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Lighter side of FLYING

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Koos was the real McCoy

NO one seems to recall when the irrepressible South African character Koos van der Merwe arrived on the scene. Some reckon he’d lifted the spirits of folk during the Great Depression. Others believe he dates back to the Great Trek, having taken a shortcut into the interior behind sixteen longhorns over the Drakensberg mountain range... like his successor Oom 'Koos Kis' in his Cessna Turbo 210.

The irrepressible Orange Free State farmer’s feats surpass that of James Bond. MI-5 had a certain ‘K-double-O-S’ under surveillance in the anti-apartheid era. It was almost embarrassing to the British public how a heartbroken ‘M’ would leave the equivalent of modern day 'please call me’s' or ‘poste restante letters’ from Boshoff to Bloemfontein, to no avail, after spending a mere few days in Koos' company in London, many years ago... presumably wanting to mend relations with our man and the Republic. 

In the Middle East he once extinguished a burning oil field, while Red Adair was still trying to figure out his options. Back then farm workers on the back of his pick-up must have been content with wages.  As Koos drove straight into the fire all jumped off as one. It was poetry in motion as they doused the fire with wet sacks. Asked afterwards what he would like as a reward, all Koos demanded was the name of the chap believed to have tampered with his brakes.

He would vow to never return to Antarctica, as not even six safari suits worn over each other could stop him from nearly shivering his butt of. After meeting Koos Spider Man would chuck away his Chuck Norris pajamas in favour of a pair of ‘Koos van der Merwe undies’.

South Africa has quite a few ‘Kose’, illustrating the almost star-like popularity of the apostle James, from whom the name is derived. James in Afrikaans is Jakobus… which becomes Jako, Jakkie, Jakes, Jamie, Jaap, Japie, Kobus, Kowus or plainly Koos. Aviation has not been found lacking in these ‘ware Jakobs’ or Real McCoys. The legends vary from little or Klein Koos to tall or Lang Koos, to big or Groot Koos to Koos Kis, alias Koos Casket.

February 2013 marks the third anniversary of the passing of two beloved legendary Kose in South African aviation. Koos Coetzer died in his Baron E55 near Hoopstad Aerodrome on February 20, 2010. He would leave a legacy of a helping hand to all; and over 15,000 hours on Barons.

[Picture: Oom Koos van der Merwe... the Real McCoy... fondly remembered] 

Close on his heels followed legendary pilot, the real Koos van der Merwe, who passed away in the Dealesville old age home three days later. In life Oom ‘Koos Kis’ had logged over 14,000 hours on Cessna 210s in service of a funeral undertaker.  

‘White Kassie’, distinguishing him from cousin Black Kassie Kasselman - referring to their respective hair colour – once introduced a few of us attending an aviation seminar, to the legendary Oom Koos at Tempe Aerodrome.

[Picture: Cessna Turbo 210, ZS-AVB... one of at least five aircraft Oom Koos used to fly] 

The real Oom Koos was reserved and unassuming. Asked how many hours he had, he would as always remark ‘a few’. The conversation veered to how he’d managed to cope with dreaded S.P.I.F.R. or so-called Single-pilot Instrument Flight Rules operations all those years. He seemed perturbed about the phenomenon, but unperturbed about dealing with the flying part.  Talking to Koos made one feel like chucking out all those S.R.M. and CRM manuals. His best yet proven advice was simply to ‘fly around the pipes… whenever you can’. He was referring to the monstrous awe inspiring menacing humungous cauliflower-like thunder clouds reaching miles high into the icy grey sky, just before whipping all hell out of some dusty Free State farm way below.

Reminiscing with NAC Wonderboom’s Pierre Kieser and Deneys Potgieter about the irrepressible Koos Kis, they recalled how he’d once emerged from the airport restaurant after lunch. He was in a hurry to get back to Bloemfontein and wanted to check progress on his plane undergoing a Mandatory Periodic Inspection. The Cessna Turbo 210, ZS-KXD was still on jacks for compulsory checking of the landing gear mechanisms. The engineer was nowhere to be found. The empennage stuck halfway out of the hangar, the front section obscured in the shade. He peeked inside and noted a circuit breaker sticking out like a porcupine’s quill. Without further ado he reset the CB to set off an orchestra of whining sounds as the electric-hydraulic gear motor and door hinge mechanisms sprang into life.

