The decision has been made; we are going to France! A total of four teams from South Africa will make up the Protea Rally Flying team in Macon 2023. The excitement is palpable and everyone is making travel plans already.
My next challenge is that while I have quickly gained many happy hours on the Jabiru, this unfortunately won't be available for the competition. The most likely scenario is that we will need to hire and fly a Cessa, although which type is still to be determined.
Cessna aircraft are very popular as training aircraft and just as popular for rally flying and it is rather unusual to have no time on a Cessna but a whole lot of hours on a Jabiru. With that in mind, I do a bit of research and settle on a flight school with a whole fleet of Jabiru's that also offers training on a Cessna 172. I am delighted to have an instructor that understands the differences between the two aircraft very well. I will need to get very familiar with the Cessna rather quickly!
I promptly discover the downside of training at the extremely busy Wonderboom airfield as the instructor and I wait 15 minutes before we can enter and line up on Runway 29. The flight passes by quickly as we go through the various manoeuvres including a simulated engine failure resulting in a landing on 'Freeway' airfield. We finish with a few circuits in different configurations and before long, I am the holder of a shiny new C172 rating. That didn't feel too bad!
Flying the Cessna 172
The Cessna 172 is generally preferred by rally pilots. A 4-seater, with a powerful engine, it is more spacious for plotting and allows a wider range of speeds that makes flying in a rally easier, particularly when it is windy. All this is fantastic for the average sized person, but as a medieval sized person, I found it quite unwieldy (Medieval size is a running joke after visiting various European ruins that were clearly meant for short people only). Spotting photos could be a challenge without a mountain of cushions.
Still internally debating the next step, I had the opportunity to fly a Cessna 152 while in Southend on Sea, UK. The instructor seemed confident in my skills as we strap into the little Cessna on an unusually bright and sunny British afternoon. The busy skies and crazy airspaces soon melt away as we fly a short hop to a local field, Damyn's Hall, all while I gape at the approaching London skyline. This typical grass countryside runway sports a beautifully manicured runway and apron surrounded by hangars full of Tiger Moths, Turbulents and Pipistrels. Unable to stop drooling over the spectacular surroundings, the instructor drags me back to the aircraft and we get airborne on the very short 650m runway. As I marvel at the Thames River, the seaside towns and the beautiful scenery on our way back, I realise that a 152 will suit us perfectly. The view is incredible and hopefully this will make photo spotting easier in a rally.
Now that we know that the Cessna 152 will work for us and will be available in France, the trick is to find one that we can practice in. These aircraft are not particularly popular at flight schools in Gauteng because they are underpowered for our typical hot and high conditions. I contact Mike and he kindly allows us to fly one of the most beautiful Cessna 150s around, ZS-PVY, nicknamed Tygga. The 150 is similar enough to the 152 that it will work for training and familiarisation.
I find a suitable instructor and after we complete all the relevant manoeuvres, he allows me to put her through her rally paces as I try slow flight, the speed up as much as possible, followed by some steep turns, and a few extra stalls and spin avoidance for good measure. Feeling slightly more confident, I hope to get a few more flights in before we leave. Now already mid-May, there isn't much time left before we leave.
The first flight that we plan is just a recce to get used to the plane. We first do a series of touch and go's at Rustenburg to get the feel for landing and climb performance. We then we throw in a bit of timing. This includes finding a particular feature ahead, like a road intersection, and flying to it to see how long it takes, all while trying to maintain 75 knots. This helps to get a feel for timing from our new vantage point. With our limited time left compounded by limited time before a service is due, we make the most of the flight and hold thumbs that it isn't the only one.
I follow this up with a request to Ron Stirk and Hans Schwebel, to please fly a few circuits in their C150 with them. Ron is a multiple World Landing Champion and Hans is an extremely experienced rally pilot. While this 150 has an upgraded and more powerful engine, flying with these phenomenal pilots is an amazing opportunity. It also offers the opportunity to fly a different Cessna. It sounds trivial but getting used to minor differences in cockpit layout is quite important to help me feel more comfortable, after all, we have no idea what we will get in France. The flight is extremely valuable as I set up my new landing procedures and slowly get closer and closer to that elusive bingo line.
Between the flying, we spend many hours training at home. We have set up our home simulator and create mini navigation routes for ourselves. Each morning we try to fly a short 'route' around Mâcon to get use to the terrain and navigation on the busy French maps. This competition will use the Michelin road map, a particularly detailed map showing mainly infrastructure such as road, rail, rivers and villages. And my oh my, are there roads and villages?! Vast swathes of farm land are littered with hundreds of villages and towns, all connected by what feels like gazillions of roads. Unlike the Brits area, we need to filter out too much detail and use information sparingly.
In the evenings, we practice photo spotting on Google Earth. We create mock sheets of photos that we need to find and then have to correctly mark on the map as Google Earth flies a 'route'. Not only does this help for photo spotting, but it also really gives a nice view of the landscape and the types of features that can be used for navigation. It doesn't hurt that the area looks beautiful too!
We finish our physical training with a final flight in Tygga, the C150. We have a full mock up competition planned. Iaan plots the route in the aircraft while I prepare our photos before start-up. The small procedures such as finding places to keep your pens and important bits of paper play a crucial role during a competition. If all goes smoothly on the ground, it sets the tone for the flight. If everything is helter skelter and you can't find your pen, it never bodes well for an easy day in the air.
Not long after I cross the Start Point, Iaan suddenly starts to look pale. He hasn't taken a motion sickness tablet like usual and the heavy smog over Johannesburg has a noxious smell that isn't helping. I divert to Brits Airfield for a spot landing and a literal breather. Once Iaan starts to feel better, we do a shortened version of the route and fly back to Eagles Creek. While the flight didn't go according to plan, we still feel satisfied that we achieved what we set out to achieve. With one week to go before we depart for France; we hope we have done enough. There will only be four days to practice in Mâcon before the competition starts. Check in here next week to find out how the practice week in France will pan out…