21st World Precision Flying Championships – 2013

The South African Precision Flying Team is taking part in the 21st World Precision Flying Championships in Bautzen, Germany.

The SA Precision Team for 2013 was selected from the contestants of a series of pre-determined rallies that were held over the last 12 months. All of the team members have flown at world competition level in the past, either as navigators, precision or rally pilots.

The participants are not sponsored, and therefore they put their heart, souls and wallets into partaking in this competition. The team consists of Frank Eckard (captain), Barry de Groot, Mary de Klerk, Hans Schwebel, Ron Stirk, Henk Koster, Thys van der Merwe, and Cally Eckard (manager).
Jacques Jacobs and Ardyyn Moolman are international judges, specializing in the landing competition aspect of the sport, and Chelsea de Klerk is a judge observer. Supporter Ursula Schwebel is a great asset, as interpreter and assistant.

This year’s competition takes place in Bautzen, Germany. Bautzen is situated East of Dresden, in what was previously the Democratic Republic of East Germany, close to the Polish and Czech borders. The airfield is an old military airfield, and the runway is 2,5km long.

The first week is spent practising, and this is very important for our team, as we do not have the practise and competition opportunities that the Europeans have. We are also disadvantaged by the fact that the European team can fly their own aeroplanes, whereas we have to hire planes from the organisers. Many of the top teams are also heavily sponsored, but it is difficult for the South African team to muster financial support.

The championship week starts with three days of the precision contests, and then a day of landing competition. The precision contest tests pilot’s navigation, observation and timing skills, while the landing competition requires the pilot to land his plane on a line.

Dear Supporters

Day 1 of our practise week:-

Ten of us arrived in Bautzen yesterday, excited to fly a few practise routes, but the weather is not co-operating. Rain, extreme winds and cloud predicted until Wednesday.

We then hoped to at least get some landings in, but were again disappointed that only one of the 4 aeroplanes that we ordered are at the airfield. Frank and Hans were eager to help the organisers to fetch them, but bad weather prevented them from accomplishing even that. Henk’s aeroplane, is close enough to fetch but is being repaired. This problem (of the aeroplanes not being available from Day 1 occurred at Spain as well, and we are going to have to address this issue next year before we spend money arriving early and sitting around waiting for planes to fly).

Otherwise, all is great. The hotel is very nice, and we had a really delicious breakfast (which is very important as we are going to be eating it for two weeks). When the organisers at the airfield eventually got the cafe set up, they served us really good veggie soup with a bratwurst.

The venue is a very strange airfield. It was built as a military airbase during the Cold War by the East German government, and has a very spooky air about it. There are a lot of derelict buildings, which are constructed in the typical communistic style (grey, tiled, low-ceilinged and totally devoid of any character). The registration and communal room building has a very eerie atmosphere, and is a bit dark and dreary. However, in true South African style we brightened up the room with our flags and personalities and before long it was buzzing with noise.

At the moment, we are in one of the hotel’s conference rooms, and Frank is trying to set up a photo recognition workshop (one of those that Leonard sent to us).
Tomorrow we are hoping for a break in the weather long enough for us to fetch the aeroplanes, and if we are really lucky, even fly a practise route, or practise a few landings.

Goodnight from a grey, chilly, drizzly Bautzen.
Cally (Team Manager 2013)

Day 2 of our practise week:-

Today was much the same as yesterday, but today we were prepared to spend the day grounded, and Captain Frank had all the photos and practise routes ready. The idea was to do the routes on Google first, so that when we fly them we can focus on timing. We also did a few photo-recognition exercises, and we all agreed that these exercises, which Leonard prepared before we left SA, have been of immense help. Ron, who has always complained that he struggles to find photos, is now finding more than some of the other pilots.

We had a General Briefing today by the Competition Director, which basically told us what we already knew – that there would be no flying today, and that the weather would improve tomorrow. However, we smelt a rat when he also told us that the barbeque which was scheduled for Wednesday would now be held on Thursday because of the weather. So we are not too optimistic about being able to fly tomorrow morning.

