Smoke On Go

A look back – Playing for Keeps

In the mid 80’s the late Peter Celliers organized a “World Masters Aerobatic Competition” that was hosted at the La Mercy Airfield on the Kwazulu Natal Coast of South Africa. He invited some of the best competition aerobatic pilots in the world to participate. There were a limited amount of aircraft and aircraft types. This would ensure that all the pilots would fly aircraft of similar performance. The thinking being that this would be somewhat of a handicapping system, allowing the skill level of the pilots to be the predominant decider of a winner, rather than the performance of an aircraft.

My Dad, Scully, had just started the “Winfield Aerobatic Team” with Jeff Birch and Chris Rademan. They were asked to bring their three Pitts Special S2B”s down to the coast to display on the airshow day of the event. Peter had run the contest during the week and wanted to end the competition off with an airshow where the top competitors would display and a couple of South African pilots were asked to compliment the display roster.

I was 11 or 12 years old at the time and had been tagging along with my Dad to airshows for years. I had even been in an accident with him a few years back in a “Piper J3 Cub”. Our engine failed on a ferry flight and we forced lobbed…. or should I say, he forced lobbed the aircraft into some trees on top of a small mountain. Both of us walked away without a scratch. Never had I ever worried about my safety in an aeroplane. I was as comfortable in an aeroplane with Scully as I was sitting on a couch at home watching TV.

The airshow kicked off with a couple of acts, one of which was a microlight. Scully and I were walking up to the constructed control tower to have a chat with the late Bill Keil who was doing some of the commentary for the airshow. While climbing the ladder of the tower Scully muttered something about the pilot flying dangerously. The Pilot was pitching the nose up high into wind, putting on bank and winging her over downwind, he repeated the wingover maneuver into and out of wind a couple of times. To be honest, at the time it looked pretty good to me. I wasn’t sure what Scully was going on about, he didn’t look too low and he wasn’t actually aerobatting the microlight. It didn’t seem too dangerous.

All of a sudden, at the top of the wingover, the microlight flicked. The nose came down and the aircraft continued to spin. Whack!!!!! For a second or two after the impact the silence was deafening, then pandemonium reigned as people and emergency services ran to the wreck! In that instant everything changed for me…… forever! Man! I didn’t know what to do with myself. Scully quickly ushered me off the control tower and we started walking towards our aircraft to meet up with Jeff and Chris. I had a million questions I wanted to ask and was also trying to ask. Scully seemed preoccupied and wasn’t paying my questioning much attention.

On arrival at the Pitts Specials, Scully, Jeff and Chris had a brief discussion on what had caused the Microlight to crash, and then continued to brief on their upcoming display? WHAT! They were going to fly? Was I dreaming? Somebody had just died! Surely the show had to be cancelled?

As I watched the three of them strap in and get ready for their display my anxiety kicked in on a level which is hard to explain. That had to be longest 15 minutes of my life. I counted down every maneuver until they landed, convinced that they were going to fall out of the sky at any moment. The flight home the next day was as traumatic, I was terrified, and the two-hour flight home felt like an eternity.

I continued tagging along to airshows with Scully, and it didn’t take long for me to start feeling comfortable as a passenger in an aeroplane again. However, it took years before I could watch the team fly without a sick feeling in my stomach. In fact, I only stopped worrying about them when I started flying aerobatics myself.

When flying aeroplanes you are “playing for keeps”! I’ve seen some pretty horrific accidents over the years and have developed the tools required to allow me to brush off the event and continue with the show. These coping mechanisms are a necessity. If not for them, you wouldn’t get into an aeroplane again after witnessing an accident. Despite having become a hardened airshow pilot over the last 27 years, the memory of the event at La Mercy memory is still very vivid! It  allows me to “preserve the angst” required to be an airshow pilot.