Flying

Last updated 2015-10-15

I started flying in 1982, and with a few interruptions have flown fairly regularly ever since.

I now hold a South African Airline Transport Pilot Licence, with a Grade I Instructor's Rating. The licence includes instrument and multi-engine privileges. I am also a Designated Flight Examiner, Class 1, able to issue and renew any aeroplane licence on behalf of the Civil Aviation Authority. I also hold a South African Commercial Pilot Licence and Grade III Instructor's Rating on helicopters, although I relatively seldom have the opportunity to fly this category of aircraft. I'm a Class 2 Test Pilot on both aeroplanes and helicopters.

In the USA, I also hold a modest collection of certificates, including an ATP with a G1159 type rating and a CFII (ASE/AME/Instrument). The ratings include Airplane Single and Multi Engine Land and Sea and helicopters.

During 2001, I completed a business degree (BCom) in which I specialised in aviation management. The course work included a lot of industrial psychology dealing with flightdeck management. If you're an airline type, you'd probably know it as CRM.

Because I've never been a full time pilot, I have only about 5400 flying hours in my log. However, I've flown over 140 aeroplane models and 10 helicopter types, and have instruction experience on more than 120 of those models. Some of the more interesting types include the Beech King Air 90 and 200, the Cessna Citation 500 and 550, the Hawker HS125, the Gulfstream II and III, the Eurocopter 120B, the Bell JetRanger and the Hughes 500. Perhaps the most fun to fly is the Robinson R22, although it also has the potential to bite the unwary at a bewildering rate. Should I mention that the least fun to fly was a specific locally-assembled CH701 Skyjeep?

In my youth, I applied to several airlines, but most of them seemed to feel that my part-time hours did not match my age. As I aged, I became less enthusiastic about an airline career. I decided to pursue an engineering career instead. In the end, I got the opportunity to fly some pretty exciting stuff while holding down a real job. More than 1300 hours of my flying has been in jets.

During 2002, I flew more than usual, as a bout of unemployment forced me to do whatever I could to pay the bills--even helicopter flying! The picture shows me in the office, over the Free State plains in an EC120B. The picture was taken from the back seat by my friend Bernie van der Walt. The EC120B is a new-technology machine, and is indicating over 120 knots at an altitude of over 4000 feet (1300 m). Those who know helicopters will agree that these figures are not too shabby.

Chris in ZS-ROJ

During my compulsory military service in the Eighties, I was trained as Air Traffic Controller in the South African Air Force. It was interesting to learn how the other half lives! Contrary to popular belief, my ATC job was the least stressful I've ever held. It did indeed sometimes get hectic. However, clearly the system is designed to prevent overloading any specific individual, so the pressure can never become too much to bear. Also, when one goes off duty, it's all over. One can't take work home! In case you're wondering: I was stationed at an Air Force base that was home to squadrons with at least ten aircraft types. At the time, in terms of movements, this base was the busiest in the country. For a single controller to handle 150 movements an hour was not uncommon. So: I like to think that I am qualified to venture an opinion on ATC stress levels!

Given South Africa's tumultous recent past, I have for some time felt that I wanted to make a contribution to maintaining law and order. In 1999, I found an avenue to do that. I rejoined the South African Air Force as a pilot on 111 Reserve Squadron. The Squadron is involved in reconnaissance and transport sorties. For some years, I was the Squadron's training officer, with the rank of Major. I occasionally flew VIP transport sorties in jet aircraft, mostly Hawker and Gulfstream. The Reserves are currently dormant, but they may rise again.

The picture shows two of the jets I regularly flew, on a fly-by at the 2007 Air Force Day parade. The leading aircraft is ZS-OIF, a Hawker HS125-F400A, in which I have done some very satisfying flights. The longest have been to Mahe in the Seychelles and to Lagos in Nigeria, both on civilian medical evacuations. The one closest to the camera is ZS-PFG, a Citation 500 Eagle in which I recently presented my first jet type rating training course. I also did my first trans-equatorial flight as captain in this jet, to Bangui in the Central African Republic.

111 Squadron Jets

One of my few long-standing ambitions in flying was to cross the Atlantic as pilot. I had visions of removed seats, ferry tanks and wearing a lifejacket in the pilot seat during a 20-hour crossing. In early 2010, I had the opportunity to ferry a Gulfstream III (N554HD, now ZS-VIP) across the Atlantic. I flew as co-pilot while we made our way home in leisurely fashion--four legs over three days. Somehow, flying a powerful bizjet across the ocean in five hours is so much more civilised...

I subsequently had an equally exciting opportunity to ferry a Gulfstream II to a boneyard in California. It's a long way (over 16 000 km!).

The most spectacular trip was also in a Gulfstream, crossing Africa at night and flying the entire length of the Nile valley. We then crossed the Mediterranean into Turkey, then to Algeria, before returning home. This trip literally drove me to poetry. I'd always wanted to write a classic Shakesperean sonnet, and here I finally had my inspiration!

