There is proof that the Brotherhood of Aviators is alive and well and is thriving on the KZN north coast.
I had a ‘call out’ from my employer, for me to deliver a pump from Durban (Camperdown) to Sodwana Bay, where he was involved in a fishing competition and a meagre 360kms from home. This would have been something of a marathon in a weight shift Trike, but an absolute breeze in my little Rainbow Cheetah, besides what more could a man ask for – to go cruise the easy coastal flying, during working hours! In addition, prevailing weather this time of year would have the outbound leg with the wind abeam and the return leg as a tail wind.
Well we’ve all heard about the “best laid plans of men and mice”; on the outbound leg we found 10knts of headwind, which necessitated climbing to 5000′ to find a marginal tailwind – a regularly found phenomenon on the S.A. east coast (but that’s the subject of another technical story), all this in clear skies and ‘hands off’ flying. Bliss. Upon arrival at our planned destination the airfield was rather alarmingly devoid of any human activity and there began what was the first in a series of challenges. With my passenger now hastily punching out an SMS to Gary, who had ‘commissioned’ the flight, I did a precautionary pass of the field, the first need being to chase a few zebra herds away and of course to do a runway inspection. We didn’t like what we saw, very long grass, which despite it’s length revealed several patches of dune type sand. We gave up risking a landing on this precarious surface, especially since there was no one to meet us and we flew north by only 2kms to buzz the lodge, in the hopes of alerting Gary of our arrival.
The decision was then made to fly some 5kms inland to the nearest village runway at Mbazwane, in order to regroup and to establish proper comms. The transition from the silky smooth coastal air to that of some vicious thermals over the flat land was marked and I was happy to join a left downwind for 06 Mbazwane, especially after 3+ hours in the saddle and a brim full bladder. At Mbazwane we found a Cessna Caravan and a very grand ag-cat biplane with a huge Pratt & Whitney radial engine, but no reception committee. Word then finally came through on a borrowed phone (Gary had inadvertently left his phone at the lodge) that he was now 8kms out to sea and the man tasked with meeting us had dropped his cell phone overboard the day before, “but he was surely waiting at the field, as instructed” said Gary. This was simply stages 4 to 6 in the comedy of errors, troubled communication and misunderstood directions.
Airborne once again and now becoming increasingly conscious of fuel levels, we proceeded back to the first air strip and you guessed it – still no one home. Having buzzed the camp once again, we went back to the strip and did the requisite precautionaries. Aware that this would be a nail biter, we were now committed and went in for the landing. Despite the several low passes, I could never have anticipated how bad it actually was, the grass was in excess of the height of the prop spinner, the ground was littered with meercat burrows and where not full of holes, it was as soft as dune sand. Let me tell you that if you ever want to test ‘arrestor bed’ technology with your aerie, then this is the place for you. We were dead stopped within about 30 paces of touchdown, with the entire cockpit full of swirling grass seed, which the prop had harvested and pumped in through the air vents. By the way, I have not mentioned thus far that we were a party of 2 Cheetahs and my mate was on the radio asking if I was OK and how was this place for landing? Mark was by now so low on fuel that irrespective of what I told him, he would have to land.
With much the same ‘big eyes’ landing Mark made a great ultra short field touch down and there began the very animated chatter and recounting of this landing experience. We concluded that we needed new decals for our aircraft “Cheetah 4X4”. It was quite incredible, to see two aircraft standing in grass long enough that no part of the gear is visible. Another call was placed via the borrowed phone to Gary, updating him of our whereabouts, our dire need for fuel and refreshment, and the absolute absence of one Gavin, the fellow who was to meet us. With huge reluctance and in order to alleviate the situation, Gary decided to head for shore, abandoning a glut of Cuta catching. Knowing the time it would take for this whole process, we set about conducting minute inspections of our aircraft. After a landing like we’d had, this was not the usual ‘walk around’ which one ordinarily does at an outlanding point, it was thorough and almost with some expectation of finding that some part had succumbed to the rigours of the landings. We also used the time to ‘walk the course’, traversing up and down the runway in order to select the optimum take of path for later on.
