Day 2 is our first morning flight. I am relieved that we will be flying early because the wind is already making itself known and is predicted to continue all day. Tomorrow doesn’t look much better, but we will cross that taxiway when we get there.
Having had to take the competition bus to the venue means that we rush into the briefing hangar just in time. We haven’t had time to prepare the aircraft yet, but we should get a few moments after briefing.
The morning takes a dramatic turn when the competition director has a medical emergency during briefing. Fortunately, competitors immediately start performing CPR while others run across the airfield to the tower to get a portable defibrillator. Shocked, we all sit outside the hangar to wait. The prompt assistance undoubtedly saves his life, and soon the ambulance arrives, whisking him to hospital for surgery. He recovers enough by the end of the week to record a speech for the closing ceremony, to everyone’s great relief.
Based on the morning’s events, the day’s flying is cancelled. There are five days scheduled for flying and we anticipate that the last day would now be used for our fourth and final competition day. For now, we have the opportunity to explore the areas surrounding Mâcon.
Before the competition started, we needed to arrange our own transport to get around Mâcon and to the airfield each day. Team South Africa (thanks to our team manager Leon) had arranged a fantastic deal with a local driver, Richard, to transport us (8 team members plus our manager and a judge) to and from the airfield each day in relays. Today, it really pays off as five of us pile into his car and set off. As you can imagine, it is rather cramped in the car, but we couldn’t be more thrilled as Richard now takes the role of our own personal tour guide. Our first stop is the beautiful town of Cluny where we take in the ruins of the Cluny Abbey. This former medieval Benedictine monastery was one of the largest built before it was destroyed during the French Revolution. In the following years, the Abbey’s immense walls were quarried for stone that was used in rebuilding the town. Now only a portion remains, including the excavated ruins and bell tower.
Next, we enjoy a spectacular view from a lookout point near the La Roche de Solutré. This “Rock” is a huge limestone cliff that rises above the nearby village of Solutré-Pouilly, known for its wine-production. We have seen it from the air, not knowing it is a major local landmark. We spot some of the other teams hiking to the top as we take in the landscape.
We finish our tour at a surprisingly familiar sight. I spot the magnificent mosaic tiles of the Château de Pierreclos, our starting point yesterday. The point I nearly missed! The castle itself dates back to 12th century, while the surrounding village and now destroyed church were built in the 10th century. We walk around the gardens and learn about the surrounding vineyards, as our perspective of the region changes.
It is eye-opening flying over a place that has been settled for thousands of years. Rural France has roads, houses and farms everywhere. Every piece of land is utilised or developed, in contrast to rural South Africa. At home, I can use an individual farmhouse as a navigation aide where here, anything that doesn’t have its own cemetery or castle is too small to even bear thinking about.
In the air, rivers seem invisible and impossible to distinguish from a road; however, from the ground we can see rivers are lined with trees. The cycle paths are tarred and marked like roads, rather than the tiny dirt paths that we expected.
Spending the day with Richard also means that we learn more about the region, the culture, and our common interests. Richard is very excited to talk about the Tour de France when he learns Iaan and I came to France early just to see a day of the race. He and his family try to watch the tour every year from their campervan. Richard and Iaan happily chat about cycling for ages and Richard even gives us some of his Tour de France memorabilia that we were unable to get our hands on in Paris. Richard is also enthralled by the idea of rally flying and managed to read all about the event, the rules and our team before the competition started. This is one of the best parts of the rally flying, connecting with new people, and making friends all over the world. He and his wife support us (and France) throughout the competition and even came to our opening and closing ceremony.
Day 3 turns out to be a day that we would like to forget.
Mental preparation is an extremely important component of rally flying. Each crew needs to deal with a large number of unknown variables all while flying under intense pressure. For me, part of the mental preparation is being organised and making sure I am in control of the things that I can control. I have my own procedure for everything, from pre-flight, to placing my stationery in the cockpit, to start up. This allows me the mental capacity to deal with other problems that may pop up along the way.
