Competition Day 3 is upon us, and today we start in the early group again. The organisers decided to start briefing half an hour later at 08:00 a.m., which allows a slightly more relaxed start to the morning. We are still tired from the extremely tough Day 2 with a very short afternoon to recover. With our strong results so far, I feel about as relaxed as one can possibly be before another important competition day.
Today gives the international teams a much more representative idea of our typical South African bushveld weather. The wind is calm but variable and the midday temperatures will be rising into the low thirties. Fortunately the wind conditions again mean that we can use the preferred runway 20 for take-off and 02 for landing. It may be bumpy later, but we are glad to be in the morning session and expect to be back on the ground by 11:21 a.m.
Today’s route is called the Copper Route and we will be flying north of the Brits Airfield. I assume from the route name that we are headed in the general direction of the large copper mines located in the Limpopo Province.
We find out during briefing that today we will do our first away landing. An away landing was recently brought back into the rules, and this will be our first during a competition. The away landing will split the route into two smaller routes with a landing at another airfield somewhere between the two. We will complete a portion of the route up to a timed intermediate finish point. This is followed by a joining and landing procedure at the selected airfield, with a scored touch and go. After take-off we will need to find the timed intermediate start point, from which the rest of the route continues to the finish point. As someone who doesn’t enjoy the finding and timing of a start point, this doubles the fun (read stress).
For months we have speculated whether the organisers will give us an away landing, and if so, to which of the multiple available airfields it may be. Now we know the answer, and today we will be flying to Nyumbu Game Lodge.
Although we are familiar with the possible airfields, we haven’t had the time to fly to each of them. Many of them are private lodges that would need prior arrangement to land at. Almost none are marked for spot landings. Practice would just be getting comfortable in the airspace. As one of my weaker points and a quick way to rack up unnecessary points, the away landing has given me sleepless nights for many months.
While we will get a joining procedure from the route planner, this doesn’t include any of the fine detail that I would normally practice for a spot landing. To counter this, I have spent hours poring over Google Earth and Easy Cockpit to try and familiarise myself with each airfield. I created a page for each possible airfield that includes a satellite image of the runway and overlaid my own personalised circuit. This helps me to familiarise myself with where I would want to be and at what altitude for every possible runway in any given direction. Unfortunately, none of this is allowed into quarantine but hopefully some of it sticks in my memory.
We are handed our papers at 09:13 a.m. exactly. While the plot itself doesn’t seem too difficult, the time pressure has increased dramatically. We are only allowed 2 minutes per turn point to plot today (from the 2.5 minutes per turn point yesterday). This gives us 28 minutes before we will be rolling down the runway at 09:41a.m. Today there are 14 points including the start point, 10 turn points, the intermediate finish point, intermediate start point, and the finish point. Even I feel the pressure today as I have to prepare the photos, mark up the first four turn points for myself and study the away landing and radio procedures before I start up and taxi to the holding point.
Iaan finishes the plot just in time to look up as we cross the start point, which is to the east of the airfield. This presents little trouble with us arriving 2 seconds late for a bingo time. Continuing east, we head directly towards a number of large townships that extend out of Pretoria. Navigation here is complicated by the significant growth of these townships since the last map was updated. Fortunately, the T-junction at turn point 1 soon becomes obvious and I correct my heading towards it. I suddenly realise that we are too early, and some robust manoeuvring is required to slow down. I have full flaps down and am holding the nose up to maintain a nice slow 50 knots, but we still cross the turn point 13 seconds early.
We turn left onto our second leg, which takes us to the first of two trig beacons used as turn points on this route. These small black and white concrete pillars are used for surveying. They are typically at the highest point in an area, in the middle of a field, far from civilisation. Being about the size of a man and often hidden by trees, they are extremely difficult to spot from the air. I know where it should be but struggle to hunt it down. With the focus on finding the trig beacon and confirming the photo, we arrive 12 seconds late.
