2008 President’s Trophy Air Race

Vliegkoors, The Meercat and PTAR 2008

A Participant’s Story of the Race – by George Brink

As usual vliegkoors ran high leading up to the 2008 Presidents Trophy Air Race to be held at Witbank from 28 to 30 May 2008. Doctors orders were, 1 dose of PTAR and the vliegkoors should subside for another year. Our entry was in, in Jan literally minutes after entries opened, but Murphy would play a huge role in this year’s annual PTAR pilgrimage…

External pressure prevented the usual pre race training and as a result of a couple of small niggles & minor snags (or so I thought) we decided to get the C182RG in for some TLC (and maybe extra kt or 2) well in advance for the race….

The dreaded AMO bomb dropped after a week of inspections and it appeared that said aerie needed a top O/H and some AD/SB’s appeared to have been done, but not entered in log book…. No problem still 4 weeks to go to air race and top would only take 5-8 days to resolve it all. To cure Vliegkoors – DO IT. As contingency I tried to arrange alternative aerie for PTAR. Seems PTAR is a 4 letter word. I got some very interesting reposes from aerie owners and flight school who were not in the least bit interested in letting PPL with 40 years experience, 8 PTAR’s and 1000+hrs on type loose on their babies. Never mind, managed to convince fellow Avcommer to let us use his 206, provided we arrange insurance. Problem came in when it came to light that said pilot had last flown any other aircraft, never mind other type in the early 80’s, so we abandoned the H&F option. Only option MUST GET RG READY IN TIME..

Following numerous calls to keep the pressure on the boys, the whole plane was back together on the 20th May at 3pm. Quick call to arrange lift down to Bfn to collect….. Phew, cutting it fine, but we are a go…. And Vliegkoors was once again running high.

NOT… Somewhere along the line a seal had broken in the prop hub and gone undetected. When AMO fired it up, engine was sweet, but oil everywhere…Now we needed a prop o/h to be done in 5 days…. .. Called every prop shop in country… Eventually found guys at Rand who guaranteed 1 day turnaround. AMO agreed to work as required and on Tuesday morning the prop was back in Bfn. Booked schedule down to Bfn and was off to collect plane – Vliegkoors running high. While sitting on the plane at Ollie Tambo, I got a call from AMO to say that a bracket holding nose wheel on had collapsed on Taxi out for test flight – NO CHANCE OF FLIGHT and even Cessna in USA had no $tock of $aid bracket..…

As I was already on the apron I went to FATP to inspect the plane. AMO was right, no chance we could risk nose wheel collapse, prop strike and shock load especially since we just spent a fortune on o/h, and prop… It seemed we were destined to miss PTAR for the first time in 7 years…..

My long suffering Pilot was not keen to ride shotgun in the Tandem RV4 (Meercat) and the cost of Avgas meant the Albat was out. Quick call to SAPFA boys to confirm they would not let me fly alone in the Meercat, left me calling everyone I knew over 16 who could just sit in back for me. Posted on Avcom, Microlighters and emailed whole address book. Got offers from people I have not seen in 20 years just to ride in back. Amongst the calls was a call from my cousin’s brother in law who was a fresh comm. student. His pilot had dropped him at last minute and he needed a pilot. He had Jab 430 arranged, but that was now at AMO with sticky valve. I had taken the Meercat to Placo to have brakes o/h when AMO called to say RG would be ready, so that was still in pieces. Call to Joe way after bedtime and he assured me I would have brakes and plane by 3pm on Wed (less than 24hrs before race)…. It was a frantic 24hrs wherein I went from Navigator on C182RG, to Pilot on J430 to Pilot on RV4 provided it was ready…. I had to arrange back seat (removed to make space for scooter) & spats (which I remove due to rough field ops) from Vryburg, get back to Jhb by 4pm to collect RV, test fly and report for test flying in Witbank.
During the drive back to Jhb, we confirmed that Team Meercat would be the entrant and that Jerry would meet me in Witbank. Arrived at Rand at 3ish for test flight only to witness a hell of a storm and no test flight was possible. Not having a hangar to work in, I went home to try to pack and get some sleep.

Thursday morning 7am I was at Rand to fit seat, and spats. Problem. Spats had been sent but without any screws, so after wait for spares shop to open, and frantically trying to match the threads we were back in business.

