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The Navigation Speed Rally

This air rally is a race against pre-determined handicap speeds and up to 50 other competitors. An incredible way for any aviation enthusiast to spend the weekend. Teams of two, pilot and navigator, pair themselves against a field of competitors. Like any good sporting event, the series follows a circuit type format. Usually once a month, the event moves from one location to the next throughout South Africa.  

Your handicap is calculated prior to race day, by flying a timed pattern at maximum continuous speed. Each aircraft generates a specific handicap which determines their position on the starting grid. Slow aircraft departing first and the faster ones behind. The theory behind the idea being that if everyone flies a perfect race, all competitors would pass the finishing line together. 

The course is around 120 nm with an average of 10 turn-points (a fork in a road, bridge over a freeway or a dried up dam. You don’t really know until you’re overhead). 20 minutes before your take-off time, you receive a Map and Turn Point photo sheets. The map contains a pre-plotted route with accompanying magnetic headings. All navigation is achieved using old school map work (no GPS allowed - tinfoil covered antennae ensures this). 

During the 20-minute interval, you are expected to familiarize yourself with the map and turn point satellite photographs. Meanwhile the navigator will be highlighting minute markers and identifying significant navigation features. You’ll also need to start the engines and get to the start line. A hefty amount to do in a mere 20-minutes.

[Minute markers makes use of time to help identify your progress. It helps compare the pre-plotted course and your actual position over the ground relative to your calculated speed. Calculating drift and being able to identify the slightest deviation makes all the difference.]

Map reading is easy with prominent features and accurate maps. However, this is not always the case. Often the only guide is your compass. Over barren terrain, dead reckoning is the only option. In modern times, it’s rare we find ourselves following the compass. The magenta line has removed any doubts of the past. Modern systems are nothing short of Siri holding your hand, showing you the way. It’s become too easy for complacency to fill the gap. 

With the luxury of GPS no longer an option in these races, the flaws of our back-up equipment used as redundancy becomes apparent. Shedding light on how heavily we rely on, and how blindly we believe in the modern technology. 

In a speed rally, any flaws in your basic navigation and aviation skills will be tested. From following a plotted line on a paper map to understanding your engine limitations. Not to mention the importance of crew resource management.

In the race you soon realize following a heading is as important as focusing on your own race. Spotting an aircraft headed in a different direction adds another level of confusion to the cockpit. Fighting the urge to follow the competition in your sights is half the battle, negotiating your co-pilots competency is the other. 

With the objective to fly the shortest route at the best speed possible teamwork and accuracy are key. Navigator and pilot need to perform their respective tasks flawlessly. The slightest slip in concentration could mean disaster. You’d be surprised how fast things move in these rallies. The slightest slip up is hard to come back from.

Competition is rife and comradery assured. Scoring for the race is based on your best speeds against the declared handicap. While navigation is judged on most accurate route flown. With GPS trackers handed to each racing pair, tracking and comparing each race has become astoundingly accurate.

Some of the most fun I’ve had behind the controls has been on these speed rallies. Often a Spot Landing competition is held at the home field to end off the day. Organizers rarely fail to arrange huge spreads of food and some sort of entertainment for the events. Competitors book out the local bed and breakfasts or find a spot in the field for their tents. The real fun begins once the sun sets and the coals are cooking. When the whisky flows and the real competitiveness shows.

I for one, can not wait for things to get back to normal and take part in one of these events again!

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First-hand advice on what to expect and how to tackle the challenges you will face along the way.

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