MH370 Flaperon & Lanseria Pitot Freeze

Flaperon being tested by CSIRO to determine effect of wind and current.  ©CSIRO 

Malaysian Airlines has become the first operator to monitor all its planes using satellites which will track aircraft in real time – this after its MH370 flight with 239 souls on board disappeared in 2014 during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.   The mystery of the flight continues to fascinate and horrify aviators with so many of the basic questions unanswered.   Who took control of the flight?  Why?  Where did the plane disappear?  What happened to the passengers and crew?   How did an entire airliner vanish?

After some criticism about the manner of the search,  Malaysian Airlines has now agreed to sign up for the live monitoring of its planes in a new system which exploits satellite and GPS technology.  This is a long overdue decision and the Malaysians must be congratulated in being the first to move its monitoring to a real-time approach.

CSIRO staff floating the flaperon

There is also good news when it comes to the search itself.  We may be a little closer to the answers after the Australian Transport Board published its latest report into the search on Friday 21st April.   From the report:

The only thing that our recent work changes is our confidence in the accuracy of the estimated location, which is within the new search area identified and recommended by the First Principles Review (ATSB2016), and most likely at the southern end of that, near 35°S.

While at first glance this appears to merely confirm previous analysis,  there’re quite a few interesting items in the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation )Oceans and Atmosphere report which was handed to authorities on the 13th April and released publicly today.   Earlier attempts at computer generated modelling were linked to the manner in which buoys floated in the ocean,  and not how a flaperon would react to currents and winds.   This report has painstakingly pulled this specific data into a model which scientists at the CSIRO and ATB believe has allowed for a much more accurate rendering of the location of the fuselage.

The Red indicates the area where CSIRO now believes is the zone which contains the remains of MH370

That’s because the Flaperon reacts like a sail in wind,  and more so because part of the same wing structure would also glide through the water like a boat.  Combine these two aspects and it makes for very interesting data.  The tests found that the Flaperon would move 20° left of the wind at an average of 10cm/s and would account for the Flaperon’s  arrival time of the flaperon at La Reunion in July 2015.  So the report states:

The value of this revised estimate of the flaperon’s drift parameters is that it increases our confidence in the accuracy of the drift model. The earlier simulations of the flaperon trajectory were only consistent with the arrival of the flaperon at La Reunion if a chance encounter with an ocean eddy took the flaperon south. That was plausible but not particularly likely.

While the scientists warn that that doesn’t automatically mean that the debris would DEFINITELY arrive at La Reunion,  they’re now confident about the site of the crash itself.  It’s still a vast area 25000km/squared.   Importantly,  they also now know precisely where the plane WOULDN’T be based on the same modelling.  It’s a bit like the ancient Arab mathematicians discovering that 0 is very important.  Nothing is as important as something sometimes.

The data map of possible wreckage flow based on CSIRO computer modelling 

“Nothing” was what my airspeed indicator read half way along a ground roll at Lanseria last week which was a real surprise.  After all the checks (double checks in my case because I’m extra cautious), power run up and physical inspection,  I still had a frozen pitot tube problem on ground roll.   One moment power is 2500 RPM and airspeed is coming up nicely,  past 23-30knots then suddenly – ZERO!



The SR20 had accelerated quickly at first and felt good but my airspeed indicator then read “——”   indicating  I had stopped when it was clear we were approaching V1 speed along Runway 07 at Lanseria.

The years of training kicked in,  power back, brakes on, off at Alpha 1 and report to ATC that my flight was aborted due to technical problems.  He asked as per the book if I needed assistance and I said no,  trouble with airspeed and returned to the hangar.

The dew that was to cause the problem.  I took the picture to show the extend of the dew fall on the morning of 16th April 2017.  

After shutting down I looked into the tube but saw nothing.   An instructor Michelle Roe arrived and turned on the pitot tube heat.  After five minutes steam began to blow out of the tube and it was as right as rain but I had missed the window for my flight.

A typical light aircraft Pitot Tube

While the end of this story is positive,  I sat there thinking about the Air France Flight 447 in 2009 that crashed because its pitot tube that was frozen, leading the pilots to take the instrument reading as correct when the real story was the plane was falling in a flat stall straight down into the Atlantic.   In my case it was daylight and I knew immediately what the problem was because after seeing the computer flight display indicate zero on speed,  I looked at the backup analogue old fashioned airspeed indicator which also read zero.  At that point I knew that the pitot tube was blocked.  But had it been at night and at 5000 AGL there would have been problems.

Pitot Tube on an airliner of jet would look something like this.

