LIGHT FLIGHT - A brief history
Light Flight was conceived in 1988 when I had to come up with a name for my fledgling flying school.
It had started a year earlier when I was working as a game ranger in the Tuli Block of Botswana. At the time, I was working with a friend studying leopards. After much fun and games and lots of frustration we had managed to catch and radio tag five leopards so that we could find and study them easily. The north eastern Tuli Block is very rugged country which made finding the leopards by vehicle difficult as you need line of sight to get a radio fix. The obvious answer was to track them from the air.
One bright morning, I was down at the Pont Drift boarder post on the Limpopo River collecting clients to take on safari. A bakkie arrived with a folded wing on the roof and towing a strange contraption with a propeller attached. Intrigued, I watched the wing unfold and recognised it from the fittings as being one of Aidan de Gersigney’s wings. In the mid 1970’s I had built and flown my first hang glider and soon joined a band of flying fanatics and became very friendly with Aidan. Before long, Aidan was making wings commercially and I had owned and extensively flown some of them. The young man rigging the Trike confirmed Aidan was the designer and builder. I got really excited when the girlfriend climbed onto the back of the Trike, the guy fired it up and in 80 metres they were airborne and climbing out steeply.
This was the answer to all our problems. I zoomed back to camp and excitedly told Pete I had seen the solution to tracking the leopards. The next day I phoned Aidan who told me he had fitted an undercarriage to one of his hang glider wings. The Rotax 503 engine became available, the wing was beefed up to handle two people and the Windlass Trike was born. I drove down to Durban and Aidan took me flying. I remember being almost overwhelmed as the wheels left the ground. I foresaw endless opportunities for this new way of flying. Back in Durban a month later I had some rudimentary instruction and went solo in three days.
I begged and borrowed money and ordered my first Windlass. Aidan was still building the Trikes from his home near Durban.
Windlass Trike ZS-VWE 1987
Price new - R10500
Empty weight - 127kgs
Engine - Rotax 503 single ignition
Fuel capacity - 20 litres
The early Windlasses had an amazing performance due to a very low wing loading and high power to weight ratio. The wing was around 18 square metres compared to about 14 square metres and smaller on modern delta wings. There were no instruments, thin wheels, no battery or starter motor, a single thin seat and two 10 litre fuel containers. Real seat of the pants flying with a climb rate of 1000ft/minute.
In many ways ZS-VWE was a motorised hang glider and I flew it as such, slowly exploring the flight envelope. I completed my solo hours in Botswana and contacted Mike Blyth who was running Sky Riders to finish my licence. Mike gave me exams to complete which made me realise I was flying a real airplane and got me to do a lot of reading. I went down to Bapsfontein to do a flight test with Mike. He really grilled me and made me realise how much I had to learn.
The Trike immediately proved its worth in Botswana. We got more data on the leopards in a month than we were getting in a year before we started flying. My anti poaching patrols from the air resulted in a 60% reduction in Elephant poaching which had been out of control in the Tuli Block. I did have some trouble getting my chief game scout to climb on the back of the Windlass. He was a big strong guy but refused point blank to fly with me. That is until one of the girls who worked in my camp asked me to go flying. On landing she was ecstatic and the big guy then allowed himself to be persuaded to fly with me. I flew nearly every day and did some interesting longer trips into Botswana. I was in regular contact with Aidan and he came to visit me in Botswana. He kept on at me about how many Trikes he was selling and that there was no one in the whole of Natal to teach his customers to fly. I decided to move on from the Tuli Block as I really did not get on with the new owners of Mashatu Game Reserve (which I had restarted for the Rennies Group five years previously). I was offered a job running a camp on the Savuti Channel which had some of the best game viewing in Africa, and after much soul searching decided I had to give starting a microlight school in Natal a chance.
Light Flight Microlight Flying School.
It took me some time to get my instructors rating through Sky Riders. I had the required 200 hours but it was almost all flying in the wilds of Botswana. Steve Roe did my instructor flight test in very rough conditions and it took over two hours. Mike Blyth very kindly let me work under his training school licence while I began the arduous process of getting my own school going.
