It almost feels like we blinked, and the last day of competition has dawned. I am very excited when I find out during briefing, that today’s route will finally take us to the east of Mâcon. This area is generally flat however, the far east of the competition area extends into the foothills of the Alps. We are also moving away from the agricultural areas into areas generously sprinkled with towns, villages, roads and railways and other infrastructure.
Today’s route will also include two scored landings, an away landing at Bourg-en-Bresse and a home landing at Mâcon-Charnay. The winds are forecast to remain strong, but largely improved from yesterday. While it will feel relatively calm compared to yesterday, an adjustment to the timing will still be made, this time for a wind speed of 10 knots from 250°.
We are quite determined to complete the competition on a high note. We had many challenges yesterday, but we gained an immeasurable amount of experience that we can’t wait to put it into practice. But first we need to patiently wait in quarantine for a few hours.
We seem to have our mojo back as we settle into the aircraft. Iaan’s plot is going well, and I have the photos sorted into their places in no time. We roll down runway 17 at Mâcon-Charnay for the last time, and I immediately spot the ‘road crossing’ that is the start point. The roads are obscured by trees, but they have a distinctive shape that I can already see. Turn point 1 is a non-descript T junction but it is located near the highway, an easily spotted dual carriageway. My timing feels great, but the T-junction doesn’t look like the photo. I fly a few seconds longer to check that it isn’t the next intersection before deciding the photo is false and turning south towards Lyon. Trusting my instinct on timing turns out to be true as I bingo the turn point.
Turn point 2 is at the edge of a small water body. If we were back home in dry South Africa, this would make it easy to spot, but we are in France and we are approaching an enormous wetland area. It is quite a sight to behold as it is dotted with hundreds of ponds, lakes and other small water bodies that extend all the way to Lyon.
I revert to our practice in the simulator and filter out the zillions of small bodies of water. These are useless for navigation as they change size and shape depending on the season and recent rainfall. Relying only on roads, towns and larger manmade features, I successfully fly to turn point 2. The actual lake or pond is covered in green and looks like grass. Searching for it means that I fly over it 12 seconds early.
I follow this with one of my best arcs flown to date. Turn point 3 is an intersection with unique looking road markings that I mark as true as I fly over within 4 seconds.
The next 2 legs of the route are within the Lyon Terminal Manoeuvring Area (TMA) and well into the wetland areas. A TMA is an area of controlled airspace surrounding a major airport where there is a high volume of traffic. I am so focussed on navigation that I don’t give the TMA much thought as I get within 3 seconds at turn point 4 and then bingo turn point 5.
As I turn east again towards turn point 6, the foothills of the Alps start to rise up in front of us. As we both look up for a rare moment to enjoy the scenery, I realise that I forgot to turn the GoPro on. With that quickly rectified, we refocus on our task. A mere 5 seconds early, I fly past turn point 6 and decide that the photo is false.
We are both feeling really positive, and the flight is going smoothly. Based on my excellent timing so far, I am managing the wind correction surprisingly well and I am confident in my navigation. Iaan finished his plot quickly and is busy looking for en route photos. We are now flying along the Ain River and it is time to start our climb. The ground is rising rapidly ahead of us, and our next turn point is the start of a spectacular mountain pass. As I look at my map again, I realise that this leg is in fact our first and only follow the feature of the competition. We will be following the mountain pass from the river valley as it winds sharply back and forth through a series of parallel ridges.
The good news is that there is no penalty for not following the feature exactly. The bad news is that it is very difficult to manage your timing as it is all but impossible to draw minute markers on something so wriggly on the map, so we have a different technique for a follow the feature. Iaan draws a straight line and marks 2 minutes and 1 minute away from the turn point. I then fly a series of sharp turns along the leg, trying to follow the feature but not worrying too much about being exact. I focus on getting my timing right and Iaan keeps his eyes out for en-route photos if possible.
