Ray Watts - My ATC memories (Part 3B)

By Ray Watts

In the last article, I wrote about my joining Grand Central in 1974 and how I enjoyed being back on an airfield again. Let us delve further into the old memory box and see what we can conjure up. I must thank all of you who commented on my previous article - you folks brought back events and names that I had forgotten about.

Just as a correction to the last article. The Tiger Moth I mentioned was actually ZS-FEL and not FEY.

When I left DCA, I stopped taking flying lessons and restarted once I got to Grand Central. The Grand Central Flying Club had two Cessna 150s, ZS-IOD and ZS-IVS, and I was allowed to use these two which were administered at that stage by Placo Grand Central on behalf of the club. My instructor was Ian Dornan and I became good friends with him and his wife Anne. We have kept contact via Face Book over the years - they now live in the UK.

Training progressed and on 30 October 1974 in ZS-IOD, I was able to write my 1st solo into my logbook having been checked out by Freddie Smith. I did my flight early in the morning when the air was calm and I must admit, I don't think I've ever done a smoother landing. I must admit that the nerves kicked in after I'd parked and tied down the aircraft. I was walking through the gate towards the offices when I took a cigarette out of the box and dropped it - my hands were shaking so much. What a day to remember. I have also kept contact with two other instructors through Face Book, both of whom I have flown with, John Waller & Lilith Billing (now Seals). Other instructors through the years were James Orr, Gordon Hollingsworth, Peter Marais, Alain D. Wolff (the well know comedian), Paul Betts, Alan Lurie and Ivan Weinstein. Peter Marais was a really nice person and our friendship endured over the years until he passed away a couple of years ago. Other part time instructors who didn't work for Placo, but did training were Brian Stableford, Laurie Kay, Jeff Birch, Bob Ewing and a couple more.

I remember one Sunday morning, Ivan Weinstein sent a student solo in a Piper TriPacer and then joined me in the tower to watch his student. Many of the instructors did this and they were always welcome. This student got airborne off Rwy 35 and was just over the highway when he called out "Help I have smoke in the cockpit" Ivan - who was very strict on radio procedures - promptly said "I spent I don't know how long teaching him proper Mayday procedures and now he shouts for help". Ivan took over my mike and told the pilot to open the storm window and that should suck the smoke out. At this stage, naturally, we did not know what the cause of the smoke was and opening the window was a possibly dangerous move as it could spread the fire. This move cleared the smoke and no further fire problem occurred. In the meanwhile, any other traffic in the area was told to hold over Kyalami until the TriPacer was on the ground and safe. Remember these were the days before Lanseria was built and the VFR corridor between GC and LA did not exist.

Just as a matter of interest, the initial reporting points when joining the circuit were over or abeam Kyalami if approaching from the west or north west, over or abeam Sandton City if coming from the south and over White Hills Farm if approaching from the north. If you came in from the east you would have been cleared by Jan Smuts Approach through the buffer zone via Pinedene Station and you'd be released to me when you had passed Pinedene.

Jimmy Popham's J3 Cub ZS-AYC

We always had a problem with people wandering across the threshold of Rwy 35, especially in the mornings and evenings when they were enroute from Tembisa to Halfway House. This did create problems as no matter how fast Martin Thepa and his team repaired the fences they were broken just as rapidly. I remember Jimmy Popham chasing a group of these "insurgents" with his J3 Cub (ZS-AYC) - his call to me was "Ah, Bandits". I think he chased them at very low level almost all the way to Tembisa. We were never able to sort out the pedestrians until a proper wall / fence was built in later years after I had left.

Talking of moving obstructions, when I got to Grand Central there was a group of Klipspringers on the airfield. They used to graze on the grass on the eastern side of the airfield and initially didn't get too near the runway. In 1975/6 we had some good rains and the mowed grass next to the runway which was very lush & green and this attracted these little guys. It was decided that they had to go before they became a danger and we organised for the Johannesburg Zoo to come and collect them. Initially I thought that rounding them up would be a problem but the zoo folks were so adept at doing this kind of thing that it took them about an hour to collect the ten buck and ship them off.

We also had a problem with the occasional horse riders who would jump the fence on the north east side of the runway and stand and watch the aircraft going by on the runway. Anyone who knows horses will know that they frighten easily and their presence near the runway was definitely a no-no. I had to threaten one man with the police if he did not move off the property.

Speaking of the police, we had an incredibly good working relationship with the Halfway House guys and girls. Nothing was too much trouble for them. There can never be a comparison between the SAP or those days and the SAPD that we have to work with these days.

As I was now earning a reasonable salary, I decided to trade my Mini in on what everybody assured me would be a good buy. I bought 1974 VW 1600 Beetle. Well, everybody's assurances that this was a good vehicle to buy turned out false - I had electrical trouble from day one and only kept it for a couple of months. I got the dealer to take it back (he knows of the troubles because the car went back to him every time something else went wrong) and he swapped it for a Datsun 1200 which was a fantastic little car.

At this time, I was operating the tower by myself and after not having a day off for about four months, I was exhausted. I went to see Roger Lea and he agreed that we should get some help. At that time, my sister Caryl-Anne & brother-in-law Charles Flee, had moved to a plot in Halfway Gardens and as Charles Flee was a trained ATC, he would work whenever he had a day off. This was not a permanent solution and I had to then interview other prospective candidates. Initially I advertised in the Star newspaper, but most these applicants were a waste of time. There was even one girl who didn't have a car and would have to rely on friends to get her to work and home again: - her command of the English language wasn't all that great either. The one gem I did find was Dave Allan and he joined me. He had a good idea of what was happening as his dad was ex SAAF from WW2. I trained him and, through the flying school, got him his radio operator's license. He worked with us for quite a time and was learning to fly at the same time. He eventually got his Comm and IF and left us to fly in Botswana. He ended up with Air Mauritius as a captain. There was also another man who joined us, Ian Lund. Alan Lurie took him in hand and taught him to fly and got him into the SAAF. I don't know where he is now though.