In 1987 one first had to get an Air Services Licence through the Department of Transport and then a flying school operating certificate through the then Department of Civil Aviation. You had to appear before a Department of Transport Tribunal in a courtroom-like setting and explain how and why you were going to operate a flying school. On the morning I was to appear, I was number three on a list of six heavies in the aviation industry who all brought at least one attorney with them. I had put a lot of work into my application and was able to put some of the skills I had learnt 12 years previously in getting a BComm degree to use. I gave it my best shot and to my great surprise was granted an Air Services Licence two months later.
Like many others who started microlight flying schools in the 1980’s, I worked out of the back of my bakkie. I had lots of students and flew hard most days out of the old Cato Ridge airfield. I sometimes shudder when I think back to the early days of microlight instruction. Communication between student and instructor was through plastic tubes stuck onto earmuffs. There were no radios nor any instruments. There were no dual controls. Training bars that clamped onto the A frame were only invented in 1989. These gave the instructor a lot more control of the wing but dual steering and rear throttle control came later. Having no radios and poor training techniques meant that going solo was a huge event. For years I was the only Trike instructor around which meant I couldn’t get a second opinion before sending someone solo. I think I often sent my students before they were properly prepared which lead to some terrifying situations where the student would get out of control and I had no way of telling them what to do except for wild gesticulations from the ground. I have always maintained that there is a flock of guardian angels looking after stupid pilots and I’m sure I tested them to the limit in those early days. Amazingly, there were no student accidents in Light Flight School in those early days. The accidents came later which could be the subject of another article.
Microlighting gained huge momentum in the 1990’s and spread like wildfire around South Africa and the world. Through regular MISASA instructor seminars Trike instruction was standardised and greatly improved. The aircraft were developing rapidly. Instruments and radios became obligatory, bigger fuel tanks and bigger wheels and continual upgrades of the engines made Trikes safer and more capable. Light Flight introduced instructor courses which were very popular. I was holding three to four courses a year each with four to six instructors at a time and our learning curves were steep.
[LEFT] My first Windlass ZS-VWE two 10 litre tanks, no battery, no instruments 127 kilograms empty weight 1987
Fixed wing microlights.
Early fixed wing microlights such as the MAC CDL, Basic 2000 and Shadow Trainer had single surface wings and control in only two axis – rudder and elevator. They often had spoilers on the wings in an attempt to give some roll control. They had the engine mounted on the wing with a V belt reduction system driving a long shaft attached to the propeller. Unreliable engines together with failure prone belt and propeller shaft systems resulted in frequent emergency situations when flying these very basic flying machines. I flew in these aircraft a few times which convinced me that their poor performance and frequent failures left me no interest to fly them. There are still many Windlass Trikes flying that were built in the late 1980s but I don’t know of any two axis fixed wings from that era still flying with the notable exception of the Quicksilver which I think is still being produced.
In the 1990s a new advanced breed of fixed wing microlights came on the market such as the Canadian Challenger. This aircraft flew very well and is still selling today. After the 1996 World Microlight Championships were held successfully in Cato Ridge, I was offered a challenger 11 Special to use in my school. At last I had access to a fixed wing microlight that flew well and allowed me to explore the world of three axis flying. A year later in 1997 a wonderful little aircraft arrived from England called a Shadow together with the more nimble version, the Streak Shadow. I soon had one of these small but excellent flying machines working hard in my school together with the recently launched Windlass Aquilla. In about 2005 the remarkable Bantam from New Zealand appeared in South Africa and proved a huge success with hundreds being sold.
[ABOVE] Light Flight aircraft 1999 - Aeromaster crop sprayer, Aquilla trike & Jabiru
Light Sport Aircraft.
In 1998 the first LSA arrived in SA from Australia. The Jabiru provided a quantum leap in our sport. Boasting a quiet four stroke aero engine and a hundred knot cruise, it was in a different league to anything else available. Jabirus have always been good value for money but the early ones were quite tricky to fly with lots of adverse aileron yaw not helped by a very small rudder. The tiny 8.9 square metre wings resulted a stall speed of 48 knots with full flap. This very high stall speed combined with small wheels and questionable undercarriage demanded skilful flying out of our short bumpy runways. Light Flight was the first to get a Jabiru in a flying school. Jean d’Assonville joined Light Flight as an A grade instructor and built a second one for the school which flew really well as he had taken great care with the build.
