There is never a dull moment as a pilot, especially when it comes to the weather.
On the day we were meant to leave it was decided to deploy to Upington for the day (to try beat the weather) with a display practice at 3000ft and 30 degrees Celsius... my nerves already started to play havoc with my system.
Flying along the route I suddenly observed tiny birds swishing by my aircraft when suddenly there was a splat on the windscreen. Locusts as big as mini micro-lights were migrating to somewhere!!! It felt like a mini war for a while with thuds and splashes all over the aircraft whilst trying to dodge the majority.
Arriving in Upington we were greeted by a fresh breath of hot air which is ops normal in Upington. With the temperature between 30-35 degrees Celsius and height of 3000 feet above sea level I am sure no one can judge me for calling on my mentor and the advice of the team on how to fly formation aerobatics in these conditions.
During the display we heard a request over the radio from one of the airport vehicles to stand closer to watch the beautiful display. I am glad they enjoyed it because I was sweating in that cockpit to maintain references ;-) it was challenging, but as always lots of fun :-)
Then the gremlins started to arrive... On landing one aircraft experienced a Generator failure. Our own mechanic and test pilot (Capt Sproul) climbed in, and within 5 minutes the aircraft was fixed :-) Relief was on everybody’s faces.
On the Thursday our journey continued to Ermelo with a stop at AFB Swartkop to refuel. Unfortunately when trying to start for the last leg of the journey, the gremlins came back. Despite Capt “mechanic” Sproul’s best efforts, this time he could not get the aircraft to start. We had to leave the aircraft at Swartkops until spares arrived, and an hour later we were on our way.
Approaching Ermelo we decided to send Jacques (the PRO) to inspect the runway for landing whilst the team held overhead the town to prickle interest for the weekends Airshow among the locals ;-) Unfortunately the nr 5 aircraft had to land first as per instruction from our ground crew so we decided to land in reverse order. Whilst setting up for landing nr 5 got dyslexic and reported base leg for RWY 31 but was actually landing RWY 13. Suddenly confusion reigned amongst the team. Are we landing 13 or 31? Nr 5 was fined heavily for that!
After two days of travel, early mornings and late landings we finally arrived and shut down at Ermelo. As always, we were greeted with big smiles and jokes from our ground crew, as we unpacked and after-flighted the aircraft. Already the locals came to greet and marvel at the aircraft with questions ranging from technical, to flight details, to pilot info, to recruiting and training :-) it's always nice to see and talk to enthusiastic people about aviation, which you can see a deep inner feeling for flight and love of aviation is burned into their souls.
Transportation was arranged by the Airshow organisers, but who would have thought that our driver would be Player 23!!! ;-) A young man greeted us with a springbok shirt on, an exact look alike to player 23 and yes... the number was on his back ;-)
That evening the whole Team (20 people) went out for supper. Not long after arriving you could already sense something is going to happen and low and behold I received an ice cream dessert with all of the Dros’ waitrons gathering for, yes, a birthday song for me although my birthday is not until August!!! ;-) 'Welcome to the Team Capt Van Niekerk!' was the cheers from all around with me as red as a pepperdew :-) and this was not the last time it happened! You got to love initiations ;-)
I don't think I've ever monitored the change in weather as much as I did on this trip. Being an ex-weather observer I must confess that the weather patterns had me confused like a chameleon on a smartie box at Ermelo!!!
The evenings were clear, the mornings had low clouds moving from the east at 1500ft and the temperature was between 0 - 30 degrees Celsius!!!
Friday is normally validation day, Thursday being practice day and Wednesday travelling day...On this trip, Friday was validation and practice day. Something not recommended at all for your 5th and 6th displays at the most challenging Airshow of the year concerning environmental conditions in South Africa! My nerves were playing havoc again with my body for the display, but then I heard my mentor’s voice in my head. "Anticipation and gentle handling MG!! It's key… But don't over think it… Also a good tip.. Think that you are at home, that's all"
Validated and ready for the show, the Team spent the night at the Airport meeting all walks of people, chatting to old friends of the Air show circuit and enjoying the evening with our hosts.
