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SVFR: A Day to Remember

Another Seemingly Simple Delivery

I was behind in the aircraft we would return in. Trailing because the battery was giving trouble on start up. At Lanseria our home base, getting a Ground Power Unit (GPU) start was no hassle. An assuring guarantee from the mechanics quickly put me at ease. The fact that the battery would charge on route made enough sense to me. 

Heading out in Pursuit of the others Radar granted direct routing. With Towering Cumulus (TCU) forecast for later in the day, we made sure to leave with ample time to spare. The delivery point was Tzaneen. A small unmanned field used primarily by crop dusters. With only an NDB approach and encircled by high terrain, we were to spot a gap in the clouds a couple miles out.

After handing over the owners keys and helping him winch the aircraft back into his hangar, we headed back to the aircraft for what was beginning to seem like another successful day. However, on cranking the engine we got nothing in return, no feedback at all. Not even a budge. The battery was completely drained. Once again

The three of us due to return were well aware of the impending weather. Summer in the high veld brings tremendous thunder storms most evenings and today would be no different. Fortunately, the air tractor mechanics were still hard at work. Among the greasy tools and barrels of pesticides we managed to spot what can only be described as an improvised GPU.

At a glance we quickly identified the correct adapter and with a sigh of relief we were only happy to hook it up. The homemade GPU had no trouble in assisting our engine start. It did such a good job In fact, that we lost all electronics. The unit must have over supplied the circuit and fried our electrics.

At this stage we were guaranteed to be flying in some questionable Visual Flight Rules (VFR) weather. As Pilot In Command (PIC) I was more concerned with the lack of communications, engine instruments and fuel gauges. However, we needed to get back and with only my radios operational and at least one GPS we decided to complete the mission. Or at least make an attempt.

Keeping it low and fast, racing the deteriorating weather and trying to maintain visual contact with the ground we headed back to base. Our luck didn’t improve much on the leg home. By the time we were ready to enter the airspace, tower had notified us that they could not accommodate our Special Visual Flight Rules (SVFR) inbound routing as requested. We would need to call back in 45 minutes.

All the international traffic was being diverted to Lanseria as the weather was too severe over ORT International. With a very vague idea of fuel remaining and no idea of the traffic situation we decided to land at the nearest alternate.

A fairly shot strip in a small mining town. Even shorter with no flaps... The effects of get-there-itis had become evident at this point. The weather wasn’t getting any better and lightning strikes were littering the route back home.

The plan was to wait it out on the ground. Keep the engine going and quickly check the fuel. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. As the other two checked fuel, I made a call to the tower and informed them of our situation. fortunately, they had a gap and gave us an chance to come in. We didn’t think twice.

Rolling off the runway and keeping it under the clouds we made our way through sleeting rain and thunderous lightning. One of the scarier moments in my flying career. A day that seemed so simple at first, could have easily turned to disaster. We tried our luck and that day, the Gods were on our side. A call too close for comfort. And a lesson too terrifying to forget.

We probably shouldn’t have ever left Tzaneen in the first place. But this is what happens when you’re young and dumb. Working for someone you think you can’t let down. A culmination of factors that push the young hour-builder to put him/ herself at risk and in danger.

The sooner you can learn your limits and know how to impose your will, the better. If you’re anything like me, this will undoubtedly only come after scaring yourself sh*tless. Once you’ve learnt to appreciate the significance of your choices and mature as a pilot through experiences like this, your perspective changes.

Those questionable flights will no longer be an option. Making the unpopular decisions don’t get any easier. You just get better at handling the reaction.

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Rhett Shillaw