Jan Kemp, Aircraft Builder extraordinaire

By Willie Bodenstein

Jan remembers how as a small boy, even before he went to school, he would lay on the grass outside their house on a farm at Utrecht and longingly look up in the sky at the occasional shiny aircraft and listening to the almost magical distant roar of the engines as it passed high overhead and the wish that some day he too might fly in one of the silver birds was born.

Starting school Jan's determination to fly just grew stronger and he found one of the essentials necessary to make his dream come true, a Briggs and Stratton engine. The other materials needed to build his dream machine were soon collected; Bamboo for the frame and some of his mother's old sheets to cover his invention. By then he realised that it would probably be too heavy to carry him aloft but reasoned that if it could be launched from a high point and thus being airborne then surely it would fly and the roof of the chicken coop was soon identified as the ideal launching pad. Fly it did not, uncontrolled flight into terrain was a more apt description, the inevitable meeting with mother earth landing young Jan almost in hospital.

Jan's dream of flying might have been shattered but it was not forgotten, it just laid dormant, waiting to be awakened whilst he finished school and completed his studies at Wits University. Engela entered his life and other priorities occupied his time. Then the dream was awaken when he was taken for a couple of flights in a friend's Piper 235 and one night at a braai and after a couple of beers someone asked why he hasn't started flying to which he replied that buying a aircraft was just beyond his reach. A few more beers later and he were convinced by his well meaning friends that in that case he should built his own and so his love affair with all things aeronautical again started.

Jan's second aircraft (for although the first did not actually fly it must surely count) was a Volksplane VP-2. It took two years of hard work before it was ready for taxi trials and so one day with Jan at the controls up and down the runway it was, each time a little faster than the previous until much to Jan's horror the VP did what it was supposed to do, it flew. There was only one thing he could do; complete a circuit and land which with very limited flying experience was easier said then done. Engela who witness all of this and no doubt expecting the worst phoned a doctor to be attendance and took a tablet to calm her nerves as Jan got ready for the landing. The saying goes that any landing that you walk away from is a good landing, hair-raising and bumpy and rough as it was, it was a good landing, Jan walked away and the VP was none the worse for wear. It took Jan two weeks to get his courage back and to try again and it got better until Engela no doubt by then at wits end convinced him to go for formal lessons and it was off to Witbank where Tommie van de Woude send him solo in a Cessna 172.

A 172 was added to the stable with which Jan and Engela had countless hours of pleasurable flying. Later on a Piper Arrow (ZU-BBG) followed and it was in it, packed with canned food and what ever was deemed necessary that Jan and Engela set out from Volksrus to Lake Malawi. First stop was to be at Polokwane but they had to return as the undercarriage refused to retract. Jan quickly resolved the problem and they were again on their way. Approaching Polokwane the weather turned nasty and dodging thunderstorms they encountered severe turbulence which rocked the Arrow so badly that the carefully packed cans and other items were flying about the cabin with Engela doing her best to stop them from injured by what has now become lethal missiles. Reducing speed, things got better and they landed safely at Polokwane where Engela, legs sill rubbery sat down onto a profusion of Devil's Thorns.

The next leg took them to Charles Prince Airport in Zimbabwe and although the Arrow was fitted with two GPs's neither worked and they had to rely on an old black and white photo copied map which made for to say the least some interesting navigation. Fortunately they were able to get a new map at Charles Prince Airport in Zimbabwe from where they routed over the Tete Province in Mozambique where because of the autumn burning visibility was rather poor and afraid off flying to low as they were warned that they might be shot at, Jan the Arrow at just below 7,500 ft. Calling Cheleka on their approach Jan replied in Zulu and the ATC to his amazement replied and all further communication was in Zulu. As it turned out the ATC was born in Vryheid and needless to say they were treated like royalty.After a unforgettable few days in Malawi they set out for home and the undercarriage problems return forcing them to land at Harare International where Jan fixed it whilst Engela attended to the paperwork. It was late and hot when they eventually left and the Arrow battled to gain height and to make matters worst the undercarriage problem return and this time Engela took control whilst Jan when into the back to sort the problem out. The rest of their eventful journey home was fortunately incident free.

At last count Jan has accumulated 2500 and now sports 25 types including some Microlights on his license and is a Grade 2 Test Pilot. Because of his fondness to always tinker with aircraft and because of his interest in improving the handling and performance of some aircraft he also obtained his AP (Approved Person) qualification. He finds each aircraft, no matter how different it is, whether it is slow or fast a pleasure to fly and always keep an eye open for interesting and unusual aircraft.

One such aircraft is the Thorp T-18 displayed in the EAA Museum in Oshkosh that Jan visited in 2004. The Museum Thorp T-18 is not just any Thorp but the actual one that circumnavigated the world and had set numerous other records and Jan knew that he wanted one. On the last day of the show he strolled through the Fly Market, Oshokosh's version of a flea market and there, for sale, was the battered wreck of a T-18 that he on the spot bought and had shipped to South Africa. The Thorp, designed by the legendary John Thorp who was part on the team that brought us the Piper Cherokee arrived in Durban six months later and it took Jan another eighteen months to complete but another two years were to pass before all the paperwork was in order and the COF (Certificate of Flight) was issued. The Thorp has very few vices, handles like a dream, is strong and easy to fly and Jan's T-18 currently has about 200 hours on the Hobs.

Sharing space with the Thorp in Jan and Engela's hanger is a Druine Condor, his son's Cessna 150 which is currently being refurbished and his newest project, a Piper PA-38-112 Tomahawk that Jan is in the process of rebuilding. If all goes well it will be powered by a Mazda RX-7 Rotary engine and will feature a ventral air cooler reminiscent of the Mustang.

My thanks to CC Pocock for flying the camera ship for the photo shoot and to Jan for making time during what was a rather hectic weekend and to Engela for all the information.

Aviation Personalities

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