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Interview

Wally Waldeck is a senior captain on the A340 for SAA. Apart from being a very good author for us and a highly experienced and capable member of our team that we are truly blessed to know. He is also a partner in Flight Training College at George a very good flight training establishment. We thought it was high time to hear a little more about this fascinating aviator.

Mike – Where did you start your aviation career? How did it all happen?

Wally – Flying is something I’ve wanted to do since childhood Mike. The only problem was I wore thick “coke bottle” glasses from the age of six. Back then nobody thought it was possible to become a pilot with bad eyesight. Consequently my parents urged me to have another career in mind. I was encouraged to stay open minded and considered a career in journalism, photography or even becoming a flight engineer. Financially, university wasn’t an option at that stage, although I did get to study a little law and accounting through UNISA some years later. Fortunately I passed the PPL medical and began flying in 1976 when I was in Standard 9 at Blairgowrie High School. My father was only prepared to pay for my flying up until first solo, and thereafter I earned the money from my photographic darkroom in the garage at home. Basically processing pictures for dad’s flying magazine, “Wings over Africa.”
The boss was a lousy payer but mom made up the shortfall for the PPL, supposedly without the ‘old man’ ever knowing.
It took me a year to finish my PPL at Lanseria Flight School and I always suspected that dad had secretly sponsored it all along with mom. I think he just wanted to me to appreciate the value of money and to see some genuine effort from my side.
Thereafter I was on my own and built up the flying hours for my Comm by dropping parachutists, towing gliders and ferrying aircraft for maintenance.
In those days there was no integrated structure for accumulating the hours.

When I joined the SAAF in 1979 for my compulsory two years National Service I tried very hard to get onto pilots course, although I knew I didn’t stand a chance.
I always thought it very decent of the selection board to even bother interviewing me - considering they already knew I’d failed the military medical. Naturally I left my glasses off for the interview and I sat there fielding questions from these high ranking officers I could barely see. It was quite comical and there were doubtless some funny comments passed later about this cockeyed troep.
Although I expected the result, it still came as a disappointment knowing I wouldn’t get to fly fighters. But at least it brought closure on the matter. (Many years later I did get to fly the Cheetah and wrote about it for A&S in the June 2006 edition.)
I eventually finished my Comm and Instructors Rating at Defense Flying Club under the guidance of Commandant Mich Du Toit and Rhodesian aerobatic champion, Mike Schoeman. Eventually testing with ex-SAAF Buccaneer pilot Jan van Niekerk. All mentors who had a very positive impact on my early career.
After Basic Training in the SAAF I was mustered as a Meteorologist for the remainder of my National Service and was fortunate to be transferred to Port Elizabeth, where my job was launching weather balloons and plotting synoptic charts for the Forecasters.
The shift work enabled me to either give instruction at Algoa Flight Club during the day or fly freight in a Baron at night.
After National Service the REAL work started! It was time to find a fulltime job but I couldn’t have picked a worse time if I’d left prison!
In 1981 SA was under the yoke of political sanctions. SAA had been thrown out of the USA and Australia and there was a glut of pilots.
SAA held its final pilot intake for that period in October 1981. Unsuccessful applicants had to wait six years until October ’87 for another attempt! The age limit to join SAA at that time was 35, and six years later saw many too old for an international airline career. Many older pilots were relegated to the ‘hand to mouth’ existence of contracting in some very dodgy countries in South America – the only place where South Africans were accepted.
I was 21 at that selection and couldn’t compete against the vast experience of the other applicants so I didn’t stand a chance. But at least SAA was willing to interview me regardless of my eyesight!
Interestingly this wasn’t the case with some other airlines. SAFAIR didn’t even invite me to sit down! They’d seen my license and logbooks at the pre-interview and only called me into the boardroom long enough to bluntly tell me they didn’t take pilots with glasses. Regardless that I’d passed the ATP medical with contact lenses.
But that wasn’t the only problem. Protea Airways, United Air and Kalahari Air Services all declined because they wouldn’t take pilots with South African passports!