As a team, Iaan and I make an effort after each flight to develop strategies to deal with new challenges that were faced. Mistakes can be great teachers if we let them. The challenges themselves have been well documented in some of my other stories and range from Iaan getting airsick in our first rally competition, to running out of time for the plot, to dealing with bad weather conditions, amongst others. On Day 1 of this competition, Iaan handed me the first 4 turn points before take-off, which saved our day. This procedure was born out of a previous competition where we did not finish the plot before it was time to fly over the start point, creating chaos and uncertainty.
It also helps that Iaan and I usually react differently to different stressors. Most of the time one of us will remain level-headed so we can get to an optimal outcome. Communication and crew resource management are invaluable skills that we improve on each rally flight, whether in training or in competition.
While I have been trying not to think about it, I already know that today will be extremely windy. We also know that based on Day 1, the plot and observation parts of the competition will be challenging. However, during briefing we are presented with two additional curve balls.
The first is that due to the strong winds, the competition organisers are giving us a wind correction. This is something that we understand in theory but have never had to use. Normally in a rally, each crew selects their groundspeed before the competition and our timing is based on this selected groundspeed. While in the air, the pilot must correct for the wind by either speeding up when you fly into a headwind or slowing down if there is a tailwind. A wind correction should make timing much easier because it adjusts our selected groundspeed based on the wind prediction. In theory, if the wind matches the correction, then there is no need to speed up or slow down while you are flying the route. The downside is that it does take much more time to plot because your groundspeed for each leg of the flight is now different. Particularly because all our tools are all specially designed to make life very quick and easy at a standard 75kts.
Fortunately, teammate Pam has an extra A4 minute marker grid printed that she kindly loans us. This A4 sheet has a grid printed on it with different markings for different ground speeds. If the ground speed is now 90kts because there is a 15kt tailwind, you fold the paper onto the 90kt line and plot the minutes using the grid. If the next leg is 60kts because you turned into the wind, you refold onto the 60kt lines and repeat. A nifty tool.
The second curve ball is not related to today but affects the competition. The fifth and final day set aside for the competition is intended as a reserve day. We assumed that due to yesterday’s cancelation, the fifth day will be used for our last day of competition; however, the organisers have indicated that after a full day of competition, there won’t be enough time to resolve any formal protests and finalise the results before prizegiving that evening. The suggested options are either the top 10 fly or nobody flies on Friday. In an unexpected vote at briefing, it is decided that nobody will fly. While we are nowhere near top 10, I was expecting four days of competition. While we received some support from SA Power Flying, this trip is self-funded, and it has already been extraordinarily expensive. We are here to fly and learn as much as we can, and I am disappointed that we won’t get the full experience.
The abrupt and unexpected way the news was announced has gotten under my skin, but we are flying third this morning and we don’t have much time before we need to make our way to the aircraft. Quarantine will be just enough time to set our stopwatches and leave but there is a problem with our GoPro. On Day 1 we were allowed to take it without any problems but today we are told that we need prior permission. I don’t have an issue with that, but if I had known in advance, then I could have requested said permission. After a brief disagreement, we get permission. We just about have enough time to run past the bathroom, conveniently located on the opposite side of the airfield, before we rush to our aircraft.
I messily cut out our photos, trembling with adrenaline. First, I place our turn point photos in their holder and then I try to group the en-route into categories to make them easier to spot as we fly. Categories include houses, fields, forest, rivers, roads or dams. Every photo seems to be a farmhouse, so I try to find other distinguishing background features to sort them by. I try to find something unique to stick in my memory like an oddly shaped field, a distinct hedge pattern or a squiggly road.
It feels like only a blink of an eye before Iaan hands me the first four turn points. Folding Pam’s paper to 88kt for the adjusted ground speed on leg 1, I realise the scale of today’s challenge. Today’s route is again taking us to the “wild west” with its agricultural villages, unmarked farm roads and vast forestry areas. We will fly north-west of Mâcon through the Loire Valley in an anti-clockwise direction. We managed just fine in this area yesterday and I try to hang on to that optimism. Fortunately, there is no away landing today, but we will be flying across very hilly terrain. Hills and wind almost scared the pants off me once before, but our hired Cessna 152 should be a bit more capable and stable in these conditions.
