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Ready for take-off

The Vagabond's Escape

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

FOREWORD by Telani Lithgow:

Alistair earned his PPL in February 2020. Four months later he was an International Aviator. Alistair arrived at our doorstep at Pietermaritzburg Aero Club two years earlier, leg in a cast, determined to learn to fly, (part-time). Having grown up in the bush in Botswana, surrounded by large open spaces, Alistair is charming, and determined, with a larger than life personality. I thoroughly enjoyed training him.

PPL in hand, he went to Jo'burg to get a Taildragger rating and convert to his little red Vagabond, which was stationed up north. The Corona Virus lockdown delayed his plans and played a pivotal role in the events that followed. For those who don't know, South Africa's biggest International Airport is OR Tambo. Small aeroplanes just do NOT fly there. Not usually. Alistair, with his freshly minted Private Pilot License, and his Taildragger endorsement still drying in his logbook, set out alone to fly himself home. What an adventure!

Here is his story:

“Hurry the sun is setting fast” my instructor hastily says down the phone. I press my foot further to the floor of the hired car. It has been a very busy day already, but there are still a few more vital parts to fall into place if we are to stick to our rendezvous with OR Tambo the following morning. (I heard they have some busy airspace or something above them). None the less I ponder for the hundredth time the importance of these next few steps and what it has taken to get here as I screech around the off-ramp, racing for Wonderboom Airport.

First step. Drop off hire car.

Second step. Meet my instructor on the apron.

Third step. Throw everything into the plane.

Fourth step. Take off for Rand Airport.

Fifth step. Execute a perfect landing in front of everyone at Rand.

Sixth step. Tuck my aircraft safely away in a pre-arranged hangar after filling her up.

Seventh step. Check into pre-booked hotel.

Eighth step. Receive final approved ‘Slot list’ for OR Tambo and file flight plan.

Ninth step. Shower to wash the haste of the day off.

Tenth step. Get a nice early night to be fresh and ready for the epic adventure ahead.

“Brupppupuup. Brupppupup” I hear to my horror as I sprint across the apron at Wonderboom, still trying to pull my reflective jacket over my shoulders. There in front of me stands my instructor Richard, pulling on the prop trying to get her started. (Bear in mind, this 1949 beauty has no electric starting system). He obligingly steps aside and in no uncertain terms, tells me to get the thing started! He has already been trying for 10 minutes prior to my arrival, but he has flown her from Nylstroom while I brought down the hire car. She is hot and bothered and like a girlfriend after a long hot day, she has a headache and is simply “not in the mood”. Desperately, I pull through the prop, again and again while Richard catches his breath. While my hands and brow start to sweat, I watch out the corner of my left eye as the sun slips further and further down until it disappears along with my hopes of sticking to our well-crafted plan of being at Rand Airport before nightfall. Richard explains to me the ‘issues’ of flying a plane at night with no lights, I tell him I have a headlamp if that helps? He steps away to make some calls. I keep hanging on the prop like a monkey desperate not to fall, reminding myself that “this ‘spinny’ thingy can bite”. My muscles begin to ache and for a brief fleeting moment she coughs, splutters and dies. I persist, ignoring what I can hear as Richard talks on the phone, explaining how we will need a tow, some gas and a place to sleep at Wonderboom. By now the airport and city lights are on and fuel has started to drip out the front of her nose. Flooded! I take a step back, panting with a sick feeling in my stomach that all of these months of planning, organizing, fretting and dreaming have amounted to nil.

Richard comes over and explains that someone is on the way to tow us to a hangar. I try to put on a smile and thank him for making an alternative plan. As I see a car approaching, headlights and hazards on, I say a prayer of thanks that at least the “little red pepper” won’t have to be left out in the cold. Richard’s friend Pierre arrives and I politely thank him for offering to come out and help while he connects up my tail wheel to be towed back to the hangar. As we go about our business, a ‘fancy’ jet lands and Pierre casually explains that that was none other than the Minister of Police. At least his plane was making a noise, otherwise South Africa would really be in trouble then! Once the tail wheel was secured, I was instructed to “get in and steer’’. (These old goats still had a sense of humor)! I must admit, getting towed backwards under the glaring airport lights, knowing that some dignitary was perhaps watching me unceremoniously being carried away, didn’t exactly fill me with confidence for the big day tomorrow. (Little did I know that would not be the last time a dignitary would watch me ‘vacate a runway’ in an unorthodox manner). I was grateful as the darkness slowly enveloped us, albeit the remaining orange flashes of Pierre’s hazards and I took a moment to try and have a laugh at the outrageous turn of events.

