Flying Stories

Nick van der Merwe
Kalk Bay, South Africa
March 14, 2007

I had to pass two important tests: my annual aviation medical examination and a biennial flight test to maintain the validity of my private pilot's license. The month of August just happens to be when I took these tests in South Africa for the first time, so the renewal comes up in this month in perpetuity.

sketch by Nick Grogan, Cape Times
It is a difficult month for visual flying in the vicinity of my home in Cape Town, with one wet front after another from the South Atlantic passing through to bring our winter rains. The pilot's flight test in South Africa is quite complicated: it includes such maneuvers as spins, which are specifically prohibited for small aircraft in North America. To do the test, or to practice for it, requires clear skies with at least 4000 feet of clearance above ground level, lest a spin should end as a "graveyard spiral". So, I debated with myself: Flying is expensive and can be dangerous. Do you really still want to fly airplanes at the age of 66? The answer is to be found in my flying experiences over forty years.

Growing up in South Africa, I was an avid reader of books about aerial combat in the two world wars, including such adventure stories for boys as the Biggles series, or autobiographical accounts of the Battle of Britain. After reading Spitfire Pilot, by D.M. Crook, or Reach for the Sky, by Douglas Bader, I thought I knew exactly how to do the pre-flight checks and start-up procedures of a Spitfire fighter aircraft. My interest shifted to Sabre jets during the Korean War. South Africa sent a squadron of pilots to Korea, with aircraft supplied by the US Air Force, and their victories (and losses) were widely reported in the newspapers. My boyhood dreams had to do with being a fighter pilot.

With one thing and another (and that's a whole other story), I went to Yale instead. Eight years later, I had a PhD in Archaeology. I started my first teaching job at SUNY-Binghamton in the Fall semester of 1966. My first paycheck went into flying lessons and on January 16, 1967, I passed the flight test for my PPSEL certificate (Private Pilot, Single Engine, Land) in a two-seater Cessna 150 at Cherry Ridge, Pennsylvania. Should classmates wonder about the source of these details, every flight I have ever taken is, of course, recorded in my logbook. These entries can be quite cryptic, such as two items for October 1966, when I had 27 hours of total flying experience (most of them dual instruction with a flight instructor). The two entries record that I flew from END (Endicott, NY) to HVN (New Haven, CT) on Friday, 26 October and that the flight in a Cessna 150 took two hours of engine time from start-up to shutdown. I attended an academic conference at Yale (the details long since forgotten) and returned on Sunday, 28 October. The return flight required 3 hours 45 minutes of engine time. In the Remarks column I recorded: "First solo X-country. Emergency landing en route." This is followed by the notation:" Arrived OK. (Signed) H.Pennington, Flight Instructor." Beneath that bland language some scary details are hidden, such as a nasty hanging weather front, for which I was totally unprepared and unqualified. I blew south into Pennsylvania, had to fly on instruments for a while (I did not really know how to do that) and finally landed in a cow pasture near a farmhouse. The farmer was sitting at his kitchen table, having a morning drink of bourbon (I had to make do with coffee), and we made conversation for two hours until the storm blew over and I could take off again. After this episode, I was known as the Cow Pasture Kid at the Endicott, NY airfield and was considered to be competent in emergency situations.

Fast forward ten years, by which time I was newly established at the University of Cape Town as its first Professor of Archaeology. On this particular day, I was driving a VW bus out of Cape Town with several geologists and archaeologists as passengers and with James Michener in the front passenger (co-pilot) seat. He was doing research in South Africa for his book The Covenant and I had arranged a field trip to show him some cave dwellings of Later Stone Age people along the False Bay coastline. As we drove under the flight path of Cape Town International Airport, a small aircraft passed overhead after take-off.

"What kind of aircraft is that?" asked Michener.

"A Piper Cherokee 180," I replied. "Are you interested in aircraft?"

I had obviously forgotten about his book The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which involves pilots flying Banshee bombers from an aircraft carrier during the Korean War. Michener explained that his WW2 assignment had been to write reports about all the military aircraft built in the US. He observed them being built in the factories, watched maintenance crews working on them under wartime conditions, and flew as a passenger in each aircraft type on missions in the Pacific.

"The Grumman Bearcat was the sexiest airplane that ever flew," I commented.

He looked at me in some surprise and said: "Oh, you are so right."

After that, Michener left it to his research assistant to take notes and pictures, while we talked about aircraft. After he left South Africa and sent back chapters of The Covenant for comment, we still continued the conversation by correspondence.

I have not always ignored archaeology in favor of aircraft and flying stories, because the two go so well together. I have often used aircraft for archaeological reconnaissance and aerial photography. In the course of forty years in my profession, I have flown airplanes on projects in the US, Italy, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, and South Africa. In addition to the pilot's licenses of the US and South Africa, I also qualified for a license in Malawi in 1982. This was a requirement, so that I could fly the Piper Supercub owned by their National Parks Board. I also obtained an instrument rating (for "blind flying" in bad weather) in South Africa in 1986, but found that it was too expensive to maintain for someone who is not a professional pilot.

At this point I have just over 1000 hours in my logbook. And so, when I asked the question "Do you still want to fly airplanes at the age of 66?" the answer was inevitably "Yes". So, on the only clear day of the week, I set off for the airfield at Stellenbosch, about thirty miles from my home. Cape Town International is closer, but with airline traffic it is not that user friendly for small aircraft. At sunrise, I took off in a four-seater Cessna 172, with the flight examiner, an Italian gentleman of 77 (!). This was the only time of the day when both the flight examiner and the aircraft were available at the same time.

When daylight was just barely there
We took to the Stellenbosch air.
We stalled and we spun
In the bright rising sun
And tried a crash landing with care.

Flying over the beautiful winelands of the Western Cape, I completed all the test requirements in one hour. I am licensed to fly for another two years.

Taken from the front porch of our home in Kalk Bay, with fishing harbour and a piece of False Bay in background.
Taken from the front porch of our home in Kalk Bay, with
fishing harbour and a piece of False Bay in background.

(Nick's email address is kalkbaai@mweb.co.za.)

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