I take off towards the south. The start point is just to the north-west of the airfield and only 3 minutes away. With 8 minutes provided to get there, I will need to orbit to avoid flying over the airfield while others are taking off. I don’t like to orbit because I have to take my eyes off the start point, risking getting disoriented, and if Iaan is still plotting, orbiting can also result in airsickness. Another procedure we use to combat this is that he takes a motion sickness tablet before every flight, something that many navigators do.
The tail wind is very strong, and I decide to do a second orbit to set myself up. As soon as I turn back onto track, I realise that I am now behind. I add power and zoom over the start point 10 seconds late. I start to slow down to set myself up for the airspeed of 75kt as that is what the wind correction is based on. I interrupt Iaan to check the groundspeed he was given so I can double check against our new instrument, the Dynon D3.
“88.8kts” he reads off his timing sheet. This is what I expect as we have a near full tailwind now, predicted to be 15kts, but the Dynon says we are flying at nearly 100kts.
“Ok, I sped up too much” I think to myself. I slow down but I am quickly distracted as I am struggling to match what should be on the map to what I see on the ground.
Iaan’s head is still in the cockpit finalising the map.
“I need your eyes” I interrupt him again. Still disorientated, he takes a while to figure out what is going on.
“I think this town must be that,” he says, pointing to the map and the ground. As soon as he points, I realise that is not the case. We are far to the right of track and still much too early. Oh no, we missed the first turn point, and it is too far away for me to confirm the photo. This turn point alone has already cost us 150 penalty points, nearly as much as my total timing score of 171 yesterday. I realise that I am in trouble and tell Iaan that I may need his help again on the next leg.
The turn is very shallow, less than 10° to the left. I try to correct my heading, taking into consideration that I am far to the right of track. I also slow down to lose the time I gained but I am unsure of where we are and what speed we are supposed to be doing. I am also worried about overcorrecting. Two minutes pass and things are still not looking right. We are now over a hill covered in trees and I am looking for an elongated town following a road. On the map I see a forest area, but the shape doesn’t match what I see on the ground, and I see three parallel roads with similar shaped towns. The maps we are using do not show elevation changes so I can’t use the hills to confirm which town is which. Moments ago, I knew exactly where we are, and now I am unsure of our position (pilots are never lost!). Iaan tries to assist, but it is the same result. We have missed the turn point and are still too far to the right of track. The good news is that we are so close this time that I can see the turn point and confirm the photo, reducing the damage.
Iaan’s plot is going much faster today. He lets me know that he is done with the map, but he needs time to finish the minute markers. All this extra folding of the minute marker is eating up time.
“Rather leave the minute markers and help me navigate,” I say. I need every bit of help just to stay on track today. The minute markers won’t help if we are lost. Now with extra eyes, we get back on track and are only 6 seconds late as we fly past turn point 3. Things are looking up as we manage to find turn point 4 but we are 25 seconds late. We are not flying directly into the headwind yet, but we are already behind. I realise that the wind is steadily increasing and is now far stronger than the prediction.
With navigation now seemingly under control, Iaan refocuses on completing the map and en-route photo spotting. I pass turn point 5 within 3 seconds and turn point 6 without too much difficulty. Less than a minute away from turn point 7 I become temporarily unsure of my position again.
“Was that the turn point?” I ask Iaan, but it is too late, and he can’t see the road that confused me. We have flown out of the built-up area surrounding Montceaux Les Mines and are now back in the sparsely populated forestry areas again.
I don’t realise that I am slowly drifting towards my right, further and further from the track. Iaan sees my heading drifting and immediately tells me to turn back onto track and maintain it. At least that way we are headed in the right direction. If we stay parallel to track, maybe something will look familiar along the way. If not, maybe we can just keep flying to the west coast and go on a beach holiday. It will be much less stressful!
Suddenly Iaan sees a dam in the distance. “Yes, I can see it on the map. We should be much closer to it,” I say, relieved. I rapidly divert towards it and spot the road that conveniently leads into turn point 8. I am now going flat out trying to make up lost time from our diversion as we fly into the headwind. I manage to bingo the turn point, and it is time for our first arc. I am looking for one of the roads that come out of the small town of St Bonnet. Easy right? Wrong. There are 8 roads radiating out of this town in a star pattern with little to distinguish which is which. Another turn point missed as a I turn too early and fly over the wrong road.
