by Rob Jonkers
The World Rally Flying Championship happens every two years and is hosted by one of the participating nations. This year Portugal hosted the 20th FAI World Rally Flying Championships in the coastal town of Santa Cruz some 50 km north of Lisbon.
This year, 52 crews from 18 nations participated, where South Africa was the only Southern Hemisphere team to take part. Team SA was represented by 4 crews in the Advanced Class: Frank & Cally Eckard, Hans Schwebel & Ron Stirk, Thys vd Merwe & Mary de Klerk, Rob Jonkers and Martin Meyer. Arddyn Moolman & Jacques Jacobs were included as International Judges.
Our team’s arrival was Monday the 29th August. A full week before the championship, team SA are normally the first to arrive, as we need the most exposure to the European conditions and terrain as well as aircraft familiarization, as we need to hire local aircraft. By Tuesday late morning we had our aircraft allotted, a Spanish C172 EC-KGG and a Portuguese C150 CS-EBD, and could get airborne in the afternoon for a short recce navigation flight.
The organisers provided four official practice routes, and these were put to full use in the following days, where we were able to carry out the plot inside the aircraft as one would do in the competition week, giving us a good practice run-up.
The Portuguese landscape is essentially divided into two areas, coastal and inland, separated by a mountain range; although this mountain range is small in comparison, only around 2000 ft, it has a big influence on weather conditions and wind between them, with high wind conditions at the coast and less wind inland.
There are plenty of wind power turbines on this whole mountain range, and one has to be careful flying downwind behind the mountains where serious turbulence occurs.
Temperatures also varied from the cooler coastal conditions in the lower 20’s to the near 40’s inland, all of this within 100 km.
Before the fog rolled in on Friday afternoon, two of our teams had only flown two routes, and many of the other international teams who had only arrived on Friday were not able to get in any practice.
Saturday also proved to be a no-flying day, and Sunday as always a no-flying day as the Opening Ceremony had
to take place.
As a compromise the organisers allowed Sunday flying, but the fog remained persistent and only lifted in the late morning, which once clear, aircraft set-off en mass to get in at least one practice route before the airfield closed in again.
Some aircraft could not return as the fog lay over the field in a thick blanket and they had to divert to an airfield 150 km away to wait out the weather. All this Atlantic generated fog was apparently due to a brewing mid Atlantic hurricane known as Gaston which had started to travel northwards – where normally such hurricanes move off westwards towards the Caribbean. Such is life in planning an aviation event where weather gets in the way.
It became a rush to get ready for the opening ceremony and the crowds descending on the airfield. In the late afternoon the weather improved for some flying displays to take place – fly-pasts of F16’s and a YAK aerobatic display team.
For the competition week, flights are organized into two groups, flights start around 10 am at 3 minute intervals with the last flight taking off around 3pm, and when returning, two spot landings to be done.
Rob & Thys was divided into group one, and Frank and Hans were in group two. There was a strict procedure of parking aircraft next to the grass runway in take-off sequence where crews were isolated prior to receiving papers, normally between 30-40 minutes before flight.
Crews were also quarantined without access to technology after flying to prevent information from being passed between competitors.
With the opening ceremony behind us, Monday the 5th September was the start of the competition, and the weather was predicted to be good for the rest of the week. And so it was at sunrise on Monday, guess what? – fog…., and at the 8 am briefing the competition director delayed the start by an hour to 11 am.
Eventually, everybody was off on route Delta, a route mostly going out north remaining west of the mountains with good visibility and wind at least less than 15 kts. There was one fairly tight arc leg to be flown, which had some of the crews drifting off, incurring track errors. At least the end point was a large bridge crossing a river that everybody could home in on.
In the competition with 4 navigation flights, the first day is normally discarded as a practice flight as everybody is still getting used to the environment, and given the results of team SA for this first flight, we sure wanted to have this first flight in the bin.
The next day Tuesday was a real good weather day and the teams all got off onto route Alpha, this route again mostly north and west of the mountains, with a horrible arc to be flown over very hilly terrain where towns defined on the map had less definition in real life where one could not discern where the boundaries were easily.
Needless to say this was a tough route. Many of the photo recognition pictures were of orange roofed buildings, and guess what, the whole of Portugal consists of orange roofed buildings…, thus locating and recognizing these ground features not simple.
On Wednesday we woke up to thick fog, and by the look of it was not going to dissipate, thus at the briefing it was decided based on the forecast that only a small 4 hour flying window would be available, thus the competition director made the call that only the Unlimited Class would fly, which left our whole team flying Advanced no opportunity to fly, and bringing into play the Monday Practice flight into the scoring. We took advantage of the foggy day to go out on a sightseeing outing to the Peniche peninsula north of Santa Cruz and visit the castle in the town of Obidos.
Thursday was a clear day at least but the wind was pumping around 20kts, thus the competition director declared a wind compensation factor to the route (applied for wind over 15kts), and we all set off on route Charlie which went out mostly east and across the mountains to the big river flowing to Lisbon.
Taking up compass headings was impossible with this strong wind, so one had to strictly follow map features to keep track, and turbulence in the lee of the mountains was very violent, making concentrating on flying & navigating challenging. In any event this route proved to give our team the best result of all, so I guess we were just getting in the groove of the area.
With the competition flights done, team SA organized the traditional international drinks evening at the field, making “melk tertjies” shooters with the Germans, Italians, Russians, Norwegians bringing their traditional hooch. Needless to say, good fun was had by all.
Friday was packing up day and the closing ceremony and prize giving held at the Portuguese Air Force Museum in the town of Sintra somewhat south of Santa Cruz. Team SA was awarded 2nd place in Advanced class for navigation (Germany was 1st and Russia 3rd), and also awarded joint 2nd place for the landing event together with Poland. (Poland also came first).
Our team stars were Frank & Cally Eckard who were placed 8th in the navigation competition, and Hans Schwebel & Ron Stirk doing us proud in the landings by achieving 2nd place.
Even with the overall challenging conditions and lack of practice, team SA still managed an excellent result, the best in years. The next event will be held in 2 years’ time in Slovakia.
For those who have adventure in their blood, where you can sit in an airplane ready to go anywhere without a clue where the route will take you, and figure it all out in the air and find your way around with only a map and eye-ball Mk1, then take up the challenge and join the sport of rally flying.