After a rather lengthy ‘taxi’, we arrived at an enormous hangar.

The flight school doors were wide open for us, revealing a variety of aircraft inside that made even “my lady in red” seem under dressed. There was a sparkling Grand Caravan, a handful of Sling’s and Magni Gyro’s, a Kodiak, an Extra 300 and a rather ominous looking “Vampire Fighter Jet”. I believe it is NOT used for ‘ab initio’ training. Oh, and in the corner was a rather smart looking Yamaha 100cc scooter. I will park next to her I thought. (One has to know your ‘punching weight’). After carefully positioning her under the wings of the Caravan and the Kodiak, we entered the office to be met by some of the most polite, helpful and friendly staff from FlightCare Flying School. Pierre introduced us to Dean and David and we were welcomed with genuine warm hospitality that is a rarity these days. We were offered coffee, Avgas (paid for of course), a desk to work from, access to a landline phone (filing flight plans over the phone I was to find out, is a lengthy process during these ‘Covid -19 days’) as well as pizza being ordered for us! Richard really does have the most amazing contacts, testimony to his personality and long-standing involvement in aviation.

After a bit of the normal ‘pilot chit-chat’, we stepped outside to see out of curiosity if she would start. By now she must have cooled down in the chill night air and after ‘priming’ her she fired on the first pull. What a relief albeit a little late! We returned back inside and I very apprehensively started scribbling on my empty flight plan, under the watchful eyes of four experienced pilots, holding in their laughter while this freshly ‘winged’ (passed my check ride on Valentine’s day a few months prior), newbie aircraft owner, pretended to know exactly what acronym to fill in the equipment column for my very under-equipped aircraft. With all sincerity though, they were all incredibly helpful and after a 30-minute waiting time on the phone, (it was already 20:30) I was eventually able to start mumbling my way through the flight plan to the woman on the other end of the line. After getting a short while through it, she paused when I told her my intended first stop was OR Tambo. She then asked me if I had my slot clearance. Crap! I had forgotten about the slot clearance! I quickly explained that it was already all “taken care of” by the agents I had hired to do so. She asked me to standby while she checked. She then asked me to confirm my registration again. (I guess people have the habit of reading their registrations incorrectly sometimes?) The pen began to slip through the sweat in my fingers. “I am sorry Sir, but we have no record of your slot approval”. I needn’t explain the severity of the strain on my nerves at this stage.

I politely asked her if she wouldn’t mind staying on the line to prevent me having to listen again to that ‘waiting music’ every call center loves to "calm" you with. She was amazingly kind and understanding as she patiently waited for me to raise the supervisor of the agency on my cell phone. Despite the late hour, he dutifully answered, apologized for the inconvenience and jumped to resolving the situation in a most timely manner! Before I knew it, I was being given my flight plan reference number and I was one step closer to, I suspect being the first hand-propped, non-transponder equipped aircraft to be allowed into OR Tambo. (Special dispensation was granted given the circumstances and the fact that this was a “Self-repatriation flight of a foreign national”) I would also like to assure you, I tried every other more ‘suitable’ airport in the north of the country to fly out of, but they were all closed to international travel due to Covid 19. I suspect this will be a first and a last in my lifetime and I am incredibly grateful for the authorities who allowed me to use their beautifully wide and well-maintained runway 03!

After locking up, we were all kindly driven by Dean to a recommended Bed and Breakfast nearby. After a healthy feast of pizza, I excused myself before I fell asleep in front of everyone with a triangle of pepperoni and cheese hanging out my mouth. I finally managed to wash off the “haste of the day” and was soon collapsing in a pile on the bed. I will say however, that it took a while to ease the nerves enough to sleep, but I finally drifted off, reflecting on all of the last-minute training, maintenance, paperwork and logistics we had crammed in during the last few days prior to this!

