Jim Davis – What have a missionary with a bucket and a fisherman with a Bonanza, got to do with the future of military drone technology?

Jim Davis.

THIS IS A FASCINATING STORY. It started with me spotting the name Ray Hart in my logbook and thinking; ‘this is a feel-good flying story with a strong safety message.’ Then I remembered an almost unbelievable flying exercise that Ray used with his fleet of trawlers.

In fact, it was so incredible that I googled it to see if it was true. It was indeed. It was developed by a missionary who used it in his Piper Cruiser in Ecuador in the 1950s.

And this extraordinary flying exercise has now been copied by military and civil drone manufacturers. I will explain shortly.

So after that rather lengthy intro, here we go.

Ray Hart was one of my most favourite people ever. He was indeed a gentle man – kind, thoughtful, and quietly spoken. He always had a good word for everyone.

He was also incredibly good with his hands – Ray could make anything and fix anything. His flying was smooth and accurate and he always knew what was going on around him. I’d be happy for my family to fly with Ray any day.

We both held the rank of Captain in 109 Commando squadron of the SAAF. I flew with him often in both civie and military capacities. In fact, I had recently done his IF renewal test in his old V-tail Bonanza, so when it was time to do his annual wings test I knew it would be a formality.

I couldn’t have been more wrong – Ray’s flying was terrible. He was like a 100 hour pilot who hasn’t flown for ten years.

It was a beautiful, calm, early morning in George when we walked round the preflight on his Bonnie, ZS-DOB.

We were both in uniform. I am one of those untidy, gangly okes who never really looks smart, and Ray, although physically more compact, always appeared vaguely unclean. He owned a fleet of deep-sea fishing boats and he never quite managed to rid himself of the smell of yellowtail. And there were always traces of diesel gunge under his finger nails.

Even before we got into the air I could see small things going wrong. He shifted uneasily in his seat and fiddled with stuff while we were taxying.

‘I could see small things going wrong’

He didn’t stick to the centreline, his radio procedures were a bit ‘say again’, and he didn’t check that my door was closed properly. Little things, but not the polished performance I had learned to expect from him.

Actually they were exactly the sort of things that warn a testing officer that his performance is not going to suddenly perk up in flight.

And that proved to be true with Ray – if anything things got worse after the wheels left the runway. I couldn’t believe this was the same guy whose flying was usually so immaculate. The final disappointment was his forced landing which he misjudged badly. I had given him the first half of runway 29, so he had a full kilometre of smooth tar.

Now a Bonanza with the gear out and full flap doesn’t so much glide as plummet, but Ray still landed so fast and deep that we would have sailed through the far fence.

Once we were on the ground I did something very naughty – I cut the test short and put it down in the autho book as a practice flight test. A guy like Ray simply doesn’t fail flight tests. I was completely flummoxed.

‘you shouldn’t fly on an empty stomach’

I’m not very good at the fatherly thing – in fact Ray was quite a bit older than myself, but I felt I had to ask if something personal was playing on his mind. He assured me there was nothing like that. I was greatly puzzled by his terrible performance – I knew it wasn’t a hangover as Ray didn’t drink. He had been an alcoholic many years ago and had the strength of character to cut it out completely.

And then it struck me.

“Ray, have you had breakfast this morning?”

“No, I was in a bit of a hurry…”

“Come back tomorrow, after breakfast, and show me how you normally fly.”

So that’s what happened. He passed his Wings test with the very rare rating of ‘exceptional’.

We all know that you shouldn’t fly on an empty stomach, but I have never seen such a graphic demonstration of this.

Now I want to tell you something really remarkable about Ray’s flying, and I doubt that any of my readers have done this in an aeroplane, or even heard of it. In fact most will believe that it simply can’t be done. I’ll give you a clue – it was first done in Ecuador in 1956 by a missionary rather appropriately called Nate Saint.

ZS-DOB is the 1958 G35 Bonanaza used in the bucket drops – and which was later owned by the Gleitch.

Give up? It’s an amazing tale about an operation known as the Bucket Drop. Let me first tell you about how Ray used it, then go back to its origins, and then it’s future in military and drone technology. The whole thing is fascinating.

Ray’s fishing boats would go out to sea for a couple of weeks at a time. As the fish were caught they were chucked into the bottom of refrigerated holds, and when the boats were full, and lying deep in the water, they would wallow back into Mossel Bay harbour surrounded by a screeching squabble of seagulls.

Just out of interest, the fish at the top of the hold – which were only a day or two old – would be sent to Johannesburg and Pretoria, and the old fish at the bottom would be for the cheaper markets along the coast. This explains why, if you want top class fish you have to go to up-country restaurants – not coastal ones.

Anyhow, every now and then one of Ray’s trawlers would break down, or the all-important refrigeration unit would pack up, and they would radio a message to Ray saying they needed a spare part – perhaps a fuel injection pump for the diesel engine, or something for the refrigeration plant.

Ray would get the part and then be faced with the interesting problem of how to deliver it to a ship on the high seas, and this is where the Bucket Drop comes in. He would take the baggage door off his Bonanza and have an assistant with a bucket tied to a length of tough fishing-line.

The Waodani and the Saints.

They would put the spare part in the bucket, Ray would slow the aircraft down to a little above stall speed, with plenty of flap, and then his winchman would lower the bucket overboard.

Initially it would trail out behind the aircraft. When Ray judged they had paid out enough line – I am guessing somewhere between 20 and 50 metres – he would start to circle with about 30 degrees of bank. If the airspeed was too fast, or the bank too steep – centrifugal reaction would fling the bucket to the outside of the turn – exactly what he didn’t want.