If it had been at night,  the only solution here would be at first try the pitot tube heat while changing to autopilot,  then if the airspeed failed to reappear,  to pull the CAPs lever or Cirrus parachute system.  The water in the pitot tube had actually frozen on a sunny day while on the ground and accelerating – I could only imagine how difficult it was for the Air France pilots.  In my case the temperature at the time was 12˙C and the dew fall had been extremely heavy in the morning.  The water was dripping off the plane as I did the checks and I noted at the time (see the picture above!) that the pitot tube cover had not been used on the Cirrus overnight,  even though it was parked outdoors.

Usually the thing that concerns me most is the worry that an insect had crawled into the tube.  But a visual inspection indicated the tube was not blocked by a wasp or similar.  I just didn’t see how much water had flowed into the tube,  and during the ground roll more water must have entered the tube leading to the block.

The design of the pitot tube goes back a hundred years or more with the basic principle a comparison of air pressure inside a controlled machine vs the changing air pressure outside.  That produced a number of things,  airspeed,  rate of climb or descent,  and altitude.   So had I decided to ignore the zero reading on the pitot tube and taken off,  my flight would have probably entailed a violent altercation with the granite cloud.

An accident.

Instead because we’re trained properly,    CCT was flying an hour later quite safely.

Unlike Air France Flight 447.

The physics of a Pitot Tube courtesy of NASA 


Cirrus SR22 Conversion No Time To Muck About

Approaching Lanseria Runway 250 in a 21 knots gusting 33 knots crosswind.  Hang on folks.

I’m officially a twit.  An idiot.  Lazy. Incompetent.  Criminally stupid.  Pitifully backward in a world full of forward.   A chump.  A lump.  Or as my latin teacher would repeat regularly,  a Philistine.

This is all because I have decided to put on hold my attempts at writing all nine commercial pilot aviation exams at this point.  It’s all because of law.  Aviation law.  I manage a measly 60-odd percent when the pass mark is 75%.  So instead of suicide or further laceration of ego,  I decided to convert to the Cirrus SR22 from the SR20 while the proverbial licking of the intellectual wounds continues.

Why? I hear a veritable chorus of voices yell, oh why?

‘Cos its much faster and has more power.  In a nutshell.  So there, its public.  The vague ramblings about aviation philosophy have been replaced by a simple edict.   It’s got a bigger engine.

Approaching the threshold Runway 07 (opposite 250) – after an orbit to the left.

We’re a pathetic lot, us boys.  Still,  it took 4 hours instead of the usual 3 because I spent the last training session more worried about an upcoming gig at a wedding that afternoon than really concentrating.  And when you’re whizzing about the world at 300 kph you better have focus.  Sorry Steve (my instructor) who looked irritated after my shoddy landing back home at Lanseria.

But allow me to wax at least a little lyrical about said SR22?  Can we please look at some of the performance indicators.

It cruises at a whopping 184 knots,  or 340 kph.  It climbs at 1400 feet per minute (sea level), whereas planes like the Cessna Skylane only managed 924 fpm. To give you an example just how good that is,  an  Airbus A320 climbs at around 2200 feet per minute.


Well I know, its an explosion of gasps! !!  Yes folks,  the SR22 is a performance aeroplane.  After converting my first flight was to take a photographer (my son) on an excursion to Potchefstroom at low level.  That was exciting as there was an 18 knot cross wind at Lanseria.  Take-off was fine and we were off.  But before leaving Lanseria airspace I realised that there was just no way we could continue.  The plane was bucking and the turbulence was extreme.  And because of no flight plan,  I could not climb to a high altitude to escape the effect of wind whipping over the nearby hills and throwing us around like mad dolls.

So I contacted Lanseria and requested a return to airfield.  Runway 250 was in use with the wind coming from 330 – virtually 90˚ to the right.  It had increased to 21knots which is the Cirrus Cross wind capacity.  I wasn’t too worried,  having trained in heavy crosswinds through my great instructor’s insistence.  Russell Donaldson is a legend and he made me land the unforgiving Maule MX7 in a 30 knot crosswind so I was sure it would be fine.

That was until we were steady on short final,  when ATC advised me that the wind had begun to gust at 33 knots.  Leaping from 21 to 33 knots as a virtual 90˙ crosswind is a completely different kettle of fish.   That leads directly to what’s known as wind shear.  I considered aborting,  but then decided that my setup on the final was steady and I was in a good frame of mind that we’d go ahead.  However I decided should we have to do a go-around,  I’d fly to Pilansberg and wait there for the winds to die down.  Pilansberg would see that wind coming a lot straighter down the runway.


