Gliding down to Durbs

Guy Leitch

It used to be traditional for many Joburg families to pack up their buckets and spades, load up the kids in the family Chevrolet and drive to Durbs for the Christmas holidays. Jeremy Taylor even wrote a famous song about it; “Ag pleez daddy…

However, this is a flying magazine, so for the Christmas holidays I want to share a wonderful story I dug up about doing what many thought was impossible, at least in the early 1980s, and that is – to fly a glider from Johannesburg to Durban.

The story comes from the SA Aeronews magazine of March 1988 by Granville Dunbar and Geoff Tabner. The story starts with the typical angst of glider flying:

Granville writes: “The adrenalin is beginning to flow as I desperately peer ahead through the gloom for a first sign of the coastline. According to my final glide computer, its only 30 km away, and the fact that I have 1000m more height than I need to get there is little consolation. I inform Geoff of the fact that I’m passing west of a dam (which I hope is Hazelmere).

‘What dam?’ comes the reply from Geoff, who is 5-6 km behind and 300m lower. At this stage I’m not sure whether to be more scared for Geoff or myself.

Geoff continues, “I was trying desperately to slow my racing pulse. If I looked down to the ground it seemed far too close, dark wet hills of sugar cane and deep river valleys. Was my course accurate? Every time I checked features that I could see with Granville, we did not agree. Where was I and where was Granville?

At the last climb north east of Greytown it became serious. This was the final commitment to a glide into the unknown, over desperate country. I had visions of a pile of fibreglass and sugar cane and wondered what Steve Matchett, my partner [in the glider], would have to say.

Granville and I couldn’t help one another now. The teamwork that had brought us this far was over. It was every man for himself: best glide, patience and accurate navigation were the key.

The problem with final glides is that they take so long. You want to know how it’s going to end but you must sit there patiently, eyes glued on the McCready ring, airspeed and compass.

“Try not look at the terrain and calm down,” I kept saying to myself.

How did we get into this situation?

It all started many years ago when a great pioneer of gliding, Helli Lasch, had a vision that the ultimate achievement in gliding would be to fly from Joburg to Durban. Helli was responsible for a great deal of the development in early glass fibre gliders and was in fact the founding chairman of our club.

He made many attempts to complete the trip from Joburg to Durban, but thwarted by weather, terrain and difficulties in navigation, never quite made it.

Over the ensuing years, many others took up the challenge and soon recognised the difficulties involved. For those who are not familiar with gliding, here are some of the reasons that make this trip difficult in a glider:

A) The weather changes dramatically between Joburg and Durban. Normally good, unstable but dry conditions prevail over the highveld. High humidity, low cloud and even mist are typical of the escarpment, and beyond that stable marine air which penetrates well inland in the later afternoon, when a glider would be arriving looking for altitude to make a final glide.

B) The terrain over which such a journey would take place is daunting, particularly in its latter part where an outlanding is most likely to occur. The prospects of a safe arrival in the Tugela Valley or the Valley of a Thousand hills are slim.

C) Gliders and controlled airspace don’t normally mix. The thought of interfering with commercial air traffic or trying to follow a prescribed route at prescribed heights is discouraging. To stay airborne, you have to follow suitable weather and clouds, which are unpredictable. In the actual flight the helpfulness of the controllers, both at Durban and Virginia was greatly appreciated.

D) It’s a long way and an expensive exercise to retrieve a glider if you don’t make it. It was really our Chairman, Dick Bradley, who was to blame for our present predicament. Three weeks earlier we had an unveiling ceremony of a portrait of Helli in our clubhouse at Donaldson. To cap the evening, Dick announced in tribute to Helli’s pioneering spirit, that a RI,000 prize would be given to the first glider pilot to fly from Donaldson to Virginia.

The prize now paled into insignificance as we pressed on straining our eyes for sight of the coast. Will it end okay?

THE PLAN:

We had often talked about how we would tackle the task and had concluded that the best track would be via Bethlehem, along the Drakensberg to Giants Castle, then east across the high country to Greytown and then on to Durban.

