Ray Watts, my ATC memories part 2

By Ray Watts

Last time we dealt with my time at Jan Smuts and this time we'll be going to Rand Airport.


Rand's tower today

In early 1972, Mr C.J. Bodenstein checked me out at Rand and after that I worked there often as ATC in charge- it was here that I developed my love for light aircraft. As far as I am concerned, airliners are all very well and are necessary for the general flying public to get around, but there is nothing like a light aircraft for the pure fun of flying. At Jan Smuts, any actual contact with the pilots was very rare. However, at Rand it was a totally different scene and this is where I developed my love of general aviation.

It was here where the guys at Smuts assigned a certain trainee ATC to work with me. His name was Charles Flee. We developed an instant liking for each other and it was our mutual enjoyment of the guitar that brought us together. I asked him to come over to our house one afternoon and that is where he met my sister Caryl and as they say, the rest is history. They were married in 1973 and were married for thirty-nine years before Charles passed away in 2012.


Arthur Bradshaw and Schalk Reed

During this time, I was only at Rand when I was rostered to be there. ATC's were dispatched from FAJS on a roster basis and there was not a permanent ATC at Rand as there is now.

There are some really good stories to come out of Rand in those days. It was here that I was let loose for the first time, under supervision of course, on an unsuspecting aviation world. I worked under quite a few different qualified controllers and each one had his own style and way of doing things. I believe that I learned the most from Paul v.d. Heyden, a Hollander, with a wicked sense of humour. It was him who actually left me alone for the first time in the tower. At the tim, and I don't know if it's any different now, if one needed to go to the loo, you had to go downstairs and use the one in the terminal building. Paul made the excuse that he had to go and disappeared. What I did not know was that he had gone down to the traffic hall and was monitoring me on the radio down there. I guess I did all right because he recommended that I be checked out and be allowed to operate solo. The other guys that I got tremendous guidance from were Rob Allison, Ron Peil, Dick Hague, Colin Marais, Basil Smith, Norman Wyer and Dick Hogewind. If I've left anybody out (after all this was in the 70's) I apologise.


Looking out from the tower watching a Comair DC3 unloading

The morning shift was always interesting as Comair operated their DC3s on two regular scheduled routes from there. There was a daily flight to Welkom and back as well as a daily flight to Phalaborwa and back.

At the time, the tower at Rand opened at 6am and the airport closed at 8pm. There were two shifts- 6am to 1pm and 1pm to 8 pm. We used to use a GG (Government Garage) Volkswagen Beetle to get there, having parked our own cars at Jan Smuts. The shifts worked in such a way that if you worked the afternoon shift, you then worked the next morning shift as well, so you took the GG Volksie home. As I lived the furthest from FAJS, it always fell to me to take the car home and pick up the other guy the next morning.

One morning I picked up Colin Marais in Rhodesfield and we proceeded to Rand. We were cruising along and Colin suddenly realised that unless we got a move on, we were going to be late so I floored it. Going through the centre of Germiston I jumped a red robot and nearly took an elderly gentleman out who was crossing the road and so waar as vet, I actually stopped at the next robot that happened to be green. I have never lived this down. A few years ago, we had a reunion at the new ATC centre and the first thing Colin said to me was "Seen any good green robots lately".


C150 (ZS-EDH) in which I had my first official flying lesson

Life at Rand was great! There were always friendly pilots there who were willing to give the ATC on duty a ride and this is where I first flew with the South African legend Scully Levin. This was the 1st time I'd flown in a C150 (ZS-EDH) and was my first official flying lesson.

Scully & I took off on RWY 36 (now called RWY 35) and he immediately did a low-level left turn and headed for the GF. Here he proceeded to put the little aircraft through all the manoeuvres that she was cleared to do and a few that weren't approved (like a barrel roll). This flight wasn't really fun for me as, even today, I don't enjoy doing aerobatics. However, it was a privilege to fly with him. I still see him regularly at air shows etc and it is great to talk to him.

I fully remember one day when I had just gone solo in the tower that it was particularly busy. There were aircraft everywhere and I was trying desperately to sort them out. An aircraft called me and I asked him to please standby - I promptly forgot about him so he called me again and I asked him to please hold his position. His answer was "at 200mph, that's a little difficult" - he was airborne and I thought he was on the ground, There was also a day where the circuit on RWY 29 with a variety of types in the circuit ranging from a C150 (#1) to a Lear Jet at the back of this lot. Just how I sorted this lot out I can't remember but in the final moments the Lear landed #1 and the C150 landed last. This took some juggling, but all were safe in the end (phew).

The Welkom flight used to bring back gold bullion to be refined at the Rand Refinery in Germiston. One would think that such a valuable cargo would have had heavily armed guards with it but no……. there was only one guard with a shot gun who came out with the armed truck to collect the gold. I believe one of my colleagues Arthur Bradshaw wrote a novel based around this flight, although I never got to see a copy.