In 38degree+ temperatures, radical thirst and hunger we waited, until some 1.5hrs later a call came from Gary to say that he was on the runway and where were we? The sinking feeling was ominous, simply by hearing this question indicated that we were in for more complications. He had misinterpreted the directions and was at a microlight strip 2km inland, instead of where we were 2km south of Sodwana. With 25kph of steady headwind, at sea level and with the Cheetah having jumped her chocks in the shortfield launch, we were airborne in an immeasurable but incredibly short distance. With massive relief we set course the 4kms to the next field. The elation of the successful launch was miserably dampened upon viewing the field where we found Gary – it looked all of about 150 to max 200m long! This was clearly a Trikes only runway, but it was well mowed, wide and with an almost straight and strong headwind for the landing – what to do??? Thankfully knowing the stall speeds and especially being at sea level, I did one of those ‘hang it off the prop’ landings and even surprised myself at how short the landing was. After what had originally been planned to be a 09h00 meeting, it was now well past midday and thanks to the searing heat we attacked the cold drinks. Refuelling was concluded, the *#~^ing pump was handed over and in the space of half an hour we were ready for blast off.
The tail wind on setting course for home was magnificent, settling down to a 100% smooth and 160kmh trimmed cruise, we were surely getting some ‘pay back’ for our efforts of the morning. Wrong again! As only Richard’s Bay can do, we quite incredibly now encountered turbulence, followed by some substantial headwind. This was a ‘FF’, otherwise known as a ‘darned front’ and it really was ‘the last straw’. Nevertheless, based upon all the GPS calcs, I had enough gas with reserve and I pressed on, into what was now approaching 40kts of headwind, but I worried about Mark. Sure enough, inland abeam Ballito Airfield there came the radio call, Mark wisely had decided not to tackle the Umngeni Valley and the headwind, whilst on limits with fuel. We exchanged notes on the radio and figured Ballito to be the easiest option to put down, this in order to rest ourselves and to refuel. Joining overhead I was very concerned that Ballito was devoid of any activity and clearly all locked up, this was going to be yet another challenge. Would we ever get home? The circuit and the final approach into Ballito was horrendous, with wind measured at above 40knts and flying through the rotors and turbulence, it was a case of full control deflections to keep everything straight and level.
On finals into Ballito there came a voice on the otherwise very silent (nobody would fly in that wind) radio waves “those guys needing fuel and going into Ballito, if you don’t succeed then you are welcome to fuel and shelter at La Mercy”. My response was to instantly call a ‘go around’, to take power and set course for La Mercy – only 5 minutes away. We landed at La Mercy and were guided like an airliner on the apron, directly into an open hanger, this for protection from the wind. Dave and Annette between them presented the best welcome and hospitality I’ve seen for jonks and to top it, this was a call they had made to apparent strangers in need of support. Annette clearly identified the degree of our undernourishment and provided coldrinks, for which she refused any cash, whilst the groundsman ran around fuelling our aircraft. A new surprise for Mark was, the ambush of landing with a flat tyre – which was definitely ‘the last straw’. After all we’d been through, we now had to contend with this matter. Later examination revealed a pinch hole in the tube which occurred between tyre and rim and presumably due to the goat track we’d landed on at Sodwana. Were it not for Dave’s willingness and enthusiasm to fix this problem, I do believe we would have simply given up at that point, called for road transport and gone home.
Whilst attending to the puncture we heard how this SWesterly buster had hit them earlier. We also learnt that microlighters who had landed some months earlier than us, on the same Sodwana strip had been arrested by the Parks Board. Ignorance is sometimes bliss – but, Phew! The slow puncture could not be fully repaired and Dave eventually ended up on the threshold of the runway, occupants on board and the engine running, he pumped from a portable compressor and then jumped aside indicating that Mark should ‘hit the gas’. The was like an F1 pit stop scenario, with the most exciting part being that Mark knew he would very likely be landing back home with a flat – daunting.
A whole day and 7.3hrs of flying time later, we landed back at base, very, very tired, still hungry and with filthy aeroplanes. You know what they say about “maagies vol, oogies toe”, well after my evening meal there was just one loud bang – it was my eyelids closing. What became very clear from this outing was two things; Africa is not for sissies and that ‘the brotherhood of aviators’ has been proven by Dave and Annette to be alive and well in KZN. Thank you both for your trouble, your hospitality and your willingness to help. I will hope to repay the compliment someday – if not directly to you, then at least to another aviator in need.
Cheers for now,
PS – not meant as a commercial but; if anyone out there is looking for a fast 4X4 microlight rated aeroplane, then call Rainbow Aircraft in Jo’burg, they make them – and unlike a Landy, it won’t break down on you. (Oops – hornets nest in the making).