Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Patrolling the national parks

For over 10 years, I've had the good fortune to fly in Kenya, ever since I received a letter from Dr. Bill Clark, wildlife expert and conservationist, inviting me to give aerobatic training to the pilots of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Airwing. Bill knows how important the Airwing's work is in curbing elephant and rhino poaching. As a pilot, he couldn't help but notice the amount of rebuilt airplanes in the Airwing hangar at Nairobi's Wilson Airport, and knew aerobatics would be a way to improve safety for pilots who regularly fly low and slow in the challenging conditions of the remote national parks of Kenya.

After confirming that sleeping arrangements didn't involve tents, I signed up. Since then, we've conducted our training program in Tsavo West, which borders Tanzania to the south and the coast to the east. The underdeveloped wilderness of Tsavo East and West is one of the world's largest game reserves with an astonishing number of animals and birds. Unfortunately, they're also within shouting distance of Somalia, a country so lawless it has spawned pirates and poachers at an alarming rate, making the Tsavo a prime target for their greed and lust for "blood ivory."

We ferry airplanes from Nairobi—a Super Cub, a Husky and a very special Super Decathalon that good friends in Israel and the U.S. helped purchase—to the Kilaguni Airstrip, a good choice for many reasons, not the least of which is that the strip is a short walk to the lodge, where we're always warmly welcomed.

Kenya is rather isolated in the aviation world and is a tough environment for airplanes. As in all developing countries, general aviation is a real challenge because of the weather, fuel and spare parts, lack of flight instructors and inadequate facilities and resources. Kilaguni's red-dirt gravel throws rocks into the props and control surfaces.

The airplanes are well maintained, but still, parts and pieces fall off. We've had a piece of a propeller depart, causing the airplane to shake violently. Losing tailwheels is a common occurrence. We have spares, but the long walk back to the ramp is edgy because a lion might be lurking in the brush, checking you out for breakfast.

I've lost power because of carb ice and later found a piece of the carburetor had shaken loose. Go-arounds are the norm because of the ever present animals on or crossing the runway. Zebra, giraffe, ostrich, impala and warthogs are common. If you see one animal cross the runway, you're not in the clear yet because their extended family is usually following close behind. These are the realities a pilot in Kenya has to deal with daily.

The KWS pilots are more than skilled professionals. They're stewards of the land, chosen for their special skills and knowledge of the country. Moses Lelesit, a Samburu, was hired for his incredible eyesight and tracking skills; George Mwangi, warden of Sibiloi National Park, for his knowledge of the exotic northern part of the country; Danny Woodley and his brother Bongo, English Kenyans, grew up flying in their Tsavo Warden father's Super Cub. Each pilot speaks at least three languages—English, Swahili and their tribal language. And interestingly, in Kenya where tribalism is a fact of life, often causing political and social rifts, many of the 52 tribes are represented by the KWS—Masai, Kikuyu, Samburu, Luo, Luhya and Somali.

We instructors fly as much as possible, perhaps nine or 10 times a day. Instruction is tailored to each pilot and is geared toward recurrency, precision and, of course, everyone gets aerobatic and unusual altitude training. New pilots might be transitioning from a Cessna 182 into a Super Cub, while others are transitioning from the Cub to a Husky. Mechanics, or "engineers" as they're called in Kenya, fuel the airplanes from 55-gallon drums of petrol, check over the airplanes, change plugs and whatever else is required.


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