Thursday Briefing
Thursday Briefing

Time 10am. I was to deliver some computer equipment to the handicap comm. early Thursday for use with the loggers, which were now obviously late. So pressing on we were finally airborne off 35 at Rand. I had never flown the RV any great distance at full tilt without GPS as I have a combo KLX135A and it has just always been on. Even if not set, it always gives ground speed and heading… I had not had a chance to get compass swing done or even test fly using only the “steam gauges”, so I decided to route via Heidelberg and Secunda just to get a feel for it. It was a huge eye opener. Viz was not great due to smoke and at 170+kts the 1:250 was too big for the small cockpit… I sort of found Heidelberg and Secunda, but the latter only once I was almost overhead… This was going to be a hit and miss affair, but a bad day in the cockpit is still far better than a good day at work. Given the events of the past couple days I was just happy to be there at all.

Arriving at Witbank was an experience. I had not been to Witbank in 15 years (my one and only visit) since my dual X-Country Dual Nav. On radio there were pilots complaining that the GPS said they were overhead, but that they did not have field visual. I had similar experience and was cleared down to 5500ft by ATC but still did not have the field visual at 2nm… Finally I saw the tents and other aeries and joined left downwind.

Arrival was organised and we had marshals on quads directing us to parking spaces. Scrutineering & refuel was done almost immediately and once I had unloaded all the equipment we were off for the test flight. GPS had already been “blocked” so it was difficult to gauge speed as at alt the ASI under reads significantly. I had once before flown in short Brits Air race and handicap at that event was 174kts, so was expecting similar… Logger back and I test flew the 3remaining RV’s in the race.

Brief note on test flights.
They are done in race configuration, thus balls to the wall, no flaps, gills or other dangly bits in the wind. A new trend is reflex flaps and these are set full “up” if applicable. Altitude and heading must be maintained and the tests this year were flown at between 5500 and 6000ft. Below an e.g. of a typical test flight logger result.

The logger result is then fed into a computer and a logger handicap speed is calculated based on actual performance on the day.

Thursday was a blur of flying and running between office and aeries and when I finally made it to the beer tent, I was made to pay for my absence earlier in the day. Luckily before all hell broke loose we were summoned to the Briefing tent.

Friday would see us go to Nylstroom, Selati River Bridge, Lydenburg and back to Witbank. A distance of 334.12 nm. The WX man reported that viz would be significantly better and winds were light NW if any at all. Following the usual safety, start and general info briefings we departed for the “tent” to discuss tactics….. Following said tactical discussions we headed for the hotel to draw the lines. We commandeered the conference hall and began cutting and pasting in earnest along with our 3 fellow teams and 3 others. Selati posed some problems with 3 different bridges being offered as the correct one. Following serious negotiations and head scratching we managed to agree on 1 and hoped for the best. The following day’s flying would be interesting to say the least, with a long lowish leg to Nylstroom followed by some mountainous terrain on the return via Selati and Lydenburg…. There were not as many landmarks as I would have liked and Selati would be a tough TP. In the past we had flown to towns or runways and thus these were usually easier to find than some arb bridge in the middle of nowhere, as Hoedspruit approach was to find out the next day…

We got the 7am wakeup call from our intrepid leader who had been up since 5, “confirming calc’s, headings and distances”…. He was a wreck due to slight navigational mishap in 2007 resulting in a long period of temporarily not being 100% sure of their exact location and was out to make amends… Off to the field for a bacon and egg roll, the days briefing and racing. Roll call took on a humorous angle with crews trying to out compliment the race director in hope of an extra couple kts…

Once the final start times and handicaps were issued, the usual handicap bitching and moaning was the order of the day, but given our 172.22kts for the first time in 7 years I was not one of those… Suddenly our race changed from a “we just here to have a good time brigade to we have a real chance!!!”. At the handicap speed allocated we had a real chance for a top 10 finish and given my best performance to date was 29th in my first race when we did not know what we were doing and were all over the place this was going to be a new experience for me…

I rushed off to the plane to polish, clean and strategise while the Navi went off in search of the magic black (or white actually) box – the GPS logger which tells all. While I was feverishly applying the last drop of an oversize Mr Min tin to the leading edge, my Navi nervously pointed out that he had not yet sat in the plane and looking at it he did not think his 6ft 2 frame would fit…. In all the excitement on Thursday I had forgotten to see if he could fit and then if he did fit if he could even see anything, never mind navigate out the back.. So in he went and lo and behold the canopy would not close with him in and headset on. No problem we still had 55mins to take off… and after some minor mods we lowered the seat sufficiently for him to fit and we were a go. The 1:500K map was the perfect fit as well. Things were all falling into place…

