Eugene Cussons 2nd place in the Icarus PPG Trophy Air Race
By Willie Bodenstein Photo and videos Eugene Cussons
On the 1 August 2018 thirty nine year old Eugene Cussons the owner of Nirvana/Dudek Africa as well as the CEO of Generation Now Movement, a non-profit involved in both conservation and humanitarian projects, departed as one of the competitors in the Icarus Trophy Air Race, the world's toughest air race.
Living on the family's Umhloti Nature Reserve, Eugene is no stranger to adventure. The reserve in Mapumalanga is the home of JGI Chimpanzee Eden, a project started by him.
Eugene was looking for aviation solutions to be used in conservation, specifically tracking Great Apes in the rainforests of Central Africa. He started experimenting with Helicopters, found they were too expensive for the average initiative, and moved on to fixed wing and still no success. One day he was working in the forest with Chimpanzees when a PPG (Powered Para Glider) unit flew over very low level and the pilot could him and waved at him. He knew then that PPG was going to become a cornerstone of their conservation effort.
Since then he has made friends with Nirvana's owner Pavel Brezina who supported his efforts and used his feedback to improve product development up to the point where the dedicated conservation unit was born called the Nirvana "Ranger". Eugene was given the choice to take over the Nirvana agency in South Africa since it had become such a large part of his life.
He has about 600 hrs of flying on PPG not counting his PPL fixed wing hours and has logged almost 'm 1000 flights using a PPG. For the last 6 years Eugene has been working intimately with Nirvana to create reliable machines and at the same time introducing them to conservation projects.
The 2018 Icarus Trophy billed as the world's toughest air race nearly 1000 mile aerial gauntlet started just north of Johannesburg at Hartbeespoort Dam and ended near the Victoria Falls in Zambia. It is man and machine vs the skies race, the toughest thing you could do with a paramotor and when Eugene decided to enter it comes as no surprise that he chose one of their products when he entered the race. Eugene wanted to complete the race to prove that their machines can be pushed to the limits and finish in showroom conditions. The reason for this is because allot still doubt that PPG is a practical form of aviation that could be used for daily tasks or to be hammered as part of an aviation solution for national and private parks.
The machine he chose to use is the sturdy Nirvana Instinct 230HL. It is the top of the line of the Nirvana range but he mostly picked the unit because of it's incredibly reliability. The plan was for him to fly the new F200 which is allot lighter but he received the unit too late for it to be a reliable option.
The 230 that he used during the race is the "Land Cruiser" of the Nirvana range as it has plenty of power at low RPM which ensures low engine operating temperature. At 31 HP is strong but it is also heavy at 33kgs including reserve chute. His total all up weight for the race was 156kg and his body weight was only 84kg. This included 28 litres of fuel. The canopy he chose was the super advanced Dudek Hadron XX which is closer to an aircraft wing than it is to a traditional paraglider wing. The glider has flap trimmers to be utilized in the same fashion as you would on an aircraft for take-off and the main trimmers allows max speed of up to 85km/hr.
The race didn't start well for Eugene when reserve fuel line got pinched after take-off and the blockage caused an engine out which forced him to land about 100 meters after take-off in a farmer field. After having fixed the problem he spent another 45 minutes to get airborne since it was difficult terrain and that delay pretty much cost him the race lead. The day ended with him crossing the border into Botswana but having faced so much bad luck that he wondered if he wasn't cursed from the 'get-go'.
Day two on the leg to Palapye started off well until he got stuck in a tree when executing a landing in mid-town next to gas station for refuelling where one of the locals took the opportunity to relieve him of his cold gloves.
Things did not get better. The thermals was very tough at mid-day and he was forced to land at Serowe close to a hospital where he promptly got arrested and detained for a while by the police until they could figure out his Modis Operandi with the parachute. By then Eugene realised why the Icarus Trophy was billed as the world's toughest air race.
Fortunately the matter got resolved and he was on its way to Kubu Island. This leg was the one that he was the most proud of doing 3.88 hours at 35meters AGL. He landed with only 5 minutes from disqualification time (sunset) a very thin time margin that made for exciting racing.
Day three included a safety landing with winds at 35km/hr + and an incredible flight from Nata to Pandamatenga over Elephant Sands. The bush was incredible and the thermals mid-day was enormous. Fortunately he wore the brown pants. His day ended with thermals so bad that his reserve fuel line unhooked amidst the shaking and was destroyed by the prop. He managed to land on the main road, did some Mcgyver fixes to launch again, across the width of the road whilst waiting his turn between trucks. He landed at Pandamatenga for the night.
Day four at last presented some very enjoyable smooth flying and he got the opportunity to catch up with the race leaders at Kasane border post. From then on things got worse and it eventually turned out to be the roughest part of the trip flying wise as he experienced very tough thermals resulting in six canopy collapses in just the last 50km alone. It was all worthwhile tough as he finished in second place overall.
His last flight, before returning home was a flight over the Victory Falls. "If the trip included nothing else this would have made it worth it." Eugene said.
Would he do it again? "Definitely" Eugene said, "I'm already planning on taking a race team over to Brazil 2019 to do the rainforest Icarus Race. The Icarus is not about making you a better pilot but a stronger person in my opinion. You get to push through your doubts and worries on limitation to end with elation which serves a proof that you can achieve anything no matter how tough it is during experience."
"I'm not a race pilot but I'm getting a feel for ultra-racing. This is a new category that I think will become allot bigger in the future especially as technology improves. The only other competitive race I competed in was the Icarus X earlier this year that served as a test run for the main Trophy and I came second to Alard who won the race there as well." Eugen concluded.