Quest to reach for the skies

Port Alfred man earned SA colours for radio-controlled gliding

“MEN and their toys” is an expression one hears from time to time and is often used loosely.

A STORY TO TELL: Settlers Park residents Roy and Val Spavins Picture: BOB FORD

But this is certainly not the case with Settlers Park resident Roy Spavins, who gained Springbok colours on three occasions for radio controlled gliding. And his hand built aircraft were far from being “toys.”

Spavins took part in his first world Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) championships as part of a three-man team in Pretoria in 1977 when 22 countries took part over five days. The championships involved flying multi task events which included flying duration, speed and distance. These took place over a 150m course with the aircraft reaching speeds of up to 160km/h.

His second world championships took place a few years later in Belgium and proved to be his and the team’s most successful during his career. The South Africans ran out the winners of this event with Spavins finishing third in the individual section.

“I was so close to winning this and would have done so had something not broken on the aircraft,” he said.

His last world championships took place in California in the United States, where the team again performed well to finish third overall. Spavins again performed well individually to finish in 12th place.

There were no kits in those days and I built all my aircraft myself with my own designs

Spavins’ interest in this hobby started way back when he was a child living in England and his father worked at South Africa House in London as an accountant for five years. His interest in gliding with no radio grew steadily through his teens and while he was studying mechanical engineering at Witwatersrand University.

“There were no kits in those days and I built all my aircraft myself with my own designs, which fitted in well with the degree I was studying for,” Spavins said. It took him 200 hours to complete a championship aircraft with a wing span of 3.5m. He built about 50 of these during his career.

Spavins advanced to radio flying and joined the Pretoria Radio Flyers’ Club in 1972 after leaving university. Being extremely competitive, he proceeded to win all the inter-provincial and national events in South Africa for the next five years.

“We gained tremendous experience when competing in the world championships and it was difficult for local flyers to compete against us,” Spavins said.

Flying model aircraft became more and more popular and it grew to such an extent that it was no longer a hobby. He added: “This became very professional with competitors putting more and more money into it. They were purchasing planes for up to R15 000.”

In 1981 he decided to retire from the sport he loved

Spavins had won everything he could in South Africa. In addition, pressure of work was making it more difficult for him to put in the time he needed to remain competitive. So it was that in 1981 that he decided to retire from the sport he loved. He has donated his entire collection and Springbok blazers to the SA Model Aircraft Association Museum on the Rand.

Spavins has also enjoyed an interesting and successful working career and has held several top positions. After working for the South African Railways for many years, one of the positions he held was general manager of a construction company in Boksburg that produced railway points and crossings. A total of 300 people were employed by the company.

Spavins’ last undertaking was the upgrading and rebuilding of 200 Saracen armoured personnel carriers, which were used by the then SA Defence Force.

He finally retired in 2005 and joined his wife, Val, selling property in Pretoria until they settled in Port Alfred at the end of 2006.

After moving to Port Alfred a few years ago, they have now settled in Settlers Park where Spavins serves on the board as the finance director. His main pastime now is a “more relaxed fishing” when he gets the opportunity.

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