I mutter under my breath as I make my way to turn point 10. Luckily it is quite an obvious if rather isolated factory and I am only 4 seconds early. Next, I bingo turn point 11 and I try to forget the day so far. It is only distracting me, and I need to focus on the second and final arc for the day. There is a convenient town in the middle of the arc, and I fly straight towards it, not bothering with trying to fly the curve. The arcs here are just too difficult, and I would rather stay near a known feature and adjust my timing than take the risk with the navigation. We are 10 seconds early but that is to be expected as we did shortcut a chunk of the arc. I need to start climbing to get over the range of hills that run along the west of Mâcon. We can’t be far from the finish now.
The features start to appear much quicker than I expect, and I realise that the wind has changed direction since this morning. We now have a strong tailwind rather than the expected crosswind. I am flying as slowly as possible, nose pointed high into a climb. I don’t want to turn too sharply to lose time because the turn point is in a valley, and I don’t want to lose sight of it. My efforts aren’t enough, and we cruise over it more than 30 seconds early. I am so distracted with the timing that I forget to look at the turn point photo.
Fatigue and frustration from all these unexpected challenges are impacting my performance. The finish point is on the other side of the hills, in an area where visibility is difficult. There are countless roads and villages, all neatly tucked in the foothills where you can’t see them until you are upon them. I subconsciously drift to the right of track, again. As we fly over the river south of Macon, I realise that we must have passed the finish point. I didn’t see it and I have no idea if we were in the right place.
“Let’s go land and finish this day” I sigh. Iaan tries to console me and get my head on track for the landing. No point throwing away more points for nothing. We have a full crosswind for landing, but it doesn’t seem unmanageable. On short final, a gust surprises me and I add a touch of power. Unfortunately, it was a touch too much and we plonk down deeper than I had hoped.
As we sit in debriefing, we find out that we missed 5 turn points, and our overall navigation score is 777. We also missed 5 turn point photos, which ratchet up our observation score to 985 points. Our landing scored is 120 points, bringing us to a total of 1882 points.
Now back on the ground, the wind is howling far beyond my limits. It has been steadily increasing all day. I have no idea how our teammates will fare in this, and I am so relieved that we aren’t out there now as the wind is gusting over 40 knots. We retreat to the hotel early, exhausted.
At our team debrief in the evening, our team manager Leon shares the day’s news. The significantly deteriorating weather during the afternoon resulted in a few turn points being thrown out, as well as the landing, which far exceeded the competition rules for crosswind landings in the afternoon. This is a significant boost to our score for the day as we end with 1412 points. Our teammates have some hair-raising stories about their flights too. As they describe looking out a side window, flying 90 to the leg just to stay on track, I realise that we were lucky to fly in the morning, as bad as it was.
This does not make me feel better about the day, which was a perfect storm for us.
Events beyond my control were stressing me, despite my best efforts to not allow them to get to me. My mental preparation normally comes naturally, as I prepare the same way for each rally race. Today, it felt like an uphill battle where I was continuously trudging through mud. I allowed events to distract me, the result being that each mistake compounded into the next as we made our way around the route. While mistakes can be good teachers, I didn’t need so many of those teachers at once today.
I struggled every moment of the hour and a half we were in the air as well as some on the ground. The weather was grim, and I needed help throughout the flight, costing Iaan the opportunity to see en-route photos or ground markers. Reliving the day was frustrating to say the least, particularly as I look back and can see how close I came to so many of the turn points that I missed and how easily I could have corrected myself. Hindsight is always 20/20 but at least there was an abundance of experience and challenges to learn from.
Iaan and I debrief at the hotel and figure out a few issues that we were struggling with. I keep creeping to the right of track, particularly when I am unsure of where I am. This could be because I am in the left seat, and I want to spot things that may be directly below us. I have also been flying very high, both in practice and in the competition. This makes navigation easier because you can see further but it makes timing much more difficult. It also makes photo spotting more difficult because the perspective changes noticeably from the photo. We should have looked at the day in more detail as unbeknownst to us, this will cost us heavily tomorrow.