Dead man's curve, treetop flying and one of the highest rates of aviation accidents in South Africa, can this really be anyone's dream job? For a small group of highly specialised, nature loving helicopter pilots that is exactly what it is. For them, working as one of South Africa's game capture pilots is 'a dream come true'.
"Being a SANParks pilot is more than just a job, it's a passion. You have to love your work, because even when you leave the hangar at night you're never off duty. There can always be an emergency call, poachers in the park or an accident, you just never know", explains SANParks chief pilot Grant Knight. Alongside Charles Thompson, they are responsible for servicing all the helicopter pilot needs of South Africa's 22 national parks. A formidable undertaking.
"There is never a typical week for a helicopter pilot in South African National Parks, every week, every day heralds new challenges. That's why I love this job", explains Grant, "but there are various components that remain the same, for instance anti-poaching/law enforcement, game capture, aerial census, emergency call outs. Another aspect of the job is the variety of national parks we work in. Last week I got to see five of South Africa's 22 national parks. Something most South Africans might take a lifetime rather than a week doing. I am very privileged; I have an amazing job.
"I had to conduct a census in Mountain Zebra National Park on Monday and Tuesday. So I left Skukuza early on Monday morning, picked up fuel at Golden Gate National Park before heading on to Bloemfontein Airport and then to Mountain Zebra National Park. The census we were undertaking was a full wildlife census, which meant we needed to count everything. Census flying, whether it is full counts or counting a particular animal, for instance the rhino censuses we conducted in Kruger recently, takes precision flying. The census has to be repeatable to reduce bias, so we have set routes, speeds, and height above ground level. These vary depending on where we are flying.
So for Mountain Zebra, we use the boundary fence and produce a map, where the coordinates can be fed into our GPS. Then we follow the GPS to the dot, ensuring we stay on the correct transect lines. The speed we fly at also varies. It is very dependant on the vegetation cover of the survey area, so in the Karoo National Park where it is relatively flat and sparse we can fly faster than we would in Addo where the vegetation is more dense and difficult to observe the wildlife. For the majority of the surveys we fly about 150ft from the ground, flying so low you have to be particularly careful.
"On Tuesday we also assisted with a cheetah collaring and that required some intense flying and goes to show that you can never predict what animals will do. Due to the terrain the helicopter had no space to land so Dave the vet had to climb out as I hovered, one skid on a rock, balancing precariously while he lifted the now sleeping cheetah into the helicopter. This kind of flying you can't learn from books or courses, 99 percent of the flying we do you have to learn on the job. There just isn't any other way.
There is a horrific statistic that over 50 percent of the aviation helicopter accidents that occur in South Africa are as a result of game capture. It's because to catch game you have to fly low. You are either herding the animals into the boma, or need to get close enough so that a vet can dart an individual animal and then you need to herd it to the awaiting ground team.
Flying that low means you enter what's called 'the dead man's curve'. It is dictated by the height you're flying and the speed you're travelling. Below a certain height and under a certain speed means you fall within the curve. Falling within the dead man's curve means that if your engine does fail it will be virtually impossible to start an autorotation, the only action left which might save your life. Autorotation is when the rotor blades start to rotate due to the wind from the helicopter falling vertically after the engines failed. As you come closer to the ground, you then start pulling the helicopter's nose up by pulling back on the cyclic. This action is called flaring and reduces the rate of descent and forward ground speed so that you can land safely, but, it is all about timing.
If you start flaring too soon there is a chance you could stop the blades from auto-rotating too soon and then you would start dropping again - the consequences of this are likely to be fatal. Likewise if you leave it too long to flare, then you will also impact the ground too hard and the likelihood of surviving uninjured isn't great. So it is all about timing, and autorotation is something all pilots need to know about. However as game capture pilots we are often flying too low and too slow to be able to set up a stable autorotation, so it's called flying in the 'Dead Man's Curve'.
"Most of the flying we do falls in the dead man's curve, as a game capture pilot we have to rely on our own abilities and our machine. Our helicopters are continually being checked by Teboho Ntabe, our helicopter engineer, he is always on hand maintaining the helicopters. There is just is no room for error doing the job we do.
"On Wednesday we left Mountain Zebra for Addo to help scientists with an elephant research project. It is always great for us to be involved with scientific research, because when I first started in the Kruger Park it wasn't as a helicopter pilot, it was as a conservation student. My two passions have always been conservation and flying, when I was at school I never realised you could combine them so I went for conservation. Only when I came to Kruger for my practical year when I was studying nature conservation, did I realise being a SANParks helicopter pilot would enable me to combine my dreams and here I am - living the dream! I get to fly and because of my flying I get to play a role in many conservation projects.
Game capture flying also requires the pilot to start understanding animal behaviour, predicting what it will do next. There have, however, been some moments where living the dream has got my heart pumping and not for the right reasons. I think complacency is a common mistake made by all pilots. You get so used to being up in the air, flying regularly, performing operations, flying within the dead man's curve, game captures and going on law enforcement expeditions. Then every now and then, something happens, and it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. When that happens, it is like a wake up call and I think it is something you need - just not that often! Luckily the elephant research went well and wakeup calls weren't needed as everything went to plan.
"This was very different to my first ever game capture operation. That I will never forget. Many years ago I was catching gemsbok in the private capture industry, so I took off from the boma and started looking for a suitable herd. I flew for a while before seeing the herd I wanted, but now came the sickening thought 'where is the boma?' The game capture guys build that thing so you can't see it and guess what, I couldn't see it! I had been so focused on finding the gemsbok. So I had to fly back, find the boma before setting out again.
This time I found the herd and I knew where the boma was, but I went in too hard. My desperation to get the gemsbok into the boma as quickly as possible meant I pushed the herd too quickly and rather than 25 gemsbok clustered in a nice herd, they were now scattered over about a kilometre. But, that's how you learn. The second group I went after, I went in slowly, herding them gently until just before the boma mouth where I pushed harder to make them gather speed and run straight into the boma with out realising they were trapped.
"Friday it was quickly to Camdeboo to help with another wildlife census. When it comes to census, I love doing them, especially the annual buffalo and elephant censuses in Kruger. However, by the middle of the third week you don't want to see another elephant very soon! You find yourself driving past a herd of buffalo or elephant and automatically counting them. After completing the Camdeboo census it was back to Addo to inspect the infrastructure on Bird Island.
Being a SANParks pilot isn't all about game capture. In fact, especially in Kruger, we play a big role in law enforcement and anti-poaching operations. The helicopter gives the anti-poaching team another dimension or tool in their fight against environmental crime.
The biggest benefit of the helicopter is that it buys time for the guys on the ground. Kruger is enormous and a lot of it is inaccessible from the ground. So we can act as their eyes in the air, transporting people, helping to coordinate searches, as well as covering much greater distances in a shorter time period. After any of these operations, especially the successful ones, there is always a heightened sense of worth. Although all the work we do, in all the parks, is of equal importance. You can't help but smile when you've aided in the capture of a poacher or helped in a medical emergency.
"It was an awesome week last week, full of many great memories and experiences, but after a week away, it was time to head home, back to the base in Skukuza, friends and family. Servicing all the National Parks is a bit of a double edged sword. Although you get to work in some of the most incredible places in South Africa, it does mean stints away from home for two/three weeks at a time. Both Charles (the other pilot) and myself have understanding wives. But, it's part of the job and there is no job I would rather do. I am so incredibly lucky, I am living the dream and my job is my passion - what more could you want?"
Dr Katy Johnson