As part of its ongoing commitment to pilot development, NAC Helicopters at Grand Central hosted a Mountain Flying Camp in the Drakensberg – in the middle of winter.
The 2018 mountain flying camp kicked off on Friday 27 July at NAC Grand Central with a pilots’ briefing. The route to Cathedral peak was planned around the prohibited areas and nature reserves that should not be overflown. Routing was from Grand Central to the east of Joburg city via the southern corridor to Romeo Delta and then direct to Cathedral Peak. We agreed that we would fly in loose formation – nothing too tight. You don’t want to be continuously looking over your shoulder with other helicopters close nearby. Communications were covered in detail since being on the same frequency with nine other helicopter pilots could prove challenging when determining who is who and where.
Pax briefed, bags stowed and with adventure on the horizon, it was great to see all the machines ready and loaded on the apron. The large bags had been driven up to the camp the day before. Our group of helis was made up of seven B407s, two B206s and an R44. For the two hour flight to the Berg, the Jetties and R44 needed a bit of a head start to arrive at the same time as the B407s, keeping in mind it wasn’t a race (Well okay, maybe just a little).
With a dramatic sunset behind the mountain’s formidable jagged peaks, the excitement for the next day’s flying was tangible. To add to the sense of magic, we were treated to the very special lunar eclipse which could be seen clearly in the clean mountain air, far from city lights. It was a chilly evening in the Berg, so we spent the first night looking for warmth in Harry’s bar and naturally pilots’ stories of adventures, tips and tricks for altitude flying and many jokes were shared around the fireplace.
Saturday morning and nobody wanted to waste any time getting to the helipads. Well-lubricated pilots can be a naughty bunch, however, and the night before some had blockaded the hotel room doors with heavy pot plants. Of course, when asked who did it, everyone pleaded innocence. As soon as the blockaded ones could escape from their rooms, we assembled on the pad – a grassy soccer field which was now a parking lot for helis. Students were assigned to instructors and it was time for the fun to begin.
The training began in earnest. The pilots were taught about high altitude operations: reduced aircraft performance, pinnacle landings, wind and the many other challenges of mountain flying.
At high altitude, LTE [loss of tail rotor effectiveness] is an issue, especially in Jetties and 44s. In the thin air, tail rotors have little to grab onto. The machines become very different – almost a little bit lazy. This type of flying keeps you on your toes and your mind sharp – you’re always having to think about what you’re doing, as the margin for error is reduced at 10,000 feet above sea level. Overall, however, we were impressed by the performance of the machines, especially the 407s. Our flagship 407, RUE, fitted with a VIP kit (Value Improvement Program – providing more power while hot and high with lower fuel burn) manged to hover out of ground effect at 10,000ft with full pax at only 75% torque. It could even climb at 1,000 ft/min with ample power still available.
The Drakensberg has many breath-taking sights, so much time was spent exploring the deep, dramatic valleys and inaccessible peaks that have been sculpted relentlessly by the elements. We marvelled at the sight of caves, waterfalls, frozen rivers, vultures and even herds of wild mountain horses. At the end of the day (and 25 training flights later), we all shared stories of the day’s adventure. In total, more than 56 hours were flown with at least 5,000 litres of Jet A1 used on site. Fuel was provided from the Skeerpoort Verspreiders bowser.
Pictures and words cannot put into perspective the exhilaration of negotiating a peak landing. Flying off the edges of cliffs still gives one a slight feeling of panic, even though you know you are safe. Stepping out of a heli onto of a pinnacle that cannot be reached by road, path or cable way is a unique experience. Has a person ever stood in this spot? It’s a feeling hard to describe.
Almost as impressive as the mountains, are the helis we have the privilege to fly. It brought to mind the amazing versatility and ability of these machines to take you to the most inaccessible locations. The love of flight and the spirit of adventure we experienced, reminded us again why we became pilots.