I had just returned to my drafting board with my first cup of Monday tea, when our receptionist delivered a telegram clearly marked URGENT PRIORITY from the DCA inviting me to tea – it was actually a disguised formal demand that could not be refused. I went cold as I pondered the past weekend’s flying events – what was I in trouble for?
I phoned the Division of Civil Aviation immediately and got put through to the DCA’s secretary. The Director of Civil Aviation, Mr Jock Germishuys was unavailable, but his secretary mentioned that he did want to see me urgently and that she would clear his diary. We agreed on 08:00 sharp Tuesday morning at his office at the top of the Proes Street building in Pretoria; across the street from the world’s very best Italian restaurant. I made a mental note to take my pilot’s logbook, license and the Tiger Moth’s paperwork with me. I was certain it was all in good order, well as certain as one can be when dealing with the big cheese.
I envisaged my life-long dream of having my recently earned license being snatched from me. Maybe it was my personal ongoing feud with an obnoxious air traffic controller, Mr Frik Crause, who for some reason was on a personal quest to make flying safer by grounding every possible flight he could. In his dream world ducks would only swim and walk. He disliked aviation intensely, all aviators generally, and it seemed – me in particular. In those days there were only a few air traffic controllers and not that many pilots, so we were all unfortunately in this case, generally acquainted.
The weekend had actually been lots of fun. I had been invited to display an aerobatic routine at Barberton. The clouds had prevented the planned early departure from Baragwanath but they cleared soon enough. A quick refuelling at Witbank (Tiger Moths are notoriously short of range) and we arrived overhead perfectly in time to find the airspace clear of any traffic.
Having height available it was an ideal time to put on my display, which I did. A dive for entry airspeed to a beautiful three-quarter loop with a very slow half roll on the downward 45-degree line went as well as expected. Up into a stall turn followed by another slow (in a Tiger Moth they are always slow, very slow) and tight level 180 degree turn for spin entry. I still had some height so went for another loop, and enjoyed it so much did another, up into a wingover which placed me ideally on base. I throttled back for a slideslip landing, pulling off a greaser in front of the crowd.
As I taxied in, a policeman waved me to a parking spot. As the Gypsy Major coughed its end, the same policeman filled my face; ‘Sir you must please come with me, the Captain wants to see you.’ I undid my uncomfortable four-point Sutton harness, followed by the parachute buckles and welcomed the blood flow to parts of my body. An unenthusiastic crowd clapped to signify the end of someone in a dark suit and black hat’s speech. I pondered what a police captain wanted, it was usually to request to flip some damsel he had an eye on.
The ever-diligent constable directed me to a white Saracen – a large six wheeled armoured car – before I could even be allowed to relieve myself. ‘I want to see your documents’ the taller and more senior captain instructed. I got the impression I could give him my OK Bazaars receipt for dog food and he still would not know what he was looking at. I produced my pilots’ license from my grey flightsuit and offered a review of the other documents that were in the plane. He diligently reviewed each page, reinforcing my suspicion that he had absolutely no clue what he was looking at, or what to look for. He hid his perplexity by instructing me to wait, whilst he took my license away to the stands where the man in the hat was speaking. Eventually he returned. I asked to be allowed to go to the loo, which flummoxed the Captain who only agreed if the Constable accompanied me. I was to report right back immediately as I was apparently in lots of trouble.
On returning to the Sarasen I was met with an incandescent Frik Crause. Dread filled me. He was spitting froth as he shouted in front of a bewildered Thompson and Thompson, both not sure as to whether they should arrest or protect me.
‘Mr Otten, have you absolutely no respect?’ He spat forward like an army drill sergeant finding his daughter in bed with one of his troops. ‘What kind of man are you? Do you think you are funny hey?’ He somehow had learned the impossible art of breathing in continuously whilst on a tirade as he never seemed to breath in between his verbal salvos.
I pondered various answers that would have set off Hiroshima inside his spewing cranium whilst contemplating all possible actions I had undertaken that he obviously found offence to. I drew a blank.
‘You think you are so clever do you Mr Otten! How dare you interrupt the Honourable Minister of Sports speech with your dangerous stunt. Your childish antics prevented his very very very important speech from being heard Mr Otten!’
So finally I now knew what the major indiscretion was. My thought on it was that the crowd had come to see an airshow not listen to a self-inflated ego waffle on, which explained the few around him. I kept my opinion to myself.
I knew better than to engage with him, he now was waving an off-white handkerchief to wipe the drool from his mouth. He did not, I noticed, offer to wipe up the splatter which reached the poor Captains face. Given my disdain for politicians, I was secretly proud of my unintended achievement, even more so as for the first time I exited a slow roll without losing any height. The verbal blitzkrieg continued for about half an hour.
‘You can be assured that I will be taking this further Mr Otten. Mr Otten if I were you I would start thinking about taking up a new hobby as you will be lucky to even wash a plane when I am finished.’ He eventually ran out of steam having covered every possible taint in my entire life, from well before conception and into my immediate future. Which if true would be bleak.
He threw my license back at me, shouting as he walked away – ‘Enjoy your flight home Mr Otten – assuming you don’t crash – as it will be your last if I have anything to do with it.’
So I probably should not have been surprised by the telegram, and as for my interactions with Mr Crause, this was a near normal occurrence, not only with me but for many other pilots. I failed to understand why he would continue to work as a controller when it gave him so much stress. He seemed to enjoy winding up his own timebombs.
Jock welcomed me in, and actually offered me some tea. He battled a bit with English but that in no way discounted his authority. He invited me to sit at his aircraft carrier sized desk and then started off with a smile in the way a father would when giving advice to his favourite but slightly wayward son: ‘Noel my boy, I have broken every rule, made every possible mistake, know every rule in the book, I invented every lie and half-truth story any pilot has ever told me so please do not waste my time and intelligence by lying to me – what is your side of the story’.
Jock was highly respected because he was a pilot, known to be fair and probably had been there – done that. He was always polite, respectful and his unusual immodest boast about having an intellect was well founded – he really was very perspicacious,
both as an aviator, and the head of the Directorate of Civil Aviation. But he did not suffer fools well. His astuteness ensured a point of obtaining a detailed understanding of everything concerned with his job generally or an incident specifically; guaranteeing he was the most well-informed person in the room before any meeting. Lie to him and you would be cleaning up penguin effluent in Antarctica for the rest of a very miserable cold existence. Tell the truth and he would dispense fatherly advice and mostly a minor slap on the wrist, but God forbid you were called in a second time. He was truly tired of reviewing accident reports with their grisly photos. He had had his fill of first-hand accident scenes.
I related the day’s events from my side and then to support my claims pulled out a letter from my logbook issued by the Lowveld Aero Club inviting me to demonstrate aerobatics at Barberton at 10:30, which happened to be the exact time I started my sequence. His smile widened. He glanced through my license and the aircraft documents quickly, then looked up with a big grin ‘Mr Otten, just make sure I never see you in my office again.’
‘Yes Sir’. As I left he called out to his secretary in Afrikaans, ‘Get me that idiot Crause here now. If he wastes my time again he will be lucky to be a traffic cop directing cars.’
Crause continued to be a thorn in many a pilot’s endeavours, but luckily we never crossed paths again.
I kept my promise as I never was called into Jock’s office again; but that did not stop me from being called to answer by Jock a further two times. Neither of which were as funny nor amusing. Given the circumstances I was very lucky to have been alive to have any discussion with him in both instances.