Ahead a Cessna 172 had bounced on landing and was warning about the extreme wind effect.  That made me a little more nervous.  Then we hit the wind shear which shifted the plane both down 50 feet and around 50 feet off the centre line.  But I was ready and pulled the plane back into line with the rudders,  aileron hard down into the wind, crabbing and we were over the threshold.  I held off as long as possible, then she was down.

See those dots?  Cows in a field. ©Keegan Latham 2016

We drifted a little to the right as I hadn’t straightened the rudders enough,  but not by much.  A good landing that could have gone extremely badly.  My son was calm throughout and said he was happy to be on the ground.  The SR22 is not to be trifled with,  heavier engine, faster, more right rudder.

We took off two days later in calm conditions and completed the video and photoshoot.  All safe.  All good.









Deep Blue & Mustard Orange

There are beautiful moments in the world of aviation.  Last weekend I had one.  Standing in the semi-dark at Lanseria Airport,  I was struck by the fact that a Boeing was in the circuit.  It’s always exciting watching or sharing airspace with a Boeing pilot undergoing circuit training.  The pure power as the plane does a touch and go.  The sound on the ground of a large jet circling the airfield.

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 2.58.14 PM

On 21st May it was even more beautiful.  While the Boeing pilot/s trained, a Blue Moon waxed overhead.  Alongside the Moon, Mars glowered in an orange mistiness.  It was partly cloudy so I wasn’t sure that the astronomical event would feature during my flight.

A blue moon is when 4 full moons appear in a season instead of 3.  Usually a blue moon means the Moon is actually the second full moon in a month.  But in a strange twist,  Blue moon of 21st May actually means its a full moon that’s appeared for the fourth time in a season.  Thus, its an unusual event.  Like a Blue Moon.   At least astronomers aren’t confused.

Mars in opposition means the earth passes directly between Mars and the Sun and Mars then gleams so brightly in the night that it looks like a bursting star.  Its way the brightest thing in the night sky so keep looking up folks,  that’s going to last for  a few weeks yet.

But as luck would have it, the Moon and Mars sauntered into view as I took off.  Later, turning in the general flying area –  suddenly – I was alone in the great big sky of Johannesburg.  It was like a switch had been flicked.  Bright moonlight shone on the northern Magagliesberg Ridge which looms up to a high point of 6000 feet, ready to trip up an unsuspecting night pilot.  A single plane was descending into Rand Airport 50km away. A chopper swirled around FNB towers near Soweto.   In the north, around Rustenberg and Pilansberg, nothing moved.

Here something special – A night flight during a blue moon & mars in opposition

It’s hard to put into words the exact feeling as you fly in such clear skies on a windless night, with a Blue Moon and Mars in opposition for company.  For a fleeting moment I felt a little like what space travellers may feel.  Solitude, an alien loneliness, an ache to fly.






Communication Failure In The Circuit


Vertex_PilotIII_Aviation.jpgSo a partial comms failure occurred while I was doing circuits and landings at Lanseria on Saturday night. Nothing serious, mind you, but it could have been worse.  There are two radios built into a Cirrus SR20 and I never fly without my trusty handheld VHF radio – just in case.   I was originally planning a night cross country but there were storm cells dotted around Gauteng and further afield so I decided to do a few touch-n-go’s instead.  There was a towering CumuloNimbus around 12 nautical miles North west of the aerodrome just to help apply the mind.  There was also a 12 knot wind from 05, not too bad as runway 07 was active meaning the wind was an almost perfect headwind on landing.

Take off was uneventful and courtesy of the wind, Zulu India Papa galloped into the air.  The first landing was slightly high but speeds and flare good, then  my radio conked out.  What increased the stress was I was not alone in the circuit.

There was a Diamond twin ahead and a Cessna 210 behind.  I was the jam in the donut, but as fortune would have it,  the radio cut while I was on right downwind 07 literally mid-runway.  If it had happened a little later there would have been a lot more stress.  Yet the solitary suddenness when something goes wrong in aviation can catch you.  One minute I was listening to my fellow pilots reporting – then suddenly the world went eerily quiet.  I had kept a wary eye on the Diamond ahead of me,  he seemed to climb fast then take his time on base.  So I understood how he was flying.  His navigation lights were in sight around a nautical mile ahead,  and the Cessna I knew was still climbing away from the runway so was no threat from behind.  Yet.

After fiddling with the squelch setting and checking the radio had power and frequencies were correct,  I was beginning to drift downwind and away from the base turn.  The years of training kicked in once more.

