14 March 2010

My first cryptic x-country

Apologies for the length, lack of photos, poor grammar and typos.

12 March, Friday

I had been sitting at home, feeling down because I hadn’t found anyone to be my navigator for a Cryptic X-Country on Saturday. While drowning my sorrows in music, I got a phone call from a chap that said he’d be my navigator. A smile lit up my face and I raced around grabbing maps, rulers and pencils; the briefing was in 30 minutes.

So far, there were 7 teams taking part. Without the help of my navigator, I’d still be sitting trying to figure out the clues. But thanks to him, we (he) had figured out the clues within no time and we received all the necessary thingies (another map, more things for us to solve and a plastic bag for the goodies that we had to find at each spot).

I had a number of worries;

- This would be the first time I would be flying with someone other than my dad or instructor.

- My navigator had never flown in the Cubby before, and I thought that, because of his height, he wouldn’t be able to sit comfortably in the aircraft (this turned out ok though).

- I hadn’t been to most of these places.

- I feared the Cubby wouldn’t have the endurance for the trip (over 200nm, which means over 3 hours of flying).

- I only had 50-something hours.

But my navigator assured me that everything would be alright, and I returned home happier, but more nervous, than I had been a few hours ago. My nerves increased considerably when I had a good look at the map and saw the mountains we would have to get around.

I decided that the best thing would be to turn in for the night and worry about it in the morning.

13 March, Saturday

My alarm woke me up at the early hour of 0625, and I reluctantly rolled out of bed. I had barely set foot outside to check the weather when a blast of cold air hit me and sent me scurrying back to bed where I curled up and slept for another 15 minutes. In the nanosecond that I was outside, I was able to observe that there was barely a breath of wind, and the sky was relatively clear of clouds. It was going to be a good day!

I arrived at the airfield at 0730 and topped up the tanks, then made my way to the clubhouse to get some breakfast and discuss the route with my navigator. Here’s where we had to go and what we had to do:

- Arabela (take a photo of the helipad at the golf course),

- Pearly Beach (land and find the hidden object),

- Caledon (take a photo of a crop-spraying strip),

- Robertson (land and find the hidden object),

- Some place in the middle of nowhere (take a photo of a strip with a windmill next to it),

- Worcester (land and find the hidden object),

- then back to Stellenbosch (land and complete one final task).

Breakfast consumed, co-ordinates loaded on the GPS, and a rough plan (i.e. wing it… pardon the pun), it was time to “Kick the tires and light the fires”.

We were third on the departure list and had the 0915 slot. Pre-flight complete, I gave my navigator a very basic briefing, and we climbed in and got ready to set off. I was surprised at the ease with which my navigator got into the plane; it seemed his height wouldn’t be a problem. We set off towards the holding point of runway 19 to do our run-ups.

We were suddenly bumped up to second-in-line when the two ladies that were meant to leave before us experienced some trouble. My nerves ebbed away as we lined up for take-off, and they vanished completely as soon as we took to the air. Brakes, Undercarriage, Throttle, Temps & Pressures, Flaps, Lights. We were off!

Our first task: climb and get over Sir Lowry’s Pass. My nerves returned when we saw the weather; the clouds were rolling in from the coast. But we decided to see what things looked like on the other side of Sir Lowry’s. We encountered some light drizzle just before the Pass, but things looked alright on the other side; the cloud base was still significantly higher than the mountains and hills we had to get over and around.

Arabela was our first ‘stop’. We arrived overheard the golf course in – what felt like – no time and orbited overhead, trying to spot the helipad. Many orbits later, we were still at a complete loss as to where it was, and decided to move on to the next spot: Pearly Beach.

My navigation skills are pathetic (hence the navigator), but we arrived at Hermanus and cruised around the mountains before heading along the coast to Pearly Beach. The weather wasn’t that great, but we were still safe. Within 2nm of Pearly Beach, we encountered more drizzle, and the cloud was closing in fast. It was time for me to make my first big decision: descend and push on (and run the risk of ‘bumping’ into the earth), or fly where the cloud base was still quite high.

We headed to clearer skies, the looming rain close behind. Climbing to about 3000ft, we snuck over a low part of the mountains and set course for Caledon and considerably clearer skies. Upon reaching Caledon, we immediately spotted the crop-spraying strip and snapped a few photos before making our way over the town and towards Robertson.

I was still breathing heavily after our encounter with the clouds, but the skies ahead were clear of low cloud and I managed to relax and enjoy the flight. Climbing to 4000ft, we flew through a valley and were soon greeted with the wonderful sight of pristine blue skies. Unfortunately the little hills and ridges around Robertson presented us with some turbulence, and my navigator kept telling me to “Fly nicely!”

It was my second time here; the first had been sometime last year when my dad and I flew in. It’s a long tar runway, and we joined overhead for runway 28. On my first attempt, I was going far too fast and decided to go around. My navigator then said that for every time I bounced, I’d owe him a beer. Talk about pressure. On my second attempt I was still too fast, but as there was ample runway remaining, I attempted another landing. One. Two. Three. Four, beers! Even after all that, I still ended up doing a go-around. I set up for “Take 3” and gave some other pilots a good laugh.