Soon more and better LSA’s appeared in South Africa. I had Zenair 601’s and 701’s in the school. In 2003 I was fortunate enough to get a R600000Tecnam in my school. This was a class aircraft that flew really well. In 2005 we acquired what I consider to be in many ways the nicest flying aircraft of them all, the Sting 2000. This came with a variable pitch propeller, a 120 mph cruise and a VNE of 175 mph, a speed at which the Sting seemed quite happy. Unfortunately the Sting had a poorly designed weak undercarriage which resulted in a few whoopsies and made it unsuitable for a hard working school aircraft. In 2006 I did a few conversions on an Aeroprakt A22 Foxbat. The more I flew this little beauty the more impressed I became. In 2007 I got my first Foxbat for the school. Four years and 2500 hours later I have just taken delivery of my third Foxbat and find it the best all round, most reliable well mannered and toughest light sport plane available.
There is now a large choice of good LSA’s available in all sorts of configurations and the demand is growing. These aircraft are capable of flying long distances safely and comfortably and are cheaper to run than a car. Last year I flew a wonderful trip around the Okavango Delta with a group of friends and have just come back from flying up the Mozambique coast. First class adventure fly aways are now regularly made by LSA pilots. My new Foxbat has a safe six hour endurance at 100 mph on mogas or avgas. It has a mode S transponder and the latest MGL avionics which removes huge stress from long distance flying. The excellent reliable quiet Rotax four stroke engines, modern design and construction of LSA’s plus the amazing new digital instrumentation available, is allowing general aviation to be reenergised. This new breed of aircraft is much nicer to fly and dare I say, safer, than the old Pipers and Cessnas.
A great example is the purely South African designed and built Sling. Light Flight is lucky enough to be getting one as a trainer and hire and fly in the near future.
Weight shift Trikes have been steadily improving in performance and reliability over the years. Big improvements have been made in delta flexiwing design and when fitted to comfortable, aerodynamic undercarriages with four stroke aero engines, have resulted in ‘Super Trikes’ which have sold very well in recent years. Of course they have come at a high monetary price but they have evolved into true comfortable efficient cross country flying machines.
Light Flight Aircraft
Light flight school aircraft have included:
|Windlass Trike||ZS-VWE||1988-1997||1500 hours|
|Tecnam P92 Echo||ZU-MIF||2004||500|
Most of our training is now done on our delightful Foxbats with the latest MGL instrumentation and mode S transponders.
Other aircraft I have done instruction on include the Bantam, Sky Ranger, Bushbaby, Cheetah, X Air, Sportstar, Allegro, JK05 Topaz, Rally and Savannah.
Light Flight Farm
By the time my flying school licence was granted in 1988, I knew I was in for the long haul in this fledgling industry. There was no real security of tenure at Cato Ridge Airfield and this together with club politics made me want to find an airfield of my own. I started looking for a farm I could move my school onto that would be within easy driving distance from Durban and Pietermaritzburg. This is not easy as land in this area is hilly and any flat land tends to have power lines crossing it. After three years I found a 77 hectare property that showed promise. The price was good as all the buildings were badly dilapidated and the land was infested with alien invaders, mostly lantana and bugweed. I felt the land was very small as I was used to living in the vast wilderness areas of Botswana and Zimbabwe, but at least my nearest neighbours were a kilometre away. There was an amazing large old stone farm house with yellow wood floors but the roof had fallen in. There were also interesting ancient stone outbuildings. With a lot of clearing, I could fit a good 500m runway which could be extended to 650m. An 11 KVA power line was a problem and would have to be buried. About half the farm had intact ngongoni grasslands which is a biome rich in wild flowers, forbes and a good range of grass species. There was a broken dam and three quite good springs. A further incentive was that there was a population of endangered Oribi antelope as well as other remnant wildlife and interesting bird life. I saw an opportunity of establishing a herd of Nguni cattle.
Another huge advantage is accessibility. The farm is just off the N3 highway between Durban and Pietermaritzberg.
