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Tzaneen Aerobatic Training Camp

Photos by Johan & Sheila Grobbelaar

A group of people are standing on the Tzaneen airfield enjoying one of the best sunset’s nature can offer reflecting on the previous few days. This is the end of yet another successful aerobatic training camp. But wait…….where did this all start?

The first Tzaneen aerobatic training camp was held five years ago. The format of the camp has improved dramatically over the past couple of years and at its current format it is probably the blueprint - a blueprint that is still evolving - for training camps in South Africa. You still ask; but where did it all start?

During my endeavours of climbing the ranks of competition aerobatics and going to compete against the top in the world I learnt many lessons. One thing that became obvious to me was that the countries that did well had to have some form of system in place whereby knowledge is retained and passed on, so constant growth can be maintained. That really wasn’t the case here in South Africa, so I decided that I wanted to try and establish a process of passing on all my skills and knowledge – Tzaneen training Camps were born.

On Thursday afternoon, 30 May 2019, a total of 10 aircraft set sail for Tzaneen (9 from Gauteng and 1 from Phalaborwa). A full program was planned from Friday morning to Saturday afternoon , Saturday evening was time to relax and reflect on what transpired over the last two days.

The program was divided into 3 main components:

  • Classroom style briefings (ranging from personal objectives to sequence design)

  • In-flight aerobatic instruction (for the new pilots with myself as instructor)

  • Aerobatic box flying with mentors on the ground assisting and evaluating the flight (this included a detail briefing before the flight as well as a detail debrief after each flight)

​The pilots taking part ranged from IT Specialists to Professional Golfers (how’s that for diversity). As far as experience is concerned, they started from “newbies” with absolutely NO aerobatic experience to guys that have competed at international level. However, the focus for the weekend was on the newbies.

Aerobatics, just like any flying, is a passion. There is nothing more rewarding than being able to share your enjoyment with others. That is probably why people have managed to twist my arm in order to help them with their aspiration of becoming an aerobatic pilot.

Through the years I have been fortunate to meet many of incredible people while sharing my passion for aerobatics. Definitely the most productive learning environment I have found is a training camp away from home and the daily distractions.

The highlight of the training camp, for all, is the moment when the newbie pilots (with me in the cockpit) are let loose in the aerobatic box to show all the “more experienced” pilots what they have learned during the camp. For some this will be the first linked sequence they have ever flown, which is a major achievement. Only a few days ago they were standing in front of me looking nervous and not so sure what to expect. The feedback from all the pilots on the ground after the Saturday afternoon flights, was total and utter amazement to what they achieved in such as short space of time.

At the recent Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the aerobatics governing body, Sport Aerobatic Club (SAC) of South Africa, highlighted the need to increase membership. Should you be interested in getting involved in aerobatics or would like to have a training camp near you please contact Eugene du Preez at SAC on He will put you in contact with the relevant regional representative from the SAC to get the ball rolling.

Lastly, I would like to share a short account written by one of the newbie pilots at the training camp, Dave Thomas. Enjoy it and we hope to hear from you soon.

My heart was beating like a freight train. I closed my eyes to visualize what I was about to do and breathed. I wasn’t nervous but excited and confident. I was about to start dancing!

I strapped the grey five-point harness on, pulling it snugly around my waist. I squeezed my hand-drawn Aresti schedule to my instrument panel with a blob of Prestik. Clear Prop! And the starter whined, blurting the 180 horses into life with a glorious crackle.

As I got airborne and gently turned out I got the call from my mentors, critics and newly-found friends on the ground to change the frequency to the aerobatic box. Wow, this is really happening!

After skirting the ‘box and performing a few warm-up rolls, my instructor, Bertus, reminded me to breathe as I entered the box and do everything just as we had practiced and rehearsed many times before.

Here we go; Wag the wings to show the judges we’re about to start, now slow the aircraft down, and we float past the judges until we slow until the stall, kick in the rudder and drop into the spin, counting half, one, one-and-a-half turns later, recover exactly on a point, level off and pull into a graceful loop, float over the top, arch down the rear of the loop into level flight again, pull into the vertical for a stall turn, bleed off the energy, pivot at the top and down we go again, pulling out to level and then pitch up and roll, and the wing wag to end the sequence. Yeeha!

What an experience, because just 3 days previously I had arrived at Tzaneen airport with no aerobatic experience other than the odd clumsy feeling roll with zero formal training, so I was raw…and nervous.

I am extremely fortunate to hangar my RV7 at Kitty Hawk where there is a very active enthusiastic bunch of aerobatic pilots performing aerial ballet every weekend. I expressed my desire to learn the art or aerobatics and was subsequently invited by Gary Glasson and Eugene du Preez to the Aerobatics Training Camp held at Tzaneen airfield during the last few days of May.

Before the camp I had the opportunity to explain my position and intentions of aerobatics to guru Bertus du Preez, so a training program could be tailored according to my skill level and objectives.

Once I was grouped with a few similar skilled individuals, we received our very first briefing; Bertus imparted essential knowledge of aerodynamics, with the limitations of the aircraft and human body.

The Training Weekend embodies the spirit of learning in a safe, controlled environment, with the intention of stretching one’s envelope. But you have to be receptive to criticism whilst remaining humble - All these individuals are exacting within this precision sport and will provide constructive criticism to further your skills and knowledge. You don’t have to ask – they give it! There’s no place for ego’s here. Later that evening we all shared our stretched intentions to the broader group of 11 pilots, with a discussion on Competition Flight Preparation from a mental and physical perspective, then topped it off with a fantastically catered braai under the sparkling Lowveld stars.

The next morning was cloudless and crisp, and after a scrumptious breakfast at our lodge we headed for Tzaneen airfield, where we were hosted in style by Dicky Maritz, supported by his enthusiastic staff that were ever willing to assist with refuelling, manoeuvring aircraft and performing maintenance. A comprehensive safety and weather briefing followed and then we started the first flights. Flights are conducted in bite-sized chunks that can be processed by the brain and body, no longer than 30 minute sorties. The brain is interesting and if overloaded has immediate negative physical effects inducing the Fight-or-Flight response. Bertus as an instructor imparts such a calmness to the cockpit that slowed a very challenging, demanding environment to become easily manageable. His confidence just oozes out, leaving me relaxed and allowed me to absorb the learnings. Again, a lot of learning occurs on terra firma as the brain processes the new pictures and experiences. This is essential time, together with learnings from the live criticism of the more experienced pilots when flying in the box.

Lunchtimes and dinners were always complimented by a robust discussion by either Bertus, Gary or Eugene on topics such as Wind Correction and Sequence Design.

After multiple briefings and flights, I remember Bertus saying to me – “It’s aerial ballet. You want to be floating like a swan, and not like a duck!” I eventually learnt to slow down and eventually perform the aerobatics in a gentle, smooth and controlled manner (well that’s what I’m telling everyone!).

The aerial ballet is equally entertaining to the human dance on the ground where everyone rehearses their routine on the ground by walking around, thrusting their hands in the air, spinning around, punctuated by jerks and stops – a pretty essential skill and amusing to watch!

After the three days, I came away with newly developed skills, many friends were gained and so much more respect obtained for my very capable RV7. I highly recommend attending a training camp to appreciate the envelope of your aircraft, understand the limitations of your body and mind, and just enjoy dancing in the sky!”


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