Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Memories Of Africa, Part VI


Seven days to Cameroon


In response to what seems like a gigabyte of e-mails, here’s yet another chapter of ferry-flying experiences in Africa during the ’80s and ’90s.
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The Sands Of Morocco. Flying over the world’s second-largest continent offers a multitude of scenic and surprising vistas.
In response to what seems like a gigabyte of e-mails, here’s yet another chapter of ferry-flying experiences in Africa during the ’80s and ’90s.

The Canary Islands are regarded as the Bahamas of Europe. Located less than 100 nm off the coast of Morocco, the Canaries are the sun-sparkled, volcanic pearls of the South Atlantic, a semi-desert, Las Vegas–style destination that attracts millions of Europeans every year.

For those of us on the road to Africa from the United States, Lanzarote or Tenerife represent the last stops before the desert—the final islands of luxury prior to launching into the unknown Sahara. The Canaries offer casinos, beaches, luxury hotels and all the standard diversions of a rich man’s watering hole.

Yesterday, I spent my day off in Tenerife, enjoying the sun, the surf and the bathing-suit-optional beaches. Not many tan lines in sight.

But, today, it’s time to leave. Africa waits, just as it has for millions of years. “My” Piper Chieftain sits strangely nose high on the ramp, its tailskid hanging low, loaded down with an extra 250 gallons of avgas inside the cabin, supplementing the normal 236 in the wings. At 20 gallons/engine/hour, I have something like 12 hours of endurance, typically enough for 2,100 nm, it says here. My hop across a small corner of the Sahara today is only 1,600 nm to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, so range shouldn’t be a problem.

This is my sixth leg from Houston, Texas, now some 4,300 nm behind me. In the last five days, I’ve flown to Bangor, Maine; hopped across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada; spanned half the Atlantic to Santa Maria, Azores; and finally trekked on to Tenerife.

I’m bound for Douala, Cameroon, where this particular Chieftain will enter service as a commuter between the airline airport and the country’s remote hunting camps. Cameroon is one of the few African countries that still allows big-game hunting, and the largest piston Piper will soon be hauling well-heeled hunters into the bush.

Finally clear of customs, immigration, flight-plan filing, 12 copies of general declarations, airport fees, refueling, met office and a half-dozen other duties, I lift off from Lanzarote at 9:30 a.m., pointing the nose southeast toward Laayoune, Western Sahara. Canarias Control seems to forget all about me shortly after takeoff—no handoff, no nothing—and I’m soon on my own, following the GPS toward the white beaches of the Dark Continent. Even IFR is a casual thing in this part of the world.

Western Sahara is one of dozens of disputed countries in Africa. Morocco claims ownership, the United Nations disagrees and Polisario guerillas still protest—until recently, they would shoot at anything that flew (since the rebels have no airplanes). When Western Sahara was “hot,” we used to overfly only at night with all lights off, but, today, I track toward Côte d’Ivoire in bright sunshine.

Most of those political problems have been resolved, and the rebels are now quiet, but I know there’s still some risk. As a result, I fly as high as I dare, on the edge of my personal oxygen tolerance. Level at FL130, the Sahara seems endless. Visibility is 10 miles or 50 or 100, no way to tell which. The desert stretches some 3,000 nm toward Saudi Arabia, a wasteland except for indigenous Tuaregs and some very nasty snakes.

The miles roll beneath the big Piper in boring repetition as Mauritania unrolls beneath me, sand and rocks and sand, a panorama of brown and tan—the view an hour ahead the same as the hour before. I have only the GPS to prove that I’m actually moving.

Ayoun el Atrous finally appears in the distance, and Mauritania grudgingly gives way to Mali, little more than a line on a chart. Mali is perhaps best known for one of the Sahara’s most infamous outposts, a city of salt named Tombouctou, popularly known as Timbuktu.

Eventually, the Sahara gives way to the Sahel, perhaps an appropriate name for a place equally as hot, barren and void of life as the desert. Bamako, Mali, slips by below, an actual city with a huge airport, a few thousand sod huts and not much else. If this was all Africa had to offer, even the French, Dutch, British and Italians would have passed it by.

Finally, the Africa of legend begins to emerge from the heat haze below, green jungles stretching to the horizons, blue-brown rivers snaking toward the coast. Côte d’Ivoire, a mere seven degrees above the equator, enjoys 30 to 35 degrees C most of the year, and Abidjan, hard by the Gulf of Guinea, luxuriates in a climate closer to Hawaii than Africa. There’s even a Club Med down the coast.

The French-run Abidjan Aero Club welcomes me, refuels my airplane, tucks it into a hangar for the night, collects the proper landing fee and offers a ride to the safest hotel in town, the Intercontinental. Almost predictably, the hotel, which is the overnight stop for Côte d’Ivoire’s most important international visitors (and pilots who get 50% off), is heavily guarded by soldiers with AK-47s patrolling the parking lot, lobby, gift shop, restaurant and each of the floors.

Ten hours later, I’m up early and out to the airport to start the final leg of my trip to Cameroon. It’s only about 800 nm away, but I’ll make the leg well out to sea to avoid the airspace of Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria.

I could stay over land for the entire distance, but I’d wind up paying airway fees to an extra four countries, probably an extra $1 per mile. Of course, I could always cheat, stay over land anyway and make my position reports as if I were over water. At 13,000 feet, there’s no other traffic, little to hit and no radar to warn you of it in this part of the world.

Fifty miles out in the Gulf of Guinea, the Chieftain settles down to a steady 180-knot groundspeed, despite the headwinds. Again, I loft up to 13,000 feet just in case something quits running and I’m forced to head for land. Search-and-rescue assets in this part of the world are nonexistent—no boats, no airplanes, little more than a phone call to the American ambassador. Most of us who fly across the Gulf of Guinea know we’d best bring along a large paddle on the chance that we might have to ditch.

Today’s flight is less dramatic. Just over four hours from takeoff, the coast of Cameroon emerges from the misty fog—right on schedule. I land, unload my bags, clear customs and immediately transfer to the airline terminal for the trip home on Sabena, the then-national carrier of Belgium.

After 19 additional hours of travel, I’m on the ground in LAX. What took seven days to accomplish by Navajo took less than a day to unravel by airline. Somehow, it just doesn’t seem fair.

Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .






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