This year marked 80 years since the first PTAR, plus the 20 year anniversary since the last time it was hosted in Gauteng. The 2017 PTAR was hosted at Springs – on the edge of the OR Tambo CTR.
The tradition, comradery and healthy competition should make the President’s Trophy Air Race (PTAR) a ‘bucketlist’ event for every pilot.
The race was hosted by the East Rand Flying Club, and the well-oiled machine of the PTAR, headed by Robin Spencer-Scarr, who comes back from Australia especially to help out, helped to transform the airfield into an air racing village with marques, gazebos and officials ready to receive race participants and enthusiastic spectators. As is customary, the race was held during the last weekend of May, and the eager pilots and their navigators started arriving on the Thursday morning, with most having already landed by midday.
The number of entries topped out at 65, which was down from previous years – last year’s race at Bethlehem attracted 89 competitors. Whilst there was speculation as to the reasons, many of last year’s competitors said the main reason for their not entering this year was that they were nervous of racing in the busy Johannesburg Special Rules area and close to the OR Tambo CTR.
The briefing notes, though humorous, placed increasing emphasis on the fact that the OR Tambo CTR boundary was not to be crossed. Each page referred to the “dragons and Hogwarts” that lurked on the other side of the bold red line demarcating the CTR drawn on the maps and photos. The warning climaxed at the end with the following: “Besides all the other extremely important stuff to remember in these briefing notes, one of the most important is the fact that only 2 nm to the west of the Springs runway, is a huge, massive, undeniably important no-go area. This is the OR Tambo International Airport CTR. CAMU and ATNS and FBI and BOSS and a few other organisations have threatened us with mass castration is we cross that line. Please do not cross that line!!!” ATNS even gave each competitor their own squawk code so that they could track them individually.
No reference to the PTAR would be complete without a discussion on the race handicaps. The principle of the handicap is that every competitor should have an equal chance of doing well in the race, regardless of the type or performance of the aircraft. This means that the best pilot and navigator crew should win the event and not necessarily be flying the biggest or fastest plane. While it’s a noble idea, putting it into practice has been an 80-year work in progress.
At wits end for a solution that would keep everyone happy, the handicapping committee took the problem to the Wits University Aeronautical Engineering Department to come up with a mathematical formula to calculate handicaps. But it wasn’t those great young minds who came upon a solution. Instead it was Chris Linakis, who had been working on a formula for years, and had joined his effort with the Wits department, who presented the formula used for this year’s race.
For the first time ever, there were no test flights planned for the Thursday before the race, which Robin says are always expensive, time consuming, difficult and not always successful. It seems the new handicap algorithm based on 3D speed, which was presented to the whole South African aviation community at the beginning of the year worked amazingly well. The fact that almost all the handicaps come down from previous years also went a long way towards eliminating the usual moans and sometimes downright fury that was associated with the “unachievable handicaps”.
If a competitor exceeds the 3D speed after a day’s racing, the new speed is entered into the formula to calculate a revised handicap there and then. The system will be massaged and fine-tuned as time moves forward; however Robin says there is no doubt that, together with the GPS logger, the algorithm has dragged the PTAR from the dark ages into a more scientific day and age. The greatest advantage of the algorithm is that it is completely transparent, so competitors can work out the handicaps for themselves and be assured that there is no foul play.
The first of the race briefings and weather reports was held at 17h00 on the Thursday afternoon, after which the maps, pencils, rulers and calculators came out as the teams prepared for the first race day. Thereafter, briefings and weather reports were given each morning and evening. The race distance on both days was around 300 nm, and competitors headed out to the east, as far as Piet Retief and Wakkerstroom.
The Highveld is littered with good landmarks and the weather on both days was great, in that it was cool with clear skies and good visibility, but by mid-morning the winds picked up to 20-25 kt from the west, so keeping a close eye on drift separated the accurate racers from the wanderers.
RACE DAY 1
Day 1 has the fastest aircraft taking off first and the slowest last. Thus, the field spreads itself out over the route, and there is little distraction from other teams flying different tracks. It’s a race purely against the clock.
With 30 second gaps between takeoffs, the 61 aircraft set off from the uphill Runway 21, led by Dieter Bock and Dale de Klerk in a Lancair Legacy, ZU-DBC, which had a starting handicap of 218.56 kt. After maintaining runway heading for about 1 nm, a left turn to the south-east put the competitors on track for the long 150 nm leg to the first turn-point at Piet Retief Airfield.
