Ray Watts - My ATC memories (Part 3e)

By Ray Watts

I'm having a lot of fun writing these articles for you all and I hope you're enjoying reading them as well. From the comments I get from various folks, it seems as though you are. Thanks for all the feedback and corrections (my memory not being what it used to be).

One error I made last month was to say that a young man, Chris Rothero, who used to visit me in the tower regularly, had joined Cathay Pacific. He actually joined Emirates and was recently retrenched by them.

Escom (Eskom) also had a third Aero Commander, ZS-KZX, which I'd forgotten about. The only one left of the three is ZS- KZZ and the last time I saw her she was standing outside with all the paint stripped off - not a pleasant sight. ZS-KZX went to the USA in August 1997 and KZY went to Australia in November 2014.

E.L. Bateman's Aero Commander was also flown by Rod Lageson. I've totally lost track of him. If anybody knows where he is, I'd love to know.

One horrible accident that happened to one of the people who was based at GC was the crash that claimed the life of Joe Higham. He owned and flew a Piper Vagabond ZS-UTN and was on his way back from Margate when he ran short of fuel and landed on Kensington Golf Course. The fairway that he landed on was fairly well sheltered by trees on both sides. He refuelled the aircraft the next morning and took off down the fairway. Unfortunately, as he cleared the trees, the wind, which was pumping, caught him and flipped the aircraft into the trees. It caught fire and Joe was burnt to death. Very sad indeed.

Late one quiet afternoon, I suddenly got an unusual call from Springbok 234 - a SAA Boeing 747, outbound for London, advising me that he would be passing through my circuit. There was nothing happening at the time so that wasn't a problem. I watched him climbing very slowly out of Jan Smuts. I enquired as to why he was so low, as these guys were generally way above the circuit height of 6300 ft by the time they came passed us and he told me that he suspected that the loading folks had loaded the aircraft in Kilograms instead of Pounds. I never could confirm this though.

We had some characters operating out of the airfield and one of these was Norman Dent. He hired a Piper Cherokee 6 from her owner (ZS-IJY, a 260 hp version) and had a contract to deliver the afternoon newspapers to Pietersburg (now Polokwane). This aircraft was loaded to the gills and he struggled to get her to clear the trees at the end of Rwy 35. He would pop into the tower every day to check the wind and ask if there were any DCA inspectors around. I suspect that the aircraft was quite overloaded. It proved the old saying that with a Cherokee 6, if you can close the doors, she'll fly.

One of the engineers who worked at Grand Central Workshop was Roy Mills and he and I became good friends. He always did his best when servicing the clubs two Cessna 150s. He also looked after all Placo Grand Central's Cherokees. He had a fairly short temper and a great sense of humour and could always be relied on to see the funny side of things. I remember one day watching a student walking across the apron to the workshops and jumping into one of the Cherokees. He was about to start it up when Roy spotted him and rushed out of the hangar and stopped him. The student hadn't noticed that the aircraft was up on jacks and had no wheels fitted. Roy's language at the time cannot be repeated here but you can use your imagination. There was a time when I'd booked ZS-IVS in for a hundred-hour inspection. Roy phoned and said she was ready and as I was very busy at the time, I asked him to taxi her to the apron. He did that but as he passed the fuel bay, he didn't notice that the window on the fuel bay office was open and he almost clipped the right wing tip on it. I was sitting there watching this drama unfold and couldn't do anything about it as he hadn't switched the radio on. All I could do was wave my arms showing him to turn right. He didn't turn but missed it anyway. I went on leave for three weeks shortly after this and when I got back, I went to see Roy in the hangar but, unusually, he wasn't there. I asked for him and was told that he'd been taken ill and had passed away - the dreaded cancer had got him. He never showed any signs of being ill at all.

We used to get regular visits from a Cessna 401 ZS-FMB (Federale Myn Bou) flown by Keith van Vlierden. We also became good friends over the years. He passed away about a year ago in Cape Town having retired some time back. He and I both enjoyed Tracy Chapman's music and when she came out to Zimbabwe, we flew up to Harare with our partners, to attend the show. What a trip that was. I came across this aircraft again in 2011 looking very smart in her new colours and based in Windhoek as V5-FMB.

Jeremy Ord of Dimension Data fame bought a Britten Norman Islander (ZS-ORD) and one of the local pilots - Tony Hall - was employed to fly it. He was sent to Bembridge on the Isle of Wight to go and collect the aircraft and fly it down to South Africa. Tony had a British passport and the aircraft was registered in the UK as G-BCMM, so he had no trouble with the political issues of that time. I'm not 100% sure of the route he took but suspect he routed via Portugal, the Azores and down the west coast of Africa to here. He said the aircraft was delightful to fly:- just damned slow and extremely noisy. If I remember correctly, it took him about a week to get here. This aircraft didn't stay long at Grand Central before she was sold to AVNA Airways and then on to the Rhodesian Airforce in 1978 as RRAF 7213 (now ZAF 7213). I believe she's still active with the Zimbabwe Air Force.