Day 1 logger track - Race 103
Day 1 logger track – Race 103

Around us the engines were roaring as the twins departed. We were placed between an RV7 and a Bonnie, and duly joined the line for take off. Just in front of the RV7 was the Albat and given the sheer size of the machine we would have a nice sighter up ahead until they pulled away, but I did not fancy the slipstream of the 680 horses, so the start was a bit of a shambles for us as we positioned on the run up area well back and clear of the prop wash while the Albat ran up against the brakes on the start line. Once they released, we rushed up to the line behind the other RV and before I could even run up against the brakes the lights went green… Before we had a chance to get settled, the race was on. The RV ahead elected to go high, while we stayed lower and was soon out of sight. The Albat was ahead and we got ourselves orientated. I had forgotten to align the DI to runway on the line due to rush and it was off somewhat. Never mind, what Rally and precision had taught me was to follow the map. DI causes confusion in any case. (Or so they say)

We were about to find out that navigation in a small tandem is all about communication. The cockpit is not big enough to allow pilot to turn or navigator to lean past to point out features on the map. Given my first language is English and my navigators is Afrikaans the Englikaans interspersed with fluent Swahili was entertaining and eventually proved to be successful. Between “gaan just links of that titti to right of daai toring not daai F… toring” we pressed on. Due to the relatively low altitude the performance of the Meercat was superb and I was seeing numbers on the MAP gauge I had never seen before. Our time was good and by the time we got to Nylstroom we were almost on time and had overtaken the Albat. Turning at Nylstroom we sighted 2 other aircraft, ahead and set our sights on them…

We elected to stay low as it seemed to work for us on the last leg and a fire at Nylstroom seemed to indicate that even a couple 1000ft up the wind was too light to justify a climb. This in hindsight proved to be possibly our only mistake of the race. We were consistently left of track on this leg, but it was the first time in the race I had actually “caught” anyone from behind and looking at the Seneca in front of us, it looked like we may catch another… I got sidetracked and focussed on the Seneca rather than the headings and we drifted as much as 2 or 3 miles left of track. Once I had got over the excitement of catching the Seneca and aided by 1 times snot klap to the side of the head from my Navi I put the Seneca out of my mind and focussed on the headings and the hill approaching fast. As we climbed, another shortcoming of the tandem (low wing) setup raised its head. The higher we went the less my Navi could see out the back, so navigation at alt was proving to be a problem. Overhead Mogodi we realised that we were ±3 miles left of track, so given that his viz downwards, and immediately ahead was minimal and I had no map we elected to hug the contours of the countryside where possible and rather fly lower (and in theory more accurately) than higher.. During all this fun and Games the Albat had managed to sneak by us at high alt and we were once again trying to play catch up. Given our contour hugging strategy we stated our decent from 7000ft into Selati at great speed down the valley and I had to come off the power to remain below indicated VNE for most of the decent. It was during this “mineshaft decent” past the tittie on the left that my Navi earned the Mine Shaft Trophy… Needless to say the roll bar became the hold on bar and little navigation was done until we turned overhead Selati….

2008 PTAR Race 103: George Brink preparing the Meercat
2008 PTAR Race 103: George Brink preparing the Meercat

The radio was starting to fill with chatter and Hoedspruit was trying to raise a competitor who had wandered 40nm east and was into Hoedspruit’s CTR. Once they were raised Hoedspruit made the fatal mistake of vectoring them to Selati and within minutes the radio waves filled with similar requests for vectors to Selati. One schedule commented that his TCAS must be U/S as he had multiple low level bogeys, far too many, to all be aircraft…

Returning to the race, after turning over Selati at below 3000ft we were forced to climb back to 6500ft clear the mountains and suddenly all this looked familiar. We had flown from Tzaneen to Lydenburg in PTAR 2004 and surprisingly I was able to identify many of the landmarks and soon enough Lydenburg appeared on the nose. We had once again made up significant ground on the Albat and turned just below them at Lydenburg. Heading for home appeared to be into some wind and given our limited Navi viz we elected to stay low again. The albat was now pulling away from us and navigation features were limited. We had a brief encounter with a Bell 206 near Middleburg who was a bit taken aback by all these fixed wings at Heli altitude, but soon enough Witbank appeared on the nose. Through the gate and land behind the Albat. Given out stopwatch time we guestimated we had made up about a minute on our time (but it appears that we were also late in starting the stopwatch at the start) as we had in fact made up 2mins 35 seconds.

Following the flight it was off to the pub for the customary comparisons of war stories and the decent into Selati seemed to be high on all’s agenda… Review of the logger file shows we did 198kts ground speed going into Selati at reduced power….. Every now and again a big engine would roar over and all would run out to see who it was…

The afternoon was spent plotting the next day’s bowtie route. Witbank to Rooikraal, to St Michaels, overhead Witbank, to Bela Bela, right to Power lines and back to Witbank a distance of 310.57nm. Again a couple of innocuous turn points at Rooikraal and power lines which would be interesting if you arrived and the aluminium highway was not ahead to show you the way…

The evenings briefing focussed on safety, weather and the different Start lights… After the briefing provisional result were published and we had managed to squeak into 4th position 15 seconds behind the Hoes n Peop (C337) and a further minute behind a C182. The C210 was over 5 mins ahead and failing a major mishap the race was his to loose. Very excited we retreated to the Hotel for dinner to strategise. The strategy session did not last long as there was little or nothing we could do any differently. High alt was a no no given the navigation and thus we were left with go low and fast and hope for the best….