I knocked on so many doors my knuckles hurt, but it was no use.
So it was back to instruction and charter. But even that was quiet and only the kindness of Mike Van Ginkel (whom I’d met at Algoa Flying Club) got me an interview with Avex Air. And that was my first lucky break!
Two years flying charter, giving instruction, and studying for my ATP, gave me the experience needed to get into Magnum Airlines (today Airlink) on the Metroliner.
Thereafter it was climbing the ladder of experience to Comair and Air Botswana on the Fokker F27 (Botswana developed a shortage of pilots and could no longer afford to be fussy about passports.)
And then surprisingly, I got into SAFAIR of all places!
Flying the Lockheed L100 Herculees. (They’d finally thawed after years of badgering!) SAFAIR also held the management contract to operate Sun International’s Cessna Citation and I was seconded across for a stint flying Sol Kersner and his executives around the country. 
In October ’87 SAA finally began recruiting pilots after their six year sojourn and I was very fortunate to be selected for their first course.


Mike – Does anyone in your family fly?

Wally – My father held a PPL and was the adjutant for 104 Squadron at the old Baragwanath airfield. My brother Warren and I developed our interest in aviation from him.
Although Warren and I learnt to fly together, he went on to study conservation and spent a year on Marion Island before becoming a game ranger at Mala Mala, then later a conservationist with Natal Parks Board. He was in his 40’s when it became obvious there was no career path for pale males in that profession, and he returned to aviation - finishing his Instructor Rating at our flight school in George. He now flies the King Air 1900 and SAAB 340 as a Captain for Norse Air on contracts all over the world as well as instructing for us when he’s home.
Both my sons want to fly and I sent my eldest solo last year. Although my daughter never learnt to fly, she took a great interest in the Lasic procedures on my eyes and qualified as an optometrist at RAU in 2006.
My wife Sharon doesn’t fly but enjoys thermaling in our motorized glider.

 
Mike - Do you like George?

Wally – It’s a great little town – although not so little anymore. I believe it’s now the fastest growing city in SA!
We live a very simple life in a security village because Sharon travels with me quite often, and if there is one thing you need when flying overseas its peace of mind that everything at home is fine.
The mountains suit the rigorous training schedules of my youngest son Warwick, who just qualified to compete in the World Mountain Biking Championship, while my eldest, Jason, is Head Boy of York High.
As it happened, moving to George in 1992 turned out to be a very fortuitous decision. After the elections in 1994 the international aviation market opened up and SAA lost a huge number of pilots to Emirates and the Far East. Had we still been living in Johannesburg we may very well have been lured to emigrate. Even still, we agonized over that decision, but living in the desert just couldn’t compare with the quality of life and values I wanted my children to grow up with. Most of those societies revolve around nothing more than money and materialism, and today we are witnessing the results of those maligned values. Staying in SA turned out to be the better option for us and many of my friends and colleagues who left for the Middle and Far East are now regretting it, particularly with the world economy in such turmoil.


Mike  - Are they not able to rejoin SAA?

Wally – They are, but it entails another selection board and then starting again from the bottom of the seniority list. For financial reasons this isn’t always feasible and we’ve only had one pilot return from the Middle East to rejoin SAA from the bottom. He lost out on almost ten years of seniority but told me it was worth it! He’s one of the guys I admire most, mainly because he didn’t let his ego get in the way of a tough family decision.
Sometimes it’s only after you leave that you realize SAA pilots are a tight knit family and you won’t find a finer bunch of human beings anywhere.

Mike - How many hours do you now have and on how many types?

Wally – Almost 21000 over 33 years, but most of them are on airline jets. I’ve got friends with that much on light aircraft and helicopters alone! Now that’s admirable! I’ve flown more than a hundred different aircraft types but obviously not rated on all of them, such as the Impala, Cheetah and several helicopters.


Mike – Which were your favourites?

