George Tonking – “Money lost – nothing lost; health lost – little lost; spirit lost – everything lost.” – Igor Sikorsky

George Tonkin.

The key to a long career in any chosen profession is to never fall out of love with the work you do. Because, as the quote attributed to the father of the helicopter, Igor Sikorsky, intimates, if you lose your spirit, you lose everything. Evangelist Billy Graham took the quote a step further, saying he believed the loss of character was the greatest loss a person could experience.

In my career as a helicopter pilot, being in a high-pressure industry, I have had a few key moments where I’ve had to deal with both potential losses. To succeed, I had to fail. A lot. And those failures could quite easily have pushed me towards a different vocation, or simply into the foetal position, sobbing under my winter duvet.

The early days of flying security at Protea Coin in South Africa come to mind. Not only was I severely under-experienced, but so was the industry.

“Buy a helicopter, get a pilot and voila, we have an airwing,” thought my boss, Waal. “I quickly learned, though, that the security industry and flight safety were the proverbial “oil and water.”

Both fraternities were in their developmental adolescence and required constant adaption. Having purchased a helicopter, Protea Coin had virtually 24-hour access to an aerial vehicle. Which meant the newly-minted security pilot, aka George Tonking, also needed to be available 24 hours a day. Both my employer and I soon learned, however, that humans and machines have limitations. I was away from home a lot, which is fine for a bachelor, but was not helpful for me, with a young family. Instead of becoming just another burned-out pilot, I sought other options.

At the time, I was also flying only the Robinson R44 and it took what felt like an eternity to transition onto larger types, like the Airbus Squirrel. Partly, the reason was because of my predecessor who, after graciously being given the time and opportunity to earn his expensive Squirrel rating, had promptly found other employment in the lucrative contract market. Waal was more than upset and was obviously loath to help me up-rate. My dreams hence took a little longer to realise. So, one thing I learned was not to take offence, but also the value of honouring your employers when they invest in you as a pilot.

In hindsight, the timing of my development as a pilot all worked out pretty well anyway, as do most things in hindsight.

Another spirit-killer is tedium. And as I have mentioned several times before, flying can become pretty monotonous. I’ve learned to look forward to the spectacular yet irregular brief moments to breathe fresh life into my routine flying days.

‘a low-level approach to surprise the bandits’

Bidvest Protea Coin Airwing operations.

On one day recently, my little Robbie was tasked with what she does best: aerial observation. I found myself over the resort town (as I always jokingly call it) of Rayton, a small farming community to the NE of Pretoria, when a call came through about a cell tower base station under attack by thieves, who target these structures to steal UPS batteries. It’s a fairly normal situation in South Africa these days.

I punched the coordinates into the mapping software on board my fire-engine red racer, R44. Cell tower burglaries take around four minutes to execute. And what would you know? I was four minutes away. Realising I had a chance to apprehend the gang, I pushed the pedal to the metal and quickly lined the nose up onto the batwings, indicating the target. In no time, I approached the tower – one of those fairly large base stations with the huge red and white antennae characteristic of the rural Pyramid area.

“Easy one,” I sniggered while keeping the approach low-level to surprise the would-be bandits. Apparently, we were dealing with an expert crew – the base station door was ajar and there was no sign of them. I gained some altitude and scanned the surrounding area in disappointment, the only movement a Toyota bakkie, meandering innocently down the road.

“Hmmm,” I thought, my Spidey senses tingling.

With little hesitation, I banked into a hard-left descending turn to take a closer gander. No sooner was I overhead, than the vehicle sped up and veered onto a rural dust road. “Game on, baby!” After a fairly short attempt to flee, the looters gave up, as ground teams closed in. On inspection, six UPS batteries were found in the back of the (stolen, it turns out) bakkie.

‘My 5000th hour on the Robinson R44’

Like most of us at the start of new careers, I didn’t know where helicopter flying would take me. I just thought it was an answer to prayer, being offered a position as a helicopter pilot in my home town of Centurion. But the above-mentioned events became a watershed moment for me, personally, as I managed to log my 5,000th hour on the Robinson R44 Type while searching for stolen UPS batteries. That’s a fair amount of time on the old Briggs & Stratton. And the way I got to celebrate was with a spirit-building win! I remain ever grateful to those employers who created opportunities for me. And when I failed, they never gave up on me, further helping develop more all-important character.

Thus far, I think it’s paid off for both of us.

Developing air support tactics in the vast mining sector in SA.


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