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Monday, April 18, 2016

In the Back of a Yak - A journalist's view

Brad pulling some G's with Paulo and back on terra firma, Pictures: Paul Godwin

This story was published in the Witness Newspaper last week by Brad Morgan who had the good fortune of winning the lucky draw prize of a flip around Durban in a Yak at the Sky Grand Prix of Aerobatics media launch.
I found it to be an excellent read and felt duty bound to reproduce his illuminating tale on this blog, with kind permission from the author. 

Last week I attended the media launch for the Sky Grand Prix of Aerobatics at Greyville in Durban. The organisers, after their presentations, conducted a lucky draw, with two recipients set to be taken up for a flight in an aerobatics aeroplane. I didn’t want to be one of them, but mine was the first name drawn.

I should explain myself. I get sea sick and I have two slipped discs in my neck. I thought those two things would not be a good combination for a flip in an aerobatics machine. But one cannot turn down such opportunities, so on Saturday afternoon I made my way to Virginia Airport for a flight into the unknown.

When I saw two Yak 52s from the Ecko Unlimited Yak Display Team there, I was a little comforted. And when the pilots, Paulo Martins and Roger Deare, took off on seemingly innocuous flights with others up the coast to the Durban harbour and then down the coast to Umhlanga my heart beat easier.

So up we went, with Paulo, an SAA Express pilot, flying me. Roger and his passenger followed us up, always just off our left wing and a short distance behind, in formation. We flew low along the coast, probably never higher than 500 feet. Durban is beautiful from up there: the beaches, the Durban Country Club and the Virginia Airport, which we buzzed over at just above treetop height before pulling up and banking to the right.

Paulo warned me we would be pulling a few Gs. A warning is good, but the last time I experienced Gs was probably back in the eighties on a loop-the-loop roller-coaster at Gold Reef City. When my face started doing strange contortions and my head began to squeeze tight, I broke into a clammy sweat. That was three-and-a-half to four Gs, Paulo told me.

It was a good experience, and many thanks to the organisers of the Sky Grand Prix of Aerobatics for the treat.

Now, I have covered many different sports in 20 years of doing so on radio, the internet and in newspapers, but I have never covered aerobatics. I have seen a bit on TV, watched the Red Bull Air Races (which are quite different), but my knowledge is severely lacking. That’s why I am really excited about the competition coming to Greyville on May 28.

Almost everything we cover is on the ground, but aerobatics is up in the air, where man has long dreamed of flying with the birds, and aerobatic pilots are the closest beings we have with the ability to match flying creatures. They may do even “crazier” things. For one thing, I learnt on Saturday that those top aerobatics pilots fly without helmets or pressurised suits to deal with the G forces, and they pull up to nine or 10 Gs in competition! That’s insane.

Paolo explained to me that one can be fit, but the pilots have to train to be “G-fit” because of the strain that it puts on the body. And then, under those pressures, they have to attempt to perform set sequences perfectly.

There will be two of them during the competition. The first has been revealed to the contestants already, so they can practice the moves right up until May 28. The second they will learn the day before they have do fly that sequence. At the beginning of each run, their score will be a perfect 10, but for things like deviating five degrees off the required path they will lose points.

The competition will be conducted in 3-D – all three dimensions count in determining the accuracy of a sequence. Then, to top it all off, the freestyle will produce ridiculous manoeuvres that thankfully no passengers will ever experience.

The organisers have permission to fly low over Greyville, which will serve as the platform for the competition, in front of what is expected to be a packed crowd. An American commentator will, appropriately at Greyville, team up with former champion jockey Kevin Shea, who is apparently a big fan of the sport, to help the spectators understand what they are seeing.

Will it be worth getting along to the event? Most definitely, if you want to see the action, because most of it will happen just above the race course. People in places like the Berea will only see the planes as they climb out of the competition area in preparation for another run, or to return to Virginia Airport after completing a sequence. And anyone planning on parking on First Avenue or closer will be moved along by the Police.

I’m excited. In this job one can become a little jaded covering the same things over and over, but experiencing a new sport, learning from scratch about it, meeting the people whose passion it is, is one of the perks of doing what I do. And with some of the world’s best pilots and the best of South Africa in action, I predict a great day out for the family. It’s outdoors. And it will, do doubt, produce a lot of oohs and aahs, and memories to share with your loved ones.

 Story first published in The Witness 8 April 2014 / South Africa

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