Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Memory Of Red Dirt

Flying from the Arctic to the equator

LEFT TO RIGHT: Andrew Bruce of Far North Aviation in Wick, Scotland, Patty Wagstaff, Richard Spencer, Polly Warner and Rich Sugden.
There's another highway "up there," one in which pilots fly airplanes across great expanses of water and time, across the sharp edges of continents and the less sharp geographical boundaries of politics and countries. In North America, we fly long distances across the country, east to west, and even farther distances north to south; Alaska to the Lower 48. Bonanzas with drop tanks fly to Costa Rica and Panama on a regular basis, but when we leave the confines of our continents and set out beyond the islands, beyond the coast of Labrador, crossing the Atlantic leads us to a different culture both in aviation and in geography.

I used to fly jump seat with my dad when he flew 747s for JAL from Anchorage to Europe. At 33K, I had the best seat in the house, but since then, it has been big on my list to cross the pond in something less commercial. I've flown the Caribbean and down to Central America, but always have land in sight: an island, a shoal, sometimes a faint outline of the mainland—but frankly, I'm in awe of anyone who's willing to keep going the distance after losing sight of land altogether. Transatlantic/Pacific ferry pilots are a different breed with nerves of steel. I have friends who have ferried small single-engine pistons, even one who flew a 60-year-old P51-Mustang across the Atlantic. And a few years ago, I met Eppo Numan, who crossed the Atlantic in an ultralight that had hand controls for steering! I'm not nearly that brave, but I have admiration and respect nonetheless.

So when friends Rich and Sue Sugden invited me to fly in their Citation Super II to Kenya, I couldn't believe my good luck. Not only would flying across the pond check off one of the boxes on my wish list, I'd also be checking off a couple of others: possible polar bear sightings, as well as visiting Rome. It wasn't just the idea of avoiding long TSA lines in Miami and London, it was the idea of a grand adventure with friends.

Rich sent me an email telling me to pack light, and that's when I started to study our route: KDIJ-CYYR-BIRK-LIRA-HEBA-HDAM-HKNW. Did packing light mean one pair of shoes for the Arctic and for the equator? How heavy are those Uggs, and are they suitable for flying a Super Cub? What about après-flying pool wear? I decided on a couple of duffle bags and a flight bag with my Kenya/bush flying gear: Swiss Army knife, Leatherman, handheld radio, EPIRB, headset, fuel strainer, chamois for refueling out of 55-gallon drums and my perfect backup lightweight battery-powered Garmin 92 GPS. After a couple of weeks of complete closet disaster, I flew commercial to KJAC to meet my ride to Kenya.

Our reason for going to Kenya was to continue to give recurrency and aerobatic training to pilots of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), which we've been doing on a semi-annual basis since 2001, when Dr. Bill Clark started the program. (I wrote about our KWS training program in my February 2013 column. Read about it online at

Joining us would be Richard Spencer and his significant other, Polly Warner. Richard is an ex-Marine fixed-wing and helo pilot, and would be a valuable resource for our training program. Rich Sugden, a physician, former Navy flight surgeon, air show pilot and bush pilot, has lent his expertise to the program for the past several years. Rich and Richard are adventurers like me, and recently flew Kodiaks to deliver supplies to the Mars Arctic Research Station (MARS) in Nunavut, Canada. This time, they'd be flying in a different environment—the red-dirt brush of Tsavo West.


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