We received some unusual encouragement for our proposed course when John McGloughlin related a dream that he had the night before the unveiling ceremony. “I dreamt I was talking to Helli,” said John” about the flight to Durban. “The mistake they all make,” he said, “is to fly straight over Van Reenen’s Pass. It’s like a waterfall. What you should do is fly along the Berg.”

Normally the good weather happens between Monday and Friday, so when the preceding week was so miserable, we knew that there had been a reversal in the weather pattern, and a gloomy wet Friday afternoon saw us putting the finishing touches to our plans, oblivious to outside conditions.

Things looked more promising with the weather forecast for the weekend on Friday night. Sure enough, Saturday dawned clear and warm. We met at the airfield at 09:30 and started rigging and ballasting our gliders, still not convinced that we were going, and fairly certain that all we were going to achieve was a very long retrieve.

Our two resident club members Hector and Tracey offered to take on the onerous task of retrieving us, just before Geoff launched in his Kestrel at about 11:40. He was singing, ‘Oh I do like to be beside the seaside,’ and this fairly let the cat out of the bag. Up till then we had kept the fact that we were going reasonably secret. We didn’t want the whole club tailing us. I launched about 10 minutes later in my Ventus and after releasing at 7,000′ ASL, I climbed slowly up to Geoff at 9,500′ ASL.

We set off slowly on our decided track and found conditions not quite as good as they looked. On numerous occasions we found ourselves forced into taking weak thermals at 7000′ ASL or lower. Also visibility was not good, and this coupled with low altitude, made navigation difficult. [This was before GPS].

At one stage we were trying to decide whether we were over Petrus Steyn, or lost, and had just concluded that it was indeed Petrus Steyn, when Geoff came over the radio and said he was positive that this was where we were because it was written on the hillside in what must be 40 ft high white letters.

About 5 km up the Reitz Road from Bethlehem, it all very nearly came to an end in a cloud of dust. The skies looked good, but the whole sky was going down. When we eventually found a 4 m/s climb we decided that this would do under the circumstances.

Just past Bethlehem we realised that the Berg was most definitely not the way to go. We diverted across Harrismith in an attempt to follow the rapidly disappearing sunlight between this and more storms to the east.

As we passed over Platberg, the sink again claimed our hard-earned altitude. Eventually we found reasonable lift over Van Reenen’s Pass. At this stage there was only one possible route open to us, which led about 30 degrees east of track. We followed the west edge of a storm, keeping relatively high for about 100 km, with the blow off from the west rapidly closing off prospects for getting back onto track ahead.

Eventually we were faced with the choice of deviating further east to a reasonable looking patch of cloud or heading about 40 kms under the cirrus back onto track where there was only a low, miserable and apparently dissipating cumulus. We had passed over a lot of evil looking ground by this stage and were getting uncomfortably close to it, so it was a great relief to find 1.5-2 m/s lift when we eventually arrived at the ‘last cloud’.

This last thermal was kinder to me than it was to Geoff. I eventually climbed to 11,000 ASL. The thermal died when Geoff got to 10,000. We were about 15 km east of Greytown at this stage and estimated 90 km from Virginia. After some debate we agreed on 180 magnetic as the heading and settled comfortably for a long, nerve racking and very smooth final glide.

Fortunately the air was generally buoyant and my glide computer was showing me between 50 & 80 to 1 glide.

After passing Hazelmere Dam and, with still no apparent sign of the coastline, I started recognising built-up areas ahead. The hotels at Umhlanga Rocks make a very good landmark and a few minutes later I was looking down onto Virginia with plenty of height to spare.

Geoff meanwhile was not faring so well. He was only a few km behind but 1000′ lower. He could not see any of the landmarks I tried to point out and I was not particularly enthusiastic about the close look he was getting of the ground. Fortunately he didn’t have to worry for too long. The same sights quickly came into focus and 5 minutes, later, there he was.

We landed amid quite a bit of excitement at Virginia – the trip had taken just on 5 hours. As excited as we were, I don’t think either of us was sorry it was over. It was hard work and very nerve racking.

The Natal Flying Club members gave us a very enthusiastic welcome and made certain that we wouldn’t be doing any flying for at least the next couple of days.

I’ll spare you the story of the drive back.

4 Comments

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