Wally – Of the heavy aircraft, undoubtedly the 747-400 followed by the Lockheed L100 Herculees. Of the smaller types, I really enjoyed the Pitts Special S2A which I owned for a few years. The Pitts claimed a few of my friends so I had a lot of respect for her. Of the gliders, I loved the Fournier RF 5 the most.

Mike - Do you like the A340?

Wally – I’ve been on the 340 for five years now and really enjoy the aircraft and particularly the route structure. Most of my previous airline experience was on the Boeing 737, 767 and 747 variants and converting onto a new generation Airbus 340 was quite tough. There is a vast difference in the design philosophies of the two manufacturers and it takes awhile to get your mind around the complexities. Fortunately it wasn’t my first ‘glass cockpit’ conversion so at least having that background helped. Your first ‘glass cockpit’ conversion can be very stressful, particularly if you’ve come from an old technology, 3man crew aircraft such as the 747 Classic.
Flying with a side-stick came far more naturally than I expected and I now prefer it to a conventional yoke. Initially I didn’t like the auto-thrust arrangement. Unlike Boeing, the throttles don’t move with a change in thrust setting. Rather they are set in a detent and you need to refer to the engine display to see exactly what’s happening. But as with so many features on the 340, this turns out to be a good idea.
Instructing on the A340 requires a much higher background knowledge and understanding of the systems and design philosophies and we were given a three month ‘settling in’ period before being turned loose on the new students.


Mike - You went to Toulouse for the A340-600 conversion. Your impression of the Airbus factory?

Wally – The conversion was hard work but very enjoyable. Airbus really looked after us well and they laid on a bus tour every weekend. My wife and kids got to spend the last two weeks with us, and their first snowboarding experience was on a tour to Andorra. The tour of the factory itself was a little disappointing as you don’t get to see too much detail of the actual manufacturing process. On the Boeing 767 conversion in Seattle we got to see a lot more, but considering the Airbus course was after 911 you couldn’t blame them.


Mike- Your take on ‘fly by wire?’

Wally – Fascinating system. It helps look after the aircrafts design limitations, especially in non-normal conditions. For example: a windshear after takeoff. In a conventional aircraft you’d have to very careful not to stall the aircraft in the recovery, where in a FBY machine you can simply firewall the thrust levers, pull the stick right back and let the 5 flight control computers keep it from stalling. Likewise the 340 FBY has certain roll and pitch limits that help prevent several dangerous scenarios from developing.



Mike - If you were to make a recommendation to the SAA board right now – B777 or A330 /  B787/ A350 which would you choose and why?
Let’s assume that we leave any counter trade agreements out of the equation.

Wally – The B777 and the A330 both have proven track records. Engine reliability and system redundancy make large twins far more economical to maintain and operate in comparison to quads. For this reason both the A380 and 747 are in for a rough ride in the current world economy with the sharp decline in passenger numbers.
Strategically I would operate aircraft from both manufacturers to keep the competition keen between them.
My personal choice would be the Boeing 737-800 for our domestic and regional routes and the B777 and A330 for the international. I would only consider the A350 and B787 at fire-sale prices.


Mike – Aircraft you’ve flown in SAA on your way up to the A340 captaincy?

Wally – Initially “boy pilot” (in-flight relief) on the 747 Classic for a few months, then co-pilot on the Airbus A300, before going back on the 747 as a First Officer. Then a few years on the 767 in SAA and on contract to Air Mauritius, followed by a year on the 747-400 as F/O.
In 1997 I was honoured to be selected to join the Training Section as a Captain, teaching on the 737-200 and 737-800. In 2004 I joined the A340 fleet as a Training Captain but am currently on a training sabbatical for two years until my kids finish school.

Mike – Cactus 1549, the Airbus A320 landing in the Hudson River – any comments from you on this matter?

