Rally Flying combines precision flying skills, accurate navigation and astute observation. Clues are handed out in a sealed envelope. No electronics, such as phones, smart watches or GPSs are allowed. The tasks required will test you to your core. While the rules of a rally competition could be described as complicated and boring, participating in one is anything but.
After taking part in our first competitive flying event in August 2020, we were addicted. The excitement of the local teams was building because the World Rally Flying Championships, held every three years, would be in South Africa this year (2021). This gives the South African teams a huge home ground advantage. The host country is also allowed to enter 10 teams, rather than the normal 5, meaning there was opportunity for some of the newer teams to qualify too.
To represent South Africa, you need to meet the strict qualifying criteria during the annual Rally Nationals. While most of the rally pilots in South Africa are based near the economic hub of Johannesburg, the World Championships would be held in the beautiful coastal town of Stellenbosch in November. This meant that the Rally Nationals would also be held in Stellenbosch over 820 nautical miles away as the Jabiru flies. This story is my experience flying in the South African National Rally Competition held in Stellenbosch in April 2021 with my husband Iaan as my navigator in ‘Bonsai’, our tiny Jabiru.
I am nervous. Very nervous. As the youngest pilot with the lowest hours of anyone else here, I can’t believe that I somehow flew all the way to Stellenbosch in such a tiny plane. Not only is Stellenbosch on the opposite side of the country to Johannesburg, but you need to fly over the Drakensberg mountains to get there. These can be massively challenging for a new pilot unfamiliar with the area. The thought had filled my stomach with butterflies for months before we arrived.
Stellenbosch is one of the oldest towns in South Africa, known for its restored Cape Dutch architecture and its university, resulting in a contrasting combination of wine farmers, students and tourists sharing a trendy outdoor atmosphere. Their airfield is one of the most beautiful in the country and is surrounded by mountains, located deep in the winelands near Cape Town.
We are about to participate in the South African Rally Nationals, our first multi-day competition. We aren’t hoping to qualify just yet but have been soaking up as much knowledge as we can while the local legends are training. We also want to get a bit of flying experience in the Stellenbosch area, which is where the World Rally Championships will be hosted later in the year.
As my second rally competition ever, I hope not to embarrass myself in the process. We will face some fierce competition against very experienced pilots, including some who have flown for South Africa in World Rally Championships all over the globe. Fortunately, there will be a second qualifying event held in Brits later in the year and our aim is to qualify there. Ambitious to say the least.
The sport of Rally Flying is intense and tests four critical pilot and navigator skills: route planning, timing, observation and landing. The navigator focusses on the route planning by identifying turnpoints from a clue sheet and plotting them on a map. This part of the competition is not directly scored, but without an accurate map the rest does not matter.
The timing portion of Rally Flying carries the highest weight. You are given an arrival time (in minutes and seconds) for the start point, the finish point and each turnpoint along the route. Being early or late at any turnpoint incurs penalty points. There are zero points for being within 2 seconds of the target time, and 3 penalty points for each second that you are early or late thereafter. If you are outside 35 seconds, you incur the maximum penalty of 100 points, which is the same as missing a turnpoint altogether. The workload is so high that for now, our focus is on these two skills.
With the nerves already going, I want to be at the airfield early so we can prepare for the day. Once briefing starts, we will go into ‘quarantine’ and no longer have access to our electronics or plane so it is important to make sure everything is where we need it, so we don’t waste our limited and precious plotting time.
In the chilly morning, Iaan and I remove the tie downs and covers, clean the windows, check the headsets are in place, and spread our stationery and Prestik (Blu-Tack) strategically around the cockpit. Things are going well so far. It is time to warm up the engine before heading back inside for breakfast and briefing. It normally takes a few minutes to warm up the oil before reaching temperature for take-off, so I want to avoid stress by warming up before we have time constraints.
This is not to be. I crank the engine and nothing. I try a few more times and there is still no sign that the engine will take, but Bonsai is tricky to start in the icy cold mornings. By now every helpful pilot in sight has gathered to give their opinion. Have you tried it with the fuel pump on? Is the carb heat open or closed? Try crank for longer, no shorter. Try with the mags off first and then on as you crank. I’m worried that continuous cranking will flood the engine or kill the battery but as a newbie, I think maybe some of the more experienced pilots would know better than I do.
A few attempts later the battery gives one last cough and dies. In a flat panic I have no idea what I did wrong. Is it too cold? Did I miss something on the checklist? Is there a problem? But most importantly, how do we resolve this before we need to compete?
We rush off to the race director to ask if we can potentially move our start slot to later in the day. A later start means worse flying conditions but hopefully it means that our competition won’t be over before it begins.
There is an aircraft mechanic at the airfield, but they only open at 9AM. We sit nervously through the briefing. The race director gives an overview of relevant information for the day such as radio frequencies, weather and joining and landing procedures. Immediately after, the start list is distributed, and all teams go into quarantine. This means that our GPS, phone and smart watches get sealed in a bag and we wait in a confined area for our starting time.
