The sad state of the Presidents Trophy Air Race (PTAR) is a microcosm of the broader malaise that is strangling South African general aviation.
From its heydays just a few years ago, where the race managed to attract over 100 competitors, the world’s formerly largest air race has shrunk to barely 40 entrants. And this year it was held in Bloemfontein, the centre of the country, and thus the easiest venue for attracting an abundance of competitors. Next year’s race is planned for the remote Saldanha Bay and it will be a considerable challenge for the organisers to raise a large entry field.
The reasons for the decline in the PTAR are manifold. Most obviously, the paucity of entrants can be attributed to the general economic decline in South Africa following the ten years of Zuma-led gangster government. The country has been left infinitely poorer and general aviation, which requires piles of discretionary cash, has been particularly squeezed. It takes pots of money to enter the race, then get there, fly the two race days, pay for accommodation, and return. And of course, there are always the pilots who take winning too seriously and haul along still more thousands of Rands in cash to pay for appeals against the rules.
The rules are also to blame for the decline of the PTAR. It seems that almost every pilot will, sooner or later, fall foul of overzealously applied rules and penalties, and what should’ve been a fun weekend, turns into a waste of money and time. Many vow never to return. A particular example was the 2016 race in Bethlehem, where some pilots simply packed up in disgust; after being in their eyes, unfairly penalised on Day 1. At least one pilot, a previous winner, just checked out of his hotel and flew to the Botswana airshow.
It is the Botswanans who have eaten the PTAR’s lunch. Thanks to the vision of the hard working members of the Matsieng Flying Club, Botswana now has the most successful air race in the world. Its Race for Rhinos combines government funding, a high profile cause, and a fantastic landscape to attract more than 110 entries, many of which chose the Race for Rhinos in preference to the PTAR.
Change is inevitable. Let’s hope that the PTAR organisers can raise their game, and the Race for Rhinos can continue to attract the state and competitor support that it has.
Change has also come to our team at SA Flyer. After four years, Deputy Editor Graeme Wuth has left to become an English teacher in Hoedspruit. His job has been enthusiastically filled by Owen Heckrath, who has slid smoothly into the Deputy Ed’s seat, and freelancer Mark Mansfield who is now able to report on many of the aviation events that our small team isn’t able to reach.
We’re all eagerly anticipating that things start looking up again next year.