Approximately an hour into the race, three competitors had already landed off base: one had oil pressure problems, another had a magneto drop and the third had got so lost that the crew landed at Majuba Power Station to collect themselves and refuel before finding their way home. There was no escaping the light-hearted ribaldry that ensued when the GPS logger track was displayed at the briefing that evening.
From Piet Retief, a sharp right turn onto a westerly heading set you up for the short hop to Ossewakop, a 2,100 m high mountain overlooking Wakkerstroom from the south. It was a route over mountainous terrain and the westerly winds blowing over the hills caused strong rotor winds.
Sadly, the Beagle Pup, ZS-IGY, flown by Duncan Finch with navigator Brad Rademeyer, got caught in a severe downdraft on the approach to the second turn-point from which they could not escape. The best they could do was slow down, and fly as far into the crash as possible to minimise the impact. They did this successfully, with Brad only suffering minor injuries and being released from hospital the next day. Unfortunately, Duncan did not fare as well. He suffered three broken vertebrae, which have since been fused. He was discharged from hospital a little over a week later and was already walking. The prognosis is that he will make a full recovery.
The final leg on Day 1 was from Wakkerstroom back to Springs – keeping an eye out for the ‘dragons’ to the west of the airfield. Here there was one last incident. Last year’s winner, Phillip Jacobs, flying a Piper Arrow, lost power about 3 nm out from the finish. He calmly set himself up for a glide approach and executed a beautiful landing on Runway 21. It transpired that they had burned a hole in their Number 4 piston, which put them out of the race for Day 2.
RACE DAY 2
The plan at the start of Day 2 is to stagger the aircraft so that if they all fly a perfect track, they will cross the finish line at exactly the same time. The slower aircraft take off first, with intervals of just a few seconds before the next plane starts rolling, and get caught up by the faster planes as they race along the route. Technically the first aircraft across the finish line should be the winner, so competitors are racing not just against the clock, but also against each other, as they try whatever trick and tactic they can think of to reel in the aircraft ahead. No doubt throttles are checked repeatedly to make sure they are firewalled.
The route also follows a figure-of-eight, crossing midway at Springs, to increase spectator value; however, this year it was not quite overhead the field, but rather where the ERGO road bridge crosses the N17 highway. A bonus for spectators on Day 2 was that anyone interested in the race could track 12 of the aircraft on the Live Track website, either on their phones or computers. The tracks were also displayed on a screen at the airfield.
The crosswind on the first leg was evident on the live track as the aircraft drifted and then overcorrected to make their way to the first turn-point of the day – Standerton Airfield. From there a sharp right turn onto a westerly heading and into a stiff headwind lined you up for the next turn-point at the off-ramp to the tiny settlement of Villiers. The aircraft were already starting to bunch up at Villiers, and you could see groups coming in together as they followed each other around the course – some led astray by unsure navigators looking for reassurance, only to find it in another aircraft that had drifted off track. From there it was a sprint to the midway point marked by the ERGO plant, just south-west of the Springs Airfield.
Competitors then set their heading for yet another bridge, this time where the R515 crosses the N4 near Cullinan, before running the gauntlet to Kriel. This route passed near six power stations, open cast mines, and hopefully over, not under, high voltage power lines. As Kriel is surrounded by cooling towers and other tall buildings that get in the way of competitive air racers, the turn-point was not the Kriel Airfield, but instead the T-junction of the R545 and R547, 2 nm past the airfield,
Once around Kriel the racers could smell home. Making sure all the horses upfront were galloping with all their might, they set their sights once again for Springs – this time, the middle of the runway.
First across the line were Mark Dethian and Werner Hattingh in a Cessna C180, ZS-NEH, followed closely by Victor Coreia and Derek Bird in a Cirrus SR22, ZS-PFD. Third across the line were Alex Dyason and Johan van der Hoven also in a Cirrus, ZS-JIE. But Mark and Werner’s victory was short lived. The judges still had to review the logger tracks, and it was revealed at the lavish dinner held in the marque at the field on the Saturday evening that the winners were in fact, Victor Coreia and Derek Bird. They had stolen the number one position by just three seconds.
As always, Robin and his team organised a fantastic event. There’s no denying accidents are unpleasant, but it’s fantastic to know that (almost) everyone walked away alright in the end – and that the ‘dragons’ at OR Tambo weren’t angered.
The pulling together of the general aviation community and the healthy competition of the PTAR is something that all pilots should experience. Next year the race returns to the wide-open spaces of the Free State, and will be held at Bloemfontein’s Tempe Airport.