Ray Watts, My ATC memories (Part 3c)

By Ray Watts

As we delve further into my memory, there are lots of funny, some scary and some sad stories that come out. I need, once again, to make a correction to the last article, I got a person's name wrong. The man who joined me in the tower was Dave Wilmot (not Dave Allan who was at school with me). Eish, the old memory box ain't as good as it used to be.

The Wits University Flying Club's Piper Cherokee

One of the organisations that was based at Grand Central was the Wits University Flying Club with their Piper Cherokee ZS-FWP and she was used regularly. Their chairman, at the time was Col. Jack van Eyssen and he was a remarkably interesting man to talk to. He had learnt to fly during World War II and had flown with 24 Sqn SAAF on the Consolidated B24 Liberator during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. They were shot down over Warsaw and manged to avoid capture by the Germans. They made contact with some Russians and were transferred to the Russian Air Force in the area, They were then flown, on what Jack called "A clapped out Dak, with a pilot who shouldn't have been left in charge of a wheel barrow", to Moscow, where they were repatriated to the UK via an English convoy out of Murmansk and finally got back to South Africa right at the end of the war. He was a real gentleman and a good instructor who enforced military discipline in the cockpit. The club eventually moved to Lanseria where I believe it still exists.

Bob wing and Brian Stableford

Derek Hopkins and Ian Harvey

Chris van der Hoof, Bill Keil and Ian Harvey

Laurie Kay and Mike Spence

The Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 322 was very active at Grand Central all the time I was at Grand Central and they were a very enthusiastic group. There were some memorable names such as Mike Spence (who had started the EAA movement in South Africa), Bill Keil, Woody Woods (who brought the first Pitts Special ZS-USA into South Africa), Ian Harvey, Alan White, Stewart Wood, Bob Ewing, Peter Hengst , Frank Rehrl, and Derek Hopkins. There are quite a few others who I can't remember - please don't be offended if I've left your name off the list.

The first Pitts Special ZS-USA brought into South Africa by Woody Woods

The EAA built their first clubhouse at the end of a row of T-Hangars and I had a hand in building this. There is a funny incident here. I was cutting a steel roof beam with an angle grinder and Bob Ewing walked past behind me. Bob was wearing a pair of shorts and had hairy legs. The sparks from the angle grinder set fire to his legs and this was promptly doused by Peter Hengst by throwing his glass of beer over Bob's legs. No damage done thank goodness. Peter Hengst was well known in the clubhouse for his Glühwein, specially in the winter - it was lethal but very tasty.

ZS-PPL a Piper PA28-140 crashed in the stream in Vorna Valley

There were naturally some accidents at Grand Central, but thankfully there were no fatal ones on the airfield. The one fatal accident happened on 3 April 1975 when ZS-PPL, a Piper PA28-140 crashed in the stream in Vorna Valley. The student was Gerald Morris and the instructor was Chris Geel who were both killed. Chris had just been accepted into SAA. I will never forget the old Police Sergeant at Halfway House Police station who handled the telephone calls to their next of kin. He was such a gentleman and the way he conveyed the news was so gentle. Gerald was Jewish and his parents held a memorial service at the crash site for him - it was very moving. Chris was buried from the NG Church in Kempton Park.

Mooney M20-201 ZS-KYE crashed at Krugersdorp

The only other fatal crash that I can remember was on Saturday 25 August 1984 when Mooney M20-201 ZS-KYE crashed at Krugersdorp killing all on board including Dr Hugh Wolpe, who was a friend of mine. I remember clearly that his instructor was Lilith Billing and this was the only time I'd had to call somebody to the tower to give them the terrible news. Hugh had been one of Lilith's students and he was looking to buy the Mooney.

There were other accidents on the airfield including nose wheel collapses, gear up landings and off runway excursions to name but a few. One of the nose wheel collapses was when an elderly lady was sent on her first solo by the CFI, much to the annoyance of her instructor who said she wasn't ready. The aircraft was Piper PA28-140 ZS-IGI. Her husband, who didn't know she was learning to fly, said that there was to be no insurance claims filed and he would pay for the repairs, which he did. His wife never flew again.

Fritz van Straaten's Cherokee 235 ZS-EMS

One of the hangar tenants, who was a larger than life character, was Fritz van Straaten. He owned a company in Edenvale that manufactured electro-magnets. His aircraft was a Cherokee 235 ZS-EMS, which was a rather strange pinkish and white colour. He would fly every Sunday out to Hartebeespoort dam, then on to Potchefstroom and Carletonville before returning home. It was said that he knew every bump on that route. I often saw a young man in the aircraft with him and this was his son Martin, who eventually took over the company and carried on flying. Martin was killed in an aircraft accident near Cape Town when he suffered a heart attack while flying in the Sasol Tigers L28 formation.

The damage to the Tomahawk ZS-KFU

A very strange accident happened when one of Avex Air's new Piper Tomahawks was standing at the holding point of Runway 35. He was clipped by the wingtip of a King Air which tried to get past him on to the runway. Have a look at the photos of ZS-KFU and see how much damage was done.

Cliff Modlin's Siai Marchetti ZS-ESM

One wheels-up that I remember vividly was when Cliff Modlin landed his Siai Marchetti ZS-ESM on Rwy 17 wheels up. The insurance company tried to sue me for not advising him that his gear wasn't extended, but with the short gear on the aircraft, it wasn't possible to see it against the backdrop of the trees that the gear wasn't extended. The case was thrown out of court.

The Beech Queen that Air Martin Oosthuizen got a ferried to the USA.

