Emptying My Bag of Luck

News Category : Student Help & Advice

News Tag : Student Help & Advice

11th, July 2022

Emptying My Bag of Luck in ZS-Echo Lima November

Antonie Gouws

There is a saying the older, wiser pilots at the flying club used to tell me: “You start your career with a full bag of luck & an empty bag of experience, try not to run out of luck before you fill up your bag of experience!” it’s one of the sayings that you hear the old boys at the flying club mutter between briefings or whilst at the bar, but you never truly appreciate it until you have filled up your rather empty bag with some (often frightful) experience.

I started my career in aviation in the South African Air Force, after completing my flight training I made the decision to leave the SAAF and complete my Commercial Pilots License and later my instructor’s rating. I had all the confidence given to me through my Air Force training & I had just completed my CPL – this is where our story starts.

Having recently been signed off on a Cherokee, I attacked my “Bag of luck” in a manner not dissimilar to how Agustus Gloob would a chocolate fountain. I immediatly conducted a cross country flight across the South African Republic in a plane I had less than 2 hours of experience on, over a weekend where the snow fell in November (this is a strange occurrence  because it was summer in Africa) with a relatively new (and first) wife.  

On paper it was simple. Fly from Secunda to Margate and then keep the blue (ocean) on the left all the way from Margate to Plettenbergbay. There is one somewhat stress inducing part on this journey and that would be to cross the Drakensberg (dragon) Mountains East of Lesotho. Slightly complicated, but not overly so, my ancestors had done it bare-foot in an oxen wagon, armed with only a slow firing rifle. In a modern (1970s) Piper Cherokee armed with a constantly updating GPS (and backup tablet), I endeavored to emulate those heroes of the Groot Trek. It was to be a great adventure where we would meet up with the parents in Plet for the long weekend before flying back to the home base in Secunda!

You start your career with a full bag of luck & an empty bag of experience,

Planned Route

As I commenced the preflight inspection on my modern ox-wagon, I realised that the left tyre was somewhat deflated. No problem, the AMO across the taxiway will fix the tyre in no time at all (surely). Three hours later, and far behind schedule, the Missus and I finally take flight.  We climb to FL 115 which was interestingly colder than expected,at a brisk negative 5 degrees. Passing Lesotho we see the snowcapped mountains & I remember smiling sheepishly at the Missus as I gave her a  double lift of my eyebrows, she giggled and I thought to myself, “this is the life”.

For thoroughness’s sake, I shall mention that the engine is running perfectly. No problems for the reliable Cherokee who is thoroughly enjoying the cold, dense air. On the way down to Margate, and with the mighty drankensburg mountain range looming ahead I start to notice a buildup of developing cumulus clouds, and only then do I realise that I had never checked the updated weather after the 3hr tyre delay.

Just as the build up intensifies over the mountains, & nervousness starts to creep in, I spot a nice gap and punch through the clouds, boom, we are through them, the danger is behind us & soon we are on a final approach to Margate. I have already used up some luck and added some experience to the other bag.

There were some strong crosswinds, but I nail the landing. I turn my head to the right and suddenly the wife is giving me a wolfish smile. Now I blush. Groot trek done, it is time to keep the blue on the left!

My training history will soon become relevant, and as such, getting a basic understanding of my background will be good for reference. I was trained in the Air Force, on a complex turbine aircraft trainer, in a restricted airspace, with full ground crew support and in a highly controlled environment. I recieved excellent training in general flying,  aerobatics, navigation, formation and instrument flying.

However my piston engine management & knowledge was non existant. Total time in piston engine aircraft at this point in my career is around 8 hours. I had a total time of 190 hours. This makes me an awkward pilot, I know how to fly IFR, my general flying skills are excellent and heck, I was even a half decent aerobatics pilot. I was thus way “too good” of a pilot for my young flight instructors to insult by trying teaching me about engine management or general flying into far away airports around the country, about which I know nothing. There is a lesson in there, and once again I use up some luck.

Continuing with the tale, after landing at Margate, I find that I am lucky that there is only one taxiway, no chance of getting lost at this airfield. I pull up to the bowser, refuel and get ready to depart once more. The plan: A 500ft AGL flight from Margate to Plettenberg Bay. Or at least no higher than 1500ft. Drawing from my bag of experience I even check the updated weather this time, and it looks like a nice headwind all the way to plet. No worries, I have full tanks and low level flying is nothing new to me. I close the doors and we are airborne within 90 seconds from start up.

Experienced pilots should be thinking, “that sounds a bit too quick”, and they are correct. I am emptying my luck bag quicker than I should.

I do no run-ups, water down the checks, no safety briefing. I lean the plane on a fuel flow as advised by the owner – I never check CHT’s, EGT’s or oil temp (correction, my wife was watching the oil temp) and off we go.

We fly low-level past the Wildekus (Wild Coast), it is wild and windy and wonderful. Some excellent photos and we exchange a sufficient amount of “ooh’s”, and “aahh’s” as we admire the view. A few moments later and I realise that I have no maps, only a rapidly dying Ipad which was loaned to me last minute by a friendly instructor and the dashboard GPS (absolutely no good for VFR really).  I am also not really sure how the GPS works either or where we are, but it is fun and beautiful and the wife and I keep grinning at each other like sheep in the field while the hungry wolf eyes out a chop!

The flight is amazing, but the rapidly disappearing sun is starting to worry me. We should be very close to East London by now, but the GPS is still showing a respectable cricket score of miles to fly. Hmm. I had hoped to just miss the big airports. I have no info for East London airport with me, but I manage to find the correct frequency on the tablet. I can fly at night, but not legally as I am not night rated (There is strange disconnect between the military night rating and the SACAA views on whether I should be flying at night).