Muffled shrieks from the front seemed to blend in with the mechanical crescendo, yet Oom Koos simply could not detect the origin. Someone seemed to be calling his name from inside a pipe or culvert far away. Anxious moments elapsed as the little entourage stood by helplessly.  All had the ominous notion that somewhere someone must have been in the most terrible state of distress. Then, doors flung open as staff came running from the office. It turned out the hapless mechanic’s head had been caught in the clam like grip of the nose landing gear doors! To make a long story short, the poor chap had to be stitched up in hospital and resigned to pursue an entirely different career only weeks later. Even after he’d worked his notice his temples still sported deep indentation marks.

  • Volumes more can be written about Oom Koos Kis. He'd twice received an award from the Cessna factory. The second time he would almost decline unless the obliging people in Wichita would fly in some of his personal brand of 'liquid refreshments'. Koos could not stomach American bourbon. Aircraft registrations in his logbook range from ZS-AVB, ZS-IVH, ZS-KXD, ZS-KOM and ZS-LTI.
  • I was privileged to hear his secret of success. He pointed upwards, indicating the Lord has always kept a protecting hand over him. His (tongue in cheek) other favorite was to mention that being in the undertaking service had its advantages. For one, ‘none of his passengers had ever filed a complaint’.  South African aviators fondly remember our Kose.


Flight of the Phoenix

The Flight of the Phoenix as hit-film in the 1960s sometimes affected the minds of audiences and pilots alike, even local ones like the venerable Oom Vollies Volschenk (94). 

[Picture: Beloved Pretoria aviator Oom Vollies Volschenk (94) seen here in the Wonderboom Airport foyer in 2014. He was simply a treasure chest of tales, his favourite one being related here. He was a devoted Christian).

It is vital for context to understand the plot - as it explains the later actions of two Pretoria Aviators. The movie involves oil riggers evacuated amidst political turmoil from the town of Jebel in a converted paratroop Fairchild C-119 Boxcar aircraft.  En-route to freedom the engines clog up and the windscreens are sandblasted by the mother of all sandstorms.   

Real life WW II hero and former B-29 Liberator Commander turned actor Jimmy Stewart (1908 – 1997) is on hand in the movie as the former war hero pilot. Flying blind, he lands the plane with relatively minor damage and loss of life, considering the odds.  

‘Only’ two die and a third is seriously injured during protracted crash scenes, though not before passengers bravely comply with frantically repeated commands from the flight deck to ‘jettison the cargo!’ 

When the dust finally settles the men discover one of the survivors, a certain Stringer (no pun intended) happens to be an aircraft stringer, rigger and mock-up designer. Threatened by nomads with water supplies running low, the men may be downed but not out. They become a tightly knitted crew, though they’d probably take offence to such depiction, after a few altercations.

Fortunately, one of the Boxcar’s two engines and one of the two tail booms and both wings are not damaged beyond repair. Even more fortunately, some tools are found lying around. These are used to make make-shift tools with which to make a single engine single seat aircraft – which ultimately arises from the desert floor like the mythical Phoenix from the ashes.   

The hardy survivors overcome challenges like tugging the plane to the plains and holding on for dear life atop the wings – proving it's not too farfetched to believe that with enough engine power stories of laminar flow disruption are pure hogwash and any object can act like a vortex generator to re-energize the detached boundary layer. Not so? 

The film was remade in 2004 with actor Dennis Quaid in the lead role, meaning it must fortunately be available on DVD for those doubting the authenticity of this rendition.  The second time around the plane crashes in the Gobi Desert and not in the Libyan Sahara, showing facts should never be allowed to interfere with a good story.


Around the time the first film was on circuit in South Africa ‘Oom’ (an honorary title denoting kinsman-ship and seniority) Vollies was an ardent aviator moonlighting as a charter pilot. He later vividly recalled how he and the late Lionel Mendelssohn capitalized on golden opportunities to venture to places like Durban by the sea and the Eldorado of the then Lourenco Marques. By day Oom Vollies and Lionel would rent out cars from their lot near the landmark Lion Bridge in Pretoria’s Church Street East.

Fact and fiction clearly get muddled up at times.  What happened next might be an ‘average’ rendition or depiction of events.  Before carrying on, as we now have ‘context’, some mechanical, metallurgical and aerodynamic ‘facts’ need to be considered first.