Hans provided his own printer from his house in Germany, but being unused for so long, he and Frank struggled to get it working, but finally, after many hours, they got it working.

Arriving back at the hotel early, we went for a bit of a walk-about in the search for an eisbein. We were then informed that we were not likely to find one as it is not a local dish. Undeterred, we walked the streets of the medieval part of the town, and were directed to a mustard restaurant. Bautzen is famous for its mustard, and this restaurant was exactly what we wanted, and also had esibein on the menu. 10 eisbein were ordered, and it was absolutely delicious, melted in our mouths, with sauerkraut that was totally different in taste to what we are used to. This was a real impromptu team-building event, and we even perfected our plan for our team song, which has been in planning stages since our trip from Frankfurt. We will present it tomorrow to the rest of the world, and I will report on its success in my report tomorrow.

Not much more to report today, except that the weather which was supposed to clear today did not do a complete job, but good enough for Hans and Frank to fetch their aeroplanes. They only arrived back at the airfield mid-afternoon, so we only managed to get a few landings in.

Frank is very happy with his plane, but Hans and Ron, who are sharing a plane, have been allocated one with a Rotax engine. This is a problem for them and for the team on many fronts. Firstly, they are not rated on this engine, which the organisers here assure us is fine in Germany, and we are covered from an insurance point of view; secondly Ron flies from the right-hand seat because he only has one arm, making it very difficult to control the plane; thirdly the cowling covers a huge area of the front window, making it difficult to spot pictures and turn-points, and making it more difficult to calculate and estimate distances and times. The organisers assure us that there are no other planes available in the area, so Ron and Hans have very bravely accepted the challenge, and will fly this troublesome plane to the best of their ability.

I was really proud of the team today, when Thys and Frank offered to swap planes with Ron and Hans, but Ron and Hans philosophically said that they will play the hand they are dealt. This is what team spirit is all about, and today I saw it in action.

Henk’s plane also arrived today, but no one noticed it, including the organiser, so it sat on the run-way for 3 hours while we waited for it. This was really frustrating for us, and particularly for Henk who works overseas and relies on his practise time in the week before the championships. However, he is happy with his plane and had a chance to do a short flight and a few landings.

The team became complete this afternoon with the arrival of Ardy and Chelsea. They drove all the way from Frankfurt, only stopping once, in their eagerness to join the team.

Ursula, Jacques and I joined a little group on an excursion to Tituma, a watch-making factory in a little village south of Dresden called Glashuer. It was absolutely fascinating to see how intricately and passionately these watches are made, and we all agreed that we now understand why they cost so much.

Hoping to get an early start to our practise now that all the planes have finally arrived, we were disappointed to see that the entire town was covered in dense fog until about 9 am.

Determinedly we fought our way to the front of the queue to put our names down for landing slots, and each pilot also managed to do one of the practise routes.

Hans and Ron fight on valiantly with the aeroplane that is so unfamiliar to them, and are familiarising themselves with its quirks. The others also did very well today, considering this is the first full day of flying that we have had.

After today’s briefing we attended a presentation on ANR, which is a newly-devised type of rally in which four contestants take off simultaneously; each aeroplane then flies through a “corridor” similar to a normal rally but with much shorter legs, and then they all land at the same time. Apparently this sport would have a much greater spectator value than a traditional rally, and looks quite exciting for the pilot to participate in.

Old-time rally pilot and SAPFA committee member Walter Walle and a friend of his came to visit us to offer their support for a few days. While Walter lives in Bloemfontein, he also has a home near Kassel in Germany.

The airfield is getting much busier, and posters and notice-boards, bunting and signage is making the very dour space look a lot more cheery. With the sun shining, the little seating area outside the catering kiosk has become quite a popular place to be, and although the airfield is far too large to be suitable for spectators, it is close enough to the apron to provide some interest.

A webcam has been situated on top of the kiosk, and from there our supporters, family and friends can see some of the action. It is available on the championship website www.wpfc2013.

