The year 2021 will go down in history as another year affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nothing is as we knew it. Aerobatics has not been immune to the erratic social changes associated with the lockdowns and protocols brought about by the pandemic. Our aerobatic calendar was prepared with a whole lot of ‘maybe’ and all subject to change, much like our lives. So many amongst us have lost their jobs and have had to deal with illness and a lot of negativity. Traditionally, the national aerobatic championships is an event that we all look forward to, where we all get together and share in the competitive camaraderie of the sport. So, this year’s event scheduled for Bloemfontein was pencilled in and not a certainty until just a few weeks to go. Unfortunately factors other than the pandemic forced the committee to change the venue to Phalaborwa with a strong bid from their local pilot Ingmar Bezuidenhout.
“Where? Did you say Phalaborwa? F*@k that’s the furthest airfield from anywhere” was a comment heard in many quarters. Despite the distant location for some, it managed to attract a good-sized entry list, with the promise of dining under the stars an added attraction. Phalaborwa airfield is located adjacent to the Kruger Park fence and is not quite big enough to accommodate the judges within its boundary during the morning session. ‘No problem’ said Ingmar and promptly arranged for a judging position inside the Kruger Park amongst the wild animals. Sorted. And that was the reaction from him every time he was posed with a challenge, perhaps he’s learnt from the many challenges that he’s had to deal with during the pandemic over the past two years. He is so used to the ‘unusual’ for it to be normal.
Wednesday afternoon saw 21 pilots show up for the briefing, suitably held on the lawns outside the clubhouse to allow for some semblance of social distancing. This was followed by a judge’s seminar and a discussion featuring changes to the published judging criteria, before the first programme got underway in perfect flying conditions. From the first day’s scores, it was clear that it was going to be a closely fought tussle in just about every class. The scene was set and the pilots retreated to a local restaurant to begin working on the first set of unknowns.
Everyone was on time for the briefing on Thursday morning and the judges were promptly sent into the Kruger Park to be at the mercy of the wildlife, and without much delay the first competitor was cleared into the box. Apart from visits by a few curious but rather large predator birds, the mornings session went according to plan. The temperature managed to reach the forecast 37 deg C by lunchtime, so after some refreshment, the afternoon programme commenced in the very hot and increasingly windy conditions, which truly put the cat amongst the pigeons! By mid-afternoon, more than just a few pilots had been blown out of the box during their sequence, and by the time the scores were computed, it was clear that it was going to be all to play for! Except, the weather forecast for the following day was less than exciting. Low cloud, rain and the associated wind, with much lower temperatures, was to be expected from early morning and interfere with the days programme. The aircraft were put to bed and everyone headed to the local distillery for whisky tasting and dinner. Not everyone’s whisky tasted sweet though.
Friday morning produced the expected weather as forecast and the whole show was put on hold leaving just about everyone lurking around the taxiways while discussing their previous flights and strategizing their next programme, given the expected flying conditions. ‘Windy’ was consulted ad infinitum followed by furtive glances at the skies. In Unlimited, Paddy had a lead of about three percent and a zero would likely scupper his chances, so his serious demeanour was understandable. Nigel looked excited while Gary appeared more nervous than usual. After all he only had a noisy four-banger to challenge those Extras with. The rank order in the Sportsman class had changed after Quentin Taylor smoked his second flight, but it was anyone’s game with less than two percent separating him Warren Eva, Dicky Maritz and Ingmar Bezuidenhout. Intermediate contender Trevor Warner made his intentions known with an awesome first flight but made a complete hash of his second, letting Tristan into the game, but only by a fraction of a percent while Dusty flew his programmes without errors. It was all much the same in the Advanced class where all seven competitors were in with a shout. However, it was the relatively new Advanced contender Kayle Wooll who made his intention loudly clear of taking the crown from experienced Elton Bondi.
‘Windy’ had indicated that the cloud base would allow flying, with a free break, from about 3pm. So it was Ingmar’s duty to fire up his Bosbok and confirm that prediction. After his third weather flight, it was thumbs up, initially with enough cloud base for the Advanced and Unlimited competitors, so the judges were sent to their stations. What the pilots didn’t glean from ‘Windy’ was the wind strength. While not so evident from the ground, the upper wind was far stronger than the pilots had expected. The videographer Ricky had his hands full trying to record the ever-increasing distances those aircraft were flying out of the box. I heard one of the judges comment that it was ‘carnage at the carnival’ with virtually every Advanced competitor making an error.
Saturday morning’s weather was much the same as the previous day, preventing any flying but with indications that the clouds would lift by early afternoon. That did not leave much time to complete the full programme so the contest management spent most of the morning considering their options. Meanwhile the entire judging team headed for the Kruger to seek out some wildlife. As predicted, the clouds lifted by early afternoon and the contest resumed with fervour. Yet again the wind velocity sneaked up on the senior contenders, however they were bit more wise to it. But it was the competition pressure that caused the errors this time. Unfortunately, the Advanced pilots missed out on a third unknown programme when time ran out, leaving barely enough daylight to complete the Freestyle.
The four-minute Freestyle programme was completed just as the sun was setting on the Western horizon creating a red hue which together with the rising full moon formed a spectacular backdrop to the display zone. Nigel Hopkins took top honours for the seventh successive year in this programme, finishing ahead of Patrick Davidson and Barrie Eeles.
As is traditionally the case, the final results are only made known at the awards dinner. Not many of the winners could have been forecast with certainty after the final programme was flown, so the awards announcement was highly anticipated. There were surprises in virtually every category, leaving some pilots extremely pleased and others rather disappointed.
In the RV class, Martyn Redelinghuys cruised past the others to claim the spoils, beating Thys Kuhn and Dave Thomas. Quentin Taylor surprised himself by holding Warren Eva off, but just. Dicky Maritz nailed the unknown too and finished a close third. The ever-consistent Dustin Hughes took gold in Intermediate after Tristan Eeles zeroed a figure in the final unknown, with Trevor Warner finished in third place. Kayle Wooll will forever rue his decision to use his ipad in the searing heat instead of a sequence card. That resulted in two hard zeroes and placed him second in the final results behind Elton Bondi, with Pierre du Plooy taking the bronze medal in the Advanced class. Patrick Davidson was crowned national champion for winning the Unlimited class, beating Nigel Hopkins and Gary Glasson.
The Phalaborwa team excelled with a fine awards function, adding to their already complimented contest arrangements, rounding off a very successful national championship event. John Gaillard was presented with a special award acknowleding his role as Chief Judge for the past 31 years. Everyone in attendance voiced a vote of thanks to Ingmar and his team and we would all like to return there again soon.
Phalaborwa may be the furthest airfield from anywhere, but it made life feel normal again. And the cherry on top is the great sponsorship of R30 000 which will be used towards future aerobatic training camps.
And if ever there was anything to bear testimony to it being a ‘normal’ event in ‘abnormal’ times, it was Charlotte Stark bringing out her bucket of homemade crunchies! Thank you!