While everyone else settles down to wait, we rush off to the mechanic. Naturally, they are on the opposite side of the airfield and there is a bit of running involved. Fortunately, they tow Bonsai to their hangar and determine the problem to be a flat battery with too little power to get the prop up to the 300rpm required for start. Unfortunately, they don’t have any new batteries in stock, and the best we can do is to charge the battery there until papers time and hope it is enough.
Papers are given out between 20-35 minutes before take off time and are worked out to give two minutes per turnpoint to plot. This route has 12 turnpoints and all teams are given an extra 10 minutes meaning that we have 34 minutes total. I rush off to the mechanics hangar 10 minutes before papers, muttering to myself. Will the plane start now? I can’t possibly sit for 34 minutes with the engine running while Iaan plots, can I? I am sure it will overheat. But if I turn the engine off, will it start again? We have to take the chance.
I taxi to our parking bay, shut down, collect our papers and we start our routine. In the envelope is a clue sheet, two A3 maps and a timing sheet, which I hand to Iaan. While he starts plotting, I take out the photo sheets. I prepare the turnpoint photos and stack them into our photo holder so that we can see only one at a time. Next, I start to memorise the en-route photos before sticking them onto the panel.
Ten minutes whizz by and with 20 minutes left to take off time, I do a pre-flight, double check the loggers are on, and then I take the first part of the map from Iaan and mark it with the minute marker. These marks show me where I should be every minute that I fly. I use them to make sure we are on track and on time by identifying features and adjusting our speed as needed. I identify the start point on the map, memorise the photo and plan how to get there from the runway in use. Finally, 10 minutes before our take off time, it is time to start the engine. I hold my breath as I crank it over and after a cough, it starts! Phew.
Iaan is still finishing our map, which can be tricky while we are taxiing. I warn him that we are about to start moving and we make our way to the holding point. Once airborne, Iaan helps me to identify the start point from the air. I configure the flaps and power setting for our selected airspeed while adjusting for the wind. Only once we cross the start point Iaan will finish plotting, if needed. This prevents airsickness if Iaan is still busy with the map while I am orbiting to wait for our start time (we learnt this the hard way).
Now that we have crossed the start point, things kick into high gear. I turn onto our heading and start to correlate features on the map versus the ground as confirmation that we are on track and on time, adjusting for the wind as we go. In addition, we now need to start the observation part of Rally Flying.
Observation involves identifying features on the ground from sheets of photos. Each turnpoint has a photo, which can be true or false and to make it confusing, it can be taken from any direction. On your answer sheet, you need to mark if these are true or false and penalty points are awarded for incorrectly identifying these features. In addition, 20 “en-route” photos are given. These features can be anywhere along the route, taken in the direction of flight. The aim is to identify them and mark their location on your answer sheet accurately. Again, penalty points are awarded for incorrectly identifying these features or missing them altogether. Lastly, there are ground markers that are placed on the route and as with the en-route photos, you incur penalty points for missing them or marking them incorrectly.
Today’s route is taking us north to an area that is covered by veld (vast areas of brown, flat grassland) between a handful of small non-descript towns. With not many features to identify, turnpoint 2 is a difficult one and we aren’t sure that we have found the correct place. I look up from the map and become disoriented. The small towns don’t seem to be where they should and I start to sweat.
“The town is supposed to be coming up on our right, but I see more than one” I say to Iaan. A heated debate ensues as I start to panic. It only takes a moment to happen but once you are disoriented, it is extremely difficult to get back on track. Iaan finally convinces me to turn right aiming for one of the nearby towns. Things start to make sense again but our timing is now horribly out. I am working hard to speed up and ensure we are back on track.
By turnpoint 5 we have recovered well. I put the map on my lap as I check the stopwatch and bank right. “What are you doing?” Iaan shouts. I look at the map and my heart sinks, I have it the wrong way around! I quickly correct the turn and we continue on our way, convinced we would get a track error for being 90° off track.
It feels like we are racking up the penalty points! I calm myself remembering we are here to learn and gain experience. Somehow, we shake off the mistakes and manage the rest of our day without any serious mistakes. After an hour and a half of intense concentration, just the spot landing remains.
Each flight ends with a spot landing where you need to land on the 2m wide landing line. This is at the same airfield that we took off from. The intention of the spot landing competition is to improve critical piloting skills in a high stress landing scenario such as engine failure. Every metre from the landing line (also called the bingo line) brings in more penalty points. Landing deep, or worse, short, could mean ending up in a fence, a tree or in a stall trying to stretch that glide in a real emergency. At a new airfield with completely different flying conditions, I will be happy to not get maximum points and surprise myself with a fantastic 20 points!
Back at the clubhouse, the war stories start. We are one of four newbie teams and competition among us is intense. One of them got lost at the dreaded turnpoint 2, but they did not recover and flew an interesting interpretation of the route. They racked up maximum points for the day. Even with our mistakes, we don’t feel too bad after our first day and current standing of 9th out of 15 teams.
Day 2 of the competition arrives, and the wind is blowing. The forecast had predicted very strong wind and unfortunately it appears to have delivered.