My greatest flying adventure happened in 2015, when I had the opportunity to drive a 1944 Grumman G21 Goose in Alaska. The story was published in World Airnews, October 2015.


Flight Training

I became a flight instructor as a way of getting other people to pay for my part-time flying. However, I soon caught the bug and have found my instruction to be a major source of meaning in my flying.

For more than 25 years, I have given part-time flight instruction at a number of local airports. Because I have always had a real job outside of aviation, much of the training has taken place at night. Over the past years, I've helped several pilots with advanced training, including night and instrument flying, multi-engine ratings and preparation for Commercial and Airline Transport Pilot licence flight tests. Because I've flown a few weird and wonderful types, I also provide occasional type-specific training.

2007 saw another breakthrough when I managed to present my first jet type rating course. I have subsequently been involved in regular recurrent training for a charter operation. I must admit that I had no inkling when I decided not to become a full-time professional pilot that I would ever fly jets, much less that I would ever provide hundreds of hours of training, teaching others to fly them!

Since 2008, I've been involved in regular training and licence revalidations on medium jets, as a Class 1 Designated Flight Examiner for South Africa's Civil Aviation Authority.

Towards the end of 2003, I started a flying school at Kitty Hawk airfield just east of Pretoria. The school is called Superb Flight Training. Although I am no longer involved, I ran the flying school for about 13 years, supervising over 10 000 hours of training. Although the strains of running and funding a company part-time proved very demanding, the results of all that training proved very gratifying.

After I became an examiner, I started concentrating on instructor training. I am convinced that instructor training is the most efficient way of sharing my experience with other pilots. Every hour I spend with a would-be instructor can be multiplied many times over. This point was brought home recently when I met a training captain for a local airline, who is now providing training at the airline and who was trained by one of my instructors in my flying school.

My first book, What to do in an Aircraft Cockpit, is available in English and Afrikaans and is already in its third printing. It was also published in the USA by ASA as Cockpit Procedures: Effective Routines for Pilots and Virtual Aviators, and is available from many pilot shops and about 150 bookshops on the Web.


Memories

Wanting to be a pilot is a genetic thing. I can recall day-dreaming about flying even before I went to school, although I never realised that mere mortals could fly just for fun. I thought one had to pursue a career as a pilot to get access to these amazing machines.

I never flew in a light aircraft until my first flying lesson in 1982. However, I recently came across evidence that I'd at least been exposed to aircraft much earlier, as this picture from 1969 shows:

Chris the Fighter Pilot 1969

The aircraft is a Mirage F1AZ, a ground attack version of the aircraft that held its own even into the Nineties, when the Iraqi Air Force used them in the Gulf war.

Some of my fondest memories of flying are from 1988. At the time, I had just completed my compulsory military service, and had a government subsidy to allow me to complete my helicopter training. For about six weeks, I had nothing to do but fly a helicopter around the countryside. I spent some time in the Drakensberg and on the coast near Durban, honing my skills and enjoying nature. Few things can compare with landing on a mountain summit and gazing down into the valley 2 km below for an hour or two, while nibbling at a lunch pack and sipping ice-cold fruit juice.

My timing was impeccable. Within weeks of my return, the Helicopter Association of South Africa organised its first helicopter competition. With airline pilot and helicopter instructor Glen Dell in the left seat, holding the bucket and giving me directions, we won both heats hands-down, and were asked to do a display at the Star Airshow in September 1988.

At the airshow, I did a routine with a water bucket suspended on a long rope below the helicopter. The routine included having to manoeuvre the bucket through an obstacle course and then placing it on a table. The sequence was timed, and the amount of water remaining in the bucket was measured to determine one's performance. After I'd completed the sequence, again with Glen Dell watching the bucket and issuing directions, the chief flying instructor of the helicopter school followed in a second helicopter to do the same sequence. Unfortunately for him, he managed to get the bucket into oscillation, spilling all the water and not getting the bucket through the obstacle course in time.

With a huge crowd in attendance, I had no way of knowing that my parents had decided to come and watch. Only later did I learn that they were standing in the crowd. The announcer did mention the names of the pilots on the PA system, but didn't mention who was flying which helicopter. At the distance, my parents could not recognise my face. Imagine my indignation when I discovered that, after watching the first pilot zooming through the course and the second not quite making the grade, my mother had turned to my father and said: "Don't worry, he's only been flying choppers for a few months. He'll get better"!

Glen Dell, who was mentioned before as being my eyes and ears in the left seat during this escapade, has subsequently gone on to greater things, winning a number of South African titles, and more recently going on to win the World Advanced Aerobatics title and participating in the Red Bull Air Race series. Glenn was killed in an airshow crash in 2014.

For a decade, I did virtually no helicopter flying, but when I returned to it in 2002, I found that the basics were still in place. Given how hard it had been for me to learn to fly helicopters initially, it's amazing that my brain had retained the ability almost undiminished. Even mountain flying and limited-power operations still appeared to work like in days gone by. The picture shows a Eurocopter 120B Colibri coming into the hover over a pad on the edge of a 300 m cliff. We were servicing a mountaintop repeater in the foothills of the Drakensberg, during 2002.

