And I finally got a bit of spare time to update. So – last year I had some time off planned, and decided to take a week off and do some bush flying in Africa. There are plenty of offerings, from a full blown bush safari (complete with porters and hotel accommodation) to more simple fare of a plane and a swag.. one place did stand out of the couple of days research that I had done however – Bush Air‘s mountain flying course. Run out of a small airport in Neilspruit about 3 hours east of Johannesburg in South Africa. It stood out due to the amount of different opinions that the owner has generated amongst the local and international pilots. I had to go and check it out – for my own experience if not only for the journey!
Flights were duly booked, along with hire care and travel insurance. Having read up about Johannesburg being a dangerous place if you’re the wrong person in the wrong place, this had the makings of an interesting journey.
The flight down was uneventful – from the UK South Africa is just straight down, no time lag as it’s in the same timezone. BA provided the usual good standard service, and I took the opportunity to catch up on some films during the trip down. The hire car was picked up and duly checked out, bags packed into the boot and maps consulted. Straight forward I thought – until l realised that in fact I’d missed my turning and ended up driving north an hour to Pretoria before realising my mistake.. Never mind – time is not of the essence and petrol is cheap.
Stopping to refuel at a service station I had the chance to taste some of perhaps the most famous export South Africa has to offer – proper biltong.. It’s like dried gold – basically dried strips of meat that is smoked and spiced.
The scenery was stunning – think Dorset but desert.
The colours were wonderful
And finally I arrived to be met by the owner and my teacher for the next 3 days – CJ Pocock.
A couple of beers to relax, and a chance to unwind with a couple of the other students on the course, both locals who had flown in from Johannesburg in their C172 for the experience. They confirmed some of the rumours that surrounded CJ – everything from him being a wild bush pilot to people having some kind of religious experience when flying with him (whether good or bad I was unable to determine however..) Also along for a 2 day review was a local reporter, who would be covering the magazine for African Pilot – one of the premier aviation magazines in South Africa.. Perhaps I’ll even make the write up!
The airfield – what a view..
An easy nights sleep lead to dawn, as the sounds of Africa came cascading through the window.
Gathering my flight bag and heading down to the hanger at 7am for a flight briefing would take some getting used to – I’m used to a far more relaxed approach to school! Never the less, the briefing started and CJ started to probe us on our knowledge, experience and expectations for the stay at Barberton. So far it’s totally normal – nothing that I would not have expected outside a normal flight school. CJ has a definite style and passion when he covers the topics that we will be taking part in over the next couple of days, and you have the feeling that he talks of emergency topics with a wary eye of someone who’s experienced them first hand. We’d be covering Emergency engine failure, short field landings, low level (tree top) flying, canyon, wing overs, emergency canyon turns to name a few. A quick glance between the 3 of us exchanging surprised looks and raised eyebrows confirmed that we were not sure what we had signed up for. Nevertheless, we were duly dispatched for a very hearty breakfast, and straight into the cockpit for the first days flying, Stabilised approaches. We took it in turns flying circuits, stabilised flight approaches to perform what we thought were good landings. After one such attempt CJ just laughed – commenting that by the end of the week we’ll be landing in half the distance. The afternoon’s flying consisted of a refresher on basic emergency drills, more circuits and lectures. Before too long it was approaching dusk which always sneaks up near the hemisphere, and we were putting the aircraft into the hangar and securing the compound, heading back to the bar for a well deserved beer. or two.
2 lucky local pilots!
We all commented that the experiences so far were not really what we had expected – it was a mix of trepidation with some of the upcoming sessions and relief that we’d survived the first day, not having made many mistakes..
The second day saw us packed off to practice STOL take off techniques, after an hour or 2 of ground school before breakfast. In the C172 the bush air standard is to perform a performance takeoff – 1 stage of flaps, feet on the brakes, hold it full power then release for maximum progression. Let the aircraft accelerate to 30 knots, pull 2 stages of flaps, count to three and then rotate. The effect was marked – takeoff in as little as 250 meters, able to clear 50ft at 350. Soon we were all performing takeoff’s in under 300 meters repeatedly (nearly half the distance on the first day – not bad going). The afternoon was landings, pulling the aircraft through the approach, taking the last stage of flaps at the last minute, power on then dump into the ground, on the brakes, drop the flaps and halt – I kid you not, less that 150 meters.. amazing.