At briefing, we find out that today’s route is to the south and east of the airfield. This takes us down to the tiny retirement village of Kleinmond near the coast, and then back inland over some daunting mountains towards the farming town of Caledon, famous for its sunflower farms. I don’t have any experience flying in this area and I am aware that certain winds over these mountains can be dangerous. Apparently, there is a weather station along the route and the competition director assures us that it shows calmer conditions of around 10 knots. The day is to go ahead. This directly contradicted the forecasts I had seen, but I didn’t give it any more thought.
We have a new battery in Bonsai and things are looking less frantic than Day 1. Plotting is going smoothly and Iaan has already handed me the first four turnpoints. I start adding minute markers, noting that we are heading directly up over Sir Lowries Pass before we descend to the coast again. I taxi to the holding point, do my run up checks and locate the start point very close to the end of the runway. Taken by surprise, I struggle with the timing and somehow manage to fly over the start point a full minute early. Damn, 100 penalty points and we have only just started.
Realising the mistake far too late, I reduce my speed and enter a climb, trying my best to lose that minute before turnpoint 1 while also gaining enough altitude to get over the pass. As we near the pass, I feel the turbulence increasing and start to doubt the weather briefing.
Something about the timing isn’t working out and we are struggling to see the turnpoints too. As I start to fly slower and slower, nose pointing to the sky, I realise that the wind is pumping and I am still way too early for the turnpoint 3. I shake it off and we continue towards the coast.
Turnpoint 4 is where we turn inland again. I start to get a bit nervous as we fly into a wide valley full of vineyards. With the change of direction, we now have a strong headwind component plus bad turbulence as the wind tumbles down the mountain. I start adding throttle. More. More. We are now flying full throttle and still losing time. We are bouncing around like a cork in the ocean and I am looking at the valley wondering how the hell we get out of here. Iaan keeps telling me we are still too slow. I throw the map at him and yell “I don’t care about timing, I just want to get out of here.” There is no way I can maintain our required ground speed in the 30kt wind. We are far into the yellow arc and, in this turbulence, I have to back off. I start to climb, wondering if I can climb out of the turbulence and this valley. I can’t turn around as our next competitor is minutes behind us.
Our next turnpoint is the end of the valley and I decide to re-assess our options at this point. We pass it more than a bit late, but the winds are calmer and the best way back to the airfield appears to be to continue the route as we are now at the furthest point away. Shaken, we somehow stay mostly on track, unsure about a few turnpoints and our timing in a mess, but we just want to get home safely.
Back at the clubhouse, the war stories start again. We weren’t the only ones to struggle, and the general feeling was that the day should have been cancelled due to the conditions. Another newbie got into serious trouble when he entered a spin by trying to slow down too much, but fortunately he managed to recover in time. Too late but I learn a serious lesson. I will never accept someone else’s weather forecast without question again. I also defined my wind limit much more strictly. Next time I stay on the ground. We are now 12th overall.
The final day of the competition dawns calm and clear. With our terrible score from Day 2, we can no longer qualify and so we plan to just have fun. I am still convincing myself to fly after I scared the pants off myself the day before. The final route is called the “mountain” route and takes us through some of the most beautiful parts of the Western Cape. We have a total of 17 turnpoints and will be flying inland towards Worcester, down to the iconic Theewaterskloof Dam, which provides most of Cape Town with their drinking water, and then through the spectacular Franschhoek Valley.
Our day starts well and Iaan gets through the plot quickly. Things are going so well that we finally have chance to properly focus on observation for the first time this weekend.
Some of the turnpoints are over spectacular features like the Du Toitskloof Tunnel and the peak of the Franschhoek Pass. We are climbing and descending over the rapidly changing topography, but I still seem to be managing my timing well and we have a few precious moments to glance out the window in awe.
I am feeling confident with my timing and even more confident with my navigation. Iaan is spotting photos. I am so confident in fact that I even notice some of the red herrings that the competition director throws our way. Just before turnpoint 7 is the feature marked on the turnpoint photo. Iaan says “here it is, turn!” but based on our timing, I realise that this is a trick. A minute later, the true turnpoint appears, we mark the photo incorrect and bingo the timing.
The finish point is on the other side the Helderberg Mountain, as you descend back into Stellenbosch. Because of your altitude as you approach, it is very tricky to spot until you are on top of it and it will be too late to adjust your speed. I rely on my timing, hold my speed and hope for the best. We look down at another red herring and we pass by to the Finish Point, within a few seconds of the turnpoint time.
I am so focussed on the wonderful flight that we just had that I mess up the landing and score maximum points. Lose focus for a moment and it will bite you!
The day ends with prize giving and the final war stories get told at the club house as the sun sets over the spectacular mountain that we just flew over. A few teams fell for the red herrings and missed the correct turnpoints altogether. Some of the newer teams are still shaken from the day before and didn’t enjoy the mountainous terrain. We finished strong in 9th overall, regaining some places that we lost the day before. The day was a great confidence builder for the second and final Qualifier coming up in Brits but now it is time to fly back to Gauteng with a lot more experience and a whole load of new friends.