The December holiday season in South Africa can be a most merry time, full of braais, cooling off around the pool and slow, special moments with family. For me the December break is also a great opportunity for extra flying.
Not only is the security industry at its busiest, keeping would-be thieves at bay, but so too is the charter market often over-extended with the many international guests seeking the quickest and most enjoyable route from OR Tambo to the bushveld – in a helicopter, hopefully.
I take advantage of the fact that many permanent-employ pilots are exhausted by December and keen to go on holiday with their families. This creates a market for freelancers like myself, willing to catch whatever scraps fall from the general aviation table. Over the years, I’ve flown many people to and from the northern and north- western parts of South Africa – many of them joyous northern-hemisphere holiday makers, only too excited to escape frigid Europe.
Lodges generally have runways or dirt strips for planes like the Caravan or King Air, but the really exclusive joints have a helipad. Or, let’s just say, I’ve never not been able to land at a lodge. There’s always a spot.
This month’s column is about two personal flying events from this past December/January. I believe that every life-moment has a lesson to it; if we just take the time to find it. And before these fade from my memory, I thought I should highlight them here. The first was an opportunity to help, and the second was a story about the perils of poor decision making.
If you’ve read this column previously you will know that I’m a bit disparaging about fixed-wing planes. The truth is, like many youngsters, I started out with model airplanes before beginning a helicopter flying career. Heck, I even have a single-engine com licence. Current and recent. (Sssshhh, don’t tell any of my helicopter compadres!)
My first story is about the brotherhood of general aviation. Whatever we fly, from helicopters to crop-dusters to commercial airliners, we have a lot in common – and always have something to talk about.
Late in December, I was returning from an early morning mission – a simple observation duty overhead a client’s assets. Being a school holiday, I had invited my 5-year-old son along for the jolly. I figured it would be better to take him with me than to leave him at home where he would probably just end up in another cabin-fever-induced sibling skirmish. And he does so love flying! So, mission complete, we had put the bird to bed (the term for putting all the covers on and hangaring the helicopter) and had just headed for home when I got a call from a charter company. The caller asked if I was available for a flight immediately. And it just so happened that I was. The gist of the mission was that a Cessna Caravan had suffered a punctured main wheel on touch down on an unpaved gravel strip and needed a spare wheel flown in.
“A rescue mission, Ethan,” I squawked at my son, as my inner little boy danced.
You might ask why another plane couldn’t just fly in the spare wheel? Well, it turned out that the Caravan was stuck in the middle of the runway, rendering the strip too short for another plane to land. Chopper to the rescue!
Off we drove to Lanseria to ready a Bell LongRanger for the mission. The LongRanger is a very capable rescue ship, with plenty of space for a spare wheel and the trestle jack needed to change it. It also has plenty of grunt, unlike the Robinson 44, which we had flown earlier that day. Second on the agenda was to source a new wheel assembly for the bird with the sore foot. The operator didn’t have a complete assembly on hand and being late December, it wasn’t easy to come by. After some head- scratching and phoning around, a complete wheel assembly was located at Fed Air, based at OR Tambo. This necessitated a short hop from Lanseria to ORT to fetch the wheel and a smaller trestle jack, which Fed Air very kindly lent to us (and which would make the entire job easier to complete.)
On arrival, photos were taken of the LongRanger landing next to Fed Air’s Caravans, which is not exactly a common sight at Hangar 14. The cargo was loaded next to my wide-eyed son and we were sent off, with good advice and many “good lucks”. I can’t explain the privilege and excitement we felt as we arrived for a customary low pass over the overjoyed crew of the stricken Caravan, waiting patiently out on the lonely landing strip. The repair took all of half an hour, and then, wheel change complete, we loaded the flat wheel and dropped it and the tooling at Fed Air. It really is incredible to see the joy and enthusiasm of a late-working ground crew, so eager to help strangers. Thank you, Fed Air!
And being my boy’s first rescue mission, he had BIG stories to tell!
Little did I know that I almost needed a rescue not long after. It was a sunny, summery day in early January that I was tasked with a lodge drop off. The plan was to fly empty to O.R. Tambo to pick up guests and then to ferry them to a lodge in the Madikwe area, in the far north-western bushveld. Typically, these flights happen in the afternoon. And what else is common in Gauteng in the afternoon in January? Thunderstorms.
After my early arrival at ORT, the weather did indeed do its best to sweep us off the apron. The storm got so bad that I took shelter and listened to the airport ATC through my headset. At one point, the Ground Controller said, “OK, everyone, stop where you are!” I’d never heard that one before. Then she got all the big airliners taxiing single file back down the runway in close succession due to the 50-metre visibility. Imagine Boeing 777s following Airbus 350s like a gaggle of grounded geese. Well-handled, I thought. What wasn’t well handled was my own decision-making process.
In the end, the storm passed but gave us barely enough daylight to allow us to take off, make the delivery and to return safely to our nest. It was going to be tight.
After briefing my non-English-speaking pax, I headed out at a gallop. A Bell 407 is not weather radar equipped, but I was cellphone equipped, I reasoned with myself. I’d given up verbal communication with my pax in favour of hand signals, which they seemed to mostly understand. Motioning forward and around, I explained badly but vigorously that we were going north to outrun the storm. They seemed more concerned with the catering than the tempest outside. Perhaps storms are worse in Europe than in Africa. I was just happy they had utter confidence in their pilot.
After leaving the initial squall behind us, we flew into a dreamy blue-sky afternoon. “All good,” I said to myself. “That turned out just fine.”
Of course, I was wrong. Soon the blue morphed into grey – a bank of cross cumulonimbuses waiting to welcome us at our destination. And judging by the solid grey sheets ahead of us on the horizon, a huge downpour was hurtling towards us. After a hurried landing, I quickly unpacked the luggage and exchanged greetings, which no-one understood. But there was no time for Google Translate or much civility. I waved as the clients scurried towards the dry lodge, strapped myself in and quickly started the still heat-ticking engine – a tricky exercise with a turbine.
Easy does it.
I knew that the storm was approaching fast, but my mind was more trained on the storm I had out-run earlier. The other equally important factor weighing on my tired mind was daylight, which was disappearing. Fast. Darkness plus bad weather often equals death, and I was determined not to be one of those statistics. As I approached the outskirts of Gauteng, I was met by truly angry skies, angry at my rebellion of trying to fly
while they were around. The grey had now become a swirling black mass – the lowering nimbostratus clouds lit up by lightning bolts, revealing the hulking silhouettes of the cumulonimbus clouds behind them. The last 20 nautical miles felt like an eternity as
I navigated the clearest path I could see through the soup.
Bad choices are often perceived as bad only in retrospect. After all, it’s not as if I went out of my way to make a bad choice or put myself in a precarious situation.
I’ve often had people ask why flying in low visibility is so dangerous in areas I fly often and therefore ‘know like the back of my hand.’ But that’s the problem: flying in good weather, which we get used to here in Gauteng, compared to flying in low visibility with a storm raging, is completely different. The whole landscape can change and you can easily become disorientated. VFR rules are there for a reason.
Obviously, I made it back safely – more than a little exhausted because of the stress. I could pat myself on the back and congratulate myself on being a brilliant pilot, or I could learn from my stupidity. So, lesson learned: always be willing to help out a fellow pilot and come to their rescue, but at the same time remain alert and humble and try not to become the one who needs rescuing!