When I departed St. John’s, Newfoundland, for Santa Maria, Azores, yesterday, the always-angry North Atlantic raged beneath me, waves rolling 20 feet at the crests with winds of 30 knots blowing whitecaps off the tops, according to the Hibernia oil platform 200 miles out. After a while, I tried not to look at the ocean, knowing there would be no chance of surviving a ditching. Fortunately, the airplane ignored the sea conditions and carried me safely to Santa Maria.
The following morning, peace had been restored to the Atlantic, with clear skies and placid seas all the way to Africa.
Approaching Tenerife in the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco, you can’t help but notice the resemblance to the Channel Islands that skirt the coast of California. The Canaries are even blessed with the climate of Southern California, no big surprise since they’re at almost the same latitude, and that makes them a near-perfect vacation getaway for Europeans.
Even better, the Canaries are usually out of the hurricane zone that inflicts major low-pressure systems farther south at the Cape Verde Islands, where the hot, dry air of the Sahara meets the humid jungle sky above the Sahel. Many future atmospheric monsters are born at Cape Verde and sometimes grow up to be named Katrina, Andrew, or Sandy.
For pilots, Tenerife sits in a meteorological sweet spot, usually too far north for developing storms but far enough south to still enjoy spring/summer-like weather year-round.
For those of us who deliver airplanes to Africa, the island resorts of Lanzarote and Tenerife provide near-perfect overnight stops on the high road to the Sahara and points south.
It’s only 60 miles from Tenerife to the Sahara, a stark, porcelain border of brilliant white beach, marching directly into the South Atlantic and backed by 2,000 miles of monotonous sand dunes and salt flats, baking at 40 degrees C, as far as the eye can’t see. Whether you’re flying a Conquest at 23,000 feet or a 36 Bonanza at half that height, the desert remains immutable and unchanging, horizons without end, ageless and unforgiving. The Sahara is, in its own way, as dangerous as the ocean.
When I flew my two-dozen delivery flights to South Africa in the ’80s and ’90s (or back to the U.S. during the disinvestment program), some of the countries in Saharan Africa were in a nearly constant state of revolution. For that reason, some pilots elected to fly at night, usually with all external lights off. In conflicts between rebels and military troops, only the government had airplanes, so the rebels often shot at any aircraft they saw.
We’d all heard about aircraft shot down over the desert by rebels with shoulder-launched missiles—an MU-2 returning from an Antarctic science mission and a pair of locust suppression DC-7s. I flew all my trips in daytime, usually at 11,000 feet. Fortunately, I never saw a missile go whistling by.
Looking down from two miles above the desert, the terrain resembled the surface of the moon without the impact craters, a seemingly endless panoply of time-worn topography stretching in every direction to nameless dry lakes and infinite desert.
The only living thing below appeared to be an occasional stand of acacia trees, with their needle-sharp spines. Somehow, snakes and spiders survive in the desert as well. The rule was, if it didn’t sting, bite, or poison you, it was probably a rock.
If it’s true Africa has a magical attraction to some adventurers, I’ll wager the magic doesn’t begin until somewhere south of the Sahara.
Five hundred miles into Mauritania from the coast, I flew across a strange geologic formation known as the Richat Structure, a huge set of eroded semi-concentric circles in the sand. The largest measures 25 miles across. It’s so big yet so remote that hardly anyone knew it was there until the age of satellites provided air-to-ground photos. Scientists know it’s not a meteor impact or a volcano. They have no idea what it is.
Another 400 miles east lies the infamous “city” so often identified as the end of the Earth: Timbuktu, Mali, now mostly covered by drifting sand. Timbuktu was once a center of trade and salt mining. You know you’re well off the beaten path when you overfly Timbuktu.
In fact, much of the central Sahara is becoming uninhabitable as the underground water table continues to drop and once-reliable wells dry up. Even the Tuareg and Bedouin tribesmen no longer travel in some parts of the Sahara because of the lack of water.
