12th August is my “other” birthday. Today I am 37 years old! On this day back in 1972, I nearly bought a piece of Rand Mines Properties permanently. Lucky to have survived. So I celebrate it as my “other” birthday.
Mine is a classic tale of an accident waiting for a place to happen. Over confident! Head-strong! Arrogance! Infallibility! Immortal! Know it all, ( as Christopher would say)! What else?…
JLPC’s annual air show. True to tradition, it was always scheduled for the windiest day of the year, and the 12th August 1972 was no exception.
The wind was 25 kts gusting 30 – 35 out of 310 deg. Runway in use was 03.
20 000 people pitch up to see the show… and there is no show! The “Star Air Race” is a non-event. Fewer than half the aircraft take off and most elect to land at other airfields due to the wind. No Skydivers! No gliders! No balloon popping! No Hot-air Balloon!
Nick Turvey does some aerobatics in the Zlin 226. And then he goes up again in the Pawnee to demonstrate how crop dusting is done. The bravest of the brave demo pilots of Placo, NAC and Comair display a couple of aircraft and that’s it! The air force is not due until 15:00 hrs. It is now only 13:00 hrs. A long time to keep people interested.
Now I had developed a little air show routine. Snoopy versus The Red Baron. Peter Nicholas’s mother had made up some “Snoopy” outfits for me. I built some “dog kennels” which were rigged up with “popping” balloons, pyro-technics and smoke bombs. All the special effects were controlled by someone inside the “kennel” who had a “firing control board” which was battery powered. I, of course, was the “Red Baron” what else could I be?)
“Snoopy” was armed with a Blunderbuss which I made out of some 50mm PVC Tubing, a plywood stock which held the battery and a firing control board. Inside the tubing I put the smoke bombs.
Now the script called for the “Red Baron”, me in my Tiger Moth ZS-CDJ, to attack Snoopy. To make it more dramatic, I had a wing-walker, Hilton Hume, who would walk out to the inter-plane strut, armed with a 38 Special which was loaded with blanks. The blanks had lots of “black” powder in them to make a really big bang and a “big” puff of smoke. We would do a low-level pass shooting at Snoopy and the “controller” inside the “kennel” would fire off the charges fixed to the kennel and on the ground; popping balloons and making lots of smoke and noise. Snoopy would retaliate by firing his blunderbuss at us. It worked! And I was in demand at small air shows from Brits to Matsapa. We did it for the thrill… no money! Just give us bread and water and fuel and we put on the show.
Now for the Johannesburg Light Plane Club (JLPC) air show, at Baragwanath Airfield, because the crowd would be spread out along both sides of the runway, I had 3 more suits made and built 3 extra “dog kennels”. The plan was to spread these out along the runway and, in effect, do 4 shows in one. Fly down the west side of the runway shooting up “2” Snoopies; turn 180, fly down the east side and repeat the show. 4 Passes were planned! The problem was that the Tiger was so slow, the impact would be lost if only one aircraft was used, so I conned Gerrit van den Bosch and Scully Levin, ZS-BGL, into flying their Tigers in the show as well. Surprisingly, it was not difficult at all to find “wing-walkers”, but to find suitable Snoopies was another matter. They had to be “clowns” to entertain the crowd whilst we got airborne.
The crowd was becoming restless and bored. We “have” to do “something”! The “Show must go on!”
Now I could hear a little voice yelling at me saying “Don’t do this! This is not clever!” So I did what every “hot-shot” pilot does. “I turned the volume down so I could not hear the voice any more”. Scully was not too happy either, and against his better judgement, I persuaded him to fly. Gerrit just followed!
We take off on 03 and form up over the mine dump to the north west of the field. I am leading with Scully at No. 2 followed by Gerrit. I turn back to the airfield and once we were on a long final approach, indicate to Hilton to climb out onto the wing. He moves out to the inter-plane strut, 38 Special in hand and we run-in to the target which were the 2 “dog kennels” along the east side of the runway. The turbulence was frightening! I am fighting to keep the aircraft on track, the buffeting is snatching the controls from my hand, I have nearly full right rudder in to counter the drag of the wing walker! I have never experienced anything quite like this before. Scully told me afterwards that his gut tightened up so much it ached!
We do the first run! It was not pleasant! I call Hilton back towards the cockpit and then I turn to the right, into wind which helps keep me inside the perimeter of the airfield. I do the run down the west side and the turbulence is even worse! I decided to do the run down the east side and then that would be quits for the day. No way am I going to do this 3 more times!!!
I passed over the last Snoopy and begin a turn to the right, downwind! The drag from the wing-walker is too great to counter, so I straighten out and motion to Hilton to get back inside. He does not climb into the cockpit but sits on the longeron with one foot on the wing and one on the seat. I now continue the turn and in so doing look back to see where Scully and Gerrit are. They are still behind me, but I now notice that the wind has blown me past my turning point and I am now 150 – 200 meters behind the crowd line! I now make the 2nd biggest mistake of the day; (the first “biggest mistake” was to take off). I pull the turn tighter!
Hilton is still out in the airstream. I felt the aircraft shudder and instantly that little voice shouts out… “Don’t tighten the turn you d@@s”. But too late! The left wing drops. Hilton dives head-first into the cockpit and I boot in full right rudder and stick forward. The aircraft slewed to the right and the wing picked up and for a moment I thought… “We’re OK!” The Tiger is at least straight and leve!
Now to the north and east sides of the “old” Baragwanath, there was a Bluegum tree plantation. What I did not realise is that Bluegums grow even on windy days. The problem was that I was only 40 – 50 feet above the trees, which were themselves about 60ft tall. They grew so quickly that one of them climbed up and hit us dead centre of the right wing. The aircraft slewed around through 180 degrees and pitched the nose vertically down. We collected about 4 or 5 more trees and bought a prime piece of Rand Mines Property.
Hilton broke a couple of ribs against the compass bowl and he had a beautiful impression of the airspeed indicator on his forehead. He was out of the plane in an instant and standing next to my cockpit. I could smell fuel and was beginning to panic that I couldn’t get out. Then I remembered to pull the pin of the Sutton harness and promptly disappeared into the bowels of the Tiger. I clambered up and jumped over the side between the 2 wings. I was still trapped! I couldn’t see over the top of the wing. Then I heard a voice coming from somewhere near my knees. A hand reached under the leading edge of the wing and pulled me out into the open. I had bruised my knee!
I learned from that! A valuable lesson! But I would strongly discourage anyone from “trying that at home”!
My log book shows that my total number of landings is = Total Take Offs (-) 1
I just don’t know how to rectify that!