Rennies Air started a new venture called SA Safaris and these proved to be extremely popular with the overseas tourists. The route these flights took was from Grand Central to Mala Mala. From there they went onto Komatipoort (for customs etc) then on to Lourenco Marques, Inhaca Island, Vilancoulos, Paradise Island, Beira, Gorangosa. The routing then went onto Blantyre, into Rhodesia to Salisbury, Kariba and Victoria Falls then down the Caprivi strip to Grootfontein, Windhoek. From there it followed the Skeleton Coast to Cape Town. The trip would end there and the pax would fly home via the national airline. These trips were about three weeks long and were run on about a six-week rotation. These trips stopped when Samora Michel took over in Mozambique and banned SA registered aircraft from operating there.

Rennies fleet at this stage consisted of Cessna 310R's, Cessna 402B's, Cessna 340, Cessna 421, Piper Aztec's and Piper Chieftains. They also chartered in extra aircraft if necessary, so we got to see a variety of light twins. Their pilots, over the years were Dave Whally, Martin Oosthuizen, Frik Moolman (part time), Eugene de Villiers, John Baker (who later came to work in the tower after he contracted the Guillain-Barre Syndrome and lost his medical), Don Pattison and Pirette Peroz (a Swiss lady). Rennies Air was run by John Pocock with Buck Rogers as chief engineer. Heather Pattison and Pippa Thomas were the PR ladies. In those days, whatever booze was left over from the catering boxes would be stored in the pilot's office and would be consumed on a Friday night.

The Rennies passengers for the SA Safaris would arrive by bus and disembark in the old car park which was not tarred or levelled in any way, just sand and gravel. For some reason I'd parked my car there and I was on my way to the car when the bus arrived. An elderly American couple were among the passengers and the lady fell off the bottom step and ended up on all fours. She wasn't badly hurt, just grazes and bumps, so I took her into the pilot's office and cleaned up the wounds and applied lashings of the good old Mercurochrome. I had done a 1st Aid course so knew what I was looking at. They went off on their trip and I went away on leave for three weeks. When I got back, Roger Lea called me in to his office and gave me an envelope which contained R200.00 from the couple 'for services rendered'. That money was very welcome. Talking of money, one morning, while walking across the apron to the tower I picked up a roll of money. I handed this into Roger Lea. After a few years, when he left, he handed the roll back to me as it had never been claimed. There was R3000.00 in that roll and that paid my car off very nicely and left me some beer money.

Escom also used Rennies to do their Friday pay run. They would fly to all the power stations around the Transvaal with the weekly pay packets. Just to demonstrate how relatively safe things were then, there would only be the pilot and an accountant from Escom on board. They would stop off at each power station and deliver the box of pay packets for that station - none of it ever went missing.

Rennies Air operated successfully until 1980 when, for some reason, they closed down. Their operation was taken over by Mike Stoll as Capital Air, but it didn't last for long.

Early in 1975 I was given the extra duty of looking after the fuel deliveries which involved waiting for the tanker to arrive (sometimes as late as 8pm), testing the fuel before filling the underground tanks. Having checked that, the right fuel went into the correct tank. At that time, we stocked 80-87 and 100-130 octane Avgas and Jet A1. This was a tedious job as the fuel was only allowed to flow from the tanker at a certain rate. I remember the first time I did this; I was surprised at the thickness of the earth strap bonding the tanker to the fuel bay structure: - it was really thick and was necessary to earth the whole thing.

When Dave was employed and trained, my life became a lot easier and I drew up a shift roster. The shifts went from 6am to 1pm and from 1pm to 6pm and worked on the following: - Monday afternoon/Tuesday morning, Wednesday afternoon/Thursday morning, Friday afternoon, all day Saturday and all-day Sunday. The following week was the reverse and then one would have Friday afternoon, the whole weekend and Monday morning off. This worked extremely well for both of us as it gave time for flying lessons etc.

PA24-400 Comanche ZS-DZZ

Mooney ZS-FAG

Stinson 108 ZS-PDK

There were certain racing drivers that kept their aircraft at Grand Central. These were Dave Charlton (RIP), Paddy Driver and Peter de Klerk (RIP). Dave had one of only two Piper PA24-400 Comanche's (ZS-DZZ) in the country, Paddy had a Mooney (ZS-FAG) and Peter had a Stinson 108 ZS-PDK. Peter was forever fiddling with the Stinson, trying to get more power and eventually he took the aircraft to his plot in Halfway House so that he could concentrate on the mods he wanted to make. This is where the aircraft disappeared and there were always rumours of an old aircraft stored away in Halfway House. It wasn't until August 2015 that I was able to track down this aircraft after Peters death to a house in Sandton where his widow lived. There she was in all her dismantled glory. She has subsequently been sold, but I don't know who bought her and where she is now.

Footnote: Driver is one of a small group of people who have raced in both the Grand Prix motorcycle World Championship and Formula One. The group also includes John Surtees , Mike Hailwood and Johnny Cecott.

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