The huge African desert redefines the term “trackless waste” and, partially for that reason, many pilots headed for East Africa prefer to fly across the top, by way of the Mediterranean, rather than transit 2,000 miles of inhospitable Sahara.
Eventually, I turned south toward my destination of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on the Gulf of Guinea, and the land transitioned to jungle.
Departing Henderson Field on the island of Guadalcanal, Mariana Islands, I point the nose southwest toward the Great Barrier Reef and Oz. The Marianas soon give way to the Coral Sea, and, once again, just as for the last four days, there’s nothing but ocean below.
I’m delivering another new Mooney Ovation—my 13th—flying the last leg of a seven-stop, 8,000 nm trip from the Kerrville, Texas, factory to my destination of Brisbane.
The trip has gone almost perfectly, despite its numerical triskaidekaphobic significance. Mooneys are well suited to these trips, even if they can’t land on water. They’re relatively fast, economical, reliable machines, and, contrary to popular opinion, they’re also fairly comfortable. If you have to sit in a single-engine airplane for 12 to 14 hours, a Mooney is a stable ride with reasonable room and good ventilation, even if the owner didn’t opt for air conditioning.
My aluminum cocoon drifts along at a quick 170 knots, draining fuel at about 13.0 gph. With just over 200 gallons of fuel available, including a 30-gallon tank where the right front seat and control yoke used to be, plus another 70 gallons in place of the rear seat, I have roughly 15 hours’ endurance, worth over 2,500 nm between pit stops.
The good news is that the longest leg, Santa Barbara to Honolulu, is only a little over 2,100 nm. Two days ago, I made that hop in 12.4 hours. Then, following a butt recovery day in Hawaii, I flew another 1,980 nm down to Majuro, Marshall Islands, smack in the middle of the Pacific, in 11 hours with help from the always-friendly trade winds.
Yesterday, I managed to make Guadalcanal, 1,300 nm south, in only seven hours. Henderson Field on Guadalcanal is the stuff of legends. Seventy-five years ago, it was a fiercely contested, strategic airbase built by the Japanese in their quest to conquer the South Pacific. Today, it’s a sleepy, single-runway strip, euphemistically renamed Honiara International Airport, a standard stop for aircraft headed for Australia or New Guinea.
During WWII, Henderson was the base for Marine fighter squadron VMF214, known as the Black Sheep and commanded by Major Greg “Pappy” Boyington. The hit TV series “Baa Baa Black Sheep” was based (loosely) on the exploits of VMF214 and its colorful commander.
Like so much of the South Pacific, the Coral Sea is well named. After you clear the Marianas, the major island chains are behind you, but there are still hundreds of half-moon atolls on the route to Australia. The ocean is shallow and calm most of the time and as clear as Waterford crystal. Coral reefs are everywhere, usually just below the surface.
The weather over the Coral Sea is CAVU more often than not, and you can look straight down and see the incredible colors of the Great Barrier Reef as you close with the east coast of Australia. Astronauts claim the reef is the largest form of life that can be seen from 250 miles up, running along the coast for 800 nm.
On one trip in a Shrike Commander a few years back, I saw much of it from 500 feet up, looking for whatever undersea life I could spot. I didn’t see much except seabirds fighting over fish scraps and an occasional bat-winged stingray.
If the Coral Sea is benign most of the time, it has its own hazards that make ditching more than a little risky. Bull sharks pose enough of a hazard that some Australian beaches are surrounded by nets. Sea snakes with the world’s most virulent venom are common around Australia, though they’re not normally aggressive.
Flying to Brisbane, you merge with the coastline at a very slight angle, so slight that you often won’t spot the mainland unless you look out the right window.
Australia is an entrancing place to visit, an island continent about the size of the U.S. but with the population of New York City.
As of January 1, 2016, Senior Editor Bill Cox has logged 15,100 flight hours in 321 types of aircraft. He also holds 28 world city-to-city speed records, has made 211 international delivery flights, and owns and flies a LoPresti Mooney. You can email Bill at [email protected].