  • ‘Full throttle altitude’ is that altitude in normally aspirated air breathing aircraft where no additional power can be derived from the engine with the throttle fully advanced and hence the carburetor butterfly valve fully opened.
  • At full throttle altitude an engine cannot deliver any additional power, unless the incoming air can be boosted by a super or turbo charger. The incoming fuel as part of the air-fuel mixture must be gradually reduced as altitude increases and vice versa to achieve an optimum combustion ratio of 15 particles air per fuel particle.
  • Unless the mixture is leaned by closing the orifice in the jet of incoming fuel, the proportion becomes compromised. If the mixture is not richened while descending into lower ‘air rich’ altitudes, or conversely if the supply of incoming fuel is not    reduced as altitude increases the ratio will be ‘too rich’ and the engine will flood.
  •  Incomplete combustion due to incorrect  fuel / air proportion will allow small amounts of oil and lead residue in fuel to be deposited on the spark plug electrodes. The engine will    sometimes clear the contamination by spontaneously burning, i.e. consuming the oil deposit. (The process can be both unpredictable and quite nerve wracking at times). 
  •  Especially in high-time worn engines and those designed with cylinders at the bottom oil can more readily seep past the rings in the cylinder walls. 
  • Finding the correct mixture setting is an ongoing process and can be very tricky for inexperienced pilots, especially with their hands full, e.g. flying a new type of plane not yet accustomed to.


With almost a foot and a half difference in height veteran aircraft salesman Wally Atherstone could be forgiven for thinking for a moment the real life version of Laurel and Hardy had swung by his Rand Airport hangar one day on their return trip from Durban.  Sick and tired of the standard eight hours’ drive and with Oom Vollies’ status as intrepid aviator not buying an aircraft seemed like a sin.

Acutely aware of peculiar traits such as a powerful 260 horsepower in-line six-cylinder engine combined with a short fuselage in a tail-wheel aircraft, Wally was spot-on in his assessment that the seller of a Percival Proctor Mark V would favorably consider trading in even a dilapidated Morris Minor. He generously chucked in a sugar bag of spark plugs to sweeten the deal. 

The ‘Percy’ turned out to be a little moody, possibly perturbed by its new status as civilian commuter after an illustrious career as military communications plane in the Great War. As a point in case Oom Vollies and the instructor carried out such a short first flight bystanders in the Transvaal Aviation Club referred to the maneuver as a ground loop.

Eventually the tutor went for a ‘wee’, but was nowhere to be found afterwards.  Veteran Bill Fortuin from the Pretoria Flying Club had to be persuaded a few days later to take it from there, but soon deemed it prudent to refer Oom Vollies to ‘some better man’ after the propeller had gone astray to this day on their first attempt at take-off.

Eventually Oom Vollies had no choice but to shuttle solo in the skies above the then Department of Civil Aviation between Wonderboom and Rand in the quest of finding someone diligent enough to sign him out. He eventually bumped into the original instructor. The poor lad had no option but to go along and after one successful unassisted landing promptly signed a piece of paper letting Oom Vollies legally aviate from that point onwards.  Soon afterwards he and Lionel found themselves merrily underway to Durban on their first flight. Though much water had run into the sea by then, Oom Vollies had become more adept at changing the Gipsy Queen engine’s spark plugs than that of his straight-six 3.8 liter monster in his beloved bottle green Jaguar Mk II.

Preoccupied with things like navigation, radio work and turbulence, procedures like setting the mixture control correctly for altitude had to take a back seat at first.  By the time they were overhead Standerton they were literally riding the up and down drafts with the engine succumbing to severe bouts of coughing and then catching its breath again. At one stage around 3000 feet above ground level the spluttering became so severe they had to pick a forced landing field.  The next down draft grabbed hold of them leaving Oom Vollies little option but to repeatedly scream at  Lionel, who had a briefcase on his lap with which he refused to part, to ‘…jettison the cargo!’ Then the strangest thing started recurring. At lower altitude the engine somehow stopped its nonsense, delivering spurts of power… which Oom Vollies promptly and prudently converted into height each time, only to see it run out of breath again.  

They turned back to the Golden City glowing in the distance. The peculiar sequence of events repeated itself; Oom Vollies each time as they went down shouting at Lionel to ’…jettison the cargo!’ Eventually they scraped over the perimeter fence at Rand Airport.

Looking back, the uncanny roller coaster-like falling and rising of the Percival Proctor each time was not unlike that of the mythical Phoenix.  

As used car salesman Lionel had known the principle of a ‘voetstoots’ transaction implied a commodity being fit for use for its intended role and purpose. He promptly reversed the deal, the duo eventually driving home in their old Morris – which would be traded in a few days later on a Moraine Saulnier; which advisedly would eventually go down and stay down (as another story for another day) somewhere in the mountains between South Africa and Mozambique. 

Lionel eventually relocated to Lourenco Marques, after somebody had alleged he was flying large amounts of cash around in things like briefcases. Though saddened by their parting of ways Oom Vollies went on to have an illustrious career as private pilot, accumulating over 3000 hours until his retirement.



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