The Phalaborwa flight was for the mining company people as well as tourists going to the Kruger Park. There wasn't an airfield to Skukuza in those days and the tour operators were therefore based at Phalaborwa. Phalaborwa Mining Company also had their own Aero Commander 500 ZS-EDP, which flew into Rand every morning and then left again at about three pm. I was incredibly sad to hear that this aircraft was written off in April 1995.

I also saw a number of accidents at Rand, fortunately nobody killed or injured, like an Aero Commander (ZS-CLZ) who put down a beautiful wheels up landing on the grass next to RWY 11 with so little damage to the aircraft that it was flying again in a couple of weeks. There was also an SAP C421 (ZS-IAZ) that landed on RWY 11 with the nose wheel at 90deg to the rest of the aircraft. The torque link had snapped. This of course snapped of the nose oleo as soon as it touched the ground and did a lot of damage to the aircraft. There was also a C185 (if memory serves me correctly this was ZS-FSV but I'm not 100% sure) that nosed over on landing and ended up on its back on RWY 29. It took the fire crew a long time to actually find the pilot of this aircraft, because, unseen by all of us, he had headed to the pub at TAC as quickly as his legs could carry him after the accident.

There was also the time when a particularly nasty TVL thunderstorm hit Rand. There was a DC4 parked outside Fields and the guys from Avex pushed all their Cherokees in under this DC4's wings for shelter. It looked like a mother hen and all her chicks and wish I'd had a camera with me as this would have made a great shot. During this storm, there was also another Cherokee parked on the grass in front of the Mobil depot. This one sort of hopped up & down on its undercarriage a couple of times and then turned over. It was actually quite funny to watch, no joke for its owner of course.


The Mooney that nearly clouted the rotating beacon tower

There was also a Mooney one night that was approaching from the south and being quiet, I'd given him a straight in approach onto RWY 36. He was about 1 mile out when the wind suddenly swung to the south and he had to overshoot. He proceeded to turn right on the overshoot and nearly clouted the rotating beacon tower. He made it safely onto RWY 18, but gave himself a hell of a fright in the process.


Bamangwato Concessions Ltd (BCL) Daks

There were also Daks such as Bamangwato Concessions Ltd (BCL) (A2-AAA) and other operators as well. It was a great sight to see all these wonderful old ladies out on the apron doing what they were designed to do.

There was one occasion when I was on duty with another ATC, named Ron Peil when BCL's Dak (A2-AAA) swung on take-off and it looked like she would clip the right prop on the ground before the crew got her back under control. They continued their take-off, did a circuit and landed. The funny part of this is that Ron was eating a sandwich at the time and he choked on it, so here I was, trying to cope with an emergency as well as trying to stop Ron from choking. I believe that I hit him quite hard on the back, enough to knock him off his feet, but it dislodged the bread and he was OK. He never forgave me for this.

There was also the time when I declared Rand to be QBI when it was not necessary at all. To explain the term QBI, this was an old Q code meaning that the weather at the airfield was not suitable for VFR flying and in the case of Rand, where there was no IFR let-down procedure (there was no NDB in those days) and it meant that the airfield was closed. I was looking through the window that was near where the kettle was standing and this of course had fogged up the window - major embarrassment.


Rand showing the Fields Airmotive hangar

Rand in the 70's was a far more relaxed airfield than it is now. Security was much more relaxed as well and one could wonder out on to the apron freely. There was a "Traffic" hall manager, Eddie Sampson, that one simply asked if it was OK to go out. He never said no, there was no reason to. The only hanger that could be a problem getting into was the Fields, one where all the SAAF Harvards, Daks & DC4's were being serviced - Fields Management didn't like strangers in their hangers. Any of the other companies would welcome a stranger and as long as you behaved, yourself you were always welcome.

Just thinking about accidents, I have been very lucky in that in 30 odd years of being in the aviation world, I haven't ever seen a fatal accident. I have lost quite a few friends and acquaintances over the years but I've never seen anyone die. I have seen fatalities in road accidents but never in aviation.

There was one fatal accident at Rand while I was on duty although it didn't happen on the airfield itself. There was one of the NAC Salesmen up in a Baron demonstrating the aircraft to a potential buyer and for some reason, she went down in the houses in Russell Rd, Lambton. Both the pilot and his pax were killed. I have forgotten the name of the pilot which is a great pity but I guess somebody will remind me one day.


The Geoterex Catalina © Air-Britain Photographic Images Collection / Steve Aubery

Rand was a hive of activity and there was always something interesting going on. There was the Geoterex Catalina (CF-MIR) based there and watching her get airborne was always interesting. She always used RWY 29 and used most of it. I actually got a flip in this aircraft which, if one thought it was noisy on the outside, you really must be inside to appreciate just how noisy the aircraft really was. She eventually went off to the UK where she was sold to a group called Plane Sailing as G-BLSC. Unfortunately, she had a mishap on landing in Portsmouth Harbour some years later and sank.


