By Cliff Lotter
As I write this the team consisting of pilots Mark Hensman, Eugene du Preez, Gary Glasson, Johnie Smith, Cliff Lotter and lead engineer Brent Wesley Colley, are flying back from China. We were invited by The Aviators to be part of the Nanchang Air Convention 2022 which takes place annually. The show takes place over a 3-day period with public attendance in excess of 250,000 over the duration and as a result, the logistics are enormous.
It has been a very interesting trip and has presented many challenges with regard to Covid. I stopped counting PCR tests after the 18th test! Just trying to get out of a railway station involved checking passports at the first checkpoint and then moving to the next checkpoint where they would once again check passports and travel permits. Next checkpoint they add something else and the final checkpoint is a PCR test. At each checkpoint, our guide would argue with the officials and produce papers. This process would sometimes carry on for 30 minutes! A real police state!
Other than that, it has been both enjoyable and educational. Their infrastructure is amazing and compares with the best in the world. On the roads, all the people are very accommodating and friendly. No one gets angry and hooters are only used to warn other drivers of their whereabouts.
We arrived at Shenzhen and were immediately shuffled off to a hotel that is being used for quarantine purposes. Once there each one of us received our own very comfortable room that we were not allowed to leave for a period of 8 days. We were fed three meals a day that was left at our doors. Every day at 13:00 sharp we had Skype meetings to check up on each other’s sanity and general state of affairs discussing various issues that had come to mind and taken place in our very busy worlds. Eugene was in charge of daily exercise and arranged various challenges to keep us on our toes. Quarantine proved to be a time to relax and unwind but after eight days we were very relieved to move on to a form of normality and the first meal we had was some lovely KFC and Coke.
The next day we were whisked off to the airport to board a flight to Nanchang, our home for the next ten days. On arriving we went straight to the military airport that was being used to host the airshow and proceeded to assemble the five XA-42 Sbachs that had been shipped to the airport in containers. Five aircraft were needed as we were asked to include sky typing which proved rather challenging given the predominant 3000ft overcast ceilings. Over the next two days, we worked feverishly to assemble the aircraft so that practising could begin. Finally, all the aircraft were ready and airworthy and the fun could begin!
Initially, the XA 42’s proved to be quite a handful as they are sensitive in pitch. The first practice flights were challenging to say the least! Our lead, Mark Hensman promised that we would calm down after a few flights which at the time seemed an impossible dream! But as usual, he was right and in no time the aircraft/ pilot combo became a stable platform.
To start off with, our team was tasked to fly over the city of Nanchang in order to promote the Convention. A beautiful photo of the team above the famous Tengwang Pavilion which was built in the 600’s was taken and published in the Global Times. This is the first time ever, that a civilian team has been allowed to fly over the city! Quite an honour indeed!
After a few practice sorties, the team was ready to offer a very polished and professional display which they did with aplomb. The solo display of the world-renowned solo aerobatics pilot, Cliff Lotter (or Kreef Rottel, as he is better known in China) really got the crowd going! After landing from what would be the team's final display, they did a few doughnuts with smoke for the crowds and judging by the amount of cheering and clapping it was evident that we were the heroes of the day!
There were 2 other civilian formation aerobatic teams taking part in the shows, namely the Chinese team flying 4 locally produced aircraft, very similar to the Slings produced in SA, and the Russian team also flying four XA-42 Sbachs. Both were very friendly and professional.
We awoke on the last show day to pouring rain and made our way to the airport as per usual, but within an hour we were notified that the show was cancelled although this was disappointing, it offered us the opportunity to start disassembling the aircraft and save some time. We were finished by eight that evening and went back to our hotel for supper.
After supper, the team met for the Tadzas debrief. This is a very serious affair where each member’s mistakes and misdemeanours are read in charge sheet fashion without any opportunity to defend one’s self and penalized through the consumption of alcohol in an involuntary fashion resulting in the inevitable ensuing chaos. The following morning, some of us were so traumatized that we could not quite remember the order of proceedings from the previous evening.
The next day we had to go to a hospital to do a certified PCR test in order to get our paperwork ready for the trip home. While we were at it, we managed to include some sightseeing and were treated to a tour of Revolution Square with its perfectly manicured gardens and spotless walkways. After this, it was time for KFC once again and then back to the hotel.
That night we had supper with the Russian team and this would of course not be complete without the consumption of copious amounts of quality Russian vodka although some of us were still suffering from the previous evenings’ judiciaries, we managed to imbibe respectfully. The evening was enjoyed by all, sharing flying stories, singing songs and promoting the brotherhood of aviation. We are hoping to see them in SA soon!
The next day we were scheduled to fly back to Shenzhen but our flight was cancelled because of issues so tickets for a 300 km/h train were hastily procured although this was a 4-hour trip as opposed to a one-and-a-half-hour flight, it proved to be very enjoyable to get an opportunity to see a bit of the countryside. On arrival, we had half an hour to get ourselves organized and then off to the nearest Mac Donalds for burgers. Although Chinese food generally is very healthy, we were dying for something a little more palate suitable.
The amount of fun we had was ludicrous! Learning new things, making new friends and experiencing the adventure of a lifetime!