Anyhow, and this is the unbelievable part, when he got everything right, Ray was able to get the bucket pretty much stationary while the aircraft circled around it.

The next trick was to gradually move the bucket until it was directly over the deck of the fishing

boat and then follow the directions of a man on the boat whose job it was to indicate the height of the bucket above the boat. In this way Ray was able to lower the bucket onto the deck – just as efficiently as a helicopter.

Now Ray was not the sort of guy to invent a story like this – but hell it was hard to believe. And it was only quite recently that I started digging, and was able to confirm his story.

Let me take you back more than 65 years, to a place called Palm Beach on the other side of the world – no not the famous one in Florida, and not even the less famous one in KwaZulu- Natal. This Palm Beach is just a strip of sand on the edge of a river deep in the jungle of NE Ecuador.

‘five bodies floating in the river’

We zoom in just in time to see a yellow Piper Cruiser landing on this little beach. The aircraft belongs to MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) and is flown by Nate Saint, a man in his early 30s with a wife and three kids.

He didn’t just go and land there – there was quite a build up to this landing. It started a few months earlier when he decided to befriend the local tribe, known to the world as the Aucas, Savage Killers, who were a notoriously vicious stone-age bunch – renowned for their barbaric slaying of neighbouring tribesmen, and anyone else who entered their territory.

Nate’s plan was to deliver presents to the villagers in order to make friends with them, and eventually start his Christian missionary work.

He thought parachuting stuff in would be clumsy and inaccurate, so he developed the bucket-drop method of delivering his gifts. Assisted by four other missionaries he used the bucket drop once a week to send down all manner of things: T-shirts, cooking pots, knives, machetes, spades and bright shiny trinkets like buttons.

They judged they had become sufficiently friendly with the tribe when, one day they were surprised to find a present for them tied to the end of the line. When they reeled in the woven basket they found it contained, amongst other things, a live parrot. This bird lived with Nate’s family for many years and was particularly loved by Nate’s younger son Steve.

Steve Saint with his ITEC ‘flying car’.

At this stage they judged it was safe to meet the people face to face. They also thought it would be safe to land on the sand bar. And so we see the little yellow Pacer landing there for the first time.

Initially, both their predictions proved true – the sand bar made an acceptable airstrip and Nate, with another missionary, met three tribe members, who quickly responded to their overtures of friendship. The missionaries took off later that afternoon and brought the good news to their colleagues. There was much rejoicing as the five missionaries and their families gave thanks to God for their success.

Over the next few days they flew in some basic materials to build a tree-house for them to use as a base. They stayed there for one night and had arranged to radio their families at 5 pm the next day.

When the call didn’t come through, the families raised the alarm, and the next day a rescue party flew in with a helicopter to find the five bodies floating in the river with spears in their backs.

Strangely, the story doesn’t end there – the mission was determined to continue with their work and soon established that the killing of their colleagues had been a ‘mistake’.

‘I suspect you need CAA approval’

Over time many of the tribe took up Christianity, and adopted the name Waodani, True People. Eventually Nate’s youngest son, Steve, was actually baptised into the faith by two of the people who had murdered his father, Kimo and Dyuwi when he was only five years old.

Steve is now 71 and for the past ten years he has been partially paralyzed as a result of an accident while testing an ingenious flying car that his company I-TEC developed.

It’s easy to say ‘not another one’ – but this is different:

  1. It’s the only one to be FAA certified and road legal
  2. It’s the only one I know that hangs below a self-inflating paraglider wing
  3. It’s the only one to have excellent off-road capability.

Steve designed it for missionaries working in the bush, but it would seem to have uses for game operations, farming, line patrols and some military ops. A clever bunch that Saint family.

Coming back to Nate’s bucket drop, as you know his system was copied by my mate Ray Hart and is now being copied again for both civilian and military operations. It’s being developed by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Aurora Flight Sciences and others.

These companies are teaching drones to do the same sort of jobs that Nate and Ray learned to do. Basically fixed-wing ops between points, with some helicopter type versatility at the destinations. In the civilian world you may find your orders from Amazon, or your grocery store, being delivered to your front garden by a circling drone rather than a more expensive and complex quadrocopter. Medical supplies can be carried to distant and inaccessible spots way out of the range of quadrocopters.

Amongst military operations that are being considered is the delivery and return of nasty swarms of evil little things that can nail you in your concrete bunkers. It seems there are huge physical problems with recovering these critters – and one possible method being developed is to send in a circling drone that scoops them all, or most of them up with a net – much like Ray’s fishing trawlers.

And so the giant wheel of technology turns from the simple to the complex and back to the simple.

The ITEC Maverick PPG flying car in full flight.

For those who feel compelled to rush out and give it a try – here some tips:

  • You need about twice as much line as your pivotal altitude.
  • For testing, a milk jug with some weight in it works ok.
  • You have to let out line quite fast or centrifugal force will have a tendency to swing it wide and not drop into the centre of the turn.
  • Once you have it on the ground, if you want to move the bucket location, just shallow out the bank a very small amount, then back to the original bank angle when you are 180 degrees from the intended direction of movement.
  • It can get bumpy when you hit your own slipstream.
  • Use a large open area, you don’t want the bucket to get caught by obstructions.
  • Have an assistant, don’t try to do this alone.
  • Make sure you can cut the line if it does get snagged.
  • Don’t get distracted and stall the aircraft or fly into something.
  • I suspect you need CAA approval.
  • Your insurance company may be interested.

A fascinating operation.

PS: For anyone who doubted the truth of what I told you about Ray’s bucket drop, I will accept a short letter of apology wrapped around a bottle of Bells, sent to me at PostNet, Sedgefield.