be done. The test results could be proven and test/race results were handed to people whilst they were still fresh, sober and in good humour.
On the negative side the refuelling was a problem (again). A number of bowsers had been arranged but to the dismay of the organisers they all leaked.
It is the objective of SAPFA to give every single competitor a chance to do well no matter what he flies and we will continue striving to fine tune the handicaps on an ongoing basis. We are confident that the loggers will go a long to help us in this endeavour.
SAPFA always says that they want to get 100 aeroplanes over the line at the same time. Well as the handicapping gets better and this goal gets closer it gets a little scary when we think how it would be handled it if they got it right! For this to happen pilots and navigators would have to perform at the optimum speed their aircraft can obtain.
Finally, and probably the greatest achievement this weekend was the fact that it was a happy weekend. People spent the weekend laughing, chatting, sharing war stories and generally having a good time. This is what the President’s Trophy Air Race is all about. Even the last placed competitor must be able to go home with a smile on his face and a happy heart knowing that it was nobody’s fault but his own that he did not perform better and that he will try harder next year It is a competition, but it is also a sport that competitors do for enjoyment. That must never be forgotten.