Charlie's Story

Central Flying School Dunnottar

by Charlie Marais

Maybe CFS Dunnottar needs a little more details revealed.  The first few weeks at Dunnies, as we called the place, things were tuff.  We were pupes, short for pupil pilot and there were very few rules, well, if there were actually any the instructors were to follow, we certainly did not know of them.  We on the other hand was young, stupid, invulnerable and brave.  We obviously had many rules and normal screaming, shouting and physical punishment sorted the rules out quickly.  Soon we learned that when the instructor shouted AGABAKEN, we had to run like hell to the beacon about 500 meters away from the crew rooms and training cubicles.  When tuned to this frequency a ladies voice would tell you the direction to steer to get back to the facility. This omni-directional voice assistant was commonly referred to as the "whore in the box", and she needed to see us regularly for any good or invalid or even no reason at all.

We stood inspection every morning, then had physical training.  Just to make us tough we had to swim every morning in the schools swimming pool 05h00 in the mornings when temperatures were in the minus degrees.  I managed to successfully get around that one by hiding in the showers, where I used to wet my hair and then perform outside between the 75 of us that started the course as if the water just got to me.  It worked every morning and in the few weeks this was the fad of the PT instructor, I only swan once, and that was once too many.  I love swimming, but cold water never was and probably will never be one of my favourites.

The rest of the days were spent drilling, ground school and flying either in the morning or afternoon.  The instructors would shout from their crew room window and we would then ran like hell to the window and stamped our feet and salute like real soldiers.  After some verbal abuse we would either be running or briefed or both.  This was tough, but soon you learn to survive under these circumstances and actually thriving as we became very innovative and fit.

Most weekends we were kept in as we were found guilty of some crime we probably did not commit, but that was irrelevant.  We then wrote exams on Saturday mornings and the rest of the day we spent studying, lying on the bed and in the evenings we awolled.  This absence without leave was punishable by various degrees of which some stopped short of death, but we were adamant to have a social life and so I found myself at Neil Smit's house most evenings as they lived in Johannesburg.    We were never caught, others were and some actually were kicked off the course. 

Flying the Harvard was another story.  My first encounter with this beast, that is what she looked like to me, was when I was taught the pre-flight and start procedures.  For weeks we studied the procedures and wrote exams called a Quiz.  The pass mark was 90% and that we all obtained before the first encounter.  I can still recall that when the prop turned for the first time, my head came to a grinding halt.  I actually did not know what to do, or not do, but the shouting of my instructor prompted me to do something, if I only knew what.  Well, he continued shouting and I continued being stupid.  He gave up first.

But as with most things the next encounter was less intimating and I actually could follow what had to be done.  Then came the first familiarisation sortie.  Actually quite a mind boggling experience as the amount of procedures and all the protocols to follow made it totally overwhelming.  Pre-flight inspection, pre-start procedures, pre-taxi procedures, radio procedures for taxi instructions, taxi procedures, pre-take-off procedures, take-off abort procedures, more radio work, then the taker off followed by the of after take-off procedures, flying to the general flying area procedures and then eventually we got out there to just fly.  By now, after 30 minutes on the ground and 10 minutes in the air it felt like my brain is about to give up.  Many times it did, but the instructor always had the knack of restarting my brain with some well rehearsed verbal and mental interjection.  Being nice to pupes were not on the agenda those days.

After the demonstration of straight and level flying and all the various controls and its effects, came the further effect of the rudder.  The instructor would trim the aircraft for straight and level and then give an excessive rudder input, and in our case to the left. This made the aircraft yaw quite sharply to the left and it resulted in the aircraft immediately starting to roll to the left as well.  The instructor would not correct for this and leave the aircraft for me to experience to end result of this manoeuvre.  Well, then the speed starts building up as the aircrafts nose attitude falls below the horizon, the roll increase and the end result is the death spiral.  The speed now rapidly increasing, rolling and yawing and that was when my breakfast separated from my body.  Totally involuntary and with no respect for the mouth mask we were wearing.  Inside the mask was the mike for the intercom and radio system, but by now covered in a pretty sour substance called vomit.  Taking the mask off quickly made the vomit spill into the front cockpit and with the airflow inside the cockpit carried it to the rear where the instructor was by now speechless as he was trying not to vomit himself.