Being a diligent and safety orientated pilot I opt to play it safe. We have friends in East London so will spend the night with them. I call up approach & they clear me in via a specific VFR route which I have never heard of. I make it up as I go (The only reason I get away with it is thanks to the big blue ocean I keep on my left). “ELN, report Hemingsway mall” – the ATC controller is firm but sounds friendly. I have never been to East London, I don’t know Hemingsway Mall. Quick wife! Google it! The signal is marginal, but at least the blue dot showing our position is there. No luck, ok, time to get help:

“Approach, ELN not familiar with the area. What am I looking for”

“A big building with a blue roof in your 11 o’clock, report final runway 06”.

Still firm, but now somewhat less friendly. Google finds it about the same time I see it. We route for the mall, and soon I land beautifully on RWY 06. What a landing! What a man! What a pilot! What now and where do I taxi to?

The Next morning after a quick refuel, we are off once again, keep the blue on left, stay below 1500ft.

Such a quite a piece of coast land – no houses, or people. Ah, the national park, truly wonderful! I need to be at least 2500ft above the highest point, else a potential 5 million Rand fine or 3 years in prison. Thinking of my finances I decided that should I be charged, I will opt for prison, but opting to keep a clean criminal record I climb to 2500ft.  I further distance myself from any association with poaching and fly as far out to sea as I possibly can, with no idea what airspace is above me or whether I am indeed in gliding range. I have mentioned before that the engine was running beautifully, and I had no doubts as to this particular engines’ reliability (in future I might discuss the different personalities one encounters in engines – but for now I shall not digress)

At Port Elizabeth, I knew about the VFR routing, as I had decided to study that before departing Secunda – I even have the routes printed out. Other than flying straight through the circuit at Progress, I get past with minimum drain on the luck bag, and add a fair bit to the bag of experience.

On a side thought, my wife saw some wind turbines on our 12 o’clock around that area. She trustingly asks me whether we will encounter any turbulence, since we were downwind of the rotating blades. I had studied engineering and confidently explain to her that there is no fear of the blades affecting the airflow at about the same moment as we hit the first bump. Who could have known?

We arrive at Plettenbergbay. There was a little bit of drama with CemAir taxying onto the runway with me on a 3 mile final, but we land safely. In the next few moments you will think of me as irresponsible so I need to defend myself by bullet pointing a few of the thoughts that I am assailed with:

  • I plan to take the family for a quick flight, but they are not yet at the airfield.
  • The refueller looks at me expectantly.
  • I desperately have to take a leak
  • The wife had given me a wolfish grin yesterday, bolstering my confidence, but now too many things were happening at once.

Ok, “fill up” I nod at the refueller – I instantly know that is a bad decision, as I want to load 4 people into the  plane. I start walking to the terminal to relieve the building pressure on my bladder, but at that point the family arrive and I need to display a license to get everyone past security. I now desperately need a toilet, but it is such a struggle to get there, I might as well get the family flight done with first.

There are only two headsets in the plane though but that will have to do – Everyone just hop in! No briefing, no explanation, no run up, no good plan, the only plan is, fly up and down the coast and land to admiration and awe…

With Murphy looking down on me we accelerate down the runway & the door pops open, I never checked that it was properly latched.

“focus on the take-off, run through all the checks, join the circuit on a downwind, and land back, close the door, and take off again”.

That would be the correct actions to follow. I, on the other hand, with about a 100ft between myself and the ground, chose to yank at the door, completely letting go of the controls. I frighten the hell out of my passengers – two of whom start to cry. The door does not close, but neither is it open a great deal. I decide to fly the scenic flight with the hope that the passengers enjoy it. They did not.

We land back after the flight, I finally get to the bathroom crossed legged, we then tie the plane down and we are off to the hotel. Two of my passengers scared and one well and truly scarred for life.

The visit was fun though and seeing the family was great.

On the way back, I plan an inland routing which is hours of flying across vast empty space. It is warm, and the engine is running hot. I am tired, and no longer in a state of mind where I am overly caring. I just want to get back to the hangar and hand back this plane.

One last happening for educational value – my wife drank two cups of coffee before our flight back to Secunda, I never thought to warn her against such behavior. The first leg of our flight was 3.5hrs. I don’t  know how she managed, or why she puts up with me but I had to empty three quarters of a bottle after we landed in Bloemfontein, not a pleasant experience for any passanger to have to face.

Thus, after three days and close to 18 hours of flying we were safely back in Secunda again. I was lucky to not have anything go really wrong, and I reflected for a significant time on this trip. Did I do right by taking the risks I did? Would better planning have benefited the experience bag more? Can you truly fill the experience bag without ever testing the limits of your luck bag? I can’t answer these questions but I can say in the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, I learned invaluable lessons and I lived to tell the tale. Something about that just rings right when talking aviation.

With all that being said, aviation is serious business. Its called a “luck” bag for a very good reason. One of my colleagues, a 22 year old, had his luck bag run out tragically one day on a routine & easy flight. So to wrap up, I do consider myself lucky to have survived this trip. I could have easily mitigated a lot of risk by applying the principles taught to me by my instructors. I strongly recommend that you fly into unknown airspaces, but, do it safely, conduct proper planning & stick to what you have been taught without taking shortcuts.

No amount of humorous experience can mitigate the unnecessary loss of a single life. Fly safe

About the Author:

Antonie Gouws

SkyLearner TKI
Based: Sydney, Australia

Antonie is an ex South African Air Force Pilot, SACAA CPL & Instructor, CASA CPL, based in Sydney, Australia.