There were a total of four Cessna 401s based at Grand Central during my time there. These were ZS-TRR (Tom Robson, operated by Rennies Air}, ZS-IIF, ZS-JGW) (Graeme Wolffe) and ZS-IAV (Dr Freddie Herbst). These aircraft were flown regularly and always immaculately looked after. I remember one morning when ZS-TRR lost an engine on take-off from Rwy 17. I'm not sure who was flying her, but it could have been Dave Whalley. She was fairly heavy but still managed to stagger around the circuit, low level and land back on Rwy 17.

I've always been a great lover of the Piper Super Cub and when a rare 90hp version arrived from Rhodesia (VP-WJT), this was quite exciting. She had been imported by Jeanette Rennie's boyfriend, Dave Mortenson and he registered her ZS-LHL. He flew her quite a bit and it was a delight to see her around and about. The picture shows her on arrival from Rhodesia still with her Rhodesian registration. She lay around for quite a time when Tim Kearton bought her and restored her. She was then sold to Rob Mackinson, who flew her for a number of years and she's now with Patrick Davidson at Sprayview in Port Elizabeth. Other favourite Superb Cubs were ZS-DGI and EGI, which both belonged to Jimmy Popham of Multispray. I remember trying to hand start ZS-DGI for Larry Barnett (of Spitfire fame) unsuccessfully. This was the first time I'd actually ever tried to prop swing an aircraft, quite an experience.

Talking of prop swinging, I watched a bunch of guys trying to hand start an Agcat of Avex Air. As you can imagine, hand swinging a radial engine is not for the faint hearted. They eventually wound a rope around the crankshaft and attached this to a bakkie. They then managed to get the prop to spin enough to start her.

A visitor that we saw quite often was Jim Cole-Rous from Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF). They flew missionaries, medical staff, equipment, supplies, and patients all around the Eastern Cape, Transkei and Lesotho in their Cessna 180C ZS-MAF. It was always great to see Jim as he always had some interesting stories to tell, like the landing strip at the Catholic Mission Station just north of Butterworth. This strip was on the top of a cliff and was definitely a one-way strip. One landed uphill and took off downhill regardless of the wind. On landing, as soon as the wheels touched down, one had to turn slightly left to avoid a biggish rock on the right of the runway. Scary, but Jim just handled it. Jim had the habit of kneeling next to the left main wheel of his aircraft and saying a prayer before he took off. Once there was a person who was in the tower with me and laughed at Jim. I threw him out of the tower. Jim is now well into his 80s and lives in California. MAF sold the Cessna 180 and replaced her with a Cessna 185, but the original MAF is still around as N9265T and lives in Kroonstad.

Also, during the time, I was there, and after Roger Lea left, Harold Levin, Scully's dad, joined the company as grounds manager. He was responsible for the surfaces on the airport etc and Jeanette was the admin manager. He was a real gentleman - like his son is today - and I enjoyed my interactions with him, although they were limited. He spent the last five years there and eventually retired and emigrated to Israel.

Avex moved over from Rand to GC when they took over Placo Grand Central's training organisation and they brought, inter alia, their Dak ZS-JMP with them. It was great to have a Dak back at GC after Grinair sold theirs. She was a survey equipped Dak and was originally imported by Johannesburg Map Production Studio (Hence the registration). Avex did quite a bit of survey flying with her as well as some Quelea spraying in Botswana. She crashed in Angola following an engine fire on 21/10/1997 and the aircraft was impounded by the Angolan Government. At the time she had recorded some 91 000 hours. Avex also brought their famous Cherokee ZS-FMC with them. They had a fleet of Tomahawks for basic training as well as other Piper Cherokees. Their Chief Flying Instructor was Dave Barr.

AOC brought their Dak in one day for Barney, the engineer at Grinair, to have a look at and parked it next to the tennis courts. What a cloud of dust they kicked up - Jeanette wasn't impressed as the dust blew straight into her house. AOC even sent a clean-up crew to her house as an apology.

One very interesting aircraft that was at Grand Central was Chalkie Stobbard's radial engine Fairchild F24W Argus, which was fitted with the Warner Scarab engine. She was registered ZS-VWO and was, and still is, beautiful. She started out with the US Army Air Force as 41-38841 and was transferred to the RAF under 'Lend Lease' as EV777. After the war she was sold off and registered in England as G-AKJB. She came to South Africa as ZS-DCX in March 1949. She became ZS-VWO under the old LS-1 rules for veteran & vintage aircraft. Chalkie and Peter Hengst actually flew her to Oshkosh in 1992.

See ya all next time.

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