ROBBIE RESCUE RUNS ROUGH Story: Roger Makings
JOHN RUDLING knew he was in trouble when the engine of his Robinson R22 helicopter spluttered and lost power just five feet into the hover – not because he was making an unscheduled touchdown, but rather because of where he was.
The aircraft is operated by G4 Helicopters, at Margate Airport, and, since the loss of the company’s R44 earlier this year, it was the only means of keeping the students busy. There was another problem. The R22 was on a verge near a very deserted beach on the rugged Transkei coast – not famous for its roads or communications.
Some idea of the work and materials which were required to get the damaged R22 from its crash site on to the back of the truck for transportation to the nearest road.
After a cursory inspection, Rudling realised that the aircraft was not going anywhere in a hurry. The engine had blown a valve. “I called the chairman of the Margate Light Plane Club, Des Potts, to see if he could organise some technical assistance. It would soon be getting dark and a night in the bush seemed inevitable,’’ he told me.
Members of the club rallied and soon pilots Dean Riley, Gordon Gray and Sachin Meda, and their aircraft, were thrown into the rescue effort. Supplies, materials and club members were flown in to assist.
The loading completed, the journey begins.
A plan was made to airlift the R22 off the beach and place it on a nearby road where it could be trucked back to Margate. Quoted costs soon put paid to that option. “But even so, we were still never going to get that aircraft out of there,’’ said Rudling, a part owner and flying instructor at G4 . That was until Mntafufu farmer, Gordon Date, happened along.
Suddenly things started to happen. A truck appeared, a local headman provided overnight security for the helicopter, labourers were made available and food and accommodation appeared from nowhere. A trailer was borrowed from local farmer, Revell Saint. “But we needed a plan. We were about 14 km from where Revell’s trailer was parked. We had nothing more than a Land Cruiser truck, some scaffolding planks and harnesses.
Everyone holds their breath as the truck begins a climb towards the forrest.
“The salvage was coming together. We could possibly drive the chopper out, but only if we removed the blades and the tail boom,” said Rudling Again Farmer Date came to the party. He had a small boat which could carry the boom and blades on the river to a point close to the road.
Club members got to work stripping the aircraft of its long and dangly bits and built a makeshift ramp on the truck. Eventually with the help of countless farm labourers, the chopper was hoisted on to the back of the truck and secured.
“’Now came the really difficult part. We had nothing more than a bad excuse for a road, sometimes reduced to a pathway, to take us over the hills and through a forest. We were going to have to hack our way out. But,” added Rudling, “there was no way in hell that I was going to drive the truck.” Irrepressible Gordon Date again stepped up to the mark. It was his truck and his farm. He would do it.
Hacking their way through the bush, the team inches the truck forward.
‘’I more than once thought the chopper was going to fall off the truck. I also, more than once, thought the truck was going to roll over, but they never did.’’ The group of men trudged along next to the truck, lifting branches out of the way or cutting them down as Gordon manoeuvred the unwieldy load through the thick vegetation and over the rough track, with the vehicle often leaning at a precarious angle.
It took more than three hours for the expedition to travel the 14 km to the main road where the aircraft was transferred to the trailer and driven back to Margate.
“Never in my life have I encountered so many people so willing to give selflessly of their time and expertise and not expect anything in return. Gordon did not work on his farm for five days to help us. Revell bent over backwards to lend us equipment and three of our pilots gave up their time and fuel to bail us out. Not to mention the ordinary members who dropped what they were doing and flew out to help us retrieve the chopper. I am truly blessed.’’
Success. All that remains to be done is to transfer the helicopter on to a road trailer and take it to Margate.