In early March 1978 one of Rennies Pilots, Martin Oosthuizen, got a ferry job to take a Beech Queen Air to the USA. On 23 March 1978, Martin left Grand Central in N28BL (ex ZS-IZT) on the ferry flight to the USA. He routed via Lanseria, Windhoek, then round West Africa to Portugal and the UK. He went from the UK to Iceland and then to the accident site. On 27 March 1978 he was flying over the Labrador coast when he ran out of oil on one engine and was forced to land on the ice. We were all very worried about him. I'd hate to have seen Rennies Air's telephone bill because Sue Vosper & Robina Anderson were on the phone every day to the Canadian S&R guys to find out what was happening.

It turned out that he was found on their last S&R flight and airlifted to Goose Bay on 31 March 1978. All he had had to eat was a few of tins of peaches that he had on board with him. If I remember rightly, he had been on the ice for about 5 days when they found him. He was flown from Goose Bay to New York, but apparently the owner of the aircraft refused to buy him his ticket home because he had not delivered the aircraft.

The SA Embassy got him onto a flight to SA. We were advised of his return date but not which flight and assumed that he would be on the SAA flight and arranged for Don Van Dyke to fly his helicopter (ZS-PAW) over to Jan Smuts to collect him.

the time, there were two flights from the US to SA being SAA & PanAm. We'd timed everything to co-inside with the arrival of the SAA flight and the silly bugger arrived much earlier on the PanAm flight and took a taxi back to Grand Central, so we missed him altogether. He was a little miffed that nobody had bothered to pick him up from the airport but had a good chuckle when he found out what had happened. We had an impromptu welcome home party that night which started out in the Rennies crew room and ended up at the Halfway House Hotel - a memorable bash of note. There was an official welcome home party for him a couple of days later, but it wasn't half as much fun as the first one.

I last saw Martin at the Snake Park in Halfway House in the early 1990s but have no idea where he is now. He was the person who introduced me to Captain Morgan & Coke.
On one memorable occasion, he arrived at my house with a bottle of Captain Morgan and a couple of litres of Coke to celebrate my birthday - what a celebration, I think it took me a day or so to recover.

John Whittaker's Beagle Pup ZS-IGY…..

…..and his Beech 18 ZS-FRF re-registered in Botswana as A2-AOS….

……and his Lake Buccaneer registered in Botswana as A2-ZIF

John Whittaker was another interesting person who was based at Grand Central. He owned a Beagle Pup ZS-IGY, which was a rare aircraft in this country, with only a few ever being imported. He also imported a Lake Buccaneer which he registered in Botswana as A2-ZIF and at one stage he also owned a Beech 18 ZS-FRF, which he re-registered in Botswana as A2-AOS. This one was pranged at Lanseria when they were doing his conversion and lost an engine on take-off. The story goes that John promptly marched over to the SAAF Museum hangar and said if they wanted the Beech 18 they could have it, as long as they fetched it off the side of the runway. The Museum did take the aircraft on but never rebuilt it and it was later sold as scrap. A great pity.

Grinaker Construction's Cessna Citation ZS-KPA

Grinaker Construction was one of the large construction companies that had their aircraft based at Grand Central and their fleet included ZS-GKR, an Aero Commander 690 and DC3 ZS-GPL, which was sold to United Air soon after I started. Their pilots were Ronnie Nash and Pete Morrison and their engineer was a gentleman called Barney, but I cannot for the life of me remember his surname. Other pilots that flew for them on an ad-hoc basis were Frikkie Moolman and Eugene de Villiers. I have never been particularly good at identifying accents and made the huge error of asking Ronnie Nash what part of Scotland he came from:- he was Irish so I never lived that one down. In December 1980 they added a Cessna Citation ZS-KPA to the fleet and my then wife Debbie and I were invited to the welcoming party. We were introduced to all sorts of Norwegian foods at that gathering, which were delicious.

Another construction company based at GC was Burton Construction with their Cessna 402B ZS-IWO, which flown by Robin Graetz. There was a funny incident one day when Robin was on leave and they had a free-lance pilot. Mr Burton was, to say the least, a large man and he couldn't fit through the passenger door without the pilot opening the freight door and placing the stand beneath the tail and a small set of steps at the door. Robin had forgotten to brief this pilot about this. Robin had always done this before Mr Burton arrived. When Mr Burton arrived, the pilot looked at him and asked him to hold on while he opened the freight door and braced the aircraft. The old man retorted that he was NOT A PIECE OF FREIGHT. Very embarrassing.

The author with the Airport Bakkie

With the position of the tower being what it was on the apron, I was asked, quite a few times, specially by American tourists, to please collect their baggage from the aircraft and take it into the Rennies Lounge. They thought I was the local porter. Only once did I have to get very short with an arrogant Texan who insisted that he didn't care who I was I had to carry his baggage. I told him what he could do with himself.

As an aside, when Rennies were running their flying safaris I found that their American passengers could be divided into roughly two types. Folks from the northern part of the States were very friendly and those from the southern part were not. The European passengers were generally all quite friendly.

ZS-PAW that was supposed to collect Martin from the Jan Smuts with the BP sign and the background

As you can see from the picture of the helicopter ZS-PAW that is parked in front of the old fuel bay, there was a remarkably high BP sign on the stand. One day, my late friend Peter Marais, who was flying a Cessna 310, approached from the east after he'd been away on a trip for about a week and asked if he could do a low-level flypast across the airfield. I said yes as it was quiet at the time. I didn't think to warn him about that sign as I didn't know how low he was going to be. I assumed he'd be above hangar height as he was a rather conservative pilot. I was wrong, I'd forgotten that in his young days, he'd been a crop spraying pilot. His comment after he just missed that sign cannot be repeated here.

Next time we'll look at more of the companies and characters.

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