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Presidents Trophy Air Race 2021 – Ermelo Airfield

By Garth Calitz Photos by Sharon Cassidy

The Presidents Trophy Air Race like many other annual events had to be cancelled last year due to the lockdowns brought about by the Covid-19 Pandemic. For the South African Power Flight Association, this was probably the worst year for the pandemic to have hit as it was their centenary year and they had many events planned to commemorate 100 years of power flying in South Africa. Rob Jonkers and his motivated team didn’t allow this inconvenience to bother them too long and went to work on the 2021 edition of this prestigious race.

Ermelo Aeronautical Society had won the bid for the 2020 race, so it was an obvious choice that they would host the 2021 edition, that is if they still wanted to. Theodor Boshoff, Chairman of the Ermelo Aeronautical Society was approached and the answer was a resounding YES!!

Hosting the PTAR in a year where sponsorships were few and far between posed some serious challenges added to this was the uncertainty that we may at any time be dumped into yet another lock-down that would have destroyed any chance of the race going ahead. But the SAPFA and Ermelo team would not let these “minor inconveniences” halt their planning. Due to their endurance and dogged determination, the sleepy town of Ermelo was awoken to the sound of one of the biggest fields of competitors in the long history of the PTAR.

The Airfield sprang to life on Wednesday with the erection of the tents and general preparation underway. The first aircraft started arriving during the day and some handicap flight tests were done. The handicapping system that was used for this PTAR was developed and refined over the last few seasons of the Speed Rally championships and has proven to be very fair and offers each and every competitor a realistic chance of joining the ranks of PTAR winners.

On Thursday the test flights continued and the remainder of the aircraft arrived, turning the relatively quiet Ermelo airfield into a very busy airfield. Brian Emmenis and his team from Capital Sound were brought out of forced hibernation to entertain and inform all the visitors for the duration of the race.

On Thursday evening the main briefing was held in the marquee tent which would become the main meeting point for the next few days. Rob Jonkers briefed all the pilots and navigators on the rules of the race and what they could expect to find in their papers. The rules pertaining to the use of GPS devices have been altered this year allowing for the event emphasis to be on racing rather than navigating, some questions were raised about this and fortunately, satisfactory answers were provided by Rob and Jonty. The official race numbers were then handed out to each of the teams which ended the official proceedings for the evening, many of the teams opted for an early evening as the following day the racing starts.

Friday morning arrived bringing along beautiful blue skies and except for a nasty North Easterly wind we had perfect flying conditions. All the crews, after a cup of steaming hot coffee once again met in the briefing marquee for the final race briefing by Rob Jonkers. This was basically a refresher on the previous nights briefing with a strong emphasis on the prevailing weather conditions.

Once the briefing was done and dusted the crews moved to their aircraft to prepare for the race, tanks were brimmed and a final wipe down to remove any chance of increased air resistance.

On day one the fastest aircraft are released first so effectively each team is racing against the stopwatch and not each other. The aircraft were supposed to take off at 30-second intervals but unfortunately not all the crews had parked in the correct places and the handing out of papers was slightly delayed often causing gaps in the take-off order. This however had no effect on the day's competition as take-off times had no effect on the competition.

With the slowest aircraft leaving last the days flying was pretty long and the landings were all well spaced, this would not be the case on day two when all the aircraft converge on the field at very much the same time.

The track starting point for day one had to be adjusted as no one foresaw that the Weather Radar installation at the field would interfere with the GPS loggers, this minor inconvenience was quickly remedied and all the results were released through the evening, the standard of flying was surprisingly high with many of the pilots getting very excited to see their results only to realise that the other teams were doing as well if not better. The scene was set for a cracker of a race on the second and final day.

During the afternoon the Puma Energy Flying Lions joined the party and later delivered one of the best sunset displays I have ever seen rivalled only by the display delivered at the Race for Rhinos at Sua Pan. The evening was closed off with an evening briefing, wonderful sheep braai and live music.

Day two started with an icy cold southerly wind a low cloud, the cloud was a major problem and as a result, the entire programme for the day was postponed for half an hour. At 8:30 all the crews were summoned to the marquee for the pre-race briefing. The starting procedure had to be revised as the runway had changed with the wind change and now runway 31 would be used for take-off and landings. After the difficulties experienced the previous day it was decided that all the aircraft will be parked in one line on the northern side of the taxiway from slowest to fastest.

The low cloud started lifting and it was decided that a further 30-minute delay would be sufficient to ensure a safe and successful race. Very soon after that, the papers were given to the first aircraft on the take-off list. The papers include all the turn-point photos and the pre-plotted map as well as two GPS loggers. The envelope containing the papers is given to the crew of each aircraft 30 minutes before their scheduled take-off.