Experiencing stunning Plettenberg Bay from the air is amazing in itself, but doing it upside down, with the controls of an aerobatics plane in your hands – now that’s a rush!

 WORDS Gareth Pretorius PHOTOGRAPHS Desmond Scholtz

As we taxi down the runway and I listen to ex-SAA Captain Stewart Lithgow communicating with the control tower at the small aerodrome in Plettenberg Bay, I can’t help but think airline captains all have a distinct timbre to their voice.

Unlike the many other times I’ve been in an airplane, I am not crammed into economy class with my knees around my ears and someone’s screaming child trying to drown out the sound of a Boeing engine. Instead, I’m crammed into a tiny yet powerful two-seater plane, shoulder to shoulder with the pilot, and a second control stick between my knees.

Stewart earlier told me this little plane had power, but as we take off the feeling of energy is electrifying. I keep telling myself ‘surely he is aware of the fast approaching trees at the end of the runway’ and ‘at some point we should pull up’. I have a tendency to squeal like a four-year-old in times of panic and stress, but I hope this won’t emerge during my aerobatic adventure. And um, those trees are very close now!

At what feels like the last second, we pull up and rise in a flash of blue and glinting sunlight to 1000 feet. The gorgeous splendour of the Plettenberg Bay coastline spreads out beneath us. But this isn’t a sightseeing experience – for that I’d recommend the glider experience, serenely soaring above the breakers like a sagacious seabird. Nope, we are on the hardcore bird of prey adventure and before I can respond to Stewart’s, “Are you ready?”, we enter the invisible rollercoaster of the skies and initiate our first straight roll. The nose of the plane heads upwards into the blue, while somewhere to the left the earth is now upside down and the sun is beneath us. The moment is quite bizarre and my mind does its own flips as it tries to grasp this reversal of the norm, but then with another roar of the 200 horsepower engine, that same terra firma returns to its rightful place in the greater order of things.

Immersed in the absolute delight of the moment, I can barely keep track of Stewart describing the exact movements and checks he is executing. Just as I’m about to bleat another joyful squeak, we roll to the right in a perfect four point hesitation roll, then into a Cuban eight, then into another straight roll. I am euphoric, a ridiculous grin as wide as the horizon that keeps changing axes in front of us stretches across my face. And in an instant it changes. Stewart’s voice fills my headphones, “Now it’s your turn.” Wide eyed, I grip the control stick.

The thing is, if you’re going to take control of an airplane a couple of thousand feet over the ocean and perform crazy maneuvers – that only an hour ago you would have bet money on took years to learn and perfect – you’ve got to have the right person sitting next to you. Stewart is the perfect, premium class wingman. A retired SA Airways pilot, he has over 23 400 hours of flying time. Do the maths: that’s almost 1000 days spent in the air. This SA Air Force trained pilot has had an illustrious 45-year career, which includes highlights such as performing in two presidential inauguration flyovers; being one of the pilots of the acclaimed Flying Lions Aerobatic Team for 10 years, as well as being part of the team that landed a Boeing 747 at Rand Airport in Germiston. The runway at Rand is only two metres wider than the aircraft undercarriage – a metre either side. And as Stewart emphatically points out, “It’s short, very short! We had to put it down on a pin point spot.”

For a man who has spent so much time in the air, he is incredibly grounded and delightfully energetic for someone who has supposedly retired. “When you learn to fly, you learn to fly,” he said earlier as we chatted in his hangar at the Plettenberg Bay airport, surrounded by his red glider and his white RV-7, the trick plane I was about to perform unimaginable maneuvers in. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re sitting in a Boeing, or soaring in a glider, the principles remain the same. One might weigh 370 tons, while the other a mere 560kg… flying is flying.”

Stewart was taught aerobatics when he was 18 while flying in the South African Air Force and he reiterates that it never leaves you. The confidence he exudes is probably the reason he is able to run the highly successful business he does. At only R850 (December 2015) for  about 10 minutes of extraordinary ecstasy, it’s no surprise that he’s booked from sunrise to sunset during season. No matter the client, whether young, old, man or woman, he manages to talk them through doing straight rolls, barrel rolls, and Cuban eights. All his years of sitting in the cockpit have given him the innate understanding of who he’s taking up and what to get them to do. “If I see they’re starting to turn green and beads of perspiration are dripping down their forehead, I level the plane out and we do a fly over Robberg and then head back to the airport, but most times they just listen to my voice and follow my instructions and perform the tricks.”

I must admit at this point in the interview my stomach does its own Cuban eight and I try to grapple with the fact that I too will be doing said maneuvers. Then, not 20 minutes later, there I am, control stick in hand, following Stewart’s instructions: “Raise the nose… level the wings, check the horizon and pull back… pull back… keep going… you’re in control. Look up… now see the horizon… bring her round… allow her to level out and there you go.”

As my inner girlie begins to release a squeal of delight, the captain’s voice fills my headphones: “And again, another roll. Pull back…” As the G-force gets closer to 4, my squeals of rapture likewise increase. I spend the next five minutes lost in a series of whirls and twirls and absolute bliss. I now know why people become pilots. It is an utterly breathtaking experience being in control of these incredible machines up there in the skies. Icarus may have flown too high and melted his wings but Stewart Lithgow will take you to just the right heights – and then allow you to take yourself to the spaces beyond!

Stewart Lithgow
082 785 5029

An experience in a motorised glider allows you to soar like a bird above the gorgeous Plettenberg Bay coastline. And at the right time of year, what better way to watch whales or spot sharks!
Price: R650 per person (December 2015)
Duration: 30 minutes
Launch yourself out into the blue beyond as you skydive and parachute into the most scenic drop zone in the world! Experience the rush of a 35-second freefall at 200 km/h!
082 905 7440