In August 2020, lockdown levels started to be lifted and an ANR was advertised at Brakpan Airfield. I had never heard of an ANR or any type of air race (except for the Red Bull Air Race), and I was curious to find out more.
I approached Jonty one day at his hangar to ask some questions and to find out if I could come and watch. Jonty is heavily involved in the organization of many aviation racing events, and strongly promotes the growth and development of rally related sports and new teams. He was convinced that despite our lack of experience, we should participate rather than just come and watch. He gave us some tips and even gave us a practice route to try out beforehand so that we could start to get a real feel for how the race works.
An ANR or an Air Navigation Race is a relatively new type of event where teams made up of a pilot and a navigator, are given a map with a corridor that you need to fly inside of. For every second flown outside the corridor you are penalized by 3 points, up to a maximum of 300 points per leg. The corridor also has a start gate and an end gate. You need to fly through these gates at a given time and every second before or after also results in 3 penalty points. After each route you end the race with a spot landing. Penalty points are given depending on how far you land from the ‘bingo’ line. At the end of the day, the team with the least penalty points wins.
For this competition, two routes would be flown with increasing levels of difficulty. The first route would have a 0.5nm corridor while the second would be reduced to a 0.3nm corridor and would include shorter legs and sharper turns, requiring a much higher level of precision.
In the days leading up to the event, the weather forecast turned nasty with a prediction of 16kts gusting 26kts from 310°. This is optimistically described by the Beaufort wind scale as a “strong breeze”, only one notch below “near gale”. Having only recently acquired my PPL and with very limited experience on the Jabiru, I was worried and was hoping desperately that things would improve on race day.
Race day arrived and no such luck, the wind was exactly as predicted, howling. But at least it was down the runway. Luckily with the race at our home field, we wouldn’t need to battle the weather to fly in and could decide after briefing how to proceed.
As a new team, we were given our maps early with lots of time to look them over and to try and find our key navigation points, calculate our timing and mark up the headings for each leg. I spent the entire time wondering if I should attempt this or just stay on the ground and watch. After a long chat to Jonty, I was convinced I could do this, so we headed out to the apron to pre-flight and warm up for Round 1.
We lined up on the start line at our allotted time and took off in a very short distance into the ‘strong breeze’. You have some time between take off and the start, meaning that you have to orbit (fly in a circle to hold position) until you are ready to go over the start line. Orbiting was a real challenge in the wind but we identified the start point from the photo and managed to pass through the start ‘gate’ 31s after our start time.
What makes an ANR tricky is that the narrow corridor does not have specific turn points or identifiable features where turns need to be made. In addition, the legs are short, meaning you have to know where you are at all times to make sure you stay in the corridor and turn in the correct place, especially when the wind is doing its best to blow you into an adjacent country.
We didn’t do too bad a job of staying in the corridor considering the significant dust and haze that the wind was creating which reduced visibility significantly. We got slightly disoriented at turn 2 when we aimed for the wrong dam, but we didn’t wander too far off track before we reoriented ourselves and managed to find the finish line. Timing was not a concern as I was more focused on getting around the route and hoping it would work itself out.
Arriving back at the field, another competitor was lined up for his departure, so I had to orbit to give him some space. The wind was blowing so hard my orbit was more like a triangle than a circle!
The wind picked up even further before Round 2 and combined with the narrower corridor, and sharper turns, it turned out to be a significantly larger challenge. We took off again and this time, spent significantly more time outside the corridor combined with a few moments of uncertainty as we spotted another aircraft flying the opposite direction to us making us seriously wonder if we were lost. Luckily, we decided to ignore them and carry on, finding out later that they accidentally did the route in reverse!
In addition, Iaan has not really flown in strong wind before and it was difficult to reconcile where the nose was pointing versus the actual direction we were heading in. A heated debate ensued about which side of a railway I should be on and how on earth I should get there! In the heat of the moment, it was difficult to explain that our 85hp was not going to get us quite where I wanted to be when I wanted to be there. Racing sure is one way to test your communication skills in a marriage!
Having never attempted a spot landing combined with the seriously gusty wind, I decided that as long as I put it down on the runway, I would be happy. I did exactly that, nowhere near the landing line but still chuffed that we somehow finished both routes without getting lost.
The flying is so demanding of both pilot and navigator that it isn’t possible to participate without dramatically improving your flying skills, navigation, landing techniques and cockpit management every flight. It is simply addictive to try and try again and see your scores and your skills improving all while making new friends.
Once the results were out, we were thrilled to see that we came 8th out of 10 in the Sportsman class! Excluding the non-attempt at spot landing, we would have come 7th overall. And guess what was coming up next? A spot landing competition! The bug had bitten, and we couldn’t wait to join the next race to see how we could improve.