I extended my final approach and did my best to just relax. I don’t remember it, but we connected with the ground and, after a small few hops, remained there. Finally! I think we were both grateful for the chance to hop out of the plane and stretch our legs a bit. The few people at Robertson were extremely friendly, and I was happy to get my hands on a nice cup of coffee (though perhaps I was a bit too eager as I ended up burning my tongue. You think I would’ve learnt after my 5th sip of the scalding liquid…)

Here, we were presented with packets Robertson’s Seasoning (brown onion and chakalaka, if memory serves me correctly), and shots (yes, the alcohol). We took a pack of each seasoning, and my navigator proceeded to chat to the people (I let him do all the talking; I’m not very talkative).

After about 30 minutes of ‘kuiering’, we headed back to the plane and got ready for the next leg; Worcester via the middle of nowhere! Fuel, however, was on the low side. Some nerves creeped back.

We were airborne once again, and set off along the mountains. Our next task was to find a dirt strip with a windmill next to it. After much looking, we spotted it just off the nose. A few photos later and we were on our way to Worcester.

The scenery was absolutely amazing, and soon we had the field within sight (ok, it took me a while to spot it…). This was another relatively unfamiliar field, as I had only been here with my dad a good few years ago. But we joined overhead and were soon on Final for runway 15. Can you say “Go-around”? Once again, I was too fast, but had ample runway. Unfortunately there was a large gravel patch right in the middle of it, and I decided that it would be unwise to try land again, so I took power and went around. This was becoming a common practice.

Thankfully I planted us firmly on the ground on my second try, and we taxi-ed to a friend’s hanger to get some much-needed juice (aka unleaded petrol). After chatting to some people from the Gliding Club, re-hydrating, and paying the landing fees, we set off to find whatever it was we were supposed to be looking for. After searching the clubhouse, we headed up to the roof and found what we were looking for; sticks that had been painted white. Prize in hand, we bade farewell to the glider pilots and were soon on our way once again.

Airborne off runway 15, we made a right-hand turnout and evaluated our options. We could go back via Franschoek, but then we ran the risk of encountering low cloud. Our other option was to head north and, weather permitting, fly through Bainskloof Pass. Having had enough of bad weather for one day, I decided that North would be best.

I soon discovered why Worcester is an ideal area for gliding; we were riding thermal after thermal and were soon siiting at 4000ft (quite a mean feat for the Cubby, with her relatively poor rate of climb). Beautiful green farms stretched out beneath us, with equally beautiful mountains on either side.

As we neared Bainskloof we were sitting somewhere between 4000ft and 4500ft. The pass was free of cloud, so we decided to brave the turbulence and make our way through the stunning valley. There was virtually no turbulence here (much to my surprise), and I was in awe at the sight of the rock around and below us; amazing!

We were through within no time, and I was met with a familiar sight; Wellington, the Paardeberg Mountain, and Paarl Mountain. This was the General Flying Area, familiar territory. Feeling much more relaxed, I showed my navigator some stalls (the Cubby is very docile and just sits there) and had some fun.

Next stop: Stellenbosch. The descent from 4000ft to 1800ft was probably the most exciting part of this leg, and we sat back and relaxed on the way back. After about 20 minutes we were east of the Bottelary Hills, and had the field in sight.

I was in luck (not really); the wind was favouring runway 19, and the ever-constant x-wind from the right was there. My usual tight circuit had to be altered slightly due to some traffic in front of us, and we were soon on a long Final for runway 19. The wind hit us just before the threshold and threw us around a bit. Not wanting to have to go-around, I somehow managed to plant us on the ground. In true tail-dragger fashion, the Cubby immediately started swinging around, and I was forced to apply right rudder, then immediately apply left rudder in order to prevent it from over-correcting.

Breathing heavily, we vacated the runway and taxi-ed to the hanger. After a quick stretch, I checked the Hobbs to see how long we had flown for… 4 hours. No wonder I was tired! After tucking the Cubby in, we headed to the clubhouse for our final (and most difficult) challenge.

It’s a difficult challenge to describe…

We were giving a stick with ridges along it, and attached to it was a smaller stick that could spin freely at one end. We were then given another stick that was smooth. The task; rub the smooth stick along the ridges of the other stick in order to get the stick thingy at the end to spin. Once we achieved that, we had to make it spin in the other direction. This challenge had both of us stumped, and we gave up, loosing points. We also lost points because we couldn’t find the helipad, and we took photos of the wrong strip at Caledon (how was I supposed to know there were two?!)

In the end, we came in third place. I also won the award for best landing… apparently it was a ‘greaser’. Clearly these people didn’t see what I had felt! But it was an amazing day, and I can safely say that it’s been a great confidence booster and eye-opener. Thank you to the organizers at Stellenbosch Flying Club! I must also thank my navigator for trusting me, and for giving advice when we were in hairy situations.

“A good landing is one you can walk away from. A great landing is one where you can use the plane again.”