Still climbing as I follow the pass up into the mountains, I do a series of s-turns and start to look for the turn point, another ‘y-junction.’ I can see a viewing point where the road makes quite an unusual loop, possibly a viewing point, but something looks different to the photo. I ask Iaan to try and double check, but it is almost impossible to see behind us. There is no time to waste with indecision because the next leg is our second and final arc and I need to focus. I have to go with my instinct and say the photo is false.
This arc takes us to the intermediate finish point and over some magnificent scenery. It is really difficult not to get distracted as we fly over a deep gorge with huge horseshoe-shaped meanders, surrounded by lush green woodlands. Steep sided cliffs rise up on either side of the river Ain and I can see castles, holiday villas and an impressive bridge that has 2 different levels rising tall above the river valley. I later read that this is the Cize–Bolozon viaduct, which has a lower level for vehicles and an upper level for trains. With 11 arches rising 73m high, it really is a sight to see.
As we both enjoy the scenery, I fly my arc slightly too wide and am over the intermediate finish point 11 seconds late. There is no time to worry as it is time for the away landing at Bourg-en-Bresse and I need to quickly lose altitude. We will be joining directly on the base leg and need to be below circuit altitude to avoid the departing aircraft of the competitors ahead of us. I am all the way back to idle on the throttle, but it isn’t quite enough.
I side slip to lose a bit more altitude and then settle our descent and speed as we join the base leg. Everything looks within my spot landing ‘window’ as I turn onto final approach. I have a good descent rate of 500ft per minute and am 500 feet above the ground. We touch down and this time I remember to roll out the landing box before applying power and we take off again.
The intermediate start point is described as a bridge. I have a good idea of where it should be but am struggling to spot it. I can see the highway and a town which guide me to the right place, but nothing suggests a road or river to me. Iaan and I both squint at the farms and roads when suddenly we see a narrow line of trees.
“Aha, that must be the river!” I exclaim. “But I still don’t see a bridge?
“There! The river crosses the road just ahead of us and to our left” says Iaan. Phew, we fly over it 5 seconds late and I can see we are in the right place as I identify the photo as true.
We are back into relatively familiar territory as we fly over farms surrounded by neat hedges, interspersed with forestry areas. Turn point 9 is another non-descript road intersection but I spot it based on its proximity to a small village and the highway. I am thrilled to be only 3 seconds late and confidently identify the photo as incorrect.
We are on the home stretch now with only two turn points remaining. For the first time in the competition so far, I am confident enough to fly left of the track so that Iaan can spot photos better. Unfortunately, we haven’t had much luck with these pesky photos so far. The photos look so easy but in reality, the farmhouses seem to be indistinguishable from one another. I happily fly past turn point 10 four seconds late and we are headed directly towards Mâcon and the finish point.
Unsurprisingly the finish point is another ‘y-junction.’ They seem to love them here. The area near the river becomes densely populated again and can be a bit confusing to navigate but I make a beeline straight to the finish without any difficulty. Only five seconds late, I am really happy with how our last flight has gone.
Before I get too overconfident, I need to focus on the final landing of the competition. For the last time, I look down at the hair on my arms to mentally refocus from navigation to ‘landing mode.’ We will have another interesting landing as we will be joining straight onto long final approach. Fortunately, I have practiced a few times as it is quite different to our normal procedure that gives lots of time to correct.
I am happy with my approach as we fly over the threshold, and I close the throttle to idle. Suddenly, we lose all lift and plop down short of the line. Oops, that is a bit disappointing, but we are safely back on the ground and have plenty of time to finish marking our answers before we get our results.
As we walk into the debriefing room, we are pleased with how the day has gone so far. As we go through our answer sheets, I find out that I got two turn point photos wrong. Those unique road markings at turn point 3 are apparently not that unique and one of those pesky y-junctions also got me. This brings our observation score to a total of 920 points.