Jean – the reporter from African Pilot – even commented that from where he was standing it looked very impressive – a much greater improvement was being noticed all round. Back to the hangar for beer and another excellent meal. Not only a good teacher but a good cook also! The third day promised to be the most exciting – and worrying for some, as we were performing PFL exercises, canyon flying and steep canyon turns.
The next morning, after a debrief, it was the turn of more circuits, then onto the PFL exercises. CJ took us overhead the airfield, cut the engine and then said ‘well you’ve got an engine failure – what are you going to do about it!’ No time to argue – standard into downwind, check the fields are under the wing, base, field still under the wing, parallel into final and then touchdown. Not bad. The afternoon flying was more of an eye opener. The 2 local pilots were a bit more nervous at this stage – unlike the UK where controlled flight into terrain (usually in IMC) is the largest killer, in South Africa it’s canyon running – going up a no-way-back canyon, coming to steep terrain and a downdraft resulting in a crash.
We flew about 20 miles to the south, looking at the scenery which lulled you into a false sense of security with it’s beauty. Into the canyon, now the lesson really starts. Pointing at the track to take, CJ says ‘right – you’ve got 5 seconds to work out where the wind is coming from, so we can place the aircraft in the right part of the canyon. Make a mistake and we’re gonna crash’ as he then proceeds to count down, me returning his look not sure if he’s being serious, then realising too late that he is as I frantically peer out trying to make sense of the environment.. ‘ummm – the north?’ I venture.. Wrong.. ‘nope – we’re bushmeat.. Try agin – fly out and back’ as I turned back around for another try. This time – taking into account the downdrafts on one side of the canyon I made a proper evaluation and came out with the correct answer. ‘Yep’ CJ ventured ‘Right – get onto the updraft side, perform a canyon turn and take us around’.. back to the other side, full power, 2 stages of flap and yank the yoke around, inside a tiny circle and back to the uplift side of the canyon again. ‘wow – not bad’ I said and CJ just smiled that flight-instructor smile – you know, the one where you’ve done something right, but they never totally say anything unless you get too confident. I’ve see that smile before – but this time it was for a different reason. ‘now – canyon turn, you think we can turn on the spot? Look at the road below, we’ll turn in no more than the width’ CJ said as he took control. Full power, flaps, nose pointing up 30, 40 degrees, suddenly a wing-over and we’re riding out to the bottom of the turn like a roller coaster. more wow!
refueling – bush style..
The final day was a culmination of the previous days work – CJ took the 2 local pilots off first, as they had their unmodified Cessna whilst I was flying CJ’s pride and joy.
After they returned we headed off and into a couple of dirt strips – no more than fire breaks – along the side of the road. The strips were usually one way in, one way out – at some point in the approach you make a go / no go decision, as after this point you can’t turn back even if you wanted to. The following field was just that – about 350 meters in length, a microlight strip barely big enough to turn around it, we were duly in, down, parked up in a short space of time and distance. As we were taking off CJ said ‘the next one I’ll do – it’s not one that people can usually do until they’ve been flying bush for a long time’ as he pointed out a small patch of dirt on the side of the road. It was not really a landing strip – barely 250 meters in length, I’ve seen longer I’m sure! However with CJ the control’s there was no drama, no flicker of uncertainty, just the calm precision that he’s exhibited these last couple of days.
It’s totally different flying to what we experience here in Europe – freedom, responsibility and perhaps more danger. But nothing you cannot plan, prepare and be ready for – which is one of the best reasons to get as much varied experience as possible. Time learning is never time wasted.
For me this trip was a great experience – from the friendly local people, through to the serious amounts of fun we had flying about. I think we all came away from this with something. For me it was the canyon work, I don’t get to experience hills like that as England is mostly flat. However I did get something extra in the post a couple of weeks later – a write up with some pictures of me flying!
Yours truly. A (slightly) better bush pilot..