Ray Watts, my ATC memories (Part 3f)

By Ray Watts 2021.02.28

I can't believe that this is the sixth article in this series - I really didn't think I'd get beyond about three, but that's how the memory goes. I quite often wake up at about 3am with a memory and quickly send myself an e-mail - thank goodness for smart phones.

Frik dancing on the table at my wedding

I have to start with a sad note here. Going back into my very early life, we, as a family, moved into our new house in Birchleigh in 1957 and met up with the Moolman family at that time. Their son Frikkie became my best friend and we remained the best of buddies until he was killed in Italy during the World Power Flying Championships at Savona on 23 June 1984. If memory serves me correctly, they flew into a box canyon and could not turn around sufficiently tightly to get out and crashed into the walls of the canyon. This was a terrible blow for not only me, but his family, two sons and wife Erica as well. He was a careful pilot normally and had just been accepted into SAA when this accident occurred. I still miss him today.

Wild-life photographer Ken Eddy's Bell 47 ZS-HDC

When I first got too Grand Central, I met up with a gentleman called Ken Eddy who was not only a Methodist minister, but also a wild-life photographer. He owned a Bell 47 ZS-HDC and used it to make wild-life movies. He had cut a large egg-shaped hole into the canopy so that his wife could use the movie camera without getting any distortions from the canopy. The hole was cut in such a manner that a covering piece of clear Perspex could be fastened over the hole for normal flying. The aircraft looked really strange with this big hole in the canopy. He later ventured into main line movie filming and I believe was quite successful. He lived in Glen Austen, a suburb of Halfway House, which lies on the east side of Grand Central and he kept the helicopter there. We'd only see him when he needed fuel. He'd appear over the trees along Allen Road and come in directly from the east, over the runway, to the fuel bay. At that stage of my life, I hadn't had much exposure to helicopters so this time of direct approach was a new one for me, but it did lead me into letting the chopper guys (& gals) fly direct approaches instead of doing a full circuit as is the norm today. Made my life easier.

Mike Stolarchic's Silvercraft SH-4 ZS-HDR. Photo credit to Gawie le Roux

A rather strange helicopter that was based at the airport was Mike Stolarchic's Silvercraft SH-4 ZS-HDR. As you can see from the photo, it was not going to win any beauty competitions. It flew well enough, but was really noisy. It was a three-seater, but I never saw it fly more than two up. At some stage the fuselage got damaged, I don't know how and it was replaced with another one. The then DCA were not happy with this as the serial number changed, but Mike didn't advise them and complete the necessary paperwork. They grounded the aircraft and Mike took it away to his plot. I never saw the aircraft again.

Jan Fokkens Holdings Baron ZS-JFH

As I said before, there were numerous company aircraft based on the airfield and one of these was Baron ZS-JFH which belonged to Jan Fokkens Holdings and was flown by Jan Fokkens himself. He was a Hollander with a very heavy Dutch accent and a very lively sense of humour. We got on well. He was an avid parachute enthusiast and It was such a shock to find out that he'd been killed when his chute failed to open. The aircraft is still around.

Dr. Bird's Mooney ZS-CBD

One of our regular weekend flyers was Dr. Bird, who would fly his Mooney ZS-CBD to his game farm in the Timbavati area of the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) every weekend, weather permitting. Although we didn't know it at the time, he was one of the people instrumental in getting the National Parks Board to adopt the open boundary policy that they have now and that has been so very successful in the world of wild life.

ESCOM's very first Aero Commanders AC690 ZS-JRC

Last month I had tremendous response from the mention of the Escom Aero Commanders, but I must admit that I forgot about their very first AC690 ZS-JRC. This was the favourite aircraft if their chief pilot Tony Clegg and I flew with him on numerous occasions when he was doing night flying. I remember one night when we were in ZS-JRC in the circuit and there was an Avex Tomahawk in the circuit with us. Naturally with the speed difference, we caught up with him rapidly and turned final for Runway 35 with him only marginally ahead of us. We executed a missed approach and continued low level to the right of the runway, overflying a good friend's plot in the process. She reckoned her chickens never laid another egg; they got such a fright.

The Halfway House Volunteer Fire Brigade Chev Fire Truck

Escom expanded the large hangar on the north side of the airfield and took over the offices of 41 Sqn SAAF who had moved to Zwartkops in May 1973. I never got to deal with the SAAF guys as they'd left before I started working there. I'd would have liked to have worked with the Cessna 185s they had. Anyway, one Saturday morning I was driving into work when I noticed a veld fire right next to the Escom office building. I rushed round, got the fire truck, and went to the scene. The fire was very close to the building. This was not a good scene at all and the fire was too big for me to handle beating it out by myself - there were canvas beaters in the truck. I decided to use the fire extinguishers of the fire truck to kill the flames. This worked very well and then I realised that we wouldn't have any firefighting capability until the extinguishers could be refilled. I had just joined the Halfway House Volunteer Fire Brigade the week before and got them to bring their Chev Fire Truck to the airfield. This solved the problem for the weekend until the extinguishers could be refilled on Monday morning. A suitably large donation was made to them for their services.