A right turn to our next turn point takes us to a bridge, which we manage to spot from a distance. Making up the time lost, I fly over it 3 seconds early and am relieved that things appear to be getting back on track as we turn towards turn point 4, another trig beacon. I have flown over this before and know that it is almost completely invisible unless you are directly overhead. With few features to use for time checks, I hold my speed and heading. I look down and see nothing… nothing… yes! There it is. We arrive at the turn point three seconds early, a remarkable achievement.
We turn left and head away from civilisation and towards Borakalolo Nature Reserve. This northern area is covered by vast areas of unpopulated veld and we expect this mind-numbing terrain for most of the remainder of the flight. Turn point 5 is a minor road river crossing and we arrive exactly on time. Leg 5 and Leg 6 follow almost the same heading and so we continue straight. When unsure of my position, I tend to slowly drift left, a bad habit. With very little to navigate by, Iaan suddenly sees the farmhouse from the photo, far to the right. I speed up and correct to the right to arrive 6 seconds late. With the difficult terrain, we are very happy with the flight so far, confident in the timing, turn point photos, and have managed to spot some en route photos as well.
Our next leg is a very long arc that will eventually meet up with the Krokodilrivier (Crocodile River). We have only flown in this area once before, and never this far north. On the map there is one minor road, and a handful of farm houses and perennial rivers to aid with navigation. In reality, the road is closer to an unused jeep track and because everything is green from the recent rain, the tiny, dry riverbeds are impossible to distinguish. Added to that, this is the longest single leg that we have had during the whole competition at 18nm (33km) and this leg will take 14 and a half minutes.
We know that there will be a lot of en route photos on this leg, but having examined them, they all look like random clumps of trees. We are more concerned about getting the track right as getting disoriented here could easily mean the end of the competition. With so few features to go by, and the sheer length of the leg, timing is extremely difficult, and we are not sure if we are ahead or behind. I see the tiny jeep track and although it goes away from us for now, I keep close to it. At least I know where it goes.
As we get close to the end of the leg, I see on the map that the track goes over a communications tower on the top of a large hill. We spot a tower on top of the mountain, and adjust course left so we are flying towards it. So relieved that we know where to go, we laser focus on this tower and neglect to pay attention to the bigger picture. With less than a minute to go, I am way too early and start slowing down when we realise that a few miles to our north (right) is another tower on a hill, and behind that is the actual turn point. What a disaster! I turn sharply towards to that point, but it is already too late. We realise that we will be outside the 35 second window and will score maximum points even if we fly to it. Instead, Iaan manages to identify the turn point photo from a massive distance, and we choose to miss the point completely so that we don’t compound the problem and arrive late for the next turn point as well. We limit our loss to 100 points but are both crushed by the disappointment of such a big mistake.
The next leg is a follow the feature, in this case the Krokodilrivier. We see an en route photo and mark it on our map, but also realise that the turn point is much closer than we originally thought. The river cuts a beautiful and winding path that is impossible for me to duplicate in the aircraft, and we are gaining time. I try everything possible to lose some time, while still staying in the air and actually flying, we cross the bridge at the turn point 17 seconds early. Iaan points out that leg 9 is a short leg to a T-junction. Still carrying some of the time gained from the previous leg, this leg is now all about reducing our speed as much as possible while still trying to see some en route photos. I fly over it eight seconds early and manage to bring that time down even more to six seconds early over the intermediate finish point, feeling a bit frazzled.
This leg to the intermediate finish point takes us directly over the Nyumbu landing strip that we will be using for our away landing. This means that I am still trying to navigate and manage timing while also busy with radio calls, trying to see the windsock, the landing lines, and identifying how to join the circuit all while looking out for traffic.
