Tom van der Meulen - Gyro pilot extraordinaire

By Willie Bodenstein


Limpopo resident Tom van der Meulen started his aviation career in 1989 flying paragliders and in 1991, he moved on to motorized paragliders. He clocked a total of 428 hours in the two types. In 1994, Tom got his PPL in a Cessna C172, converting to a Piper Arrow and a C150, notching up a total of 72.1 hours on fixed wings. In 2007 he got his Gyro License and has never looked back.

He now has a total of 5,500 hours, 5,000 of which is on Gyrocopters.

In his career that has now spanned thirty-three years, he has had many highlights, three of which stand out above all the others.

On 10 April 2013, Tom and five other Gyrocopter pilots decided to fly over the entire land border of South Africa. Starting from Hoedspruit to the Mozambique border, the anti-clockwise flight around the border took them back sixteen days later to Hoedspruit, spanning a total of 82.2 hours and 9,300km, of which the border itself was about 7500km. This flight was an attempt to set a new record and to raise funds to support anti-Rhino poaching.

2013 Landing at PC Pockock's field at Barberton

Because of poor visibility, they landed on the wrong side of the wire of the forbidden diamond area. Fortunately, they were able to sort things out and were allowed to continue with their adventure.

Back at Hoedspruit, Ashley Whitfield being interviewed by the SABC with Keith McCloud looking on.

Now, no stranger to long distance flying, Tom decided to attempt to broke the world Gyrocopter long distance record of 1307km in the sub 500kg Gyro class, set by Spaniard Fernando Rosello in June 2009, flying an ELA 017. The longest flight ever of 1414.6 km in a Gyro was set on the 3 Feb 2007 by American Andrew C Keech in a Little Wing LW5. The South African record of 1290 km was set by Theuns Eloff in his Calidus, flying from Morningstar in the Cape to Kittyhawk in Gauteng.

On the 25 May 2013 at 0537, Tom took off from Hoedspruit's Civil Airport. Tom's destination was the farm Donkerhoek in Paarl in the Western Cape, a direct distance 1570.9 km. In order to break the record, Tom calculated that he would need 260 of fuel, 12 hours of daylight and no headwinds.

The record attempt route.

Final late-night preparations.

The 21st May was chosen as the weather conditions were perfect. However, it did not go as planned. For the first third of the flight, there was an almost complete lack of any wind. This changed to first a crosswind and then as he flew over the Free State plains, it morphed into a total headwind. Over the Karoo, he had the go ever lower to try and avoid the wind. That was when, Tom said, he started doubting that he would have sufficient fuel to reach his destination and break the record.

Halfway there.

Tom's modification to transfer fuel from the tank on the backseat to the main tank.

Fuel in all the tanks had to be physically pumped with a bladder hand pump to the main tank. This kept Tom quite busy. He was nearing Sutherland when at last the wind started to turn and then he realized he had broken Rosella's record and his spirits rose. The airport was within reach, but his fuel reserves were almost depleted and he flew from one possible landing spot to the next.

Crossing the mountains at Humansdorp.

Safely on the ground at Donkerhoek.

The amount of fuel left when Tom landed at Donkerhoek.

Wheels down eventually, he landed at Donkerhoek at 16.32, ten hours and fifty-five minutes after take-off. His GPS indicated 1572km. The record was in the bag!

Tom's record stood for four months and has subsequently been bettered by 60km.

Tom's landing spot after having flown his 5,000th hour.

Tom with his son Thomas in the backseat.

Proudly displaying his 5,000th hour placard.

On 11 Feb 2022, when Tom landed after a flight, he had flown 4998.1 hours in his Gyro. Five thousand hours was only two hours away and to get to it, he decided on the 12th to take a friend up for an hour's flight, landing on 4999 hours. Then, with his son Thomas in the backseat, he flew for one more hour landing at 5,000 hours.

Tom's business involves a lot of flying and the big 10,000 may just be possible.

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