Quickly I selected 124.0 Lanseria tower on Comm2 – still nothing and I checked the fuses.  All in and locked.  I was growing a little nervous, even though I had already pulled the Vertex Standard Pilot III from my bag.  I cranked up the volume on the second radio and breathed a sigh of relief as I heard the calming voice of the ATC speaking to the Diamond pilot.  Once they’d finished I said:

“ZIP – I have comms problems – how do you read me?”

“five five”

“Comms 1 failed Zulu India Papa”

“Are you declaring an emergency?”

“Negative, have a handheld as backup, ready to turn late base Zulu India Papa”

“Turn base, with the traffic in sight report final number two” said ATC as quick as a flash.

And with that I continued my hour long stint in the circuit.  No flutter, no panic.  Had the comms failed entirely it would have been a few seconds to plug in my handheld,  not easy even when its calm.  But I would have landed immediately rather than continue in the circuit.

Once again our hours of training kicked in.  I was feverishly running through what I would do next to indicate that my radio comms failure.

  1. Set transponder to Mode A 7600
  2. Flash lights off and on
  3. Continue in the circuit with traffic in sight,  land and vacate runway asap
  4. Contact tower and inform them of the problem
  5. Let the CFI know

Had I been on my cross-country and one radio failed,  I would have cut the flight short and returned to base immediately.  So as moments go,  this was a tiny little one compared to some horror stories I have read.  But it was the pleasing reaction to years of training that kept my heart rate steady,  my eyes beady,  and panic at bay.    Apart from respecting the towering CB’s,  I’d made the right call on the cross country as well.  Imagine negotiating a night surrounded by storm cells and twiddling with a dysfunctional radio.  Better safe than sorry.  Did I mention I’m old,  but not bold?




The Force Of May Is With Us

Its so beautiful on the highveld at this time I could just sing.  But because there are children who are easily frightened nearby, I won’t.  Let’s just say that the environment is almost perfect for an aviator right now.  Just take a look at the weather METAR for today.

261200Z 24006KT 190V330 CAVOK 25/M03 Q1023 NOSIG
261100Z 26005KT 200V320 CAVOK 25/M02 Q1024 NOSIG
261000Z VRB03KT CAVOK 24/M01 Q1025 NOSIG

Ok all that means is that at 14h00 hours today (or 1200Z for Zulu which is Universal Standard Time or two hours behind CAT), the wind was 6 knots from 240 which is slap bang down the middle of Runway 245 Lanseria.  Admittedly it also reads 190V330 which means that its variable and sometimes 190 to 330.  So coming in to land could mean a slight adjustment left or right based on where where the 6knots of wind package is coming from.  Having landed in 30knot cross-winds in a Maule (with a real aviator expert alongside) 6knots is hardly stressful.

That’s the METAR or meteorological condition past.  How about the forecast?  The TAF or Air Forecast.  Well well.

TAF 261000Z 2612/2712 29005KT CAVOK         BECMG 2617/2619 VRB02KT         BECMG 2708/2710 28005KT         TX25/2612ZTN08/2704Z

The wind is likely to drop to 5knots CAVOK (Ceiling and Visibility OK) by the afternoon, and then slow still further at 19h00 local to variable 02knots.  A light little breath.  Beautiful.  When its VRB (variable) 20knots G (gusting) 30knots I start to clamp a sphincter.

But tonight its clear and that’s good because once more instructor Steve is going to help me further understand the mysteries of instrument flying and the weather won’t be throwing me any curve balls.  Well as far as my aviation weather app shows.

Check out the surface level wind map courtesy of Nullschool.  I haven’t seen so few low pressure systems off South Africa in more than a year.  I’m sure the weather fundi’s out there will dispute this,  but its very very still out there right now.  And by there I mean most of Southern Africa.


The low pressure systems are in a trough along the south of Madagascar, just off the east coast, and another trough along the west Coast.  For my Cape Town friends, sorry for you.  As you can see from the wind image alongside,  the bright green band is indicative of high winds blowing in from the Antarctic. It’s cold and rainy in Cape Town.  But for most of the rest of us in Southern Africa, the blue blue blue means very little, if any, wind.

But that’s not likely to last long as the winter cold fronts blow in from the south west. Still I’m going to enjoy the aviating and learning about vectors and radials and such and being thrown around the dark inside ZS-JAB with a big smile on me dial.  And here below is a satellite photo of the clouds.  Note Cape Town’s Med climate vs the rest.




Glorious Sweet Lightning Illuminated Night Rating

It was a moonless night.  The lightning flickered south of Johannesburg and revealed the outline of cumulonimbus which had formed 100 kilometres away, silhouetted and menacing.  But even more menacing was the job at hand.  Pass my night rating test.  It was going to be a sweaty affair.  And before your dark little imaginations run wild at the combination of sweaty & affair, let’s just say it would be 1.3 hours of intense concentration, swooping vertigo and un-tried glide approaches from overhead Lanseria airfield.

