On Friday night the Stellenbosch Club members got together to wash the AN2 while some of the competitors were practising.
Saturday 27 October saw the 2023 edition of the SA Landing Championship, held simultaneously at Stellenbosch Airfield in the Western Cape and Brits Airfield in Northwest Province. This is the second year in which the championship has been split, in order to allow participation by as many aviators as possible.
I need to say up front - I love competition! Whether as a competitor or an official, I really enjoy the atmosphere that goes along with competing. I especially love events at Stellenbosch Airfield, which is always so welcoming a host facility, and where the members who participate in sport flying thrive on every opportunity to challenge themselves, and never seem to drop fun in favour of focus, or focus in favour of fun.
ZS-OHI (Cessna 172) in the background showing the starting point for the two Cubs. Both were in line with it, chocked in place, at the start of the 11am break am break in proceedings.
A Cub and its chocks. Both pics by the author.
By 7:30am, Deon van den Berg (Competition Director), Mauritz du Plessis (Chief Judge) and Leonie du Plessis (Landing Judge) had come through from Kleinmond and Gansbaai with all of the necessary scoring equipment and were setting up the paperwork portion in the clubhouse; at the same time, Anton and his staff were preparing for their day, and got right onto the most critical element - the heating of the coffee machine.
Now I don't know if it was the general mood of anticipation ahead of the Rugby World Cup final, or if it was the pre-competition vibe around the SAPFA event, but for whatever reason, Anton urged his staff to make “some Americanos and a bunch of Capuccinos, on the house, for the early birds”. I just want to say thank you, Anton, the competitors and organizers really appreciated that kindness on a chilly morning. Those who got up at 5 to get to the airfield from the southern Cape coast especially.
Let me give a little bit of background on a landing championship, which is a little bit different from the accuracy landings that follow an ANR or a Rally. If you already know how it works, skip ahead to the sterretjies (***) at the end of this section.
There are two categories of competition - Sportsman and Open. For the Sportsman class, one set of landings is flown. Also, because the rules are slightly more relaxed in this class, the pilot may take along a passenger or observer. Most of the pilots who opted for Sportsman class on Saturday, did so in order to fly with someone else on board to share the experience. Hopefully this will lead to a few additional people entering next year. For the Open class, two sets of landings are flown by a pilot, who must be alone in the aircraft.
Each set of landings comprises four different exercises. The first is a normal powered landing, with the aircraft configured as the pilot pleases. The second (confusingly known as landing 4) is a powered landing over a 2m high obstacle that is placed 50m before the bingo line. Next is a glide approach with optional flap. Finally, there is a glide approach with no flap. For the glide approaches, power is cut on downwind, abeam the bingo line. No power may be taken until after the aircraft has landed and rolled clear of the landing grid.
All landings take place into a landing grid with a 2m “bingo” line, and with 1m markings before and after it. Distance-based penalties are applied for landing before or after the bingo line, with higher penalties for a short landing and lower penalties for a landing after the line. Landings outside the box, abnormal landings, and landings that contravene various other rules primarily aimed at managing safety, attract the maximum landing penalty of 200 points, with a possible total of 300 if safety penalties need to be added.
All the competitors had arrived and prepared their aircraft well in time for the unexpected free coffee, and the briefing started promptly at 8am. At the briefing, the rules were explained and the pilots divided into groups of four. Each group was to perform a set of four landings and then make way for the next group. Once all the groups had flown, there would then be a break and the Open pilots would go off in two groups to complete their second set of four landings.
Having fun. Photo by Rikus Erasmus
At 9am, the fun began as the first group rolled out and spaced their take-offs to position themselves comfortably in the circuit. I had hoped to sit alongside Tony, but since the rules don't allow for this, I got to join the landing judges at the side of the runway instead. This can be an uncomfortable task, but it is always an enjoyable one, sometimes a thrilling one. The judges are always poised to flee, just in case. But on this occasion, despite the conditions, we were spared the adrenaline surge that can come with the job.
It was a little cold, however, and we felt a few drops of rain. One of the pilots later confirmed that the few drops we felt translated to quite a few more drops from the perspective of a moving aircraft. Luckily it was at no point sufficient to stop play and the cloud remained high. Similarly, the wind, despite being strong and gusty, was at least mostly from the front-ish.
