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2003 President's Trophy Air Race
Tempe, Bloemfontein - 12 to 14 June 2003
By Harry Antel
The weather for this years President's Trophy Air Race was absolutely perfect and so Barry and my flight up to Tempe on Thursday 12 June was a pleasure and the Drakensberg and Eastern Free State were as beautiful as ever. We arrived at Tempe at 12.30 after a flight of just over two hours and spent most of the afternoon entering, refueling, scrutineering and all the other tasks that need to be attended to on the afternoon before the race. By about four we had completed the pre race preparations and went for a couple of cold ones in the clubhouse pub.
The briefing was at 6.00 pm and after briefs from the Race Organiser, Safety Officer, Met, the Starters and ATC, we were given the route. The first days route was all to the north of Tempe and was the following: Tempe to Reivilo (137.84 Nm), Reivilo to Schweizer Reneke (64.32 Nm), Schweizer Reneke to Wesselsbron (69.73 Nm) and Wesselbron back to Tempe (72.43 Nm). The total distance was 344.32 Nm.
Once we had collected our route sheet we left for our B & B to plot and study the course. Our first problem, when we started plotting, was that we couldn't find Reivilo anywhere. Someone had informed us at the briefing that Reivilo was Olivier spelt backwards, but even this important info did not help our search. Eventually we managed to find Rievilo in my Aviation Directory for SA and using the co-ordinates we found it two maps away from Tempe! The other turning points we found without too much trouble and after about an hour and a half we had plotted the course, recorded all the headings and put markers for our calculated position every five minutes along the course, using our handicap speed of 128.2 knots.
Day one of the race dawned as perfectly as the Met chap had said it would and the wind at Tempe was zero. This year was the biggest entry that I have ever experienced and to try and describe the atmosphere and different feelings that one has being amongst 68 other entrants before the race, and at start up, would be impossible. I did the pre-flight checks while Barry organised the maps, stopwatch, and all the other last minute details that needed to be attended to. After the preflight I had time to get the remaining ice and dew off the plane and give it a quick last polish, every speed advantage counts in this race! Our take off time was 9:24.00 and so at about 9:00 we got settled in the plane and waited for the start marshal to give us permission to start. We received this permission at about 9:10 and the engine fired immediately and then cut out, I was sure that this had been part of a recurring nightmare I had been having lately! After another prime the engine started and kept running. Because of the unusually cold conditions I was perturbed at the low oil pressure for the first minute or so after start but the pressures were soon up and we were taxiing behind 48 other aircraft, with another 20 following behind us to the start, another experience that you have to be there to appreciate.
The start on the first day had been changed from 60 to 30 second intervals, this means that the plane ahead is just airborne before you roll. We took off behind race no. 59, a Cessna 177A (Cardinal). After takeoff it was a matter of holding runway heading until the end of the runway and then a sharp left turn to pick up the heading for Rievilo. After about 10 minutes we overtook the Grumman AA5 that had taken off two ahead of us. Towards the end of this long leg I noticed that the fuel gauge for the back tank was indicating empty after only an hour. This tank had 53 litres at the start and should have completed 1 hour and 20 minutes at my estimated fuel burn of 40 litres per hour. I advised Barry of the position and decided that the gauge may be wrong and so I would run the tank dry. I climbed up to about 300 foot agl and soon after this, at 1 hour and 5 minutes, the engine cut out, after selecting the left wing tank the engine got going again quite soon and I immediately descended again. My mental arithmetic was now going flat out to try and calculate if we had enough fuel to complete the course at this fuel burn of nearly 50 litres per hour! We had calculated our total flying time at 2:40 and so had 1 hour 30 minutes still to go, at 50 litres per hour we would need another 75 litres and we only had 80 litres left!! The pressure was now on me to use less fuel and constantly calculate our position, as to continue at full throttle, or pull back. I leaned the mixture slightly and took an exact time when we changed on to the left tank. I also decided to stay on the left tank and run it dry as well, so that we could then make a final decision as to how we should fly out the last tank. This would mean that we would fly the last part of the race right wing low, but it was worth this flying discomfort to know that we had exactly 40 litres remaining when we changed on to the last wing tank. If the position did not improve we might be forced to throttle back and abandon the race or even divert to a runway before the finish!