The briefing notes indicate that we must maintain 5000ft when overhead the runway. We then immediately turn from the intermediate finish point onto right downwind for Runway 09. The problem with this is that I would prefer to be on the downwind leg at 4300ft.There is no place to deviate from the pattern to lose the extra altitude. Already too high, the thermals from the hot day (now around 30°C or 86F) are making the struggle to descend worse. I have the throttle on idle and extend my downwind as far down the nearby Roodekopjes Dam wall as I can. Still too high for our base turn but under pressure, I make the turn and continue our glide approach. There isn’t much more I can do except hold it there. It looks like we are going to land deep. Our descent rate is a bit higher than normal as we touch down with a tiny bounce and a puff of dust from the dirt strip. Phew! A score of 40 for an away landing!
We are super chuffed, and glad that the hard part is now over. We are mistaken. The departure procedure shows a left turn after take-off, and we start our climb back to 4500ft (1000 feet above the ground here). I realise that our extended downwind cost us time. We won’t be able to use the carefully drawn minute markers to help find and time the intermediate start point. We aim for where we think it should be, but the heat is now working against us. We are still too low to navigate well, and I am struggling to pinpoint both us and the start point. Communication breaks down in the cockpit as I become unsure where to go. Iaan starts panicking that we may inadvertently cross the start gate from the wrong angle and mess up the timing completely or worse, get a track error for crossing it in the wrong direction. A few loud words later and we compromise on where to go. We try to make the most of a bad situation and not lose too much time as I do an elaborate climbing turn onto the point and towards the next leg. The turn point photo is identified as false and off we go again, trying to let go of the mistakes and focus on what lies ahead.
Still a bit shell shocked from the intermediate start point fiasco, we continue down the next leg. There are only two legs left. Fortunately, the next turn point is a cell phone tower and can be seen from far away, but we find ourselves ahead of time, and I struggle to lose enough time. We cross it 10 seconds early.
The final leg is another long arc, also around 18nm, but with a much tighter radius. Happily, we are back on our home ground and have familiar and distinctly shaped towns of Hartebeesfontein and Bethanie to navigate with and assist with time checks. Iaan spots a few en route photos and we even see a ground marker before we fly over the finish 10 seconds early. We return to the Brits airfield for a low pressure, unscored landing. On the ground, Iaan completes our answer sheet to hand in to the marshals. We are very disappointed and frustrated back on the ground. Our escort can feel the anger radiating off us and we’re not keen to go to the debriefing office to get our results. We stand outside the office in stony silence as we wait for our turn.
At 1208, this is our worse score for the event so far. Frustratingly, 299 of these points are from only 2 silly mistakes. We also made some housekeeping errors with the marking and measuring of the en route photos and the ground marker and this costs us more penalty points.
Aside from missing one turn point completely, we find out that we navigated to the wrong intermediate start point and crossed the start gate 35 seconds early. A maximum score for timing. This is compounded as we flew over the wrong place and obviously identified the photo incorrectly based on what we saw. An expensive lesson at 199 penalty points for one turn point, but this is how you learn in rallies and now we know how to prevent it from happening again.
After we are free from scoring, we join our team members, and the war stories start. This was a tough day for everyone. Our families found it incredibly nail biting to watch the live tracking as many teams flew the second arc in the wrong direction and some of the teams got completely lost. One team flew around in a few confused loops after the Nyumbu landing and eventually decided to fly straight back home to Brits. One of the navigators was absolutely convinced that the route couldn’t fly directly over the away airfield and spent their entire flight re-plotting to try and find their mistake. They didn’t spot a single photo, but they managed to still beat us with their timing. This is the reason that having a second map and the pilot being able to navigate alone is so critical!
Our final score breaks down into timing and navigation score of 403 penalty points, 40 for landing and 665 for observation. Additional drama takes place as one of the international teams protests the away landing. The jury debates the rules for nearly 24 hours before they make a controversial decision and cancel the away landing. Everyone will get 0 penalty points. This doesn’t help us as we did well with our landing, but it reduces our overall score to 1168 and places us in 30th on the day and 9th of the South African teams.
Luckily, we are quick to bounce back from any disagreements in the cockpit. One great rally flying lesson is that all you can do is look forward and improve. We are disappointed but we can’t change our scores now. We must learn from our mistakes quickly and get ready to finish the competition strong on the last day.