Tonight we were treated to a barbecue (yes, a braai!) in one of the hangars on the airfield, where the German sausages and beer were devoured in huge quantities in a very short space of time. Hungry work this flying business!

The team is getting used to their aeroplanes, and to the terrain and maps and therefore the results are improving. The weather is very good today, with clear skies, although the wind whips up a bit in the afternoon.

Walter Walle has joined us for a few days. Walter is a long-time rally pilot and SAPFA committee member, putting many hours and effort into this sport. He lives in South Africa but also has a home in Germany, where he is staying at the moment.

We realised today that, apart from the host country of Germany, we have brought the most pilots. We certainly create the most interest, and have the most team spirit. We are pleased to see that many of the pilots wear SA team shirts and caps from previous years.

Tonight we gathered in the town square for a walking tour of the medieval town, with “Monk Eusebius”, who is a marvellous story teller, and captured our attention with his myths and history of the town. The walk ended with a delicious dinner at a medieval restaurant, with jugs of local draught beer, platters of roast stag, pork knuckles and red onions and sauerkraut.

Another sunny, warm day found the South Africans at the airfield by 8 am, putting in some early landing practise, and flying the last of the three official practise routes.

The navigation results are looking really good, but the timing is still a problem with all of the teams.

The landings are going really well, which is probably a testament to the fact that we have put in a lot of practise in this area, both at home and in the last few days. We have high hopes for some of our team members in this area, as both Ron Stirk and Hans Schwebel have claimed first and second places in this section of the competition in previous years.

The first official General Briefing was held this afternoon, after which we all donned our team shirts and posed for photos in front of one of the large banners, and in front of our aeroplanes.

The most exciting thing that happened today was that Barry de Groot’s son, Dean, who is working on a boat in the Mediterranean, jumped on a flight and arrived in Frankfurt, hired a car and drove through the night to surprise his dad this morning at breakfast. It was a very emotional reunion for everyone, and Dean will be staying with the team for the weekend.

A lovely sunny clear day, but rain is predicted for the next week!

Today was scheduled for official landing practise, and this went off without a hitch. The first set, which was a flapless glide, was completed with a constant wind, and Thys and Frank made 2 of the handful of “bingos”. Then the wind picked up, and became a gusting cross-wind, which havoc with the final approaches for the barrier landings. This resulted in some hair-raising landing styles, and Thys took the prize for the most entertaining landing, coming in on the landing strip behind the spectators, and turning onto the competition runway at the last minute, and landing just a few feet behind the bingo line. We were so proud to see that he was placed third overall in the landings. For the team score, we came fourth, behind France, Poland and Czech Republic.

After lunch at the airfield we had a bit of a break in the afternoon, and then gathered for the Official Opening Ceremony. Children dressed in quaint traditional Sorbian dress greeted us as we exited the hotel, and led us country by country into the town square. There we were addressed by the mayor of Bautzen, the President of German Aeroclub Klaus Koplin, and Competition Director Ralph Grunwald.

We had some team photos taken in our green-and-gold, and then went back to the hotel where we were treated to champagne, and then a buffet of local traditional dishes.

We were all in high spirits after our excellent performance, and this been a tremendous confidence booster. Thys was the toast of the night, and we are now even more confident than before that we can win fourth place in at least the landing division of the competition.

The rain prediction has forced the organisers to re-think the arrangements for tomorrow, so instead of the first navigation rally, we are going to do the landings instead, and these will only start in the afternoon, so we are all really excited to sleep in a little later tonight.

We were able to sleep in a little longer this morning, due to the expected rain and the briefing was held and hour later than usual. The landings were delayed until 1:30 this afternoon when the clouds lifted enough to the required minimum altitude for visibility. The temperature dropped as the afternoon wore on, and the judges and manager and assistant were exposed to freezing cold weather as we watched and judged the landings.

The first two landings (normal landing and a barrier landing) put team SA in a very good position, with zero scores from Barry (2) and Frank and Mary 1 each. The rest of the team all scored very well too. However, the next two landings (glide with flaps, and glide without flaps) proved more difficult, and only Hans made good landings in all four categories.