Straight back to the airfield and by now the instructor found his voice again and I was sure the death penalty would be merciful on my body and mind for this transgression.  I was not so lucky.  I had to live and face the music which he skilfully directed and if nothing else, it made me more fit and tough.  I was going to survive.  Being too scared to get sick again, I never allowed vomit to enter the cockpit again, once or twice I used a bag, but then my body became used to this new environment and I could concentrate on lying.

My first solo test was a disaster.  My instructor thought I was ready, I thought I will just do what they say and my testing officer thought I was a danger to mankind.  There was no time to cry.  The next day I flew the required two dual training sorties following such a failure and the day after I was subjected to the wash solo check.  The word wash was used to describe when someone was taken out of the system and posted back to wherever they had work for you.  But I passed and flew my first solo with a red solo-sock tied to the back wheel of the Harvard.  Everyone could see this red sock and everyone then kept out of your way.  I can still remember that I could not remember, but all went well as I was informed by everyone else.  After the sortie I can remember that I was dumped into the solo pit, which was a mud pit full of water, mud and, well who cares, this was my moment and this was the ceremony to prove that I was solo and alive and that my future could possibly take shape from here.

Then eventually, after doing the consolidation periods in the circuit it was time to be kicked out the nest.  After I did my solo spin overheads Union Carriage, the locomotive manufacture just South of the airfield, I was off to the general flying are for some fun.  I must say that the solo spin was quite intimidating.  You climb up the 10500 feet overhead the factory and then under surveillance from your instructor in the control tower and every eye in the control tower focused on you, you have to enter a spin, keep it in for two to three turns and then recover.  If you recovered, you were fit to continue solo flying in the GF area.  If not, you died, then obviously no solo privileges in the GF area after that.  To my best knowledge nobody died.  Some withdrew out of fear and was then put off course.

Off to the GF I went and found a nice straight road outside Devon where the surveillance radar was situated.  A loop was the first thing I wanted to do and soon I climbed and prepared the aircraft as I was taught.  After the inspection turn I entered into the wing-over to establish the aircraft into the dive.  Aligned with the road and wings level I started the loop at 170 knots and pitched up.  Close to the vertical I threw my head back to pick up the horizon, by now upside down and called the second horizon.  As I went through the top part of the loop I noticed that the speed was too low and for some unknown reason I must have pulled slightly harder on the control stick.  The Harvard flicked and as that happened I went into survival mode.  This I reasoned must be an un-commanded spin, so I was taught when this happened you should put it properly into a spin, do at least one turn in the spin and then recover.  With the adrenalin pumping I forced the left yaw pedal in completely to the stop and pulled the control stick back centrally into my stomach.  The Harvard flicked again and now entered a spin to the left.  One turn and then full opposite rudder, two, three and check, moving the control stick towards the neutral position.  By now the Harvard started winding up.  The spin got faster, my heart raced and I knew that she would recover soon.  Then all of a sudden the spin stopped and immediately I centralised the rudders to prevent another spin entry, rolled the wings level to the closest horizon and eased her out of the dive, 1000 feet above the ground.  This was way lower than I ever recovered and with my legs starting to shake as the excessive adrenalin turned into poison.  No I did not crap myself literally, but mentally I was severely challenged.  I flew straight back to the airfield, landed and eventually ended up in our crew room in the corner talking to myself.   My first solo was quite a memory and the lessons learned here would come in handy as my career slowly edged forward, constantly reminding me that in this game it could be game over in the blink of an eye.

The rest of my flight training at Dunnies went relatively well and having passed all the examinations and flight tests, with 93 hours under the belt, it was time for the next phase.  Military Academy at Saldanha, here I come!