I learned to fly – Part 1


I learned to fly – Part 1 – by P.K.Odendaal – August 2015.

Last night I came back from a flight to Zimbabwe where we were for the annual church conference of our congregation there, having had to fly the President of the Mission to attend it. It is the last leg of our journey and I take off from Polokwane, where we went through immigration and customs and where we refueled. It has just become dark and the lights of the city are so beautiful when I climb out after take-off and turn left onto my course for Witbank where I live. It has been some time since my last night flight and I have to concentrate to fly on instruments, because the night and country is quite dark as we leave the ambits of the city.
The landing strip at Witbank is short and narrow and the landing lights on the runway are very basic and unreliable. I do not fear, as I was trained in the Voluntary Air Squadron, in which I served part time for fourteen years, to land without runway lights. As I consider these things, I tell the President that if we can’t make a successful landing there, we will proceed to Pretoria where there are long and wide runways, a Fire Brigade, excellent landing lights and Precision Approach Path Indicators (PAPI’s).   
The air is smooth as silk and we see the city lights of Witbank appearing dimly in the distance as we approach the descent stage of our flight of fifty minutes. I have to be very careful with the approach, because if I do not plan the loss of altitude, bearing, track, distances and time to destination carefully, I will totally miss the airfield. I line it up on the instruments and three miles out I see the lights are on and we are perfectly lined up for a safe landing. When the landing lights light up the threshold of the runway at one hundred feet above ground level, I know that we are safely home and I relax. A perfect end to a perfect and enjoyable flight.
But it was not always like that ...
There were many requests by readers who wanted to know more about flying and learning to fly, so I have decided to write a series about my own struggle to learn to fly and about my many unusual flying experiences, especially during our Bush War.
However, to understand my struggle better, I must take you back to my first unplanned and unexpected encounter with aero-planes and my introduction to them.
I grew up on a farm near to a non-descript town in South Africa – a town which might not even appear on the South African Road Map anymore. In fact, my wife and children still joke about the town when they refer to my driving skills, hinting that it is no coincidence that I cannot drive a motorcar properly, having obtained my driving license there. In fact, when I recently applied for a driving permit in Canada, I dismally failed the test two times.
Fifty two years ago …
The year was 1963 and I was in Matric and had not seen an aero-plane yet, although I might have seen a feint photo of one by chance somewhere, but I was aware that there were aero-planes around. I had no intention or desire to ever meet one of these creatures. Remember, television only became known to us in 1975 in South Africa.
I, like almost all in our matric class, received a pink card in the post one day, stipulating that we must report the next year, come hell or high water, to some barrack in the Army somewhere and we knew we might die somewhere in the bush during that Bush war. We know that it would rather be more like hell than like high water, because South Africa is locked in a guerilla war on its borders with terrorist insurgents. Why they are terrorists and why they wanted to surge into the country we did not know, and I am not so sure that we ever quite found out why. We lived by the adage: ‘Their’s is not to reason why, their’s is but to do or die’. I was sixteen years old.
Just after we have received these pink cards, a classmate came to me and said: ‘Let us join the Air Force and become navigators, because then we do not have to become cannon fodder’. I asked him what a navigator was and he enlightens me in broad terms. I decide there and then that joining the Air Force, even as a chef or having guard job was much better than to die in the Army.
In the end, only I got selected for the Air Force Citizen Force as an Air Mechanic, knowing nothing of the air and even less of mechanical things, and so my flying career took a very slow start. When I got to the Air Force Base, I found out that we were a thousand applicants for pilot and navigator posts and they only took sixty pilots and sixteen navigators, so it was grueling tests, medicals and what not and after six weeks of testing I found myself sitting on a chair and trembling before five Generals and Brigadiers of the Air Force Selection Board.
The first question I was asked was why I wanted to become a pilot. I told them that if they had read their papers properly, they would have seen that I was applying to become a navigator and not a pilot. On retrospect, many years later, I realized that it was God who wanted me to become a pilot and that, if I said that day that I wanted to become a pilot, they would have selected me as one, but I was very adamant that I wanted to become a navigator, because I was very scared of aero-planes which I thought would take superhuman effort to fly and which could bite you anytime. So it was off to Nav-school for me for my one year compulsory military training. After that I was mustered into a maritime reconnaissance squadron for which I would fly on weekends for ten years.
However, they also needed short service navigators, but my requests to my father to allow me to join the Air Force permanently fell on deaf ears and he forced me to study engineering at university from where I graduated five years later.
During my first year after graduation, working at a consulting engineering firm, a university class mate asked me to join him in learning to fly, and I reluctantly pleased him by joining a flying training school. We also bought a very old Auster aircraft at a very good price and started our flying training on it.
Somehow the instructor found me too stupid to fly this aero-plane and one day during a botched landing, he told me that I will never be able to fly an aero-plane and I told him that he was a useless instructor and that ended my hope and lack of desire of ever becoming a pilot. With the aircraft parked next to the landing strip, where we got out in haste for engaging in a fist fight which fortunately did not materialize, we decided to part ways. It was the end of my flying career as a pilot, but not the end of my flying night mares. Afterwards, oftentimes in my dreams, I would relive the last flying lesson in which I tried to land the aircraft and failed to do so, waking up in fear and terror and sweat. That ended my flying career for then and I totally lost interest in all aircraft for twelve years.
Twelve years later … next time