Sometimes we need to remind our critics – and ourselves – just how important general aviation is.
A common challenge of perception is that general aviation (GA) is often seen as a rich man’s hobby, and not as a serious industry. This gives rise to the classic U$100 hamburger – where ‘weekend warrior’ pilots use their aircraft to fly to some remote place for an airport quality burger and chips. This perception is not helped by the wry comment of a pilot friend of mine who said, “General aviation is a solution looking for a problem.”
So I was thrilled to be reminded of the immense importance of GA by three stories in this month’s edition. The first is the feature in FlightCom on Air Tractors. Working under Part 135 regulations for non-scheduled operators , these pilots are doing vital, and all but irreplaceable work, bombing fires with their massive aircraft. It’s no coincidence that the majority of the Air Tractor pilots are former SAAF fighter pilots. The combination of fixed wing fire bombers and helicopters has saved countless billions of Rands in damage from fires that would otherwise rage out of control.
The second story is to be found in George Tonkin’s column on helicopter operations. He describes how the private security company he works for often teams its helicopters up with the SA Police to track and hunt down criminals from the air, in this case, busting a truck hijacking ring. Again, a wonderful example of how useful GA can be.
The third story arises from the retirement of two pilots from the AMS rescue service based at Cape Town International Airport. Prof Frans Grotepass is a distinguished maxillo-facial surgeon, yet as an ATPL qualified pilot he has flown more than 800 sorties for the Red Cross Air Mercy Service, flying aircraft from a ponderous Aztec, through Citations to PC-12s. The other pilot to retire is Rene De Wet, a former Chief Executive of the huge Pick n Pay group, who after retiring from the corporate world, went on to fly for AMS for more than 25 years. Between these two pilots they have more than 60 years of service to people in dire straits – often being called out at any time of the day and night, from family functions or warm beds, to fly to some dark and distant destination – sometimes landing on roads by the light of car headlights.
All three stories are wonderful examples of Public-Private Partnerships. They show what can be done when the resources and skills of the private sector are used to provide essential services that the public sector, even in the best managed countries, is unable to provide.
The Red Cross AMS service is particularly impressive in this regard as the pilots provided their services as unpaid volunteers. The moment you let a government bureaucracy start interfering in that, the ‘buggeration factor’ goes up exponentially, and pilots just take their headsets and leave.