Wally – The guys did a magnificent job, no doubt about it! But I equally have no doubt that any well trained airline pilot would have done the same thing. After all – there was nowhere else to go! The key to surviving that scenario was a slow touchdown speed with the wings level, in flat water. Digging a wing into the water would have cart-wheeled the aircraft much like what happened to the Ethiopian 767 in the Comoros, costing many lives.
What was really interesting was how long the aircraft floated before sinking. The pilots didn’t even have time to read the ditching checklist, which required a button to be pushed to seal the outflow valves. Even with these valves open, the aircraft floated for an inordinate length of time, enabling everyone to get out relatively easily.
This whole incident was of immense interest to the airline industry because during our emergency training, although we laboriously go through all the drills for ditching, it was commonly believed that the chances of survival were minimal.
The Hudson River accident showed us that this assumption was incorrect and I’m sure dingy training at most airlines will take on a whole new meaning after this.
 

Mike - Bidstrikes – have you had any? What can we do here? It seems like nothing on the engine side although I suppose the higher the bypass ratio the better chance of survival?

Wally – There are bird-strike prevention programs implemented at most major airports worldwide but I doubt we will ever nullify the threat completely. There are simple procedures that sometimes help. Like selecting the radar on before takeoff. Birds sometimes react to the radar pulses and push off, but not always. Some airports have dogs or trained Falcons and Hawks to see them off.
Higher bypass engines are much safer as the centrifugal force at impact throws the carcass out the shroud, hopefully without any parts going through the combustion and turbine sections.
I’ve had many bird-strikes over the years. Some quite serious.
On a charter in a Baron at 8000 feet over Hartebeespoort Dam in the middle of the night, I hit a bird the size of an Owl. Obviously I didn’t see it and with the enormous bang, I thought I’d blown an engine! Only on the ground did I see the smear of blood stretching from the base of the windscreen all the way back to the tail.
Then on takeoff from Durban in the A300 Airbus we hit a flock of Finch’s. Fortunately they’re small and soft and at low speed they didn’t damage the engines, but it smelled like Kentucky Fried Chicken in the cabin for awhile!
My worst was in 1997 joining the circuit a Vic Falls in a Boeing 737. We hit a Vulture at 210 knots with our left wing. It caused so much damage that a recovery team had to be flown up for repairs. We were fortunate it hadn’t gone through the engine.


Mike - When did you start your flying school?

Wally – That was back in 1999. Basically to inject some real world experience into the G/A training sector. My partner Johan Odendaal is an excellent managing director and we have a fantastic team of ground staff and instructors. Ex-SAAF Silver Falcons performer, Major Ian Du Raan joined us last year as head of Instructor development and will shortly be inducted as a partner. Although Johan and I don’t give as much instruction as our staff, we oversee the operation. We are both CAA Designated Examiners and one of us will always do the testing for Comm, and Instrument Ratings. Initial Instructor tests are outsourced for impartiality reasons. We are in the process of commissioning a new Seneca III simulator that will be approved for Instrument renewals as well as Instructor, Multi Crew and a whole host of other courses.
Once we source an appropriate aircraft Ian will be starting an aerobatic course.


Mike - How do our readers become safer pilots?

Wally – Reading as much about flight safety as possible and studying the CAA accident reports is a good start. More than in any other profession, you have to learn from other peoples experiences in this job. We sometimes forget how dangerous this business can be.
 
Mike - Black October ‘08 – any comments from you?

Wally- I don’t think it was coincidence that many of these accidents took place at the hot and high airfields of Rand and Eros. Rand is probably the most challenging and critical airport in the country. Particularly on a hot day for an inexperienced pilot. 
Unfortunately the caliber of some of the students signing up these days hasn’t helped matters and in some cases they can remain totally oblivious to aircraft, human and environmental factors even after all the tuition in the world! Sometimes there’s an inability to transfer knowledge into practice and in a few cases I’ve seen regression occur at a baffling rate! I still firmly believe that mandatory psychometric testing in conjunction with the medical examination could help reduce this problem. 


Thanks so much Wally. Long may you inter alia continue to entertain our readers with your stunning articles.


Wally may be contacted through Flight Training College at 044 8769055    or www.flighttraining.co.za or e mail: ftc@flighttraining.co.za


Mike

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