The Reivilo turning point was the runway at the town and, due to Barry's faultless navigation, we had no problem finding the marshals at this point and set course for Schweizer. On this leg we heard one of the lady race pilots advising that she had a very rough engine in her C182 and she was returning to Reivilo to land and asses the problem. Both Barry and I were impressed by the way she handled this difficult situation and also the safe way in which she returned to Reivilo without any disruption to the other competitors. She got back to Reivilo safely and won a well-deserved award at the awards banquet for the professional way in which she handled the problem.
We turned at Schweizer without any problems and ran the left tank out on the next leg to Wesselbron. The fuel position had definitely got better but, as we both felt that we should have at least a 10 minutes reserve, we elected to pull back slightly on the throttle on this leg. The difference in the revs was minimal, about 50 rpm, but I felt that it would make quite a difference to our consumption. Wesselbron came and went and our times were still looking very good. On the last leg to Tempe we noticed that the westerly had started and so, as we were into wind, we elected to get down as low as possible to try and limit the effect of this headwind. About 15 minutes from the finish I calculated that the fuel concern was over and so gave the Grumman its head and we raced to the finish in excellent times, our stopwatch indicated 2:40.15. Our actual time was a gain of 54 seconds on the estimated time for the course. We averaged 128.92 knots, just faster than our handicap speed of 128.2. When fueling the plane we established that we had 12 litres left in the right tank, which equated to 14 minutes at our average fuel burn for the day.
Soon after we finished we heard that two planes had landed on roads because of fuel exhaustion, so we weren’t the only ones low on fuel! Fortunately both planes were able to take off again, after refuelling, and both arrived back at Tempe that afternoon. Another casualty on the first day was a Beech Baron that struck three birds causing quite severe damage to the nose cone and both wing leading edges, they were able to make some running repairs that enabled them to race on day two.
After fuelling we headed back to the B & B and managed to get about two hours kip before the evening briefing at 6:00 again. The briefing was as per normal with Oom Dup and Oom Dors, the official starters for the past 20 odd years, explaining the revised start procedures for day two. The planes now start so that, using the gains or losses of day one and their handicap speeds, they would all theoretically cross the finish line at exactly the same time. Using these criteria the slowest planes start first and the times between planes could now be seconds! We then were given the route for day two and headed back to the B & B to plot the course.
About an hour into plotting Barry and I were horrified to realise that one of the five maps that we needed for the route was wrong!! At this stage we thought that the race was over for us, as without an accurate 1:250000 map for a big section of the course Barry would have no way of navigating accurately enough for us to be competitive. After a while we decided to check exactly what map number we needed, while establishing this it suddenly became clear that we had used this same map for the first days route, they must have given us a different map instead of two of these maps. Barry always cuts off all the areas of the map that we don’t need, so that they are easier to manage in the cockpit space, and I had personally thrown away the cut off pieces the night before. It was unlikely that the piece of this map that we had used on day one would be any help. After another quiet time Barry suddenly said that one of the maps we used had the first very long route to Rievilo going diagonally across it and he didn’t think that he would have cut much off that map, and he also thought that it was the map we needed! It was now about 10:00 pm and we returned back to Tempe airfield and the plane, at high speed, as we had left the used maps in the side pouch of the plane. Our concern that we might have problems with the military guards was unfounded, as the guarding standards of the SANDF have obviously not improved since my days in the SADF. We were fortunately not challenged by anyone and quickly took the maps to the light in the marquee to check them. To our utter relief the map that we required was the only whole map amongst the five!! Another 20 minutes back to the B & B and we completed the plotting etc. by about 11:30, about 3 hours after this farmers usual bedtime!
The weather on day two was once again perfect. On arriving at Tempe Barry went to find the start times for the day and I did the preflight and cleaned the plane. I also put a couple of cable ties on the wheel struts to hold the brake pipes flush behind them for less drag, every second seems to count even more on day two! Barry arrived back at the plane with our start time of 10:16.46 and the news that we had come 8th on day one. After studying the results we saw that we were only one minute and four seconds behind the winner and so if we got day two right we could still finish in the top five or so. One worrying fact for me was that our take off time was only three seconds after the plane ahead of us, a Samba with a handicap speed 3.4 knots slower than us, this could make for some interesting take off decisions! The plane started first time this time and we were soon taxiing behind 11 other planes to the start. The adrenaline levels on day two of this air race must be some of the highest that can be achieved. The wait for the Samba’s green light seemed like forever and then the wait for our green light felt like three seconds! I had enough room behind the Samba to keep full throttle until rotation, because the turnout was right after takeoff I obviously had to plan to overtake him on the outside and so went left of him in the first turn. To my surprise we didn’t catch up to him nearly as fast as I anticipated and I probably lost about ten unnecessary seconds on the first turn because of this.
