Juan Steenkamp (26), a pilot from Middelburg in Mpumalanga, was forced to perform an emergency landing on Monday while dusting crops for a local farmer.
The young man’s voice is energetic on the phone.
“My eyes were a bit wide, hey!” says Juan, co-director and pilot at Platorand Crop Spraying, of his narrow escape.
Crop dusting is done to get rid of pests and weeds. Juan had been crop-dusting a local farmer’s soy crops when the plane he was flying suddenly developed problems just before 6pm on Monday. The plane is a Grumman G-164 Ag Cat, a single-engine biplane agricultural aircraft.
The plane suddenly lost power and white smoke started coming from the exhaust.
“Of course you get a heck of a fright but when something like that happens, the five to 10 hours’ training for exactly such a situation kicks in. Find a landing spot, handle the situation and get the plane on the ground.”
Juan was only 17 when he started flying helicopters in 2010. In 2014, he started flying planes. He has 1 400 flight hours in helicopters and 480 in planes. But this situation was a first for him.
“Crop dusting is a high-risk occupation. The plane is designed to dump the load of chemicals in an emergency, so I did that first.”
But dumping the chemicals didn’t improve the loss of power. Next, he decided to land the plane on a nearby airfield but he soon realised there was no time for that.
“Everything happened quickly. I knew I’d have to land the plane there and then. Things could’ve worked out very differently,” he says, growing serious with the realisation that he could’ve died.
“If I’d been flying in a different direction at that point . . . There were only mountains, valleys and rocks . . . Everything worked out as it was meant to. It was just grace from above.”
When oil started spraying onto the windscreen and wings, he realised it was a fire hazard, so he cut the engine. He had no idea of his altitude when he managed to set the plane down.
“The wet weather caused further problems. About 60m on, the plane’s nose got stuck [in the mud] and it flipped over.”
Juan says once the plane had come to a standstill on its roof and he didn’t see any flames, he know everything would be okay.
He got out of the plane without so much as a scratch on him. He says these planes are especially built to withstand this type of accident.
Juan’s dad, Sias, owner of Platorand, is grateful his son escaped unharmed but says he’s surprised at the “fuss” about the incident. “Of course it’s not nice when these things happen but it was simply an unsuccessful emergency landing. It’s nothing major – Juan is unharmed. The plane is as good as a Formula 1 car.”