Lanseria at Night Courtesy of Aeronav, where I wrote my Theory Exam in November.
Lanseria at Night Courtesy of Aeronav, where I wrote my Theory Exam in November.

In a nutshell,  I passed but you need to understand in this business, its not a boast.

It’s like surviving a marathon. Your body aches.  Your mind races.

There were moments where things weren’t as accurate as I would have liked,  and others where I had to repeat an intersection of a radio beacon.  But all-in-all, things progressed well.  Peter Armitage,  the Grade II instructor, was conducting the test after Steve Wide had spent a few hours coaching me on the intricacies of flying an aeroplane at night.

From tight 45º turns,  full panel failure in the dark (when all  instruments are switched off and you fly listening to the sound of the engine and watching the position of the horizon), electric fire simulation and failure of all systems,  stalls, dives, recovery from unusual attitude (close eyes, instructor puts plane into some kind of position wings down or up – open eyes and recover quickly), to landing without lights and PAPI switched off at Lanseria, it was tough folks.

Skills Test For a Night-Rating. CA 61-10.4
Skills Test For a Night-Rating. CA 61-10.4

The best moment by far was the glide approach from 2000 feet above Lanseria.  It was around 21h30 local and a Kulula flight was approaching runway 07.  We were overhead the airfield and Peter said “How do you feel about a glide approach from here?”

Being able to glide a plane at night from that position to safety on an airfield would be one of the big tests of the evening.  “I would like to try.”

After clearing the exercise with the ATC,  Peter pulled the power.  We were now gliding 2000 Above Ground Level or AGL and I couldn’t see Lanseria.  It was directly below.   What I could see was the Kulula Airbus pass below on final approach.  More lights twinkled across Joburg, and in the distance to the South East a commercial flight could be seen heading to OR Tambo at around 10 000 feet.  Lightning continued to brighten the clouds to our South, a real attention grabber in the dark.  I turned to the West and the airfield appeared off the right wing.

The plane was gliding at the best glide speed, 99 knots.    As the vastly experienced pilot Russell Donaldson used to snort in derision,  just glide at 100, its easier to read.  Cirrus SR 20 registration ZS-JAB was descending at around 500 feet a minute.  In around 4 minutes we’d be on the ground.  I turned base leg,  the threshold was now off the right wing. In other words,  the runway was 90º to the plane to our right.  Turning further I noticed the wind had shifted.  It was all over the place last night.  19 knots from the North, then 10 knots from the South West as I began the descent.  But as we sank it reversed!  Nine knots from the north again.  I had to change course and there the runway appeared off the nose.  Directly in line.


We were perfectly set up.  Descending smack-bang on 97 knots.  I had taken 50º of flaps, and waited to be sure we’d make the airfield before applying full flap.   As soon as you go full, the drag is massive and air speed bleeds off.  So I wanted to make sure we’d glide all the way to the airfield.

Full flaps, over the threshold at the specified 78 knots and landed.

But there’s no time to pat yourself on the back in aviation.   We hadn’t finished in the circuit yet.

Immediately up flaps 50º, wait for speed to reach rotate at 70 knots and off we went to conduct 3 more landings in different configurations, including full panel failure, all landing lights off,  and the PAPI guidance off on request to ATC.

Peter debriefed me later clearing up a few bits of detail.  He signed my log book and stamped the paperwork.

I was tired but happy.  Sweaty, tough, beautiful.  Nothing makes you more happy to be aviating than an evening almost alone in the air with the flash-bang might of a storm far enough away to merely be a fireworks display than a life threatening event.

Now I trot off to the CAA and hand in the test, along with my license and logbook.  If they’re happy,  the night rating comes into being for all planes I’m rated to fly.  The Maule MX7, Rapid Sabre, Cessna 172 and Cirrus SR20.


Hangin’ At The Hangar Pays Off

Stavros wanted to take a flight to platinum mines around Rustenburg which is 20 minutes by plane  (at least from Lanseria).  So on Saturday 18th October he came around to my house as we were going to drive to the airport together.  The bad news was all was not well.  He was suffering from a back ailment but he was determined to complete the trip.

ZS-BOR was allocated as the Cirrus for out little excursion.  After taking off at 9.15 and setting the heading for Hotel Bravo Victor (HBV) or the Hartebeespoort VOR, Stav appeared fine. The ride up to 7000 feet was a little bumpy at times with a wind blowing from the South East, gusting around 15knots.

ZS-BOR, taking off at Lanseria.  Image Courtesy Avcom.
ZS-BOR, taking off at Lanseria. Image Courtesy Avcom.

