Flying from private unmanned airfields has many benefits, but also some unexpected complications and many lessons in common sense. We are constantly learning

The author.

I have always loved older aircraft, and with so many aircraft having been built in the sixties and seventies, finding a good example is not too difficult. The more original the aircraft, the more I love it.

I have a particular fondness for the 1964/5 Cessna 150 ‘D’ model – the first C150 with the ‘Omni-Vision’ rear windows. Previous models sported the ‘fastback’ raised rear fuselage, which gave limited visibility.  The ‘D’ also sported  what Cessna called the ‘Land-O-Matic’ sprung-steel tricycle landing gear as opposed to the ‘conventional’ tail wheel. But it still had the straight tail, plus a long handled manual flap lever between the seats and a little white T-handle pull starter near the top of the instrument panel.

Notice the simple flap lever and pull T-handle starter on the top of the panel on this early C150.

My friend Kim owned this particular little beauty, and in those days she was the pride and joy of us both. She slept in her own little hangar on a private airfield, and on most weekends one of us would take her out for a flight around the patch, or visit neighbouring airfields for an early morning jaunt.

This Sunday was going to be a little different. We had planned a cross-country to Estcourt, Howick and back. Six am found us pulling her out of the hangar for a wipe down with the leather chamois, and then the standard pre-flight.

There was no fuel available and so like many others we refuelled from two 50-litre plastic containers, and we were careful to ensure that the aircraft and fuel system were properly grounded.

A few weeks earlier, a fellow flyer lost his Tiger Moth to a hangar fire when a static discharge ignited the fuel vapours. He did a sterling job by pushing the flaming aircraft out of the hangar before any other aircraft were damaged. Not having a fire truck on the airfield did not help matters. He had made a number of mistakes because of complacency. We did not want a repeat episode.

I cannot remember whether the Tiger pilot had any fire extinguishers available, but we kept them within arm’s reach while we refuelled. We had calculated and hopefully loaded the correct quantity of fuel for our trip.

By the time we were ready to leave, the airfield was in full swing with those new-fangled weight-shift microlights dominating the skies. Wives and girlfriends (hopefully not for the same suitor) were sitting under umbrellas while the children ran around … all in all, there was a good ambience.

Climbing into a classic aircraft can be a bit of a mission.  This model had an angled doorsill rising to the rear, and I imagine that skirts – whether worn by ladies or Scotsman – would give the spectators an eyeful.

The airfield was not fully fenced, and some cows grazed between the two grass runways. We decided to take turns piloting. Take-off was a non-event and we set sail for our first destination.

After a wonderful day of flying around the countryside and visiting friends, we arrived back much too late, and with the fuel gauges showing a little less than the 45-minutes reserve we should have had.

The little microlights with the hanging seats under their ‘samoosa’ wing had disappeared, and the airfield was strangely quiet. The hangars and clubhouse were closed, with not a soul in sight. Usually, some stragglers stayed behind after the day’s flying, enjoying drinks around a fire till late hours. But not today…

We checked the windsock for wind direction and decided on a runway, then immediately realised that there was a problem. Those pesky hamburger patty animals had decided to use the grass runway for a conference and sleepover. No problem, we’ll use the other runway. But lo and behold, the bovine brutes were there as well. In fact, they were on the intersection of both runways.

Those pesky and stubborn bovians.

It was now time for extreme measures. Usually, beat-ups are frowned upon, but we had no choice. A little low-flying down the runway with a gentle pull-up should move them out the way. Or so we both thought!

We dive-bombed them again and again, but with no luck. They had decided that this was where they were going to bed down for the night, and no way was a noisy little aircraft going to change their minds. Kim and I contemplated a short-field landing, but decided against it, as the remaining runway was a tad too short on either end. Besides, if anything went wrong, we wouldn’t have had anyone to help us.

We couldn’t radio anyone, as the airfield was unmanned. Using a neighbouring airfield was out of the question because it was getting dark fast, plus landing on an unknown unlit runway could be quite hazardous. We were stumped.

Then much to our relief, on our fifth turn to do a beat-up, we saw a vehicle turn into the airfield road and race across onto the grass runway, straight for the cows. With headlights flashing and, I imagine, the vehicle horn blasting away, the driver managed to successfully herd the reluctant animals into the bush.

Our favourite C150 ZS-EDE (Alas she is no more…)

Ever so grateful, and watching the needles of the two fuel gauges now reading ‘E’ (for enough), we lined up for the landing. We touched down almost on the threshold, as we wanted to have as much of the runway as possible available. From experience, we knew that the grass runway would be wet and slippery from the evening dew, so we braked gently.

As we rolled to a stop over the runway intersection, the wheels kicked up splodges of sticky cow dung onto the tail and underside of the aircraft. But we weren’t too bothered; we were just happy to be safely on terra firma, in one piece.

We taxied our little orange Cessna with fresh brown highlights back to the hangar, and thanked the Good Samaritan – who was waiting nearby.

We learned that he had been on his way home from the abattoir, had noticed the commotion, and rightly deduced that we needed help. If I had my way, those cows would already be at the abattoir.

WHAT WE LEARNT

•Private and unmanned airfields allow a lot of freedom and afford you the opportunity to fly in a relaxed environment. You can camp and braai and introduce flying as a family activity. But there are many downsides, such as the lack of security, personnel, fire-fighting and medical facilities, or runway lighting.

•We should have arrived back earlier and made arrangements with someone to keep the runway clear – especially knowing animals frequent the airfield.

•Had we returned earlier, we could have used an alternative airfield.

•You can never have too much fuel, unless you are overweight (or on fire).

•Grass runways cause less wear and tear on your aircraft, but can also hide rocks, holes and molehills. At dawn and dusk, grass runways can be wet and slippery. Braking must be done gently, with increasing pressure as you slow down. Sometimes it pays not to brake at all, and let the aircraft slow down by itself.

  • Always have an alternate plan for when things go wrong.

ADDITIONAL POINTS WE DID REMEMBER

•You must not keep fuel in the hangar or refuel inside a hangar.

•During refuelling, you must always ground the aircraft and fuel system.

•During refuelling, always have fire-fighting equipment and fire extinguishers on hand.

•Ensure that this equipment is fully serviceable and not expired.

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