I reckon plane vs car races are usually pointless stunts.

Airshow acts have a car racing up and down the runway burning rubber throwing U-turns while a plane roars overhead and does stall turns at the ends of the runway. Like professional wrestling, the winner is chosen beforehand.

This doesn’t mean that the whole idea of plane vs car races is a bad one. Thirty years ago, Aero Africa magazine did a proper comparison. And now Sling Aircraft have done a race between a Sling TSi and the airlines.

To their credit, the Sling race was a real challenge, and with typical Sling bravado, it was ambitious. They took on the airlines from their base at Tedderfield, south of Joburg, for the 660 nm to Stellenbosch. That’s a daunting distance for a light sport aircraft – even a Sling 916 TSi.

Sling stacked the odds in favour of their plane by starting the race from their home base and ending it at Spier Estate – an easy 3.5 km bicycle ride from Stellenbosch. So Mike Blyth and James Pitman packed two dismantled Sling Tagati bikes into the back of the Sling TSi. They were racing against Sling Co-CEO Andrew Pitman, who had to drive to OR Tambo, check-in (also with a bike) and board a FlySafair 737-800 to Cape Town International. There he was met by a Guy for the drive to Spier.

Naturally the Sling flyers won. They landed after 4h52, for an average speed of 146 knots. They quickly assembled their bikes, slipped out through a conveniently unlocked back gate, and beat Andrew to Spier by 10 minutes. The race was successful in that it showed off the Sling’s speed and range, despite having a 20-knot headwind.

The race was finely judged. Andrew even had time for a quick pitstop in the Slow lounge at OR Tambo and may have won if they hadn’t hit Friday rush hour traffic out of Cape Town. It is a great endorsement for the latest Sling TSi 916 that it was able to compete against a Boeing doing 460 knots for a 1200 km sector.

The Aero Africa Magazine race thirty years ago pitted a Bonanza against a Boeing and also a car, for a race between Sandton and the centre of Durban.

I got to fly a V-tail, editor John Miller drove a BMW 530, and advertising salesman Nigel Brown flew SAA to Durban.  Many years may have passed, but my report makes fascinating reading – even if just to recall how little things cost then.

I wrote; We all know that planes should cover ground at a great speed. It’s generally what they were designed for. But it may often seem to the frustrated air traveller that it would have been quicker to drive. This is particularly true for scheduled flights where you can spend more time in airports than in the air.

So, surely the antidote to departure lounges is general aviation, where the plane waits for you, not you for it? And not only does the plane wait for you, but flying yourself is actually FUN. This oxymoronic opportunity to mix work with pleasure is as rare as finding a sexy woman who can cook and raise children.

But wait. I can already hear the many critics of general aviation taking a deep breath. Light aircraft are slow, noisy, uncomfortable and unsafe contraptions. Or else they are ridiculously expensive miniaturised versions of real planes whose sole function is to be a status symbol to stroke the chairman’s ego.

Okay then, if airlines have departure lounges and general aviation is either slow, noisy or an expensive toy, you can always travel by car like normal people. After all, South Africa still has the remains of great roads, so why not use them, even if only to dodge trucks?

Why not indeed? For most distances less than 250 km, or 2.5 hours driving, the lowly car is better than almost any form of transport, other than the helicopter. But what about a typical business trip over say 250 to 750 km? For example a trip from Johannesburg to Durban. In South Africa this is by far the most common type of one day business trip, and one where the three transport options are frequently used.

A high performance single was felt to be the most typical conveyance for our hypothetical businessman, particularly if it was owner flown. The value of the V tail was, at R250 000, on a par with the car at R230 000. For the airline travellers, SAA provided two business class tickets, value R914 each.

Being a general aviation publication, we naturally made it as difficult as possible for private flying to compete with the other two options. By choosing the Johannesburg – Durban trip we were pitting a light aircraft against a Boeing. Further, it is a near ideal trip for a car as the roads are about the best in the country. To further favour the car, we chose a starting point about as far across town from the airports as possible, and for the destination, a hotel in the middle of Durban.

While the flyers would have to hire cars, the drivers could drive door to door. The Boeing team had to drive from Sandton to Jan Smuts. They cut it very fine and by checking in for their flight late – and thus avoiding departure lounge ennui. After 47 minutes flight time, the Boeing touched down 44 minutes before the Bonanza which, thanks to a tailwind, needed just 1h35.

It took the Boeing team 30 minutes to retrieve their bags and hire a car. As they were arriving at the finish at the Royal Hotel, the Bonny team were still waiting for a hired car to be delivered to Virginia.

Door to door the Bonanza team took 2h55, 20 minutes longer than the SAA flyers.

When the Bonny travellers were pulling up at the Royal Hotel, the car drivers were torturing the tyres down Van Reenen’s pass, all the while squinting like Clint Eastwood into the middle distance for speed trap spaghetti. Flaunting the law, they wrung the Bee Em out, making it to the finish 5h15 after leaving home. They averaged 150 km/h.

So, there we all were in Durban, and what had we proved? Purely on time taken, there’s almost nothing between using airlines and flying yourself. If the airline flyers had a normal 30 minute check in, they would probably have taken the same time as the Bonanza flyers, but had a more comfortable and relaxing flight. The Bonny is more demanding, but then it’s also more rewarding, particularly if you fly it yourself. But on both time and comfort, the Boeing beat the Bonanza.

And now for the million-dollar question. What about cost? Here direct comparisons can be drawn:

AIRWAYS:

The SAA business class return airfare is R914. Car hire was R260 per day for a decent car plus R1,18 per km, or say another R80 to the city and back to the airport. Parking all day at Jan Smuts will cost about R20 and getting to Smuts and back in one’s own car about another R80, depending on car and suburb. Total airline cost for two people: R2268.

GENERAL AVIATION:

Owner flown Bonanza for 4 hours total utilisation at R350 per hour totals R1400. Car hire is the same as for airways, but with less distance: R260 + R60 being R 320. Parking at Rand no charge, but say R20 and travelling from and to home, same as for airways; R80. Total General Aviation cost: R1820

BY ROAD:

BMW 530i at AA rates of R2,87 per km for 1200 km is R3444. On top of this the drivers would not be expected to drive down to Durban, do a day’s work and then drive back the same day so add in at least one hotel room at the Royal for at least another R600 – R1000 for the accommodation depending on whether the room is shared. Adding the cost of accommodation pushes the already expensive driving costs into orbit. Total driving cost: R3444 upwards.

SUMMARY

And so, not only is driving the most stressful and dangerous, it’s also the slowest and by far the most expensive. Obviously, costs come down dramatically when four pack into the car (although the accommodation cost would be huge). The Bonanza was, for two people, clearly the cheapest. Like the car, it could have taken four or five people, thus reducing the cost even further and without the need for hotel accommodation.

The unassailable advantage of general aviation is its flexibility. You control the departure time, so you do not have to stop in the middle of a vital meeting to catch a plane. It is however more tiring and demanding than letting others do the flying for you by going airways.

CONCLUSION

We devised this exercise without any preconceived notions as to which mode of travel would be best. Clearly a different choice of destinations would have yielded different results. Number of people travelling, overall distance and distance of destination airports from airline served airports and general aviation airfields are absolutely critical components of any comparison. But for this exercise general aviation was, in terms of cost and convenience, the clear winner.

I can’t think of any reason to drive.

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