As we climbed passed 6500 the bumpiness eased and I levelled out heading north. In  a few minutes we were over the Dam and Stav commented that it looked clean. He was right, last week it was green.  Maybe the dust storm that blew over the region changed the water PH?

This is from a Balloon showing the ridge to the right and dam on the left. Stav was too sore to shoot pix and I was flying. From our hot-air ballooning buddies.
This is from a Balloon showing the ridge to the right (looking West) and dam on the left. Stav was too sore to shoot pix and I was flying. Courtesy our hot-air ballooning buddies.

Turning West, we followed the northern Magaliesburg ridge and I was planning to skip over to Rustenberg so that he could take a few pics of the mines.  But he was pale and growing paler.  And not because of motion sickness.  His back was killing him so I turned south and dropped to 6000 feet – calling Lanseria as we passed the tracking station.  It’s a satellite tracking facility that we use to enter Lanseria airspace on the North West of the airfield.

As we descended Stav got worse and I got worried. We flew in fast, slowing down to a flap friendly 100knots at the left base for runway 07, then were cleared straight in to final as the circuit was quiet.

After a smooth landing, Stav climbed out of the plane.  As I pushed the plane back into its spot outside the hangar, Stav offered to help.  The bloke is tough, that’s for sure!  The flight folio was filled out and Stav and I got read to leave.

At that point one of the CDC Aviation instructors, Jared, rushed in.  A client had bought a brand new Cirrus SR-22 and was expecting to be converted onto it – but the client lives in Springs.  Jared needed someone to fly him over to Springs Airfield immediately.

ZS-JAB.  Courtesy Joe Evans.
ZS-JAB. Courtesy Joe Evans.

I was quite happy to offer my services having cut short the previous flight. After ensuring that Stav was fine (he said walking ok, it was sitting that was excruciating), I prepped ZS-JAB which luckily had just been refuelled.  It’s the Cirrus decked out in the US Air Force livery.

Jared printed out the numbers for the short hop and when everything was certified correct, we fired up the hot Cirrus (always a challenge with its fuel injected engine) and we were off.

I hadn’t done the Pinedene Route for a while which requires flying a very precise track for a number of reasons.

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Firstly, you need to get out of the approach path to Lanseria runway 24 as quickly as possible.  Then you follow the concrete highway north to a water tower, and turn South East to another.  In the meantime you’re contacting Waterkloof because the approach is directly off to the left.  And you don’t muck with WKV because the air force is always busy there.  Directly off to the right is Grand Central Airport.  So its like literally flying a fine line.  After a few minutes you spot the power pylons below and then its following the Pinedene route almost East to Kittyhark airfield.

We turned South towards Springs Airfield, and at this point there were two veld fires and smoke was drifting across our track. I turned right to avoid them, but needed to be aware that we were now close to OR Tambo Airspace.  Talk about tricky!  The turbulence had increased so we were bouncing about, and holding the track was difficult enough.

The Springs approach is enter at 6800 feet, then turn right and head downwind for runway 210, threshold elevation 5340 feet.  Which once again put us really close to OR airspace to our West.  And just to add a little more spice to the aviation equation, there’s a bloody great smoke stack right of airfield, and a mine dump just to the right on final.

Springs Airfield- FASI. Pic: Google Earth.
Springs Airfield- FASI. Pic: Google Earth.

Jared monitored the airspeed as I flew the approach, warning me at one stage as we dropped to just under 80 knots.  Then it was full flaps, descend to the threshold and land the baby.  The runway is in good nick and, while narrow, not narrow enough to cause a problem.  I dropped Jared off, then back tracked, did the power and other checks, and flew back to Lanseria.

What a beautiful way to spend a few hours on a Saturday in Johannesburg.  Because the turbulence had increased greatly, by the time I tacked West back along the Pinedene route, there was no traffic around. It felt wonderful staring out across the city, not a plane in sight and the visibility CAVOK.  I landed a bit roughly as the wind shear had increased at Lanseria, but it was safe enough.  Heading towards 3 hours of flying, mostly in tight airspace and turbulence.  Great practice for a budding pilot like me. Practice practice practice.

ZS-CTP: Tighter Than A Scottish Referendum

It smells like a new car.  But better.  It’s also the first time since I began aviating  in 2001 that I climbed into a brand new aeroplane and took off.   Gushing time.

First, the plane was only registered two weeks ago in South Africa, having been flown out here by a US pilot with a spare rubber tank which gave it over 6 hours airtime.  I remember being around when a previous Cirrus flew in and the delivery pilot got himself in big trouble because he hadn’t checked clearance out of Botswana airspace into South Africa.