Much criticism has been levelled at the German Landing System, but video footage taken by Cally demonstrated its accuracy. It’s a fact that the eye is slower than the movement of the aeroplane, and therefore most landings appear to be 2 m ahead of the actual point on the ground where the aeroplane touches down. This definitely appeared to be the case, and the spectators soon learn to judge the landing 2m behind where they thought it to be.

When we arrived back at the hotel we download the video footage, and were impressed with the quality of the iPhone video. It is of great assistance to show pilots how they landed, and what their landings look like from the ground.

The final Landing Competition Results put Czech Republic in the lead, with their pilots coming 1st and 2nd, previous Polish pilot Michal Wieczorek in 3rd place, a surprising 4th and 5th place by the Swedish team, and Hans Schwebel of SA 6th. Mary de Klerk came 17th and Thys van der Merwe in 25th place.

The weather which was predicted on the weekend to be raining all week, has fortunately taken pity on the championship, and given us good visibility with high cloud, and the only unpleasant aspect is the cold weather.

An early start to the day found the first group of pilots in the briefing room at 8:15am.

Team South Africa provides not only one of the largest contingents of pilots for the competition, but also a larger number of judges and volunteers than any of the other countries, with the exception of the hosting country. We have Jacques Jacobs, a highly respected and experienced judge, specializing in the landings, Arddyn Moolman who has been judging for several years and has also served as manager, and Chelsea de Klerk who has volunteered for the last few years and is now due to receive her International Judge badge. Supporter Ursula Schwebel has also been roped into volunteering for the week, and has also been a great assistant to the manager.

Most of the pilots were very unhappy with their flying today, and hopefully , if the weather holds and we manage to get two more days’ competition in, it will be scrapped, and days 2 and 3 will be used. Mary was the winner of the day, Frank second and Barry third.

The route was quite frustrating as it went over huge forests in Poland that are very difficult to navigate over. Very strong gusty winds also blew some of the aeroplanes off track, making flying itself very hard work. They also found that a lot of the features look very similar to other features that were off-track, which led the pilots astray, resulting in their missing some of the “secrets” and some turnpoints.

We are regarding today as a serious exercise, and hope to learn from our mistakes today.

The weather is still overcast and cold, but the cloud base is high enough to complete the route set for us today. The pilots were very eager to improve on their scores from yesterday, and most of them achieved this goal. Hans had a very much improved day, and claimed first place, followed by Mary, then Frank.

Barry had a mishap on take-off when the back of his seat broke off. He considered turning back, but decided to continue, and was doing very well until turn-point 5 when the strain on his back caused him to lose concentration. This is a great pity because Barry is one of South Africa’s long-time top rally and precision pilots, and his score is usually one of those used for the combined team score. The seat malfunction was reported to the technicians, and hopefully they will fix it before tomorrow.

The Swedish team continues to do well, and they might be the cause of South Africa losing their usual fourth place slot. In the team and individual divisions, the Polish, Czech and French team fight it out for the first three places. Today Poland will be very pleased to have taken all first four places, and all six of their pilots are in the top 10.

The team members constantly debate the reasons why we do not achieve better results. One of the reasons is lack of sponsorship, which precludes some of the younger pilots from competing overseas because of financial constraints. It also prevents some of the experienced pilots from participating in all the rallies that are organised.

Every pilot in the team comments at the end of the competition that he feels prepared by this time to participate. This means that we require a week or two before the competition to start practising in earnest.

Another reason is that the maps in South Africa have heptometric tint, while those in Europe show areas of green for forests. Heptometric tint is the shading of areas to indicate valley and mountains.

An even earlier start to the day, because rain is predicted for the afternoon, so the organisers hoped to get the routes completed before the bad weather arrived. However, the judges had a flight over the route in the morning, and found that the visibility was not good enough, so the first take-off was delayed for an hour. Group 1 then took off, and completed their routes, although there was heavy rain between the Finish Point and the runway. Group 2 was then told to wait, and after a delay of an hour, the organisers announced that the entire day’s flying would be cancelled.

