By Quintin Hawthorne
The effects of the recent pandemic and the war in Ukraine have been tangible, both from an economic and moral perspective. General Aviation sporting activities have seen an unusual decline in support all across the globe, least of all locally. The cost of operating an aircraft has risen substantially in recent times, so it was not surprising to see that a smaller entry had registered for this year’s National Aerobatic Championships, held at Wings Park airfield in East London. This was only the second contest held at this venue, but surely word will spread of the incredible hospitality they offered and hopefully swell the entry list in future.
As so often happens, the practice days immediately prior to the start of the contest provided for some ideal flying conditions, however, a cold front passed through the day before the start, bringing with it some icy cold days. Twelve competitors showed up for the initial briefing on Thursday afternoon, with just one lone pilot in the Unlimited class creating an unusual dilemma for the SAC committee – the National Champion title is normally the winner in this class but it would need another two competitors to make the rule work. After a robust debate at the AGM later that day, the problem was resolved and the rulebook was amended allowing Patrick Davidson to vie for the title subject to some conditions.
The Advanced class saw Cliff Lotter, Dustin Hughes, Pierre du Plooy and Kayle Wooll line up against each other – all had previously been victorious at recent contests so it was anyone’s game. Roger Deare was pitted against Jurie Steyn in the Intermediate class while an all-local field of Darren Hanner, Mitch Hill and Wally Goodrich made up the Sportsman class. Ian Beaton and Div de Villiers entered the RV category, both being attracted to winning that stunning trophy sponsored by Flightline Weekly.
Wings Park is one of only a few local airfields that have grassed runways. By all accounts, it was popular with the competitors but also at times, the landing provided some anxious comments from the judges, with a perfect vantage point seated on the veranda of the wedding venue as the judging station. Being a coastal town, the winds played games with the pilots and seemed to change direction at will without much notice. Despite that most pilots managed the conditions to post some amazingly good scores – notably Cliff Lotter who won the Advanced first Unknown programme with 81% and left his competitors in the dust, Roger Deare posted a lifetime best score of 78% in the Intermediate first Unknown programme and Patrick Davidson who made Unlimited aerobatics look effortless.
The Wings Park guys clear have more than serious aerobatic competition as a motivating force. Good food, great facilities and an even better party in the evening made it an event to remember – they really set the bar high! There was an appealing food choice each day, including excellent Thai cuisine. Large fires in the hearth at night to warm everyone up and then the compulsory live music each night that had everyone dancing, after a hearty dinner.
Not to detract from the main reason for us being there, the competition amongst the classes was fierce. Most to play for was in the Advanced class prior to the final Unknown programme, less than 1% separated the top three contenders. Dusty had withdrawn, leaving Kayle, Cliff and Pierre to claim the spoils. It was Kayle who held his nerve the most to deservedly take the title.
Jurie and Roger were also neck-and-neck all the way but Jurie just pipped the banana boy at the end. The ranking in the Sportsman class kept changing however a series of low calls put paid to Mitch’s chances. Wally also made some errors leaving left Darren to raise the Sportsman Trophy this year. In the RV class the tussle ended when Ian Beaton flew his entire unknown sequence in the wrong direction after omitting to notice that it had a downwind start. All of this made for an interesting contest to witness, with the judges all voicing their yays and nays at the appropriate times. Not to forget the support services of ATNS, CAA, paramedics and the event sponsors ECO tanks et all.
A fine awards evening followed by a stonking after-party made this one for the books! More importantly, it was a safe and disciplined event.