The SA Air Force was not impressed.  He escaped arrest – only just.  This time there weren’t any glitches.

ZS-CTP has all the trimmings.  AWACS weather warning.  Anti-collision system.  An AIR CONDITIONER which is almost unheard of in most light aircraft because they’re so heavy and eat up too much power.  In this plane you switch off aircon before the ground roll or bad things happen on take off.

It's simpler than it looks.
It’s simpler than it looks.

When you’re up up and away the natural fan in the front is your aircon.  But waiting at Lanseria in midsummer without an aircon inside a glasshouse in the holding bay doing the checks can be extremely sweaty and tiring so the cooling wind blowing through the plane helps concentration and increases energy.

The new Cirrus SR-20 is quite different from its predecessors.  It’s more than six inches higher for one, which doesn’t sound like much until you stand at the cowling to check the oil.  Usually I can stare into the engine and take a hard look inside,  but the new higher model means its up on tip-toes.  The decision to lift the plane has come after numerous prop strikes with the older versions and the design was altered to ensure that if there’s a hard landing, at least its Hartzell $11 000 propellor won’t hit the runway.

The two things I love about the new Cirrus are its feel and its Garmin G1000.  I’m used to old planes which are a bit like old machines of any sort.  The older they get,  the more play in the controls.  This plane is as tight as a Scottish referendum.

Garmin G1000 - PFD on left, MFD on right.
Garmin G1000 – PFD on left, MFD on right.

The Garmin is not just a GPS.  It’s a fully fledged avionics package with terrain avoidance, engine monitoring, autopilot and weather reporting.   Russell Donaldson (total airtime > 28000) jumped in the right seat and showed me the ropes.  You can’t fly this plane and its updated package without a 1-1 session with an instructor, the computerisation is so advanced.

It’s split in two parts.  The Primary Flight Display or PFD on the left and Multi-Function Display or MFD on the right.  As you can see from the image courtesy of Garmin, there’s a lot to take in.  But compared to some digital displays, this just seems to make sense when you’re galavanting around.  This blog doesn’t have the space to capture all the elements (the Garmin handbook for example is over 600 pages!), however after using both the Avidyne and the Garmin G1000,  I prefer the latter.  Avidyne users are vociferous in their support, so I guess its all subjective.

It took ten minutes to be shown around the innards of the PFD.  I found that having used the Cirrus Avidyne glass cockpit previously, the Garmin pretty much came naturally.  Russell patiently went through the comms and nav setup, with the GPS, VOR and RMI all selected using the same selector.

Garmin G1000 PFD.
Garmin G1000 PFD.

The brakes on ZS-CTP were new and sharper, so I was careful not to over brake as we headed up Alpha to the holding bay.   The wind which had been blowing at around 19kts dropped to around 5kts by the mid-afternoon.

The check list can be “barged” 0r parts that are done through the usual mental/memory can be skipped like the post fire-up and pre-taxying.  However, the usual engine run up and Too Many Pilots Go Flying In Heaven Early checks are always doubled – first I do it by rote,  then by the selector check list on the panel.  It’s always good to make sure.

The take off was inspiring with the rotation smooth as silk and power at hand.  It’s not surprising as I’ve been flying planes that are older- most well over 4000 hours logged, while ZS CTP had only 66 on its Hobbes.

An hour of flying by instruments as the visibility dropped, and heading back via the tracking station, it was time to go home.  But one thing’s for sure.   I’m looking forward to more flying using ZS CTP over the next few weeks – in spite of the increased cost.  It’s R300 more per hour to fly,  but when you’re enjoying the increased instrumentation and the tight setup, its worth the extra Madibas.


Inauguration Blues – its good to be in touch.

So on Saturday 24th May a 25nm no-fly zone was extended from Pretoria and the union buildings outwards.  That created a few challenges for General Aviation scuttlebutts like me – even with reference number and flight plan clutched in my sweaty paw.   Jacob Zuma was being inaugurated – again – and the Air Force shut down part of Gauteng’s airways in fear of the president’s safety.  Or is it because they felt like practicing for a proper moment of danger?  I dunno.  Whatever.  The bottom-line was no flying out of Lanseria towards the East and North.

That’s ok,  because I was heading west to Potchefstroom.  A suitably quiet route usually at 8am on a Saturday.  I wanted to practice approaches and let-downs.  After refuelling ZS-ZIP and adding two quarts of oil I fired up and taxied to the runup zone on Lanseria’s 07.  Checked map, Cirrus Avidyn GPS working,  Garmins both up and running, my handheld Garmin on the passenger seat in case of failure.   Short hop 63 nautical miles to Potch,  and I added 5 minutes for approach and landing.

