2020 will forever be remembered for the impact that the coronavirus pandemic had on the world. The virus, labelled Covid-19, spread quickly and reached every corner of the globe by March when almost every country closed their borders in an attempt to stem its tide. Only world wars and plagues had resulted in universal ‘lockdowns’ of this ilk in the past, most of which were followed by years of protracted economic hardship. Locally, the airline and tourism economies were decimated, resulting in wholesale job losses.

The restrictions on international travel forced all the scheduled international aerobatic championships to be postponed to 2021 while there was only limited aerobatic competition in some countries during the lockdown. Despite being postponed several times from the originally scheduled dates in June, the lockdown restrictions were lifted sufficiently to allow for the South African Nationals to be held at the end of September albeit with required health protocols in place. Not many people had believed that any sporting activity would take place during the remainder of the year though, so the news was a relief to most aerobatic pilots.

Initial indications were that a large entry could be expected for this year's event at Tempe, Bloemfontein. A combination of new pilots entering from the RV training camps held at the beginning of the year, and the effect of the release from lockdown promised for a better than expected number of competitors. Although 35 pilots registered, 30 pilots showed up for the first briefing on the Wednesday afternoon. With a panel of internationally experienced judges under Chief Judge John Gaillard’s watch at the ready, Contest Director Mark Hensman got proceedings underway promptly and the first day’s programme was completed in perfect weather conditions. Unfortunately, that was not to be case for the next two days when a frontal system disrupted the competition schedule in much the same way that the coronavirus pandemic had caused havoc with the world. Low cloud and high winds allowed only a few flights to be completed during the two days of inclement weather. Those pilots were less than impressed with their fortunes and would undoubtedly have preferred to have been slotted to fly during the calm conditions on Saturday while some pilots had to fly in fading light at dusk in order to complete the competition schedule.

All classes except for the RV class got to fly three of the four programmes while time restraints allowed only two programmes for the RV pilots. The competition was fierce! Nobody was going to win without being both strategic and displaying a high level of precision in the box. The unknown sequences selected by the Advanced and Unlimited pilots in particular showed their determination to trip their rivals up.  Advanced competitors Pierre du Plooy, Glen Warden and Jason Beamish were neck-and-neck before the final unknown programme. One fault could have seen a change in the final rankings. However, Pierre prevailed and took home the trophy with Glen close behind and Jason in third place.

The same scenario played out in the Unlimited class. Although three of the four competitors were flying ‘big gun’ Extra 330SCs, Gary Glasson challenged them in a four cylinder ‘knife’ Pitts S1 Falcon often showing more heart than horsepower. However, if any of the ‘big guns’ had scored a zero, his skill and precision would have taken them out! Nigel Hopkins once again displayed remarkable precision aerobatics to win his 6th national title, while Barrie Eeles finished second ahead of Gary Glasson. Nigel remarked afterwards that the unknown sequences were some of the most difficult he had encountered and winning was not an easy task!

The Intermediate class was the most provincially representative category with competitors from the Western Cape, Free State, Gauteng and KZN in the mix. Unfortunately for some the contest meant that they were all subjected to the strong wind conditions for the second programme so it was not surprising to see that the three Cape-based pilots edged out the rest in the final rankings. It was clear that they were more au fait with the windy weather.  Andrew Blackwood-Murray beat Markku Torppa with Jurie Steyn finishing third.

For many of the pilots in the Sportsman class, this was their first national championships. The nine competitors displayed similar skill and competence flying a variety of aircraft types including Extra 200, RV, Decathlon and Yak 52 and true tussle emerged with the rank order changing after each programme. Testimony to this is that less than five percentage points separated the first six places by the end of the contest. Tristan Eeles narrowly pipped brothers Wian and Machiel du Plessis to take the overall win with a fraction of a percent separating the first three places. It could have been anyone’s game!

The competitive spirit washed over the RV boys too with similar scenarios emerging after the two programmes. Dane Laing (RV4) took top honours ahead of Johan van Zyl (RV7) with Ian Beaton (RV7) finishing third.

While the year may be remembered for the coronavirus chaos, the 2020 SA National Aerobatic Championships will always be remembered for the fierce competition in tough conditions. Above all it was done safely. Undoubtedly, it was the the tenacity and drive of the committee and organisers that made it all possible.

Quintin Hawthorne