Jim Davis – Knysna is a very odd place – there’s no airfield near the town. But when I was there, there were three active ones in walking distance of the CBD. And all within a few hundred yards of each other.

Jim Davis.

THE FIRST ONE WAS PAT McClure’s golf course, right outside his hotel on Leisure Isle. Pat had a Comanche, which lived on the grass in front of the hotel. The Leisure Isle Hotel was a wonderful party venue for visiting pilots as well as those who lived in the area. The place was crawling with retired SAA and SAAF pilots, and why not? It has to be one of the most beautiful spots in the world.

Pat was an ex-SAAF pilot who played by the wartime rules about drinking and flying – it was desirable, but not compulsory.

This naturally resulted in incidents which the DCA never got to hear about. Like a wheels-up he did in his Comanche – it was flying again the next day. It says much for the strength of the aeroplane and Pat’s determination to put the matter behind him as quickly as possible. The prop was the only noticeably damaged component. Pat took it off and had it straightened by the local blacksmith.

Then Pat bought a small three seat helicopter, a Bell 47, which he crashed one night while taking his wife, also Pat, and my mate Bob Emmet for a joy ride in between drinks at a party at Bob’s place on the hill.

Pat eventually died under interesting circumstances. He had always been worried about having a heart attack while flying, particularly with pax. As Mrs Pat often flew with him, he asked me to teach her the basics of flying, and at least how to land the aircraft should his tubing get blocked at a bad time.

Well exactly that happened. They were on their way back from Johannesburg when Pat announced he was feeling valetudinarian. They landed on a farm strip in the Free State where the farmer put them up for the night – well, not exactly, because Pat died at the dinner table.

So that introduces Pat McClure’s golf course airfield. I will come back to it later.

‘I love everything about a Twin Comanche’

Then Thiessens had its own airfield for a while. I only landed there a couple of times.

This was at the time when they were transforming themselves from being a company that built wooden ships, to being a company that dug up the island into a series of smaller islands to form an upmarket marina, which now attracts another cache of retired pilots.

Thiessens were a bit snotty about other people using their airstrip, and eventually became bloody impossible after my mate Doug Duncan managed to run my little Grumman AA1B Trainer ZS-JAB, into a ditch there.

Finally, there was the ‘main’ airfield – Brummer’s Kaal. The WordSense Dictionary tells me that this would be an enclosure for: a big insect, especially a bluebottle; a big lorry; an obese man; an attractive woman; a ginormous thing; (music, pejorative) a choir-singer. Which is not very helpful. Actually it was indeed an enclosure, but for an airfield. It was a sort of sandy dyke that was meant to keep the sea out.

Every now and then – usually at night – Bob Kershaw would bellow down the phone to all interested parties that we had better get out there smartly, with wellies and shovels, and start messing around in the mud. The intention was to prevent a particularly tall piece of tidal water getting in amongst our aeroplanes. This would happen whenever a double-new-blue-harvest-moon, or something, came barging across the heavens.

We built a couple of hangars, one of which housed my Tiger, and my little red Grumman Trainer. The other sheltered Peter Anderson’s Cherokee Six, and later Bob’s Twin Comanche ZS-FAW, which became known as Fark All Wheels after Bob dumped it on to the runway at Caledon with the gear up.

‘a bad-tempered little Pommie

Now I love everything about a Twin Comanche, from its beautiful lines to its crisp sports car handling, and its quiet leather smelling interior, and its fuel rationing economy. But FAW

possessed something of a playful nature – she delighted in giving her handlers the occasional skrik, without actually causing bloodshed.

Every one of those aeroplanes caused me some degree of grief while flying from the Kraal.

The Grumman suddenly went to full power and stayed there while on a right hand downwind leg for runway 22 with a pupil. Throttling back made no difference – the cable had obviously either broken, or become detached from its little arm on the carburettor.

We seemed to have three options – we could climb overhead and then kill the engine with the mixture control, and do a glide approach. Or we could do a similar trick, but aim to undershoot and use little bursts of power to bring her in. Or we could simply use the mixture control as an ultra-sensitive throttle – which is what we did – and it worked beautifully.