In 1991 my wife and I scraped up a deposit and started work on clearing a runway and trying to make the old farmhouse habitable. We had a bumpy runway within a month but the power lines crossing it took a lot of negotiation and another six months to get buried. The house took a year before we could move in and another two years before it was reasonably comfortable.
I built a hangar to take eight Trikes and moved Light Flight Microlight School from Cato Ridge Airfield to Light Flight Farm. It was wonderful to wake up in the morning, walk a hundred metres, pull out my Trike and be flying in ten minutes. The School took a knock for the first few years after the move but slowly improved and has been viable ever since. The old stables that were built when the farm was used to breed race horses were converted into a cottage, office and student rooms. Doug Southey was employed as a full time instructor and moved into the cottage.
Light Flight instructors
Doug Southey was the first full time A grade instructor to join me on Light Flight Farm in 1992. Jean d’Assonville lived and flew at Light Flight full time for about six years. Currently, Noel McDonogh is bringing fresh blood and enthusiasm to Light Flight. I have been full time in the game for 23 years now and my learning curve is still as steep as ever. We are privileged to regularly fly a wide range of little aircraft. Our instruction has had to keep pace with the swift development of the aircraft. To my mind we are now teaching the equivalent of the old PPL when it was still fun and did not break the bank. Our new aircraft are relatively fast and complex and we spend far more time in controlled airspace and fly long distances. We now train more pilots who go straight onto commercial aviation and regularly do conversions with experienced PPL and airline pilots so we have had to up our instruction to their level. We are fortunate to have eleven small unlicensed airfields within ten minutes flying as well as Pietermaritzberg Airport eight minutes away for controlled airspace training.
One of the great privileges of a flying instructor is the wide range of humanity you get to know quite well. Students range in age from sixteen (and younger) to sixty six (and older) from many walks of life and with a wide range of personalities. A small cockpit moving around in three dimensions is an unusual learning environment. Flying does tend to bring out the good side of people even taking into consideration the frustrations of learning to fly. I have met some truly amazing people and in teaching them to fly, have learnt a huge amount myself. To be a good pilot you have to behave like a gentleman or lady. Pilots have to have a reasonable amount of intelligence (one wonders sometimes), and be able to focus and multitask. Unfortunately the high cost of flying precludes the greater part of the public although there are programs that are reaching previously disadvantaged people.
I find it a pity that the fairer sex is badly represented in our sport. Women make excellent pilots – you only have to look at the growing number of lady commercial pilots. Hopefully we’ll see more ladies flying the less physically demanding LSAs.
The Legal Framework
When microlights came on the flying scene in the mid 1980s the authorities were not quite sure what to do with this new way of flying. The Air Navigation Regulations of 1976 were still in place, administered by the Department of Civil Aviation who shoehorned us into an already unwieldy framework of legislation.
Eventually in 1996 a new system in the form of the CARS and CATS (Civil Aviation Regulations and Technical Standards) were promulgated. Initially these new regulations were a real mess but after about twelve years of hard work they were panel beaten into the much better system that we now fly under. The DCA evolved into the Civil Aviation Authority and a major step forward for us was when RAASA came into being to regulate and administer sport aviation. This side of our flying is the healthiest it has ever been which greatly facilitates the growth of our little industry.
Aeroclub and MISASA
These bodies have been working behind the scenes from the beginning and have contributed hugely to where we are now. I believe we have one of the best general aviation flying environments anywhere in the world. We have great weather, amazing places to fly and an administrative body (in the form of RAASA) that is efficient and open to the changes that need to be made as we evolve. Aeroclub’s motto of ‘preserving free flight’ is very apt and I can only appeal to all sport pilots to support them and MISASA in particular.
I have been privileged to have been involved professionally with light flying from near the beginning to the present. It is not easy to make a living in any form of aviation but through luck and good fortune I have survived to realise a dream. I consider myself a fortunate man; I own a successful flying school on my own farm with a great future. This is all due to the new flying sport of microlights and light sport aircraft. You will never get rich teaching people to fly and the beaurocratic, human and weather related frustrations will regularly make you question your chosen profession. But for me the rewards have been worth it.