Skyhawk Aviation

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Lanseria International Airport: Airliners and Bus Smashers

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It has been six years ago since I opened Skyhawk Aviation at Lanseria International Airport – and it has been a great ride.

My personal involvement with Lanseria goes back some 23 years, to when I completed my Commercial Pilot’s Licence and Flight Instructor’s rating with Val and Ken Humphries, in the old terminal building.

Things were pretty relaxed then – no security at all and there was a swimming pool next to the pub on what would be referred to today as “The Airside”. I remember walking out onto the apron to get up close and personal with the various light aircraft that were parked and tied down on what is essentially the Charlie area today, with nothing but a wave from the lady behind the Information Counter at the apron access doors.

Watching SAAF Impalas from 4 Squadron taxi out and then take off was a regular occurrence. At the time I had no idea that I would end up owning the busiest flight school at the airport, based in one of 4 Squadron’s hangers.

Back to 1989. After qualifying as a Grade Three instructor – and getting lost on my first navigation exercise with a student – I journeyed countrywide looking for work as generally speaking, aviation was in a slump, and not much work was to be had for new CPLs without much experience. Much like today – the more things change, the more they stay the same…

I was regularly back at Lanseria, and progressed through Cessna 182s, 206s 210s, then Piper Senecas and Cessna 310s, 401s and 402s. This was pretty much the piston engine population at Lanseria in those days, which as the current management acknowledge, built the airport and sustained it to where it is now.

I vividly remember standing in the shade of a Let 410’s wing that I had just flown in on a charter while working for Metavia Airlines, and talking on a ridiculous ‘brick’ of a cell phone. I learned, on that apron, that I was about to be the father of my first child.

So – has Lanseria turned its back on its long-suffering General Aviation population, and embraced airline jet transports instead?

Well, yes. And no.

The fact that a Boeing 738 brings in around 18 to 24K per turnaround beats squeezing R 39.00 from a training school’s C172 doing some touch and goes. While Avgas sales have plummeted, Jet A1 has soared – along with most associated expenses at the airport. The fact that it is one of only a handful of official Ports of Entry in South Africa has bloated the burocracy and security procedures to the point of utter frustration. Razor wire fences, cement walls and disinterested security personnel have effectively barred the public from getting anywhere close to an aircraft on a casual basis.

I have to mention the R10.00 for a walk in ‘permit’ through gritted teeth…

Well – that’s the downside, in a nutshell. How does the ‘upside’ rate?

I have owned and operated flight schools all over the Gauteng area, and can say, without a doubt, that Lanseria must be the most cost-effective place to operate a properly constituted flight training establishment. This is in terms of approach, landing and parking fees, given the fairly generous discounts allowed to training establishments.

I make an effort to get youngsters onto the airside and the various aprons to see what aviation is all about. This program includes an ATC tour, Operations visit and an intro flight. The individuals involved, from ATC to management are hugely accommodating and do have a genuine sense of involvement, which is somewhat gratifying in this day and age.

Added to this is the Big Airport Environment, which undoubtedly produces a better, more confident product as a result of ‘forced’ use of multiple frequencies and their associated procedures from the very beginning of flying training.

I remember conducting the final flight test for an aspiring CPL, whom had done most of his training at a well-known coastal flight school, and being absolutely underwhelmed by his confidence and radio professionalism. I pointed out a clearance read-back done by one of my solo students doing his circuit consolidation and commenting to him that that’s how it should be done.

To quote a certain British aviation personality, “If you sound like a dick on the radio, ATC and other pilots will assume you are one.”

From our wonderful location in the ex-SAAF hangers on the northern side, we have a short taxi when runway 24 is in use, but about 2.5 kilometers when 06 is in use, which is the majority of the time. I investigated the NOTAM concerning the banning of intersection takeoffs from Charlie when 06 is in use, as I was baffled by the reason furnished that this was for noise abatement. For Pete’s sake – which cows and chickens from the surrounding countryside have complained about noise from departing traffic in that direction?

