Wednesday afternoons were not for golf, but for aerobatics. The weather was good, my Pitts Special gleamed in the sun and I was determined to be the new SA National Champion. So I used every possible moment to practice.
The radio in my Pitts had developed a problem that required removal and detailed troubleshooting. I had the option of fixing it now and not flying; or flying now and discovering the problem when it was fixed, however late that was. Being young, arrogant and determined – I elected to do the right thing. I strapped in for a flight; but took a handheld radio with me.
The problem was not so much the handheld radio but rather that I could not use a headset with it in an open cockpit. So the quality of my broadcasts was relatively unknown and my ability to hear severely discounted.
There was not much of the normal Wednesday afternoon traffic in the circuit. The aerobatic box was within the old Baragwanath airfield boundaries and the circuit traffic could be anything from gliders to students doing solo circuits, to the very fast Navajos or even faster Aerostars and even the occasional business jets descending into Rand. It was important to be aware of ‘who was where’.
I did a reasonable sequence or two and called re-joining the circuit. I battled to hear anything and was worried about whether the radio actually worked. To alleviate this I ensured that my calls were loud, textbook clear and Charles Fortune perfect. I joined downwind, called the turn to base and final twice.
A Pitts Special has a bit of a blind spot on approach and landing. One has the option of flying a continuous curved approach all the way to the threshold like a Spitfire, or slide-slipping one way or the other whilst keeping on track. And a Spitfire lands a lot slower than the 100 mph needed for a Pitts. The sideslip approach is favoured at airports with other traffic as other aviators know where to look for the very small, high-performance missile, which I choose to fly.
The problem with a sideslip is that it blankets a lot of the view in the opposite direction, that which is not already hidden behind the wings and interplane struts. So a sideslip to the left hides the entire airfield to the right of the threshold. But it does offer a reasonable view of the runway threshold until rounding out. Then your view forward is at best an informed guess and the runway is only visible if something is dramatically wrong. The view is about as much as Andrea Bocelli sees.
As I kicked straight and simultaneously eased the nose up, I could not only not see the runway, but the entire airport was blanketed by cowlings and a stroboscopic propeller disc. Normally if you did see any runway you were landing skew.
Something felt very wrong, as if I was caught in a whirlwind. The Pitts was shaking unusually right at the point of touchdown. I did not like it. I immediately took full power to climb, maybe do a go around or maybe to let her settle. As I pulled back the power for a second attempt at about 20 feet it all felt normal, so I let her settle to a good landing. I could hear the odd tyre squeal, but it felt normal. In fact my landing was better than good, it was a great landing. At the end of the runway, much more than I normally used, I slowed to a near stop and turned to taxi back to my hangar and attend to my awaiting radio problem.
Then I saw it. My Pitts was engulfed by another aircraft, my left wingtip was inches away from a Baron’s propeller. It was so close that I could not taxi to avoid the left wingtip. If the Baron moved forward I was hamburger. I held my hands up in desperation to signal him to apply brakes and shut down. I did the same. This idiot had landed so close behind me it was suicidal. I was reluctant to make a scene as I was unsure as to whether my radio communication was at fault.
The Baron’s door opened and two very ashen men emerged. No doubt I was the same ghostly white. I undid my straps and parachute harness, placed the handheld radio on the parachute and climbed out to move my aircraft out from being the Baron’s lunch.
I was just about to apologise when a voice came from a car that was fast approaching. It was Jock Germishuys. The Director of Civil Aviation. I feared that my day was about to get worse.
‘Jislaaik Noel! Are you okay?’ he asked.
‘Hi Sir, Yes I am fine,’ but my voice trembled.
‘Don’t worry – I heard and saw the whole thing, let me deal with these guys!’
Now I was in shock. He was not accusing me of doing anything wrong – but them! My day became instantly better.
It turns out my guardian angel was putting in her full year’s work in a couple of seconds. The Director of Civil Aviation just happened to be taxiing out to the threshold in a Navajo as I called for base leg. Jock Germishuys had heard all my transmissions clearly. But nothing from the Baron, who just landed when he saw a runway in front of him. He was, however, rather surprised by my sudden appearance filling his windscreen.
I had failed to see the Baron as it was well below me and just happened to be hidden from my view behind the engine cowling from base leg onwards. I had landed about a Pitts Special’s length (all 15 ft 4 inches) behind him, got caught in his propwash and in taking power, totally unknown to me, leapfrogged the Baron to touchdown a second time right in front of him by an even smaller distance. The squeals I heard were from his desperate braking. Luckily this Pitts needed about 100 mph to start the flare, which was just a bit more than the Baron’s touchdown speed.
Jock was livid at the display of airmanship he had just witnessed. He had heard all my calls loud and clear; as well as witnessed the low straight in approach of the Baron. Our near collision and leapfrogging was all over before he could call a warning out on the radio. The Baron’s radios were tuned to an incorrect frequency, if they had been used at all. The pilot was an elderly German wartime pilot who had not only failed to keep a look out, he had failed to make any radio calls. I naturally thought it best not to mention that I was probably incapable of hearing anything anyway and quietly kept the handheld radio hidden on my parachute.
I went home to my new wife that afternoon without fixing my radio. I do not drink and never have; but celebrated the gift of life that evening by having a big steak in the JLPC pub. And a big silent prayer to my poor overworked guardian angel. I tried to take some of the future pressure off her by doing much more careful lookouts in the circuit, even if it meant lifting each wing to knife edge in turn.
Authors Note: Any errors are that of the author whose recollection could never be as captivating as the first-hand accounts.