The other problem with the little Grumman was that it had no nosewheel steering – the nosewheel just castored. This worked fine until there was a strongish crosswind when you had to use dabs of brake. The problem really came during takeoff with a 15 knot crosswind from the left. We had to use so much right brake that we would run out of runway before gaining enough airspeed for flight.

But the Grumman was an excellent trainer. It made you approach at exactly the right speed – depending on load. Dual would be 75 kts and solo 70 kts. If you are just a couple of knots too slow she will sink out of your hands, and slightly too fast and ground effect will have you sailing off the far end and into the lagoon.

I did very little flying in Peter’s Cherokee Six, but on one memorable occasion, soon after takeoff there was a hell of a bang and she started to roll strongly to the left. Full right aileron wasn’t really doing the trick. For a little while it seemed we were likely to spiral to a violent and muddy death in the lagoon.

‘The pom got out wide-eyed and shaking’

It’s one of those things that pilots do. They look accusingly at whatever seems to be causing their distress. If an engine fails on a twin, you cast a disgusted eye at the cowl, as if it may reveal life-saving information which will allow you to return it to its previous satisfactory state.

And so when a wing drops after a jolting metallic clang, you turn to peer at the culprit. And, in this case, it was the right thing to do – we saw the right flap was down and the left one was up. Now, one has to figure out what to do about it. If it were a Comanche I would be in favour of lowering the flap because it would mean that the right one had stuck in the down position – so your action would lower the left one to match it.

But this was not a Comanche – the workings are completely different. Besides, the flap handle was already in the first notch position, so it seemed a good idea to lower the handle and hope it raised the troublesome right flap. This indeed turned out to be the solution, and our visions of a muddy death receded. We tottered round the circuit for an uneventful flapless landing.

What had happened was that the twiddly rod that pushes the left flap down had broken. A design fault? Actually no – a maintenance and preflight fault. When I called it a twiddly rod, I was referring to the fact one should twiddle it on its ball joint to make sure that everything is free to rotate normally.

Peter had never been taught to do that, so when the coastal rust had prevailed it meant that every time Peter lowered or raised the flaps, it bent the pushrod. The result was like repeatedly bending a piece of wire – it broke.

I said earlier how much I love the Twin Comanche, but I also told you this one, FAW, had a wayward spirit. Peter sold his Cherokee Six, and he and Bob Kershaw bought the Twin in partnership. Bob went off to his tame instructor in East London, who gave him the ‘quick conversion’ that I had refused to do. And Peter elected to do a slower conversion with me. This turned out to be very interesting for both of us.

The aircraft was in magnificent condition, and had just been serviced by Placo Workshops – who always had an excellent reputation. Unfortunately they had failed to discover and remove a nest of gremlins which had taken up residence under the two cowlings. For those who are unfamiliar with these wicked little leprechaun-like creatures, they are mischievous devils which cause unexplained mechanical problems in aircraft. They were first discovered by Roald Dahl amongst wartime RAF fighters and bombers.

They left us in peace for a while and then started fiddling with things. Every now and there would be a ‘what the fark was that?’ moment. A sort of surge from one engine that was so brief you almost felt you imagined it.

Then it would happen again – just a quick little pause in the power on one side, and a slight yaw. We couldn’t say whether it was one engine getting a burst of enthusiasm, or the other taking a momentary breather.

On the next flight we isolated the problem, the left engine definitely lost power for a couple of seconds, but then it returned to purring as sweetly as the right. The next time it happened was for a longer period, and we had a chance to check the manifold pressure, revs and fuel flow – they were all perfect.

It was not a particularly worrying thing – we put it down to perhaps a bit of water in the fuel.

On the next flight we were doing some asymmetric training and had shut down the left engine and feathered the prop. All was well until the right engine sort of hesitated for a second or two before returning to its normal silky running.