Something woke me up that night, I suspect my not fully recovered nerves and I reluctantly rolled over to check the time. 2:25 a.m.! Great! Three hours of sleep! Fine, I thought, I will just roll back over and fall asleep again. I am not exactly sure what it was, but between the thoughts of ATC Control tower instructions, 747 wake turbulence, the possibilities of choosing a taxiway instead of a runway to land on (don’t laugh, I would not have been the first) suffice to say, sleep would not come. My alarm was set for 4:45 am in preparation for our legal ‘15 minutes before’ sunrise take-off. I grudgingly went about getting up and rehearsing my thoughts for the day ahead. After about four hotel ‘Ricoffee sachets’ later, I was feeling about ready to float down into SA’s biggest airport in my neat little “Piper Vagabond”. I must admit, the fact that Richard so kindly offered to accompany me for this leg of the journey (to be honest, I gave him no real choice) made me feel a little better about it all. Bang on time, Dean arrived with a smile to pick us up at 5:30. After loading the plane and ‘pre-flighting’, despite the brisk cold morning, I managed to start her on the third or fourth swing. I guess her headache had long passed and before I knew it, we were saying our heartfelt thank-yous and goodbyes and were trundling along on our long taxi back to runway 29.

Under a peach and orange sky, I pushed the throttle full forward and we began to creep down the runway. I could feel her tail was heavy and was reluctant to lift, but after some steadfast encouragement, the tail lifted and our airspeed climbed. I rotated just at over 60kts and the runway slowly released its hold on us. As we climbed, we both acknowledged that she was heavy knowing though, that I simply had to have that the fuel on board if I was to reach Francistown comfortably. What followed next was a breath-taking view of Johannesburg as I have never seen it before. Through the sun-kissed mist and smog in the calm morning I watched as we passed over the small mountain ranges surrounding Wonderboom, the Voortrekker Monument, Johannesburg’s CBD, the ‘Soweto Towers’ and many more recognizable landmarks. Richard very kindly managed the radio work while I snapped away with pictures and GoPro videos. He knew full well that I would have my hands full when he disembarked at O R Tambo International. I hardly think those images I took will do it justice, but it was a sight I will never forget and as we slowly climbed to 7000ft, I said a quiet prayer of thanks for getting this far and for a safe journey ahead.

My moment of quiet reflection was interrupted by a not so amused control tower voice explaining that we had left our inbound call too late, but after explaining that we had done exactly as instructed by the tower personnel the day before, he settled and cleared us to land runway 03. After slowly descending towards a rather open space, we asked what intersection he would like us to vacate the runway from. He advised us to use "Hotel" and so this enabled us to do a long and extended ‘low fly by’ past the first terminal buildings, only a few meters above the runway. What an experience to have and something I will remember to the day I die. As we watched our intersection come into view (we had a map in hand and so were counting each one we passed, I slowly eased back on the throttle and she drifted down. My wheels touched the ground a little harder than I had hoped and a small bounce occurred. When they touched again, I planted them with the stick and we commenced our ‘roll out’. I should have paid more attention as to why she dropped so willingly, but before I knew it, her nose was creeping and her ‘heavy tail’ was fast trying to not only catch up, but to overtake; something all tail-dragger pilots fear happening.

My hurried ‘corrective’ footwork brought her back to center, but my inexperience and lack of finesse resulted in inputs that were slightly too much and she veered the opposite way. I distinctively remember yelling out “Brakes!!” my subconscious thoughts revealed by being forced out, betrayed by the fright. It’s hard to say exactly why I blurted out loud, but I think it was in many ways to jolt my feet into action, perhaps even a desperate plea for Richard to help? Whatever it was, he curtly responded that he had no brakes, a fact I knew all too well as they are only on my side, but fear can allow a sense of irrational denial to sink in. I will take a quick moment to say that for any pilot, this was an incredibly invaluable lesson to learn and something I think we should all be very aware of, especially us low time pilots. In that moment of “oh s***”, I think one has to train to stamp out denial and give a precise response to resolve the situation. Easier said than done I know. It all happened in a flash, but those few seconds of bringing her back under control and the short time to reflect back on what had happened while we taxied to our apron, allowed me to learn a very good lesson that I hoped not to do again. I had no idea this lesson would serve me so well in the very near future. As we exited the runway I checked the GoPro on the wing and in the cockpit, they were both still recording and perhaps one day, when the embarrassment has worn off a little, I will share that video so that others might see how quickly things can happen, especially when the aircraft is heavy.