Placo Hangar


The very first BN Islander

There were other very interesting aircraft there both old and new. As this was during the 70's, a boom time for aviation in this country, hardly a day went past without a new aircraft being delivered for Comair, Placo or Beech Sales. It was, for me, rather exciting to see the aircraft crates arrive at the various agents' hangars as well as the twins that were flown in from the USA and other countries. I saw the very first BN Islander arrive as well as the first SA registered Pilatus PC6. Training was in full swing as well and if I remember rightly, there were four or five training schools. Avex Air, Flying Springbok Aero club (the SAA Flying Club), Astral Aviation, TAC and Transair that I can remember. There were also numerous charter companies like Rossair, NAC, Placo etc.etc.

I had started to learn to fly at Rand at Transvaal Aviation Club on the C150, with an instructor Paul Ray (I wonder where he is now). My first lesson was an education in how club aircraft were run in those days. This aircraft was a pretty little Dark Blue & White Cessna 150 ZS-TAC, and after doing the necessary paperwork, Paul then took me through the Pre-Flight Inspection (or pre-fright inspection depending on your mood at the time). We duly completed this and climbed in. All the pre-start vital actions were gone through thoroughly and we proceeded to start the engine upon which the rubber mountings holding the top of the instrument panel in decided to come lose, so the whole panel shook. No trouble to Paul, he produced the star screwdriver on the end of his fuel tester and preceded to screw the panel back into place, as if this was an everyday occurrence. While taxing out, I had a lot of trouble keeping the aircraft straight on the taxiway as it wouldn't respond to my input on the steering wheel (control yoke). Paul had a good laugh at this and told me to put my hands in my pockets (not easy when you're sitting down) and steer with my feet - ah revelation - the aircraft went where I wanted it. Strangely I have never had any problems switching from the car to the aircraft again - a valuable lesson learnt. We taxied out, with me doing the radio, to the holding point of 36. Here he proceeded to show me the pre-take-off vital actions, all very confusing at the time but made a lot of sense later.

When we were finished with these checks, we lined up and I was really surprised how quickly we actually accelerated down the runway. Paul did the take off and once we were clear of the circuit, he handed her over to me. This was the greatest feeling in the world. Here was little old me actually flying - man what a feeling! Paul took us out to the general flying area which was south west of the old Baragwanath airfield and out towards Carletonville. Here he proceeded to start to teach me climbing and descending turns and a little bit of straight & level flying. Overall, we just pottered around the GF and I got to know the area. The time was up far too quickly and we had to return. The ATC, who knew it was me on board, directed us onto a left base for 36 and we duly joined over the silver ball. There was a Siai Marchetti ahead of us, but as he was a lot faster we didn't have any problems with him. All this time I was still doing the flying under Paul's instruction and he only took over when we actually turned final. With me following him on the controls, he proceeded to put down a good landing and we turned off at the 36/29 intersection and then proceeded up the taxiway to the Mobil depot to refuel as he had a cross country next with another student and didn't want to waste time refuelling before that flight. I didn't care what we did as I was in 7th heaven and could have quite happily sat in the aircraft all day. I think I took the rest of the day and most of the night to get down off the high that I was on.

I was on duty again the next afternoon and as is typical of any student, I think, I tended to think of ZS-TAC as "My aeroplane" and was jealous of anybody else who flew her.

After the next morning shift, it was time to fly again. On this flight, Paul really started to do the instruction bit and we started with the most difficult exercise of all - straight & level flying - man I battled with this, but after much patience and prompting from Paul I finally got it right, We then went on to medium turns and practiced these until I got them right, I had booked a double lesson this day as I would not be back at Rand for a couple of days. By the way the cost of learning to fly then (1970/71) was R12.00 per hour solo and R14.00 per hour dual. Quite expensive when your salary was R110.00 per month.


Beech 18 ZS-CFC now resides in Tzaneen

Another visiting aircraft that I enjoyed seeing was Tsumeb Mining Corp's Beech 18 ZS-CFC. She was flown by a German gentleman, who I never met and he always kept her immaculately polished. She was a joy to see. I remember a little girl that used to fly down with her dad as a passenger occasionally. Little did I know that she would, in later life, marry my cousin Mike O'Brien.


Beech 17 ZS-AJT


Macchi MB320 Photo © Henk Wadman Collection

There were a lot of old aircraft at Rand including a Fairchild F24R ZS-BLR, a Beech 17 ZS-AJT, various Tiger Moths and a Chipmunk or two and the only Macchi MB320, ZS-CBA. I remember Alan Lurie (of Spitfire fame) looking at her with the idea of restoring the aircraft, but the wood rot had gone too far to be economically restored and she was scrapped.


The Author's photo of the Spitfire flying over Hartbeespoort Dam

It was during my time here at Rand that I got to meet Larry Barnett, who was rebuilding a Spitfire in his garage at home in Observatory. He used to fly an Aztec ZS-EAA to his forestry project/farm in Swaziland and I spoke to him about visiting his house to see the project. A year later, I was still going to his house every Thursday evening to work on another part of the aircraft. It was a proud moment to see her flying. This is a photograph that I took from a Cessna 206 of the Spit flying over Hartbeespoort dam.

The time that I spent at Rand was a very happy time and I was sorry to leave there.

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