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The Story of a Bateleurs Pilot - Etienne Gerber

Author: Bateleur Pilot - Etienne Gerber

 

This is my story; a Story of a Bateleurs Pilot.


I am the son of a game ranger. My father spent 42 years in formal conservation, until retiring a few years ago as one of the most respected conservationists of his generation. I was extremely fortunate to grow up seeing a man passionate about and dedicated to his calling. This instilled in me a deep desire not to conform to the societal norm of seeking security in a traditional 9 to 5, but rather to discover what made me tick and to vigorously pursue that.

 

It did not take long; by my seventh birthday I had flown in the old Natal Parks Board’s C182 with the venerable Ginger Skinner, zipped over the treetops in the back of the legendary Vere van Heerden’s Hughes 500 and seen my childhood home of Ithala Game Reserve from a SAAF DC-3. I know it was by my 7th birthday, as my mother had baked (upon my insistence) a cake in the shape of a Dak, complete with Lego undercarriage and green “NPB” lettering on the wings. It was evident that combining my blossoming interest in aviation with my bush-life upbringing was written in the stars. Let us leave 7-year old Etienne dissecting his Dakota-shaped cake, and fast forward to 2012.

 

I am an anti-poaching pilot. From 2012 to 2018 I had the privilege of being one of the founding pilots of the Zululand Anti-Poaching Airwing (ZAP-Wing), based at the Hluhluwe airfield in northern KZN. The airwing was based on the Bateleur anti-poaching model, and adapted to provide surveillance and response capability to the rhino reserves in our area. At its peak ZAP-Wing routinely flew for more than 17 game reserves. Most of the flying was conducted at well below 500ft AGL, often sharing airspace with white-backed vultures and yellow-billed kites. The main objective was the detection of suspicious human activity, the monitoring of rhino populations, and sadly carcass detection. Added to this were reaction flights, when the movement of fleeing suspects would be suppressed by the aircraft, allowing the ground teams to close in and arrest them. During this time the Bateleurs would assist whenever our aircraft was unavailable, and the organisation made a tangible impact in filling the gaps, which if left unfilled would have led to further poaching and greater loss of rhinos and other wildlife species. During this time I also joined the Bateleurs, and am proud to be associated with this fine organization. At the end of 2018 I left ZAP-Wing to further my helicopter career, having spent over a thousand hours in the BushCat, with around 600hrs in the taildragger variant thereof. During my time at ZAP-Wing I learnt a great deal about low-level flight ops, and the coordination of ground- and airborne-assets. I did however also experience the limitations of a fixed-wing in such operations.

 

I am a ground-pounder. A few lines above this you would have read that I had left ZAP-Wing to pursue my helicopter career. Well, sometimes the line between A and B is not straight, and rather than becoming a hotshot helo-driver, I ended up back at my aviation roots as a fire-spotter on a C182, after which COVID hit in 2020. Just prior to the infamous lockdown, I was asked to manage the security team of one of our premier private game reserves. This saw me earth-bound for a year, “developing my character” as my father would say, learning all about managing personnel, dealing with hostile neighbouring communities and complying with ever-shifting COVID protocols, all whilst the spectre of rhino poaching loomed darkly over our shoulders. My time there was one of great value, and it gave me a rare glimpse behind the scenes into the daily workings of the complex and dynamic operation that is a game reserve. This has given me immense respect for those that I now deal with on a daily basis as colleagues and clients.

 

I am a game capture pilot. My time as a land-lubber did come to an end, my journey from A to B did finally reach its destination, and for the last 4 years I have been incredibly blessed to find myself working with some of the best wildlife game capture professionals in the industry. Still based in Hluhluwe, I now fly R44’s for Heligistix. We specialise in wildlife work varying from mass- and chemical-capture to wildlife management and everything in between. Game capture is a lifestyle unto its own, and can best be described as a travelling carnival; highly entertaining but you are never sure where you will be tomorrow. We jokingly say that being flexible is not enough; you need to be fluid to survive this industry!

 

One of our main functions is to assist our game reserves in their rhino horn-trimming operations. This is often offered to guests as an experience, and it serves as a unique opportunity to raise awareness around the never-ending rhino poaching crisis. The guests follow the ground team in a game viewer, while we fly with a wildlife veterinarian in search of a suitable rhino to dart. Once a rhino is located, we will talk the ground crew and guests into our area, before the vet darts the rhino. The darting usually occurs at tree-top height, and from 30-50 metres from the animal. Once darted, the helicopter will climb and hold a short distance away, thereby reducing the pressure placed on the animal, and allowing the drugs to take effect. If needed, we have a window of approximately 5 minutes to herd the rhino into a suitable area. After that, the drugs start to kick in and the animal will become unresponsive to the helicopter. Shortly thereafter the ground crew will cautiously approach the animal and place a blindfold over its eyes, and by around 6 minutes from darting it should by lying down and be immobilised. At this point various samples are taken (tissue, blood and hair) to compile a DNA profile of the individual. The horns are then carefully removed and a reversal drug is administered which sees the rhino wake up in roughly 2 minutes. During the entire process the guests are actively involved, thereby leaving them with a unique experience and a tangible way of seeing their financial contribution making a real impact.





 


Very recently I was fortunate enough to be part of what is surely one of the largest rhino dehorning operations to date. We had multiple helicopters operating simultaneously with several ground crews, and things were running like a well-oiled machine. Then, as is the wont of these machines, the R44 that I was flying decided to eat one of its own magnetos at the start of the day's work. Obviously I was not flying anywhere that day, and was stuck at the helipad inside a very large game reserve far away from anything vaguely resembling a bush mechanic, let alone an AMO. I reached out to Steve McCurrach manager of The Bateleurs, and within a matter of minutes he had secured a willing and able Bateleur pilot Claude Parnell who flew our engineer, with toolbox and replacement magneto in hand, all the way from Pietermaritzburg, to us in the sticks. Less than an hour and a half of them touching down, my helicopter was returned to service, and the Bat pilots and the engineer were headed back to PMB. Without the swift support of The Bateleurs, we would not have been able to continue with this crucial operation as soon as we had.

 

I am blessed. From being raised in some of KZN’s most pristine wilderness areas, to fulfilling my dream of becoming a pilot, and ultimately marrying these two aspects into one, I count myself extremely fortunate. Now as a parent of two beautiful young children, I can only pray that they too find out what makes them tick, and to pursue that vigorously.

 

Etienne obtained his CPL(A) in 2003 and his CPL(H) in 2012. He is rated on various Cessna and Piper singles, LSA aircraft, and the Robinson range. He has 3300hrs on fixed wing aircraft and 1600hrs on helicopters. All of his flying has been in rural areas, with a focus on STOL and low level operations.                

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