Life as a Flight Instructor in Bhisho
by Stefan van Vuuren
(Richards Bay, KZN)
I can sit for Hours and listen to the more senior ‘manne’ and listen to their old SAAF stories or anything about the Army, so it’s not one of those good ones but this is just to show, us pilots here on civvie street also have some ‘lekker’ stories for the campfire. Enjoy.
I will start off with one of my experiences as a young pupe instructor about two and a half years ago. Got the instructors rating, and they sent me and three of my fellow newbie instructor friends off to Bhisho where there were only a handful of instructors.
First it took us a while to find this place on a map, and so we discovered we were going to be in the middle of nowhere for the next two years. Our motto was “Nou moet ons sterk staan manne” in English “we must stand strong men”.
Luckily for a youngster who is just starting off, your whole life fits into your car: your bags, your guitar, your logbook, your headset, and you are ready for the beginning of your life long career in that beautiful thing called an airplane.
The four of us adventured up the N2 towards the unknown with our cars in a tight formation. The scenery was nice till we hit Pedi. There the rural villages started filling the windscreen and we all, ever so gently, got a little nervous. Finally we arrived at the airport which is about 10km outside King Williams Town. We had a meet and greet there, then were sent off to town to go and settle in our new house in King Williams Town, (that’s a story for another day).
We arrived at work on the Monday full of excitement about our new students. On the way to meet the south Sudan students waiting in the lecture hall, we passed all the more senior instructors who had been there some time now. All of them just gave us sneaky smiles and a tap on the back as if saying, you in it now ‘boetie’, hope you survive.
Now I must say one cannot explain the camaraderie in Bhisho if you haven’t been there and you will always see the respect of the inexperienced guys starting out for the older senior people as they have been through what you are about to experience and you listen when they tell you something because you know they know. So we stepped into class and met our patiently waiting victims, or maybe it’s more accurate to say we were the victims. We introduced ourselves with our best ‘Dutchie’ English and talked about our experience as we stared into rough and fearless eyes that have seen more in their lives than a U.S Marine Major. They started introducing themselves one by one with names that took me about a month to pronounce. We each got two culprits to start with and we immediately headed to the offices to start with orientation.
Not long into the orientation, I couldn’t help feeling the hairs on my arms standing straight up when listening to their childhood stories and what they had been through. I had a sudden respect for these human beings in front of me and gratefully said a quiet thank you for what my life had been so far.
I just wanted to give you guys a bit of a feel for Bhisho so now we can get to the story.
We don’t start with flying training immediately for the obvious reasons you are about to understand. The first day in the field is an education for instructor and student alike. Between ground school lectures, we teach our students how to drive a car to educate them about speed perception. There are things that we take for granted that they just don’t know.
Now the bakkie is in the parking lot at Bhisho Airport and my best friend and I get in with my two soldiers and his two soldiers. It is quite a vintage Isuzu with only three gears and the handbrake works if you ask it nicely. The clutch needs to be depressed about two inches into the floor board and if you just touch the brake pedal she drifts like a rally car.
We play rock paper scissors to decide who is going to do the first driving sortie. I tell my fellow instructor I’m not comfortable doing this as my medical aid is not running yet and we are in a hostile situation. Never the less I lose and I have to open the games.
So I’m upfront behind the wheel and my victim is next to me with eyes as big us supper plates and a smile so wide I can see his tonsils. My friend in the back is starting to giggle very softly and he knows he is in for the most fun of his life watching this unfolding comedy from the back seat. (Obviously I had payback time later on).
For me, up front, it was far from a comedy and more like praying I make it through this day alive.
Anyhow, I explain to my student how to start the bakkie and then we go through all the procedures such as how to pull away in first gear, turn the bakkie, and then stop again. Now it’s time to swap sides. My student is over two meters tall, so just seeing that picture behind the wheel with this giant and his big smile can make anyone chuck out a giggle. (They thought it was funny in Bhisho to give me the tallest students since I’m the shortest instructor. When it was ‘uitkak parade’, (drilling on parade), I looked like a Jack Russell rolling a Great Dane).
Anyway, after I strap myself in with the seatbelt so tightly that I am breathing heavily, my friend in the back seat is getting progressively red faced with amusement as the events begin to unfold.
My student then starts the bakkie but does not release the key after the engine roars to life, almost burning out the starter motor, and my nerves along with it. We finally settle into a nice diesel idle. I explain to him again how to pull away but before my words are cold he steps on the accelerator making it look like a piece of pancake sinking into the floor; the revs go past the redline stop and he drops the clutch. We pull about 4 G’s on the frantic departure and I feel like I am getting the first stages of tunnel vision. By the time I get my eyes out the back of my head and in the forward position again he releases the clutch and accelerator but must have thought that the pedal in the middle needed to be punished: we slam on brakes so hard I leave my mark on the dashboard. We must look like highly tensioned springs slamming backwards and forwards inside the double cab.
By this time my friend in the back is laughing so much he can’t breathe anymore. Before I open my mouth the students from the back are kakking, (shitting), my student out and telling him he is unsafe and uses too much clutch. They liked the word clutch for some or other reason, so every mistake they made was blamed on the clutch.
We try again after some drill sergeant Jack Russell instruction and are bouncing around like a rubber ball. The spectators must have thought we had hydraulics installed like on “pimp my ride” as they were cheering as we kept on bouncing about. This concluded our first day as Flight Instructors.
These driving lessons continued for about two weeks and our students got pretty good, all the way up to 2nd gear. After our last sortie we told them that’s enough for the day, and that this was their last driving lesson as we were going to move them into aircraft and that they must meet us in our offices for a debrief. We were probably about 30 meters from the bakkie as we heard it start. With great horror we looked back to see 4 Sudanese citizens in the bakkie, all smiling and waving on their way to town. I never ran so fast in my life and it took quite some explaining to make them understand that they don’t have drivers licenses.
It was a tough few months on all of us, but I must say the respect you get from those guys is unbelievable and they are extremely hard working. I will always be proud of my two soldiers.
You can see now how we amused ourselves in Bhisho, and everyone there has been through the same thing. You really form a Band of Brothers.