This month I’m taking a slightly different tack to my normal – away from the adrenaline of playing cops and robbers – to show a different side of flying: The beautiful side.
Whenever I have the opportunity to take someone on their first helicopter flight, I start by explaining a little about the machine and what to expect. I cover important safety aspects as well as some practicalities, which usually make the greenhorn feel a bit more comfortable. And then, to help get the new flyer focused on the flight and not on misconceived risks, I finish my pre-flight briefing by describing one of the most meaningful facets of flying in a helicopter: the unrivalled view.
The view from a helicopter is without a doubt, on another level compared to that from a fixed-wing aircraft. The helicopter allows a much wider visual field from a fairly comfortable and stable platform. After even a few minutes of flight, the window struts seem to disappear and it feels as if you are on a magic carpet, being whisked through the air like royalty. Not to mention the fact that you don’t need a runway, can do tighter circles when you see something to explore and you can hover. Hovering is heavenly when one sees something to explore below.
Recently one of my regular passengers went on a flight in a Cessna 172.
“Ah, this would have been much better in a helicopter,” he apparently said multiple times, somewhat callously. Eventually, wisely, he stopped mentioning the benefits of helicopters for fear of being tossed out mid-flight by the annoyed Cessna pilot.
But everything isn’t about the passenger either. Working in the security environment, I am often afforded the opportunity to enjoy some ‘honey in the midst of the battle’, all for myself. Of course, having a passenger along for the ride is a bonus – allowing me to share some of the amazing things I see from the air or on the ground.
My flights take me through rural sparse areas and also cities bustling with action. Often, I set a course which I fly for hours on end. But even on those days, there is always something to see and enjoy, as long as you keep your eyes open.
I have a keen interest in aviation (well, pretty much anything that can fly), so I tend to stop and look at flying stuff whenever possible. On one particular afternoon, I found myself flying clients to Mafikeng airport.
Situated in the middle of somewhere deep in the North West of our country, Mafikeng, or “Mahikeng” as it’s also known, is one of South Africa’s boneyards – a spacious parking lot where large airliners and freighter aircraft go to die. I had dropped off my passengers, and had time to kill; time which was not going to be satisfied in the devoid-of-life former air force base and once-international airport terminal. Bored, I ended up strolling back out to the aircraft on the airside of the airport. Having gone through the rigorous security checks for my insignificant general flight, I figured I might as well make the most of them and I really didn’t want to leave the airport to go through the whole security rigmarole again. Instead I would roam around the apron to see what I could discover.
The first aircraft to catch my eye were a couple of sad looking Boeing 727s parked on a disused taxiway not far from my landing position. It’s always interesting to Google an aircraft’s history. In this case, I discovered that these two dead-tired specimens had served as illegal-alien repatriation ships in the USA, taking many thousands of border jumpers back to Central and South American countries. Yes, you read that correctly – South American. How they had ended up in South Africa’s North West Province, left to stand guard over a disused and dusty apron, is anyone’s guess. They weren’t even afforded the dignity of engine covers. I was offended on their behalf!
They did, however, seem to have been left close enough to airworthy that a good technician could plug in ground power and start them up in minutes. In my amateur opinion, anyway. Sadly, the remains of a wing-box section, standing in the veld close to the other two, was all that was left of a third 727. Clearly two’s company and three’s a crowd, even when it comes to boneyard relics.
On another occasion, while flying to the north of Pretoria, I spotted a very strange-looking aircraft parked in a yard, flanked by train carriages and a few other aircraft. The large radial twin had been propped up on its undercarriage, and looked fairly complete, apart from its missing engines. Despite it being in relatively good shape, it still took me some time to figure out its identity and history, as I’d never seen anything like it before, and because Googling and flying don’t typically go well together.
It turns out that it was an “On Mark Marksman,” an American-built executive aircraft which had been developed using surplus Douglas A-26 Invader light-bomber airframes left over from World War II. Only six Marksman conversions were ever completed for civil customers, with just two remaining intact today. This particular Marksman, ZS-CVD, had once proudly served the old Iscor Steel Company in its 1960s heyday.
Without the need to carry ordinance, it was a very fast speedster indeed, particularly as it was designed by Ted Smith who was also the designer of the equally speedy Aerostar and Rockwell Commander aircraft. It’s great to see some kind of preservation effort outside of military museums and finding such relics from the air is most rewarding to an aviation geek like myself!
Then, even more recently, I had the amazing opportunity to see a pair of the world’s most feared aircraft – Russian Tupolev TU-160 supersonic bombers. While flying a night sortie in an Airbus “Squirrel” around O R Tambo, we were fortunate to catch a glimpse of the two as they were being fuelled and readied for their return to Engels, Russia. We managed to get pretty close, circling the gloomy perimeter a couple of times. This afforded us a view (and opportunity to snap a few photos) only a helicopter could offer. It was a rare and special sight to behold these monsters from our lofty vantage point.
Often, it’s not necessary to go very far in order to see something unique. I’ve explored abandoned farmhouses south of the city and landed on the mountain overlooking Hartbeespoort Dam to take in the view. (Try that in a fixed-wing craft!) I’ve enjoyed test match rugby above Ellis Park and been charmed by an Egoli sunset. Mpumalanga is spectacular dressed in the morning mist, and she dishes up numerous gems, every time I venture over her. But despite all the amazing things I’ve experienced in my years as a chopper pilot, what caught my attention on a patrol flight a few months ago was weird to say the least.
While flying close to Hartbeespoort Dam, I noticed a large pond in what appeared to be a zoo. As I looked closer, I saw movement; something disturbing the crystal water’s surface. I circled around, and a little lower. Was it a crocodile? Maybe a dull catfish? What called this pool of water home? I had to find out. And then I saw it – a Cape fur seal, which had taken an interest in the strange craft flying overhead. I swear it waved at me. Subsequently, whenever I fly in the area, I make a detour to the same pool, to check on my furry friend. I bank and wave, and every time he (or she) takes to the pool, does a little roll and then raises a flipper, acknowledging our bond.
It is strange to think as we observe the beautiful world below us, that there are people down there observing us. Yes, I often see people (and occasionally even a seal) waving up at me. But how often are there unseen people below, watching the helicopter glide across the sky above them, wishing that they could have the opportunity to hover in the heavens above. Wishing they could soar and see beyond their everyday lives.
I am extraordinarily blessed to be a helicopter pilot. I try to remind myself of that often and to never stop exploring; never to stop enjoying the unrivalled view offered by my little office in the sky.