Sat was similar procedure to Friday and following the 8:30 briefing we discussed the route and our chances of making up a position to finish on the podium. The 210 was a country mile ahead and realistic chances of making up more than 5 mins were not likely, but the other 2 ahead were definitely in our sights. We made a note of their race numbers to monitor their progress in front of us.

Race 103 - ZU-RVF
Race 103 – ZU-RVF

We had a nice gap before launch on the start behind the all girl team and used the extra time to set the DI to runway heading and run up against the brakes. Green light and we were a go. Start on day 2 was a much more organised exercise from our perspective and we blasted off down the runway with Bonnie and RV7A in sight. We climbed slightly to try to use forecast wind, but navigation again become tough and we set up for a slow 200ft a min decent to improve Navi Viz. Overhead the Rooikraal we passed the RV7A and again we were forced to climb for the higher ground to St Michaels. Again review of the logger track reveals a bit of a snail trail as soon as we climbed. This leg was tough. There were limited landmarks and no other aeries to follow. Navi kept his head and we managed to hit his hotspots 100%. Nearing St Michaels we saw the other RV7 come from wide right and turn overhead right on the nose. Turning for Witbank we went low into the wind and passed a significant number of planes. We now started focussing on the Hoes & Poep’s race number. They had turned about 2 mins ahead at Rooikraal and roughly the same at St Michaels. When they called 2mins out of Witbank it was down to 45 seconds. Overhead Witbank the sky filled with aeries and it must have been a sight to behold from the ground.. Setting course for Bela Bela we were well and truly on the aluminium highway. There were 15+ aeries above, below and ahead of us and we were catching them all.. It was hugely exciting. Nearing Bela Bela we sighted the Hoes N Poep and it was a foot race to the TP. We were left of track and they were right and we were on course to meet overhead. We turned almost together and headed out for power lines. After the sky being filled with aeries for so long it was eerie to turn at Bela Bela and not have a single aircraft in sight. The wind favoured a climb so even though we had viz issues, the 20kt wind was too much to ignore. Again we went for a fast climb to 7000ft and then a gradual decent to improve the viz. Logger again shows the snail trail with altitude. Nearing the TP we started picking up aeries again and just before the TP we passed the Turbo Arrow, which was a couple places behind us on Day 1. The Albat was also closing fast and now less than 1 min behind.

Team Meercat
Team Meercat

Similarly rounding out after the turn at Power lines the sky was empty and the land was flat. We drifted 2-3miles left of track and did not see many aircraft. We made a large correction West of Groblersdal and we were back on track. Rounding a small koppie suddenly we were back on the highway. Switching to Witbank freq, we heard the 210 call 2mins out. We were at least 4 mins out and the race was on for 2nd. Navi chucked the maps in the back and started scanning the sky for aeries ahead. There were none and we had not seen any of the 182’s yet…. We called 2 mins out with 4 other aeries, but we could not see any of them. Witbank came into sight and we heard 210 call overhead, followed by another and another. (the other 2 turned out to be guy’s overhead the bowtie). Well 4th was a good result. When we passed overhead the field, we were cleared to land no 2 to the 210 on finals? Awesome feeling to be overhead the finish with not a single aerie on the ground.

Excitement was too much and on landing I almost totalled the aerie, but managed to wheeler the 4th bounce and almost stay on the runway. We parked next to the C210 and congratulated Eugene & Steyn as well as the other top 5 finishers. The 210 crew had dominated the race from start to finish and were deserving winners. We had managed to make up a further 2 places, sneak onto the podium and gained a further 1min 17seconds on our handicap on the day.

The afternoon as spent in the beer tent, reliving the events of the last couple hrs….

The evening gala event was slightly disappointing, while very glamorous, the venue did not lend itself to the function at hand. Colin Jordaan made a thought provoking speech and the CAA seems to be in good hands. Robin was again on song and the trophies were handed out in double quick time. Dix Voster entertained the gathering as only he can.

All in all I think a most successful event and we had so much fun both in and out of the air that it should really be illegal. Every year I am reminded of fellow RV driver Jan Hanekom’s apt description of PTAR. “It the most fun you can have with your headset on!” and I agree 100%. I hope to see all the SAPFA boys and gals in Bfn next year…. Vliegkoors will once again be running high and 1 dose of PTAR is exactly what the doctor ordered…(and I can’t wait…).