Monday, December 5, 2011
Part I: Southbound—From London to Cape Town in a Robinson R44
Rutherford may not have anticipated anyone would be mad enough to consider the trip in a single-engine piston helicopter, but his enthusiastic response to my idea was that it would be "quite the adventure." He also offered to fly as my copilot, which gave me added confidence that I could complete the journey in my Robinson R22, as I had only two years of helicopter flying and 300 hours under my belt.
We were to be joined by seven fixed-wing aircraft, ranging from a large twin and a turboprop to a small kitplane. The plan for the group was to meet in Cyprus in February 2011, where we would undertake a short sea crossing to Egypt, take advantage of the good weather, and make Cape Town in 18 days. From my perspective, the planning was quite simple. Rutherford's company would organize all hotels, airports, flight clearances and fuel. I had to ensure the helicopter was capable of doing the 8,500 nm flight.
A few days before departure, the Egyptian revolution occurred, and it became clear that our planned flight from Paphos through Egypt via El Arish and Luxor to Wadi Halfa in Sudan wasn't going to be feasible. Our Plan B alternatives were Syria/Saudi Arabia or Libya. Saudi at short notice is impossible with a group of small planes, so Libya it was. The main drawbacks were repositioning to Crete, a long sea crossing to Libya, and two very long flights across the Libyan empty quarter to make Sudan. No one ever said it would be easy.
On Saturday, February 12, we were at the airport well before dawn with the prospect of nine hours of flying to Al Kufra, a town deep in eastern Libya's Sahara. We left Crete at first light and headed southwest, over the mountains and out across a lonely sea. It was 280 miles over water, protected from the elements by one engine, a life raft, life jackets and marine survival suits. Three hours after leaving Heraklion, we saw the coast of Africa ahead and soon we were on the ground at Benghazi.
Next, it was south over the Sahara. Now, we were leaving civilization behind. Radar and air traffic control vanished, the temperature got warmer, and the landscape resembled a huge sandpit punctuated at least for the first part of the flight by large isolated oil installations. About 30 minutes north of Al Kufra, just as the sun was setting, we landed on top of a pinnacle in an area resembling Utah's Monument Valley, for a spectacular stop before landing at the airport just before dusk.
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