Mountain Flying in ZS-ROJ

Perhaps the fact that helicopter flying appeals to me as much as it does is a matter of personality, as this famous quote from the days of the Vietnam war suggests:

"The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by its nature wants to fly, and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance the helicopter stops flying; immediately and disastrously. There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter.

"This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot, and why in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooding introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if something bad has not happened it is about to." --Harry Reasoner, 1971.

There is an alternative explanation, though. The LMF Theory was only recently declassified. It provides a convincing psychological model to explain why some fly choppers and some don't.

I flew the State President's Trophy Air Race in 1988, along with navigator Martin Scharf and technical support team member Peter Clark. We flew a Beech Baron B55, and placed in the top fifth of the field on our first attempt. The race was unforgettable, especially the last few minutes. Ours was one of several dozen aircraft, screaming down on the finish line after having crossed the mountain some minutes before. We had several thousand feet to lose, and the finish line was in sight. It felt like a Battle of Britain movie, except that all those aircraft were fortunately flying in the same direction. Ours was one of the fastest aircraft in the field, so we took off in close to last position. In the furious descent to the line, we passed about a dozen aircraft.

Other vivid memories include flying a B737 simulator with a friend who was a South African Airways training captain, and flying a helicopter into a dark valley in the Drakensberg mountain range, at night. The latter flight was memorable only because I'd assumed that it was going to be a two-crew operation, only to learn in flight that the instructor and would-be crew-mate had not flown on instruments in more than a decade. He had not deemed it necessary to share this fact with me. A Hughes 500 is not a very stable instrument flying platform, and flying it into confined valleys on moonless nights is not recommended for single pilots...

Ironically, that flight ended uneventfully, but a flight in the same helicopter a few weeks later did not. I had an engine failure during a descent, and had to make a forced landing in very rough terrain at rather high elevation. I hit a tree during the flare, and came to a standstill inverted. It is clear from the wreck that the relatively minor injuries were a miracle, but I still spent several years recovering from a series of health problems. My friend and passenger Bernie van der Walt also had some trauma of the spine, but at least he didn't have a control column to penetrate his chest, like I did! This mishap didn't change my perception, though: The most dangerous part of flying is still getting to the airport by car, as I get to see on virtually every flight I make!

A new memory was added to my archive in April 2007, when I was disturbed from Sunday lunch at a friend's house for an Air Force flight. Imagine my surprise when the passenger turned out to be none other than South Africa's then president, Thabo Mbeki. Apart from everything else, I never thought I would ever have the opportunity to say, "Johannesburg Control, South African One is maintaining flight level four one zero"... The aircraft was ZS-OIF, the Hawker leading the formation in one of the pictures above.

AIRS

Early in 2001, I established an anonymous aviation incident reporting system for South Africans. The idea was to allow individuals to report aviation hazards anonymously, without fear of humiliation or prosecution. Unfortunately, I got no cooperation in advertising this service through CAA channels, as they were planning to introduce their own equivalent system eventually. And here I thought we were all trying to work together towards aviation safety!


Highs and Lows

Here are some personal highs and lows:

  • Highest altitude: 45 000 feet (Flight Level 450)--on many occasions, mostly in Gulfstream jets. The beauty is that a Gulfstream can get there in about a quarter of an hour if it's light enough. With a strong tailwind, it's worth climbing all that way.
  • Lowest altitude: -1260 feet (that's below sea level!)--on 2011-04-24 in a C172 on the western shores of the Dead Sea.
  • Highest speed: Mach 0,98, in a near-vertical full-thrust dive in a trans-sonic jet trainer during April 2011. Those stories about rising drag as you approach Mach 1 are definitely true. Getting up to Mach 0,98 was easy. Going any faster was not.
  • Lowest forward speed: About -15 knots, in a variety of helicopters over the years. Going backwards faster is possible in principle, but flying backwards in a helicopter is risky. If you inadvertently touch down, you're in for a lot of paperwork! The tail rotor also doesn't take kindly to being pointed into the airflow, and directional control requires a lot of footwork (sic).
  • Most in one year: 421 hours in 2004. You probably know someone who does more on a regular basis, but he probably doesn't have to hold down a real job and study part-time. Flying is a lot more fun than working, and some guys actually get paid for doing it.
  • Most g: +10 and -5 g; both in a flight in an Extra 300 in March 2012. The pilot was practicing his Lomcevaks. It was an amazing experience, but not strictly a lot of fun.

    Training Resources

    I'm building a collection of useful reference materials for flight training. It will grow with time, but for the moment there are already a few useful items. Let me know if you have more ideas or material.


    High Flight

    Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    Of sun-split clouds--and done a hundred things
    You have not dreamt of--wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence.

    Hovering there,

    I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air.
    Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
    I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
    Where never lark, or even eagle flew;
    And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

    John Gillespie Magee, written in a Spitfire over wartime Britain. He was apparently the first American to be killed in the Second World War.


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