Moments and Milestones: A Day at the Races

Moments and Milestones: A Day at the Races

Captain Mark Nel  air race
Captain Mark Nel (left, with First Officer Hugo van den Berg) insisted the crew wear full uniform during the air race. John Miller

The words “recreational flying” are rarely, if ever, found in the same sentence with “Boeing 737,” but while two South African aviation enthusiasts, Gavin Branson and Menno Parsons, were having a few beers last August, the combination became strangely plausible.

Branson is the CEO of a charter company, AirQuarius, which owns several Fokker F28 and Boeing 737 passenger jets. Parsons, an electrical engineer, owns a couple of airplanes, including an Aero L-29 Delfin.

Parsons likes to compete in air races, so he was interested to hear that the Rustenburg Flying Club (a small group about 90 minutes from Johannesburg) was organizing a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale-compliant sub-competition, to be held in August 2009. The organizers opened the event to jet aircraft, hoping to attract warbirds. Parsons contemplated entering his
L-29: “I thought that I might have a chance of winning if I entered my jet. But on our second or third beer, I suggested to Gavin we enter one of his Boeings. Before I knew it, I heard myself say: ‘I’ll hire the Boeing for the day.’ ”

Branson immediately contacted his chief pilot, Captain Mark Nel. “I’ve never had a request like that before,” says Nel. “Usually it’s a call to do a charter flight into some African country, or to stand by for a posting to a far-flung Middle East contract. Flying a Boeing 737 around a 300-mile course for a flying club event stretched my sense of humor.”

Rustenburg’s runway was too short to accommodate a 737, so Nel and First Officer Hugo van den Berg helicoptered to the airfield to attend the obligatory pilots’ briefing, where they learned the 737 would be competing against a Hawker Hunter, an Aermacchi MB326, and an Aero L-29.

FAI rules usually require that record flights follow an out-and-back routing, but safety considerations dictated a dog leg on the 737’s return lap to avoid air traffic. The change added three miles to the course, but would add only about one percent to the elapsed time—a small penalty for the safety benefit.

A 737’s best speed at 5,000 feet would be Mach 0.64, or 360 knots (415 mph). (The Hawker Hunter, on the other hand, has a maximum speed of 620 knots. Because of this advantage, the aircraft were split into different classes.)

On race day, the 737 departed Lanseria Airport, traveling the 38 miles to Rustenburg in minutes, and lined up with the runway, where Nel and van den Berg swept through the start gate to begin the timed course.

Many on the ground assumed Nel and van den Berg would be hunched over the Boeing’s controls, closely monitoring the flight’s progress and squeezing every knot out of the jet to return to the finish line as quickly as possible. Not so.

“We leveled off at flight level 105, and engaged the autopilot,” Nel says. “Then we asked the cabin crew to bring us a cup of coffee, juice, and a sandwich. We let the autopilot and [flight management system] take us round the course whilst Menno called out landmarks he could see from the cockpit windows. With the turn points programmed into the system, the Boeing flew itself around Bloemhof Dam and Leeudoring and settled nicely onto the return track whilst our cabin crew enjoyed the flight in the business-class cabin.”

Although the Hawker Hunter started the course later, it finished first, completing its run in 37 minutes, 38 seconds. The 737 came in second, crossing the line at 51 minutes, 14 seconds. The Aermacchi MB326 came in third.

After crossing the finish line at low level and completing a pass down the runway, Nel and the crew returned to Lanseria—wrapping up a not-so-routine day at the office.

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