Thousands of hours of labour were earlier this month rewarded when the world’s only Patchen Explorer took off from AFB Swartkop.
The aircraft was brought to South Africa in May 1975 by Dr Maitland Reed of National Dynamics. He bought the prototype and all rights from American Marvin Patchen, who financed it as the landplane version of the TSC-1 Amphibian.
When Reed bought the aircraft it had recorded just over 200 flying hours. On arrival in South Africa the high-wing, single-engined aircraft was based at Virginia airport where it was registered as ZS-UGF.
Plans to put it into production never materialised and Reed offered the Explorer to the SA Air Force (SAAF) for evaluation. It was first flown by SAAF test pilot Pikkie Rautenbach on August 23, 1975 after which the Patchen was moved to the Test Flight and Development Centre (TFDC), then based at AFB Waterkloof, where it was tasked as a communication aircraft. It had the SAAF serial number 2000.
Pilots in the SAAF, including test pilot Bob Masson, were critical of the aircraft’s design particularly the location of the engine. Mounted on a pylon, high above the wing, the aircraft’s high centre of gravity had to be managed well especially in gusty weather. During its time with TFDC the aircraft proved handy, if under-utilised, and it accumulated only 49 hours between 1975 and 1979.
The Patchen’s nose landing gear seemed susceptible to hard landings and was damaged more than once. Following another failure of the nose-wheel the Air Force appeared reluctant to repair the aircraft and the Patchen was left unattended at Waterkloof. The downtime resulted in a steady deterioration of the aircraft, as it stood idle at TFDC between 1979 and 1986. The cost to return it to flight proved unjustified and with other test flight projects and its imminent move from Waterkloof to Overberg, TFDC decided to dispose of the Patchen Explorer.
Although interest was shown from civilian buyers, the SAAF disposal board decided to rather transfer the Patchen to the SAAF Museum, because of its uniqueness. The nose-gear was eventually repaired and during February 1987 the aircraft was serviced and brought back to flying condition before being ferried to the Museum’s workshop at Lanseria. A superfluous Museum colour scheme was subsequently added.
As an economical runabout it was flown regularly across the country to air shows, venturing as far south as Margate for the annual EAA convention and even flown down to Port Elizabeth and Cape Town on at least one occasion.
By September 1989 the airframe had accumulated a total of 400 hours of flying, but the nose-gear still proved troublesome and had to be repaired yet again. The nose structure was subsequently reinforced and modified by Air Force engineers and Museum technical personnel.
At the controls when it taxied off the Swartkop hardstand this month were Major General (ret) Des Barker and Colonel Rama Iyer. The February 7 flight marked the return to airworthiness of an aircraft that last flew in early 1986 with Lieutenant Colonel Dave Knoesen, a former Silver Falcons team leader and Museum Officer Commanding, at the controls.