Saturday was show day with the normal safety briefing and program layout for the day was discussed and finalised. We were up first. Again the weather was bad and no good for the good weather show. Off we went. Normally participating aircraft are kept away from the spectators with fences or barricades. Ermelo is a very small airfield, and it was quite interesting how people followed you around the aircraft on your external inspection, asking questions on why are you looking there, what is this on the aircraft ;-)
Started up and ready to go with engine temperatures in the green and a whole crowd watching our every move, we finally got clearance to get airborne. By this time the weather has improved to scattered cloud at 1500ft. 'Bad weather show still a go' the leader assured us over the formation frequency.
Ready to display, and loitering to the west, the radios was a constant buzz of clearances. One thing I've learned is that an Airshow display programme is nice on paper but situations always change. Half an hour later of a constant "you are delayed to time (xx:xx)" from the GLO, the call came through, "cleared for the run-in!". Unfortunately by this time my nerves got the better of me. Adrenaline rushing through my body with sweat already rolling off my back, my body couldn't keep still in the cockpit and we were running in!!! It's never a good thing to tense up in formation. You lose the ability to feel the response of inputs to the aircraft, all errors have to be picked up visually, and all your senses want to shut down. It felt like two seconds had passed when the leader called "Falcons break GO!" on the fan break! The display was complete, but as all pilots know, the flight it's not over until the paperwork is done ;-)
On landing and shutdown the crowd cheered and waved. Feedback from the commentator was “job well done!” Relief flooded through my body as my assigned ground crew member congratulated me on a beautiful display. Again the spectators came rushing to the aircraft to meet the team, take photo's and maybe get a glance inside the cockpit.
The first show was done and the weather started improving more. After our debrief, and feedback from the GLO, the team mingled with the crowd, answering all types of questions from aspirant future aviators of all walks of life.
The day flew by again, and before I could realise it the leader called for a briefing time at the support hangar where our aircraft where standing. The good weather display was briefed and planned display time was 1705B. The only thing I kept hoping for was that by that time the temperature would have gone down to below 20 degrees Celsius.
Confusion reigned again on the radios as display aircraft wanted start, taxi, display times and small aircraft in between that wanted to fly back to their destinations. We were supposed to get airborne before the Hawk display but we were parked in by a L39 starting up for their flight back to Pretoria. As if Murphy wasn't causing enough chaos around the airfield he then decided to escalate the confusion and delays, by causing the L39 to leak fuel out the port wing. Fuel sprayed everywhere! Fire extinguishers were rushed to the aircraft, which had already started! Luckily the crew are all well qualified in their respective fields and the aircraft was shut down, pulled away and the leak stopped.
Finally we got the go-ahead to get airborne, but then the delays started again. 'Delay by five minutes!' the GLO said and then a minute later 'cleared for the run- in!!!' I think for future displays I am either turning down the volume of the frequency or I must ask the GLO to not make it sound like war has just broken out! My nerves were shattered!!! ;-)
The most challenging manoeuvre for me is the Heartbreaker. Peeling off the leader and rolling to the correct offset point with sometimes no visual reference on the ground, only a heading bug on the HSI, the actual display line which you can only see at the apex of the heart, and your number three racing towards you for the cross to assist in positioning!?!? An old, experienced pilot once told me that a good pilot is one that flies half seat of the pants and half by numbers. Flying only seat of the pants, or only by numbers will kill you.
When you can hear the voice of your leader starting to relax you know the end is almost there and before you know it he calls again for the fan break.
After the individual flypast and landing the aircraft safely, I noticed for the first time the people waving next to the runway whilst I was still rolling on the runway. If they only knew the wave of relief I felt after another safe display with again a job well done from the commentator :-)
As a new team, we always have the shoes of the previous team to fill and the quality of display pilot to maintain. It made my heart cry a tear when the feedback came that they could not see the difference between the old and the new team. Perfection has been maintained. For myself, I am grateful to the people that were part of my initial training because, it's because of them that I've been able to reach this height in my career. The afterhours sorties of constant loops, barrel rolls and wingovers, the sometimes needed harsh words from the falcon instructor that flew with me, and the guidance and wisdom of the old team leader (as the formation leader and my Instructor for my low-level aerobatics phase). I am a reflection of their teachings, their passion for aviation, their constant striving to achieve greatness and their love of flying...
The band of brothers (and sisters) live on...
Falcon greetings Nr 2