George Tonkin – Regular readers of the magazine would have noticed a new “Heli Ops” column. In that first column, I introduced myself as the , “The Silver Fox.”
I NEVER IMAGINED MYSELF as a writer and most definitely did not dream of a regular monthly column. But anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I love the aviation (and helicopter) industry, since childhood I have devoured anything I could find about aviation, particularly its history, and I enjoy sharing my knowledge even more, especially with peers.
That’s how this all got started. Sometime earlier that year, I had plunged into a debate with a fellow enthusiast on a local aviation online forum. After several interactions, he asked whether I had ever thought of writing. I hadn’t but figured I might have something of value to say. He put me in touch with Guy Leitch, SA Flyer’s editor and owner, and I sat down nervously to pen my first article.
‘That’s how all this got started’
From the start, I’ve tried to make my column both as informative and encouraging as possible. Every year that goes by, South Africa as a whole (and its aviation industry in particular) seems to become more dismal. Talk around a braai will invariably gravitate towards the state of SOEs, crime, loadshedding and where South African Airways is heading, or isn’t. But in all my time flying helicopters, I’ve seen a lot of good done, have had some amazing experiences, made some deep, valuable friendships and have attempted to highlight many of them in my writing. In that first column, I wrote about a joint SAPS/ Bidvest Protea Coin security operation, and how at the time of writing we had amassed 7,000 operational hours on many types.
Today, four years later, that stands at close to 20,000 hours, made possible by the number of pilots (both experienced and rookies) I’ve had the honour of working with, mentoring and being mentored by.
As I reminisce about my flying career, the words of Charles Dickens come to mind: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …” I covered search and rescues, and the many successes of our FLIR camera-fitted Robbie R44, from tracking diesel thieves at night, to helping prevent Cash in Transit robberies, from helping find a lady who had been abducted while walking her dog, to tracking an escaped Kalahari lion that had gone on a cross-country jaunt to freedom. We don’t, however, only learn or grow because of our successes.
Much of what I felt I should share, with training in mind, was the near misses – how we were able to overcome them and hopefully show how to prevent them in the future. Another thread throughout my column is the brotherhood (and sisterhood, of course) within our rotary-wing industry in Southern Africa. I highlighted organisations doing amazing humanitarian work like Mercy Air, CRoW mountain rescue and Helimission, as well as ground crew and operational crew, all of whom have had a huge impact on me as a pilot.
‘It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’
A scripture in the book of Revelation speaks of the value of our testimonies. With that in mind, I only reviewed helicopters that I had personally flown. Most of my articles spoke about my much-loved, most-flown Robbie R44, but I also gave my thoughts about others like the old warhorse Aérospatiale Alouette III, Airbus AS350 ‘Squirrel’, Robinson R66, Bell 407, and the Bell 206 LongRanger.
Articles about low-level operations and the dead man’s curve, flying in Highveld thunderstorm weather, air rescue training and the different routes to becoming a helicopter pilot were, likewise, all based on very personal experience. Four years on, and it’s time to take a break from writing. Not because I have nothing more to say, but managing up to 20 aircraft and multiple pilots across South Africa daily, while raising five energetic kids, and also flying regularly, means I don’t have the time to keep putting my all into my writing. I’ve loved the journey and hope I’ve helped enhance careers, and encouraged budding pilots with my words.
I leave you with my closing paragraph from that first article in 2018, which are as relevant today as then, “… a word to younger pilots embarking on an aviation career: Develop your skills to the point of being indispensable to your employer, and never get comfortable, as comfort is complacency, and complacency is a pilot killer. Train and stay sharp, but also be friendly … Invest yourself into whatever community there is; it is there that we develop personal character. Stay the course, so that when opportunity knocks, you’ll be there to open the door.”