This was really bad news for the South African team, because Frank had done extremely well getting the best results ever, Hans had done exceptionally well.

The remainder of the day was spent debating whether the “rain day” would be used, scouring the skies for signs of the clouds lifting, and searching websites for news of the weather.

The organisers had planned a barbeque for the evening, and we had asked them if we could include what we call “The South African Party”. It started a number of years ago and has evolved into a “national drinks party” where each country brings its own national drinks and snacks. We and the other teams were anticipating a very quiet evening because we expected to be flying the next day.

At the team managers’ meeting just before the event, however, the organisers regretfully announced that they had made the decision to cancel any flying for the rain day because heavy rain and very low cloud was predicted over the area where the route had been planned, namely South of Bautzen, and over parts of Czech Republic. This is a very mountainous and picturesque area, but now conducive to flying when the weather is bad.

This means that the competition is now over, and the results from the First and Second Navigation Tests will be used. Had the Third Navigation Test been used, the pilots would have been able to discard their worst result. All of our pilots had been feeling very confident about flying the Third day, and are terribly disappointed that they will not have the opportunity to improve their scores.

There was nothing to do but accept their decision, and we spent a very good evening spending time with the other teams and the organisers. Team South Africa has a reputation for being friendly and tonight we did not disappoint in that area.

All of the pilots are a bit quiet today, and throughout the day they were commenting about the weather, and wondering whether in fact it was as bad as had been predicted.

The organisers had planned a bus trip to Dresden for us, and two bus-loads of pilots were taken on a guided tour of the beautiful capital of Saxony. Situated on the river Elba, the river valley is fronted by gracious manor houses, a wide green belt with cycle paths where pedestrians, cyclists and dogs mingle.

The public gardens are vast and beautiful, with two kilometre-long pedestrian paths heading in various directions.

Then we were dropped in the centre of the Old City, which is the area that was so heavily bombed during the Second World War. We were astounded to see how the beautiful buildings had been perfectly and lovingly restored to their former glory. There is a maze of palaces, museums, gardens, houses, public buildings and statues.

Facades that miraculously survived the bombing were left, and the remainder of the building built around it, faithfully keeping to the original design. The most beautiful building is the Church of the Virgin Mary, which only recently was completed. Climbing up to the top and seeing the view from there was something that we will always remember.

We were treated to lunch in a very unusual restaurant building under the foundations of one of the old buildings, and we were fascinated by the decor which depicted scenes of a by-gone era.

Hopping back on the bus, we returned to the hotel in Bautzen for the Closing Ceremony and Prize Giving.

I will report on the positions of the various teams, and ours in particular, in the next report.

As Manager for Team South Africa, it has been my pleasure and privilege to serve this group of strongly committed, talented and experienced pilots. Their sportsmanship, dedication, sacrifices and sense of humour combined to form a team of which I was very proud to be a part.

Although we had anticipated to be placed higher, the pilots did their best in every respect to perform to the best of their ability. In spite of many outside obstacles to their success, for a team with very few resources, to gain 6th place among 13 countries, is a magnificent accomplishment.

Considering the fact that our pilots compete against others who are sponsored, are flying aircraft that they are familiar with, in terrain and from maps that they are used to, and have the opportunities to fly many other regional and national competitions throughout the year, they are greatly respected by the other teams for their knowledge, experience and talent.

I am also proud of the camaraderie, humour and friendliness shown by all the members of our team, including the judges, observers and supporters. We are definitely the liveliest group, and other teams look to the South Africans to provide the vibe that makes the World Champs so enjoyable.

We return home in the next few days, weary and proud, with a determination to achieve even better results next year. We thank all of you who have followed our progress, wept with us, laughed with us, and prayed with us. We can assure you that we made South Africa proud, and that we regard ourselves at all times, to be both sportspeople and ambassadors of our country.