After a few miles we had overtaken the Samba and started counting down the slower planes ahead of us as we passed them. According to our time points we were making good time and by the first turn point at Jagersfontein we were only six seconds behind our estimated time, even with the lost time at the start.
The next leg was to Smithfield and we found the rugby field, in the middle of town, with no problem, at this point we were about two minutes ahead of our estimated time and were really pleased with our navigation and height choices on these two legs. The fuel situation was also much better than the previous day and we got 1 hour and 20 minutes out of the 55 litres that we had managed to squeeze into the back tank this time.
The third leg took us back over Tempe and we must have been close to the front at this stage as we had passed most of the planes that had started ahead of us. The Tempe leg was into wind and so we got as low as possible and were able to hold on to our two minute gain. From Tempe it was still into the slight wind and so we stayed low to Bultfontein.. After we turned over the cross-runways at Bultfontein we routed for Boshof and elected to stay about 200 foot agl for this leg. We felt that we had a crosswind on this leg and would rather be spot on with the navigation to try and gain a few seconds in this way, right decision because we gained another 53 seconds!
At the old Boshof airfield we turned for home and were leading the race at this stage with a very good time. Met had advised a light westerly wind and as it was midday and the heading was 090, we elected to climb to 6200 feet, about 2000 foot agl, to make use of this predicted tailwind. I must say that I had my doubts at this decision, relying on Met predictions is not one of my usual decisions! In the climb after Boshof I used every skill I have ever developed from my hang gliding and microlighting experience and managed to use every bit of lift we encountered during the 2000 foot climb and so hardly lost any speed. Once up at 6200 feet all we could do was keep the Grumman on the step for max speed and navigate as accurately as possible. Quite a normal comment from Barry during the race is "you are about 50 metres left of track, but don’t worry just hold this heading for now and I will tell you if it gets any worse", he’s incredible with a 1:250000 map!! The accuracy of our maps is also unbelievable, if the map indicates a road to a farmhouse with a right hand turn around a kidney shaped pan, then believe me there will be a farmhouse with a road with a right turn and the pan will be kidney shaped. And if we should be routing over the pan but are 50 metres to the left then Barry would also have seen that!
If you are leading this race and fly the last leg at 2000 foot agl it seems to take forever, all you want is it to finish before one of the faster planes, you can hear reporting at Boshof, passes you. When we had Tempe visual and reported two minutes out we were still in front but also knew that some of the planes coming up behind us were doing between 180 and 200 knots!! About five minutes out I started a decent and got the speed up to about 135 knots. The tension, at one minute out, was unbearable as we were still leading and could see the coke trucks we finish between. At this stage I saw a shadow of a plane ahead and then the plane, a "V" Tail Bonanza had passed us and our 135 knots was useless against his 170 knots. I put the nose down a bit more and we both held our breath for the last 30 seconds or so as we sped between the Coke trucks into second place, 41 seconds behind the Bonanza.
The feeling of coming second in this amazing race is also indescribable. You are parked in the second position with the first five planes and are quarantined and not allowed to speak to anyone or move from the plane until the crew and plane have been searched for GPS’s and any other illegal equipment, or mods, that are against the race rules. After about 20 minutes or so all five planes were declared clear and we headed for the pub for a couple of well deserved cold castles to help us wind down. For consistency in this race I feel that Barry must hold the record, this was his third second place and in the past six years he has also achieved a third a fourth and a sixth. To be in the top six over the past six years must surely be some record! That elusive first place must surely come for Barry soon, and hopefully I am able to be part of that team.
The awards ceremony and banquet was held at the Bloemfontein Town Hall and about 300 participants and guests attend this most prestigious event. Barry and I were presented with three awards. We received a most magnificent trophy, in the form of a bronze eagle on a wooden base atop a chrome stand about waist height, for coming first on the second day! We also received the Natal Mercury Floating Trophy, dating from 1937 and presented to Mr W.H. Hullet at the Govenor Generals Air Race in that year, for being the first Natal team to finish and The Air Charters Companies of SA trophy for second place overall.
The trip home was quite a squash as the eagle trophy I estimate weighs about 25 kg’s and is a real problem to load because of its awkward shape and obvious value. The views on the way home on Sunday seemed even better and brighter to a most satisfied and proud crew in ZS-VYI, race number 30, placed first on day two and second overall in the 2003 President's Trophy Air Race.