Ray Watts - My ATC memories (Part 3g)

By Ray Watts


In February 1982 Looki Vreyenhoek of Henlook Finance imported a Bell 222B. This was the second Bell 222 to be imported so it was not a very well-known aircraft. At this time there was a very popular TV program called Air Wolf being broadcast in this country and Looki had his machine modified to represent the Bell 222 flown in the TV show. This aircraft was based at Looki's offices in Wynberg (Sandton) so he used to pop across to Grand Central quite regularly for fuel. As can be seen from the picture, she was fitted with mock-up machine guns and rocket launchers. She was sponsored by Checkers Supermarkets and flew regularly to various stores around the country doing promotions and was very popular with the kids (and their parents).

I remember at the 1983 EAA gathering at Margate that Looki flew her along the valley west of the airfield but out of sight of the crowd and to the sound of the theme tune to Air Wolf came up over the ridge and straight at the crowd - it was quite spectacular and the kids (and me as the announcer) thoroughly enjoyed it. Once these promotions were over, Looki sold the aircraft on and eventually she left South Africa for the USA as N222LB on 27 September 1989. She went through various owners all over the world and ended up in Ghana. She is back in South Africa as a spares source for various Bell 222's that are operating here.

One of my favourite people on the airport was Roger Lea's secretary Joanne Burger - she was a real sweetheart. She eventually married Dave Hill, a pilot, and they emigrated to the UK. They had one son and eventually split up. Joanne came back to South Africa with her son but unfortunately didn't return to Grand Central.

Dr. Peter Foox was one of the hangar tenants and he owned a very rare version of the Piper J3 Cub. This was a clip-wing cub and as one can see from the photo, its wings are considerably shorter than the normal Cub wings. The wingspan is reduced by about 40 inches and this is removed from the wing root rather than the wing tip. Most of the clip wing Cubs in the USA are fitted with 85hp motors rather than the 65hp of the normal J3 Cub. ZS-UUP had the 85hp engine and she certainly performed better than the other Cubs that were around. She was also, unlike other Cubs, flown solo from the front seat. This little gem was unfortunately written off a few years ago.

Peter's wife Carol was a real character who had a delightfully wicked sense of humour and a decided Sandton Kugel accent. Her greeting of "Hello Howzit" could be heard from all corners of the club house.

Dr Foox and family emigrated to the USA and as far as I know still live in Florida.

Back in 1976 there was a concerted effort to clear Hartebeespoort Dam of Water Hyacinth, or as locally known, Kariba Weed. A Bell 206 helicopter was employed to do this job. As far as I remember, the chopper was operating out of Rand and off a pontoon on the dam. Anyway, one of our school aircraft was operating over the HB area when he saw the helicopter fall into the dam. I wasn't sure who to phone to report this, so contacted the Halfway House police who gave me a number for the police in that area and I phoned and reported the accident to them. It turned out that although the helicopter was written off, nobody was injured, thank goodness.

Soon after I joined Grand Central, Roger decided to plant Pine trees all along the entrance road and he proceeded to buy two hundred young saplings. These were planted on both sides of the entrance road from the Old Pretoria Rd all the way up to the airport buildings. This was in early 1976 and some of those trees are still standing including the one I planted which is the first one on the left as you turn into the entrance road - I'm kinda proud that it's still standing as a lot of the others have died or succumbed to veld fires.

This helicopter was one of the first, if not the first Bell Long Ranger, in the country and she was flown by an ex SAAF pilot, Francois Albers. He could make this machine do all sorts of things including his favourite, a pull up from level flight to a very high nose attitude and then push the nose forward so that momentary negative G was felt by the pax. I sent a friend of mine Gawie le Roux up with him one day and he came back looking a sort of green around the gills - I don't think he's flown in a helicopter since. Francois was also one of the pilots that flew into the Ellis Park stadium to rescue people who got trapped there by a stampede. He finished his career as a medivac helicopter pilot and is, I believe, now retired and living in Pretoria. He was one of the nicest guys to know.