Grinaker Construction's Aero Commander 680 ZS-GAL

Grinaker Construction had another Aero Commander, 680 ZS-GAL, and I have battled to get a photo of her. Finally, I have found one. I remember the first time I few in her with Ronnie Nash, Grinair's chief pilot, and that I was really impressed with her performance. One thing that I really liked was, being a high wing, the main undercarriage was visible from the cockpit so checking the gear down and locked was easy. ZS-GAL had polished aluminium spinners, so the nose wheel was also visible as a reflection in the spinner. I remember a young member of the Grinaker family visiting me in the tower often. This was Kevin Grinaker, but sadly the dreaded Covid-19 got him on 14 Feb 2021.

What really got this series of articles started was when Willie and I had a conversation about the Spitfire that Larry Barnett owned. As I said in the article about my time at Rand, I got involved in the rebuild when the aircraft was still in Larry's garage in Observatory and I got to actually see her initial test flight out of Atlas Aircraft Corp, where her final assembly had taken place.

Larry Barnett's cousin Alan Lurie used to fly the aircraft quite regularly and you can imagine the excitement when I got a call from "Spitfire 9" for landing instructions. He asked specifically if he could land on Runway 17 as it was uphill and he didn't want to hammer the brakes. This was absolutely no problem. What a sight to see a Spitfire landing and taxying past. Goosebumps don't describe the feeling. Later that same week, Alan brought her back again and we organised an air-to-air photo session using Jimmy Popham's Cessna 206 ZS-EDG with the rear doors removed. This was the first time I'd ever tried this kind of photography and I was a little apprehensive to say the least.

With Jimmy flying the 206 and Alan the Spitfire, we formatted just north of Grand Central and flew towards Hartebeespoort Dam. Flying was smooth and I think I got some beautiful colour shots, but unfortunately when I went to change film in my camera, I fumbled the film roll and it disappeared out the door and into space. I loaded a slide film into the camera and carried on filming until I ran out of that film (they only had 36 shots) and changed film again but to black & white, this time being careful not to lose the slide film.

On returning to GC myself and a gentleman Steve de Reuck rushed off to his house to develop the B&W film. I also handed the slides in for developing and got them back a week later. I was thrilled with the results and showed them to anybody who wanted to see them.

I later lent my slides to Alan Lurie for a talk that he was giving and unfortunately, he never returned them and I couldn't trace them after his death. The B&W shots got badly damaged in a flood that I had at my house some years ago and the two in this article are ones that I gleaned off the internet. They are my photos.

Placo's Cherokee ZS-JGD

Alan Lurie used to instruct on a freelance basis for Placo Grand Central and one day when he'd been very busy flying various aircraft. His last flight for the day was in Cherokee ZS-JGD. The aircraft just happened to be parked right outside the tower, so I saw him and the student get in. This aircraft didn't have a sticker on the panel with the registration written on it as it had fallen off and not been replaced. Alan started the aircraft and then called "Grand Central this is ………….(silence)" "What is the bloody registration of this aircraft" He couldn't remember it. I told him what it was and he wrote it down. That sticker was replaced the very next day.

S.M. Goldstein Construction's Cessna 310 ZS-JON and Bell 206B

S.M. Goldstein Construction had a Cessna 310 ZS-JON which they based, for a very short while, at Grand Central. Their pilot was Allen Mc Dermott and we became good friends. His wife Julie was an excellent cook. Allen flew all over the country to where Goldstein had contracts. The company then bought a Bell 206B ZS-HIA and the 310 was sold. This chopper was very active and because they could get into contract areas directly, they flew a lot. One thing Mr Goldstein insisted on was that Allen pick up his son from boarding school in Heidelberg every Friday. He would land on the rugby field. I doubt if this would be allowed these days without having to go through a lot of paperwork. Allen and Julie were always keen on sailing and when Goldstein sold the helicopter some years later, they moved to East London and bought a 64ft ferro-cement yacht called Kalima. Eventually they moved up to Durban and lived on the yacht for some time. I took both my daughters to visit them and sail with them. The last I heard of them they'd sailed from Durban to New Zealand and were planning a trip around Cape Horn the wrong way and back to South Africa. I don't know if they ever completed that trip.

Next time we'll talk about Airwolf.

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