Clearance from Lanseria was special VFR.  Remain above 5500 ft at all times was the ATC parting message, and route via the Northate Dome.  With a slight tailwind,  the Cirrus SR-20 managed 140 knots which cut the time to Potchefstroom down from the 30 mins expected to closer to 20.   But I was not alone.  A Baron and a Cessna 210 were also flying in to Potch,  while at the airfield two sports cruisers were conducting training.  Even so,  it was quiter than usual in this airspace.

The route courtesy of
The route courtesy of

All did not go exactly according to plan.  First I overshot Potch the visibility was so bad.  It was down to 5km or less which is borderline for visual rule flying.  After attempting a letdown,  I missed runway 03 to the East and decided at that point to do a missed approach and head back to Lanseria.

Flying back there was only one moment of real interest.  A Robinson helicopter pilot to the south of the Dome near Joburg was warned by the Air Force to get out of the air as he was in a no-fly zone.  The pilot was not aware of the online Notam which had gone out warning about the inauguration.  It made me think about aviation.  Many pilots are basically loners and independent in spirit, but sometimes its good to be communicating with a group – just to avoid the embarrassment of missing a Notam.

I contacted Lanseria Tower – and was told to head straight for the threshold and avoid the Dome.  The problem was the visibility.  With the sun still low in the East,  I was basically flying almost blind directly into the burning disc.  That means at 2 nautical miles I still couldn’t see Lanseria’s threshold.  The VOR reading showed I was to the left,  but my  head said the runway was directly in front.  Suddenly  I realised at 1 nautical mile that runway 07 was actually at my 2 0’clock and I requested a go-around which was confirmed by the tower.

On downwind I had to orbit as a Mango flight was taking off on runway 250 and caused me to fly an extended base leg.  That meant Lanseria’s runway disappeared in the murk as I turned onto finals, but this time was flying more accurately with instruments.  The landing was clean and off on Alpha back to the hangars.

Practice practice practice.   Read Notams.  Communicate with other pilots prior to takeoff, particularly  in today’s digital world where hard copy Notams are no longer sent by mail to pilots around South Africa.  In the age of information,  poor communication is growing.  Pilots are less informed than their predecessors about changes to the rules.  Now that’s a worry.


Flying through the gloom

It was apparently VMC this morning – although by the time I got to Lanseria at 7.45, the clouds were hanging low over the threshold.  Usually ATC declares the conditions instrument, but not today.  Still I was staring at length at the cloud base which was 7/8 and looked around 6500.  That’s border line for my standard of flying, with 200 hours and no instrument rating.


After refuelling and doing the checks, it was time to fire up ZS-JAB and head off to runway 07 to do the power runup and Too Many Pilots Go Fly In Heaven Early checks.  No other training flights and only a Citation on the threshold awaiting departure.

Then it was my turn.  Slight wind from 100 and off we go!  Wonderful to take to the skies again,  it was a month ago that I last flew before going on a trip to Greece.  But as I left Lanseria airspace I noticed that the clouds were actually at around 6000.  That’s far too low to make aviating safe around the north of Gauteng with the Magalies mountains sticking up all over the place.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 12.58.28 PM
Other dangers around the Magalies mountains – but not today

I set the VOR for HBV near Hartebeespoort dam and began flying on instruments.  The visibility was actually getting worse, and as I flew over HBV I realised that what had started as a borderline condition had worsened.

Decisions.  Continue flying on instruments at 5800 to Pilansberg,  or call it quits and head back to Lanseria?  The little saint on my left shoulder was saying tomorrow is another day,  while the little devil on my right was saying “hah, you’ve been in worse, continue!”.

I turned to the west and followed the north ridge of Hartebeespoort dam to a notch, flew over with the terrain warning display on, and descended out of the cloud to the GFA close to the red and white radio mast.   The saint had won.

Visibility was so bad,  I couldn’t see the South ridge. I reset the VOR for Lanseria and out of the murk, saw the tracking station below.  No-one else appeared to be flying in the area.  The only calls were coming from Marble Hall.

It’s strange flying towards your airport without a clue about exactly where it is.  With a few hours IF training under the belt, I stuck to the VOR and then at a remarkably short 4 nautical miles, suddenly spotted Lanseria to the left.

It was cleared to final, linked up with full flaps,  and landed sweetly.  No tension, no fear.  Another day of decisions and today they were correct.  This saturday its back in the air for me as I continue to build hours – and I’ll spend an extra two hour slot doing IF training in the CDC Aviation simulator.   Lovely.