During The 1970s the Aero Commander aircraft became very popular and quite a few were imported. One of these was ZS-JRG, a AC500 Shrike Commander. This one belonged to a farmer who had a series of farms in the Northern Transvaal where he grew Peppadews for the export market. For the life of me I can't remember his name, but he based his aircraft at GC and used to commute almost daily from there to his various farms. He invited me to go along with him one Saturday and I took my Mom and sister Tracy along for the ride. When we got to the farm, it turned out that he'd forgotten to advise the farm manager that he had guests and there was only the bakkie available to get us from the strip to the farm house. My Mom, sister and I piled into the back of the bakkie and off we went. The road was rough and the driver was driving fast. We were almost thrown out of the bakkie. The visit was really interesting and come late afternoon it was time to go home with the bakkie driver taking it a bit slower this time. We were airborne and arrived at GC just as the sun went down. Unfortunately, the guy who was in the tower had gone home and forgotten to switch on the runway lights. It was a case of land using the last of the twilight or divert to Lanseria where none of us had any transport available. The decision was made to land at GC and we made it safely. I had a few words to say to the person who'd forgotten the lights I can tell you.

Another of the club members was Harry Donde, who owned a very nice Cessna 182 ZS-FPS. Harry owned a Hi-Fi and electronics shop in the centre of Johannesburg and equipped the club house with its new sophisticated sound system which really worked well for dances and parties. He was an extremely careful pilot and was somebody I'd let my family fly with anytime. He would fly a regular cross-country trip once a month, no particular route or whatever took his fancy, but always meticulously planned. On the other weekends one could find him in the circuit or in the GF. He passionately believed in staying current at all times. I remember once, when he was doing a renewal, the instructor dumped the flaps on landing which caused the aircraft to sit down hard - Harry was not happy and in the club house proceeded to give the instructor a piece of his mind, but only after his renewal had been signed out. Harry became ill with the dreaded cancer which eventually took him and the aircraft was sold in Rhodesia as VP-WIX in 1979.

As I mentioned in a previous article, Rennies Air was taken over by Capital Air and I have battled to find a picture of an aircraft in their colours. Thanks to Alan Taylor at the SAAF Museum, I have managed to find a picture of the same aircraft in both Rennies colours and Capital Air colours. This is quite a find. I believe ZS-RAT, which by the way stood for Rennies Air Transvaal, was sold off privately when Capital Air folded and was exported to Namibia as V5-RAT IN 1990.

During the time I was at GC, there was no car hire on the airfield. Late one evening a Cessna, 337 ZS-APL which belonged to Appletizer, landed after a long trip and parked on the apron. The pilot came over to the tower and asked where they could hire a car to take them to the Halfway House Hotel. Of course, they couldn't and it was quite a walk from the airfield to the hotel, about 2km if not more. This presented a problem as two of the pax were quite elderly. The solution was that I would give them a lift and pick them up again in the morning for their onward trip. Problem was, there were five of them plus baggage and me. Somehow, we managed to squeeze everybody into my Beetle but there was no room for any luggage. It was decided that they'd take just their toiletries and pyjamas with them and just change clothes at the airport the next morning for their onward trip to Grabouw. This wasn't the first time I'd acted as a taxi, but it certainly was the fullest my Beetle had ever been.

This wasn't a regular thing, but I did trips to Jan Smuts as well for people who landed at GC and who didn't want to fly into Jan Smuts. Once a gentleman got very annoyed with me when I told him what the trip to JS would cost as I did charge for those trips. He stormed off and tried to call a taxi from Lyttleton. I don't know what arrangements he made and to be quite honest, I couldn't have cared less.

There were two other landing strips near Grand Central and some of the pilots may well remember them.

To the north of Grand Central there was a strip on White Hills Farm which belonged to Tommy Ellis. This was a shortish grass strip, but perfectly adequate for the EAA type aircraft and the smaller trainers. Eric de Chalain had his Turbulent based there and he also lived there. Debby and I lived there for quite some time in a very nice cottage. I actually taught Debby to drive on that strip - my instruction must have been OK because she passed her test at the first attempt.

Debby and I decided, one day, to host an EAA 322 breakfast flying at White Hills and raise money for the Halfway House Volunteer Fire Brigade. We didn't realise what we were letting ourselves in for. I have never fried so many eggs in my life. We'd organised to borrow twenty plastic chairs from our church, thinking that this would be enough - guess again (hee hee). I forget now how much money we actually raised, but it was quite a substantial amount. There were at least six aircraft there and a number of the folks drove in. That was quite some morning.

The other strip was one that Bill Keil laid out at Randtjiesfontein, which is on the north east side of Grand Central. This was called the Four Canaries. I think Bill intended to move 322 there because the costs of staying at GC were increasing. However, this idea never really took hold and the strip was abandoned.

I have mentioned the "Witch's Hut" before - This was Jeanette's cottage. Regrettably Jeanette was attacked in her home one Sunday night and she changed after this - she became very bitter and her attitude changed towards everybody. It took a long time for her to recover her attitude.

As I think more and more about my time there, the more the memories come back. I hope you're enjoying them.

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