Next, we find out that we have been given a penalty for an abnormal landing at Bourge-en-Bresse. I am quite surprised to hear this as it felt like a good landing with nothing unusual to speak of. Definitely no bounce or unusual angle that I am aware of. We request more information and are told that we landed on the nosewheel first but there is no way to check that unless we submit a formal protest. A formal protest requires a hefty fee to avoid competitors from frivolously protesting everything in the hope that something sticks. I am flummoxed. We debate it between us for a while and decide it isn’t worth it. It will add a lot of stress and will result in 150 points difference at most, it certainly won’t change our competition in any way. This gives us 190 for the first landing and 200 for the second landing, bringing us to a total of 390 points for landings today.
Before we get our navigation scores, the judges raise another problem. Our tracker shows that we were way too high when we flew through the Lyon TMA. We are both surprised to hear that but realise that we didn’t give it a moment’s thought while flying. This carries a huge penalty of 600 points. There is no way to argue with the loggers though so even though I hadn’t felt high, there isn’t much we can do. Looking back at all three days, we can now see that we tended to fly on the high side throughout the competition. Normally there is no limit on altitude, it just makes timing more difficult. Unfortunately, today it caught us out in a mistake we are very unlikely to make again!
Finally, we get our navigation score, and I am absolutely ecstatic to have scored a total of 180 points. Our total score of 2090 doesn’t quite reflect how well we felt the day went but, in the end, we are happy. We gave it our best shot and feel we ended the competition on the high note that we had hoped for.
Now that the competition is over, we have a full day to rest and recover before the final results come out at the formal closing ceremony tomorrow night. But first, we celebrate at the International Evening.
This long running tradition takes place after the last flying day and all the teams gather at the airfield to share traditional food and drink from their country and to get to know each other. Now that we aren’t competing with one another, chatting is easier, and we turn from strangers to friends over the many drinks.
The South Africans set out a spread of locally made brandy Klipdrift, along with a crowd favourite, locally made Amarula cream liqueur. The Czech Republic have brought a very popular beer keg, the Italians and Portuguese have their own selections of wine, the Austrians have delightful cheeses, while the Slovaks have a dangerous looking juniper spirit. With 12 countries participating, there is more food and drink than we can possibly remember, especially after sampling everything and somehow everyone goes home with a German flag painted on their face.
Competitors also start to swap shirts. If you can find someone willing, you can have a fun memento to confuse people with when you return home. I happily traded my green Protea shirt for a navy France shirt while Iaan swapped for a blue China shirt.
We also get a chance to catch up with friends that we made at the 2022 World Championships and find out how they fared over the competition. It seems like many people struggled with the maps and navigating in this difficult terrain as well as the terrible wind yesterday. Everyone made their own mistakes, and we exchange stories of frustration, relief and mostly laughter over the good and bad memories already formed.
On our rest day, we explore Mâcon via a small tourist train that takes us on a tour of the town and ends with a wine tasting of the local wines produced in the region. We swim at our hotel and relax until it is time for the prizegiving ceremony.
Everyone gathers in their national colours at the town hall and the results are announced. We finished in 36th overall, and 3rd out of the South African Teams. Teammates Alewyn and Steve come third overall in the landing championships and the South African teams couldn’t be more excited for them.
The laughter and joy continues at a wonderful dinner where we get a selection of French delicacies as our meal. None of us seem to know what any of it is, but we devour it between bouts of laughter as the teams exchange small gifts that they brought with them, from keyrings to pens to lip ice or mini bottles of Jägermeister.
The World Rally Flying Championships 2023 are over in what felt like an absolute whirlwind. It was hard work but so much more fun that I thought possible. We still feel a bit shellshocked and it is hard to believe that we have actually flown around France! What an experience. We have made so many new flying friends, learnt so much and gained enormous amounts of experience.
Our brains are already spinning, as we start to make plans on how to improve and get to the next World Championships in Italy 2025.