Not long after the 2022 World Rally Flying Championship held in Brits, the Protea Rally Flying team is again representing South Africa on the international stage. The 2023 World Rally Flying Championships are being held a mere 8 months later in M‚con, France from 25 July to 05 August.
The team qualified in March 2023 at the South African National championships held over two days at dual locations, Stellenbosch and Brakpan. While seven teams qualified to make the team, only four have chosen to take part this year, partly due to the cost of participating overseas.
Quickly, the teams located across Gauteng and the Western Cape, start to plan the trip through weekly online meetings. Alewyn Burger is elected team captain and will fly with Steve van der Merwe as his navigator. They are joined by father and son team Apie and Frederik Kotzee and two husband and wife teams Tony and Pam Russell, and Tarryn and Iaan Myburgh. Leon Bouttell is joining as the Team Manager. The team itself is supported by three international judges, Rob Jonkers, Martin Meyer and Barbara FriebŲse. Hans Schwebel will be representing as the President of the General Aviation Commission.
This brand new South African team, with only one team having competed overseas before, enthusiastically assembles first thing on Tuesday morning at the M‚con-Charnay Airfield. Eager to get acquainted with our aircraft and to start flying, the South African teams are the first to arrive.
The morning passes very quickly as the team are introduced to the Cessna 152 and Cessna 172 that they will be sharing. Itching to get in the air, the South African pilots quickly complete their validation flights, while organisers are still rushing around trying to prepare the airfield, painting gates and setting up the registration office. Flying is quickly derailed by dodgy weather and minor technical issues that require attention from the on-site maintenance engineer.
Wednesday remains overcast, preventing flying to the west of the airfield where the rising ground rapidly meets the clouds. Fortunately, the east presents a wide, low-lying area allowing some routes to be flown with quality training and familiarisation now underway.
Conditions improve significantly on Thursday and Friday with temperatures soaring into the high twenties, leaving the teams all sweating both on the ground and in the air. As the weather improves, many of the other European teams can begin to arrive, flying in their own aircraft to the airfield.
The area round the airfield is spectacularly beautiful. To the east of the airfield are hundreds upon thousands of villages, towns and cities all interconnected by varying size roads, rails and cycle paths. While it is generally flat, the far east of the competition area extends into the foothills of the Alps. The breathtaking Mont Blanc is visible as you fly over deep valleys, surrounded by sheer cliff faces, broad rivers and acres of forest. It is surprisingly common to look down and be distracted by a gorgeous castle, fort or 'prehistoric' ruins.
To the west of the airfield lies rising ground with a belt of hills running approximately north south. Navigation in this area is extremely difficult with the smaller and sparser (a relative term) agricultural villages divided by numerous farm roads that aren't on the map.
Navigation will be carried out using Michelin Road maps. These maps show incredibly detailed infrastructure but no elevation.
A quick mind shift is required to get used to flying without using terrain for navigation. In addition, we have to quickly learn to filter the extreme amount of information available into only what is required to find the next turn point. Figuring out which towns, roads, forests or dams are shown on the map requires full focus every moment that you are in the air.
The organisers provided 4 routes for practice. As the first time in Europe for all the teams except one, there is a lot to learn. Some routes go better than others and each team gets at least one shock to the system before they reset.
A few spot landing sessions allow us to get used to the landing lines set halfway down the runway. We can only guess where any away landings may be.
Saturday morning dawns overcast with rain showers predicted all day. The high cloud base allows some training to still take place while other teams take the time to rest and prepare for the week ahead. The Opening Ceremony is scheduled to take place at 5PM but the rain sets in properly around lunch time and the start is delayed by an hour.
The rain quickly subsides, and the teams gather excitedly in the Square de la Paix for the parade through town. The procession is led by a trio of musicians playing brass instruments and we are met with cheers and welcoming greetings from the locals as we pass through the centre of town. We pass magnificent old buildings, through apartment blocks and down the main shopping streets before gathering in front of the spectacular Saint-Pierre Church.
We filter into the Town Hall where we are welcomed by the Mayor of Macon, the Competition Director, the head of the FFA and the head of the GAC, among others. The event finishes with drinks and local wines that we sample before we head back to the hotel. Sunday will be the first competitor briefing and we all need to finalise our preparation ahead of the competition that starts on Monday!