George Tonkin – “Never has so much been owed to so few by so many” – Winston Churchill speaking of the Allied airmens’ gallant efforts shortly after the Battle of Britain.
ON THE EVE OF THE GREATEST air battle in history, all seemed desperate and lost in Britain with a tyrannical giant intimidating the free world, threatening the last vestige of hope in 1940s Europe.
An enormous task was laid at the feet of the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy to bring the Nazi juggernaut down. But the proverbial David had some equally proverbial smooth stones in his pocket – not only British servicemen but also volunteers from more than 15 countries, including South Africa. One of the most famous of the South African pilots was Sailor Malan, who claimed over 27 kills and coined his “ten rules of air fighting,” which have been taught to every allied airman since. Through all this, a brotherhood of aviators was born.
History can always teach us something if only we would listen. So what have I learned, you ask? I’ll get to that…
2022 is my twelfth year with Bidvest Protea Coin (BPC) aerial support, which has grown from a small, single Robinson R44 helicopter in 2010 to a large helicopter airwing operating 26 helicopters across eight of South Africa’s nine provinces.
We operate as a commercial concern, partnering with six (Part 127) helicopter outfits nationwide. In order to service industry sectors including: mining, oil and gas, telecoms and banking, our pilots and crew are trained and maintained according to ICAO best practices. This not only manages operational risk but also instils trust in our largely blue-chip customer base.
What excites me more than the actual flying though, is the people. Such a big operation requires people that are rock-solid and dependable. Fortunately, working with my boss, Waal de Waal, I quickly learned how to value and identify the best character traits and skill sets in people.
‘how we managed to multiply our resources’
I have been able to coach and mentor many pilots in my tenure as Chief Pilot for BPC, producing homegrown, world-class operational staff, some of whom have since left the nest to serve international operations such as the UN. Along with this came the opportunity to fortify friendships across the aviation fraternity. It’s all these relationships that have helped produce the trust required to build a turn-key operation which can swing into action in a matter of minutes, requiring just a phone call to launch multi-million-dollar helicopters.
Recently, BPC was tasked with the largest helicopter support contract ever awarded in the South African security industry. A last-minute rollout was necessitated due to the time constraints of ending and beginning a new contract. This was exacerbated by the deployment being over a very large area, from the coast to South Africa’s interior. I still shake my head at how we managed to multiply our resources and deploy over 20 aircraft within 24 hours, covering all of the strategic points for day and night operations where possible. Further to this, the air wing also stood sentry for the large contingent of ground resources that needed to be deployed over the first few weeks of the operation.
To meet the challenge of deploying such a large wing, I had to rely on my many years in the industry and the aforementioned relationships. Varied experience in helicopter tactical operations has led to some unusual flying jobs, which also helped. For example, getting to work in the film industry recently, I forged some valuable new friendships that I could lean on to support our cross-country operations. Having worked with these pilots and operators in the most demanding professional environments meant that we knew and understood each other’s capabilities and potential.
‘we have excellent helicopter pilots in South Africa’
When working in aerial support, one of the factors that makes or breaks a deployment is local environmental knowledge. It wasn’t hard to see the huge value our local area pilots around the escarpment added to our endeavours. In the first week of deployment, I flew to the three provincial bases to familiarise myself with local conditions and conduct operational training. Here I leaned on the vast expertise of the local pilots, who know the region so well that maps are redundant when setting course for relevant infrastructure.
Having flown mostly in Gauteng and on the Highveld, I was also surprised by the rapidly-changing mountain weather conditions, as we found ourselves diverting with some severe late winter frontal storms. The Drakensberg can be a very intimidating place when the wind starts pushing 40 knots – tumble-dryer stuff!
‘people that are rock solid and dependable’
War stories over a pint of beer at the whistlestop after operations had me craning to hear weather advice and local anecdotes from my new colleagues. “Always listen to the advice of local captains.” That would be in my list of top 10 rules of air operations if I were to write one …
And my point? First; the nature of helicopter operations requires a well-planned approach to low-level operations. Second; we have some excellent helicopter pilots in South Africa. With the short time at hand, I had to do as the Brits did in World War II and carefully find and choose some of the best available smooth stones to sling at this giant of an operation.