Friday, February 1, 2008
Memories Of Africa, Part V
Taking detours into South Africa
The following is in response to dozens of e-mails requesting additional installments on flying Africa. Keep in mind, this Caravan trip occurred in 1989 when South Africa still maintained its policy of apartheid.
It’s only 6:30 a.m., and I’m already sweating as I climb the ladder to the new Caravan’s cockpit. It’s November, but here in Libreville, Gabon, the equator knows no season except summer. The sun steams up above the dense jungle to the east, low and fat against the horizon, and I’m eager to ascend into cooler air.
I’m ready to leave the ground for other reasons, too. Yesterday, as I was refueling the airplane near the short grass at the ramp’s edge, I saw the grass rustling behind the plane and mentioned it to the young fueler. He looked back, and said, “Oh, don’t worry, probably just a cobra.” He calmly picked up his machete and walked off into the grass, barefoot and wearing only a pair of shorts. I saw the snake raise its flared hood slightly above the grass before the boy swung the machete once and stepped back over to the airplane as casually as if he did this sort of thing every day.
While he continued to fuel the Caravan, I took a few tentative steps into the grass (in Reeboks and Levi’s) to find a decapitated cobra still writhing in the grass.
This is my 16th trip to the Dark Continent, but just as before, I can’t tell anyone along the route my real destination. Like most ferry pilots who regularly fly in Africa, I carry a second, “conflict” passport with no South African visas in it. A South African stamp would probably cause me to be denied entry to any of the Sub-Saharan African countries I must transit.
My final destination is officially listed as Gaborone, Botswana, 140 miles southeast of Johannesburg, again because my flight plan would be denied if I listed my true point of arrival. (I have to wonder if officials in the countries I transit are mystified at what must be dozens of new airplanes parked on the ramp in Botswana.)
Most of the cargo area behind me is taken up by seven 55-gallon drums of jet fuel, adding an extra 2,500 pounds of Jet A to the Caravan’s standard 2,200-pound capacity. That’s more than 700 gallons total, which offers somewhere between 16 and 18 hours of endurance. On this trip, “my” Caravan flies at a fat gross of nearly 10,000 pounds, about 1,300 over the normal weight limit.
Today, I should only need about 10 hours (it says here) to fly the 1,500 nm down the west coast of Africa to Windhoek, Namibia. In theory, I’ll arrive in Windhoek with nearly enough fuel to go on to Johannesburg.
The good news about ferrying a Caravan is that it’s a great ride. The airplanes are usually well equipped, extremely roomy and comfortable, and very stable instrument platforms. The bad news is that Caravans are slow, typically 145 knots with the heavy fuel load. Accordingly, I fly early to utilize daylight for the long legs.
As this day begins and the sun climbs well above the horizon, I start the PT-6, call the tower, verify that the runway lights are definitely off (otherwise, I would be charged light fees—day or night) and taxi to the holding point. African airports always seem to find innovative ways to extract fees from pilots, and though this trip is on a pilot fee plus expenses, I try to avoid all the fees I can.
Despite the heavy load, the Caravan levitates off the ground like an elevator and starts uphill at an easy 800 fpm. I climb away from the psychedelic green jungle toward the building cumulus that resides 24/7 along the Intertropical Convergence Zone or ITCZ (inevitably slandarized by pilots as the ITCH). It’s not uncommon for CB activity to last for several days and nights on the ITCH, but last night was clear, and today, the muscular cumulus are slow in building.
Finally level at 11,000 feet, I’m well on top of the clouds and cruising at 160 knots with the help of slight tailwinds. South of the equator, the clouds begin to slope downhill as I cross over Tchibanga VOR at the bottom of Gabon and turn 45 degrees right to angle offshore. South of Gabon, Congo and Angola aren’t especially friendly to overflying American aircraft, so most ferry pilots sidestep 20 to 30 miles off the West African coast to be well out of rifle and TOW missile range, then track south paralleling the 11-degree E meridian, safely watching Angola pass far to the left.
In the early ’80s, two ferry pilots, Jeff Tyler and Tom Willett, served prison terms in Luanda for the crime of having engine problems and landing in Angola without permission. I have resolved to go into the water before I’ll land on the beach in Angola.
I make my obligatory transmissions on HF as if I expect a response, and on some trips, I actually receive one or two. Position reports are something of an exercise in futility in this part of the world, anyway. This is the end of the earth for search-and-rescue services. Countries such as Congo and Angola have essentially no SAR assets, no boats, no airplanes, so if you do go down, you’d best bring a compass and a paddle so you can find land on your own.
I drift south over the water (I’m more comfortable here than over land when that land is Africa). Far off in the distance, I can barely make out infamous Luanda, the best reason I can think of to avoid this part of the Dark Continent.
As I track south toward Namibia, the land transitions from double-canopy rain forest to arid desert, one of the driest in the world. The Namid begins in southern Angola, runs 400 miles along the coast through Namibia, then goes down to Capetown, South Africa. It receives only about a half-inch of rainfall a year. And you thought the Sahara was dry.
Eight hours out, I see the white hook of Tiger Island protruding out into the ocean; it was formerly a peninsula shaped by the outflow of the Cunene River, the border between Angola and Namibia. I turn left toward the distant coast, knowing it’s now safe to overfly the land. I pass barren Brandberg Mountain and descend into Windhoek’s Eros Airport two minutes ahead of schedule.
The following day, I climb the Caravan’s ladder for the last time and head out across the Kalahari Desert toward Johannesburg. Like the Namib, the Kalahari redefines “dry,” but much of it’s interlaced with dirt roads, so at least you’ll have company if you go down. The area is dotted with dry lakes (known as “pans” in this part of the world), all flat, nearly ideal, emergency-landing sites.
I overfly Gaborone, angle southeast toward Johannesburg and finally land at Rand Airport four hours after leaving Windhoek.
As I hand the airplane’s logbooks and keys to the new owner, I’m told that this Caravan will be configured with 12 seats and go into immediate service flying tourists into a game park in the Okavanga Swamp area of northern Botswana. I also learn that I’m wanted in Vero Beach, Fla., ASAP to pick up the first production Piper Mirage for delivery to Kassel, Germany. No rest for the wicked—er, make that stupid—I guess.