This was starting to get a bit worrying. We drained litres of fuel from each tank and from each strainer under the fuselage. It was all sparkling clean and free from water or dirt. On the next flight one engine stopped, and while we were gazing stupidly at the cowling and fiddling with the throttle, the mixture and the alternate air, the other engine stopped. There was no hesitation or surging – it just stopped – and remained stopped.

Now, because of the gremlin induced silliness on the last few flights, we had confined our operations to overhead the airfield. This meant there was no cause for alarm – we simply throttled both engines right back and did a glide approach.

Of course both engines were running fine when we needed them to taxi. And they were both perfectly behaved during run-ups on the ground. But we were not foolish enough to fly again.

I phoned the Piper agents, Air Cape, in Cape Town and they dispatched a bad-tempered little Pommy engineer with a toolbox in a 150 Cessna.

I explained the problems in minute detail, and all I got in response was, “It’s probably one of the fuel pumps.”

Now that was obvious nonsense but he refused to discuss it any further. So I told him I would not be happy until he could show me a defective part or parts, or a blockage that would account for both engines failing intermittently. A day or two later he said he had fixed the fuel pump and he was going back to Cape Town.

The location of Knysna’s 3 orginal airstrips.

And so we a hearty exchange of ideas, which was resolved in the most dramatic manner. I told him if he was happy with his work then he should come on the test flight with me. And he told me that he didn’t have time for things like that – he was on his way. I said I would phone his boss, Jeremy Labuschagne, and tell him that his engineer was an idiot.

‘The gremlins had at last been exorcised’

Seeing no way out, the Pom, reluctantly agreed to come flying with me. We ran up both engines

on the concrete outside the hangar and gave them a good long run while we peered at the gauges. Perfect.

We did the same on the grass at the holding point. Still 100%.

I lined up and did something that I never do in a twin. I stood on the brakes and took both engines up to full power and held them there for perhaps ten seconds – still purring smoothly, so I released the brakes and we surged forward for a couple of meters – and then complete silence as they both died simultaneously.

The Pom got out wide-eyed and shaking, and I never saw him again.

Placo then sent down a top guy and it took him about ten minutes to find the problem. Someone had oiled the dry air-filters. Bits of oil were interfering with a delicate diaphragm in the fuel control units and causing the problems.

‘The Gremlins had at last been exorcised’

Finally my faithful Tiger did the unthinkable. I had just got airborne from runway 22 when there was a sort of ‘plop’ noise from the engine, followed by no noise at all. It couldn’t have happened at a better time – I was able to do a sort of ‘S’ turn and sideslip onto Pat’s golf course on Leisure Isle.

The problem was very simple – the right-hand spark plug on the front cylinder had not been torqued in tightly enough – it unscrewed itself and blew out.

I took off again ten minutes later. The plug had not departed, it was hanging on to its lead. The plumber, who lived in the house where we stopped, at the end of the fairway, produced the right sized spanner and that was that.

The reason that one spark plug coming out had caused a complete engine failure is that it opened the cylinder, and allowed the intake manifold to fill with outside air every time that inlet valve opened. So the overall mixture became too lean for combustion.

Finally a very quick story – I took Doug Duncan’s beautiful daughter, Rosie, for a jaunt from Noetzie beach, along the coast and in through the heads at low level. It was a peachy calm day with not a whisper of wind.

Suddenly there was a hell of a bang, the engine was coughing and vibrating like it wanted to jump out, and we were engulfed in seawater. We were heading for the wrong side of Leisure Isle and losing power.

I asked Rosie if she could swim and she yelled NO.

Gradually the Gypsy summoned enough urge to get us over the island and we plonked down on 04 at Brummer’s Kraal.

The nose cowl was bashed in against the front cylinder and Rosie and I were drenched with sea water.

Most perplexing.

The next day I was sipping a thoughtful cup of coffee at the Heads Café and watching the waves when the problem resolved itself in front of my eyes.

An enthusiastic wave which had bounced off the cliff on the far side, bumped into an equally energetic incoming wave and as they met, they shot straight up to form a solid wall of water the height of a house.

Eventually I moved to George and left the dreaded Knysna triangle, and its Gremlins, behind.

Jim’s pretty little red Grumman Trainer.


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