This month, I’m giving you all a break from reading about my flying for the security industry. I won’t, however, be giving you a break from reading about one of my tried-and-true Robinson R44s. Being the workhorse that she is, she deserves yet another starring role in my column, especially when punching above her weight.
A MONTH OR SO BACK I flew a newly liveried red R44 from the Highveld down to Cape Town. I assume helicopter rental in the Western Cape is nearly double compared to anywhere else in South Africa because of the tourism industry. Whatever the reason though, this forced me to ferry an R44 down to serve as a dedicated security helicopter in the Mother City and environs.
When planning a longer-than-you-are-used-to trip in a helicopter, it’s wise to spend a moment or three planning your route. Helicopters were always short-range aircraft compared to their fixed-wing cousins. However, more recently, modern helicopters have developed impressive ranges over their predecessors because of technological design wizardry, including more powerful and less fuel-thirsty engines.
Although the Robinson R44 is categorised as a light single-engine machine (and a very light one at that) she is not light in terms of performance. I’ve found that she packs a punch even in comparison with her only real competitors, the light single turbine market. The place where she makes up for the shortfall of turbine linear power is in her fuel usage. On a fair day, the little-helicopter-that-can, sips away at her usable fuel load of 175 litres at a modest rate of 60 litres per hour, giving her a useful endurance of two-and-a-half hours, with a 30-minute (or so) safety margin. This translates to about a 300nm range.
For our trip down to Cape Town, I planned three stops, with New Tempe, just outside Bloemfontein, the first. Having consulted the wind predictions on Windy, I planned the route well within the range that the R44 could afford us. Also, I packed in two extra 20 litre jerry cans – the peace of mind I needed in anticipation of headwinds that could consume up to 40% more fuel than normal. I also invited Albert Venter, a good friend who needed some extra PIC time to complete his com, to co-pilot with me. This would be an excellent exercise for him to hone his cross-country skills over many mundane, flat miles and for me to brush up on mine. We discussed the planning carefully before the time and enthusiastically during the trip, changing our trip calculations as conditions changed. And did they!
‘I had no concept of flying in the Cape of Storms’
The second planned stop, some two hours and forty minutes on from New Tempe, was Beaufort West. Approximately 40nm out from the airfield, we both felt an uneasy swaying in our Robbie. Swaying is good in a dance partner; not in a light helicopter, buffeted by an up-draft from the Molteno pass below. Upon first contact with the manned tower, they read the wind back at 6 kts gusting 36 kts! That was way above my 15 kt gust-spread semi-happy-place. Naturally, we were given a runway to land on as few, if any, helicopters frequent Beaufort West, home to a band of Chinese pupils learning to fly 172s and Seminoles on a cadet programme.
They looked on in astonishment as our lonely little red chopper made for the tarmac at a 90-degree slip along the runway, the two nervous pilots acting as if hovering in 30 kts was a piece of old takkie. Once we were safely sweating on the ground, fuel and an equally necessary toilet break were arranged. After all the excitement, I also thought it prudent to check the rest of my route plan with a local senior pilot.
“Gert! George. How the hell do you get through Hex (River Pass) with 30kts?” I asked.
“You don’t,” was his succinct answer. “Rather head south and skirt it, avoiding the mountains if possible. What are you flying, by the way?”
When he heard it was a Robbie, all he could offer was, “Good luck.”
Next up was a 90° take-off and some ridge ducking as we headed south-west out of town, both learning lessons in the silence of white-knuckle windy stick-flying. Following Gert’s advice, we reassessed our routing, while keeping our eyes on the local winds. This saw us making our way carefully around the windward crests while avoiding any leeward flying. At Klein Geelbek airfield outside Laingsburg, we topped off the tanks with our contingency jerries, after deciding to stick to our original route along the Hex. Good plan about the jerries. Not heeding a local’s route advice? Not so shrewd.
‘a flea on a marauding elephant’s rump’
In Gauteng, the R44 being a light machine is not an issue, but in the foothills of the Hex River Mountains, she became a flea on a marauding elephant’s rump. You cannot imagine how hard it is to wrestle the slight R44 insect in 30kt winds, funnelling between, through and over the ridges of the towering cloud-topped Cape-fold behemoths. I was born, bred and trained to fly in Gauteng. I had no concept of flying in the Cape of Storms – even on a relatively clear day.
Picturesque fruit and wine farms passed below us. I ignored them. My wife called. I ignored her. All I could hear were Gert’s instructions burning my ears as I tried to wrestle and punch my way past mountain after mountain after bigger mountain.
Fortunately, not too late, I was able to reroute down towards Villiersdorp and Grabouw, and skirted in via Gordon’s Bay, with the wind-pummelled Helderberg in our wake, and the deep blue sea to our port.
Honestly, I think I aged around five years in one flight. And all because I didn’t take timely advice from an old pro with local knowledge. That was one of the lessons I learned.
The other was that the Robinson R44 might be more flea than wild steed, but that her performance and reliability never cease to surprise me.