Alewyn Burger waving for the judges on departure for his second set. Photo by the author. There were a couple of go-arounds on the glide landings. There is a massive “hole” that sits over the dam to the north. It was impossible to fly a consistent approach with this pit of doom awaiting to apply whatever random amount of suction it feels like to each passing aircraft. So pilots needed to approach high, see where they emerged from the sink, and sideslip late on the approach to get the perfect positioning for the landing. There were more than a few go-arounds from pilots flying only slightly too high and finding themselves rapidly vanishing from the judges sight into the valley while taking power and roaring overhead to safety.
After everyone had completed the first landing set, Deon spent 5 minutes trying to wrest control of his paperwork from the elements, before coming inside to review the current status and assign the sequence for the Open pilots' second set of landings. While everyone killed time, it was noted that the Cubs, parked into wind and chocked, but not tied down for the short break, had jumped their chocks and gone off to play on their own. Since both had settled in their new positions, Alewyn and James simply re-chocked them in situ. Further inspection showed that the Antonov AN2 which had been parked side on to the wind had weathercocked into it as well. It's great to know the aircraft were having their own fun as well.
As I write this, I have no insight as to how the Northern and Southern results compare. It is well understood that the challenges presented by the two fields don't match, even on a no-weather day. But it remains a far better situation than leaving either the North or the South out of the competition entirely. Each group is flying at a familiar field, in conditions typical of their part of the country, and each local winner can and should celebrate their achievement accordingly. Becoming National Champion as well is surely just the cherry on top.
The second set of landings went off very quickly and efficiently, with just 3 pilots each in two groups. The scores were all much better than in the first round. There might be an interesting bit of psychology here. Initially in the briefing, it had been communicated that in the Open class, for each landing type, the weaker one would be dropped and the final score would be calculated using a total of 4 landings. More than one pilot indicated that as a result of this understanding, they aimed to do well on their first landing, but if special heroics would have been required to recover an issue, that instead of fighting all the way to the line they instead regarded it as a learning opportunity to be fixed in round 2. Looking at the scores, the Sportsman pilots did better in the first round (their only round) than the Open pilots did. However, in the second round, the Open pilots all upped their game appreciably even though conditions had certainly not improved.
As it turns out, there had been confusion regarding older and current rules, and both landings did in fact count. This was explained as the scores were returned, and although there was some disappointment and a few if only's, there was no protest and everyone accepted their results in good spirits.
The results being issued at the club house. Photo by the author.
A huge congratulations to everyone who took part, especially those participating for the first time. And well done indeed to our Southern winner, James Spilsbury with a very good score of just 288. This was said by the very experienced Deon and Mauritz to have been exceptional in the conditions. He was followed by Thys van der Merwe on 485 points and Alewyn Burger with 565.
Thank you to all of the organizers and to Stellenbosch Flying Club for their outstanding hospitality as always. And if I may, from myself personally, thank you to Alewyn for his flamboyant acknowledgement to the judges on the first take-off of each landing set. Nice socks!
Results combined with Brits - National:
13 - Quintin Maine - First heat only - Brits
12 - Frank Olsen - 1134 - Stellenbosch
11 - Chris Burger - 914 - Brits
10 - Tony Russell - 825 - Stellenbosch
9 - Jury Steyn - 796 - Stellenbosch
8 - Jaco van Zyl - 614 - Brits
7 - Mike Blackburn - 590 - Brits
6 - Alewyn Burger - 565 - Stellenbosch
5 - Thys van der Merwe - 485 - Stellenbosch
4 - Tarryn Myburgh - 409 - Brits
3 - James Spilsbury - 288 - Stellenbosch
2 - Dale de Klerk - 119 Brits
1 - Ron Stirk - 95 - Brits
Postscript: We wouldn't be South African if we didn't take a moment to reflect on the amazing game of rugby that was played on Saturday night after our event. For a moment there, we were all Cheslyn! But now that the trophy is safely back in South African hands and we can breathe again, it must of course be shown to the people! Luckily, the Springbok team has a Protea team that can help. Congratulations to Steve van der Merwe and Alewyn Burger who were selected (not without some active lobbying I'm sure) as crew for the SAFAIR flight for the upcoming multi-city Trophy Tour! Enjoy every second of it guys, you earned it!