It turns out the badly worded NOTAM bans that intersection only if engine run-ups are required, as it annoys the guys and girls in the control tower.

I have permission from the generally receptive management team to conduct run-ups on the so-called Freight Apron (which hasn’t seen any freight activity EVER). I refer to it as Corrosion Corner, due to the abundance of rotting airframes. We can then call ready for departure from there followed by a short taxi to the Charlie intersection, the hand-over to tower, and off we go. In all reality, this may save two or three minutes, but it makes me feel more efficient.

Regular monitoring of inbound and outbound delays reveals little time lost in comparison to other airfields from which I have operated schools from. In some cases, takeoff clearance is obtained long before the runway hold is reached.

On that note, it is interesting to get some stats from the friendly bunch of ATCs in the tower. Since 2008 – when I started Skyhawk – movements have dropped around 60%. This period is generally acknowledged as the beginning of the economic decline in South Africa, and charter is a pretty definitive measure of our economy’s health. Thus, the once prolific charter scene declined considerably, and is still showing stubborn signs of lack of recovery. Some flying schools have closed, and the airline movements have not reached the desired total that management would like to see.

So, this all adds up to a wonderfully uncluttered environment for training. I did a ten-hour check on a student a few days ago, and did six circuits in 1.2 hours on the Hobbs meter. Including taxi time in and out, that’s 12 minutes per hit-and-run. Pretty good going considering there was a green 737 arriving, and an orange one departing.

The biggest hold-ups in ground and air movements can be attributed to the infrastructure (yes, big changes happening), and unfortunately, ATC. I have had meetings with the airspace guru, and 30 IFR departures per hour is (in my opinion) the highly optimistic target. One every two minutes? Not with that amount of training taking place in the control tower, and certainly not with the archaic procedural ATC environment that is in force – and has been since Ma fell off the bus.

OR Tambo plans on, and generally achieves, 24 departures per hour.

Right now, Lanseria has reduced itself from three runways to one. Hardly progress in anyone’s estimation. But, the fancy new large dirt patch (with one or two bits of tarmac now visible), will provide my C172s with a 45-meter wide target, albeit with pretty much the same 3000-meter length. I do believe that we can plan on a more vigorous vertical assault on this new surface, as the LCN (Load Classification Number) has been improved. This, in an attempt to avoid daily patching of the existing surface after a medium 737 has been or gone, and also to woo ‘heavies’ to use the facility.

From my airline background and many years on heavies and mediums, it’s the Density Altitude and restricted runway length that will be the deciding departure issues.

When I don my Airline hat, and strap an Airbus A320 or A319 to my posterior, I view the use of Lanseria as a destination alternate with somewhat of a jaundiced eye. The airside is, as it stands, critically deficient (according to international criteria) in terms of taxiway markings and lighting, tower visibility of both thresholds, the lack of adequate approach facilities, and the afore-mentioned procedural environment.

My personal biggest issue is that if I’m inbound to OR Tambo, and need to consider Lanseria as the alternate for whatever reason, so will a whole bunch of other aircraft, and then it becomes a goat rope in terms of parking, fuelling and pushback. An apron is small when an A319 looks big when parked there.

I do wait in gleeful anticipation for the completion of the new runway and specifically the overall layout. The taxiway plan seems, however, to still be a bit of a mystery.

As I’m sure competent consultants are involved, they must have surely researched and planned appropriate high-speed exits for both light and medium traffic, as this is a bottle-neck at any airport that handles mixed traffic. Likewise, let’s get those runway lights to 60 meter spacing as opposed to the bizarrely unique 50 meter spacing that is currently in operation.

Lanseria management has said to me on many occasions that they are open for business with light aircraft. On a different plane, the plans afoot will ease my burden as an airline commander when operating into Johannesburg with the vagaries of African weather and its associated African forecasting.

It is a fantastic airport with much potential for all concerned. I see my flight school growing, and from a genuine pilot development career school, one cannot rub shoulders and make contacts within the industry anywhere else like you can at Lanseria.

Here’s to the next 23 years.