I love early mornings in Tsavo. Night comes short and fast near the equator, but mornings open slowly and are often cool and misty (perfect for carb ice). The days are hot, long and dusty, and since I’m rarely alone in the cockpit, it’s a decadent pleasure to fly solo, and the only time of the day I’ll be able to do so.
I pull on my Tevas and head out of the lodge on the dirt path lined with pink bougainvillea, past the little guard shack to the Kilaguni airstrip. A hungry hornbill announces my arrival, and the only other company is a family of baboons silently crossing the airstrip, wary of predators. Super Cub 5Y-KWB awaits. After looking it over, I start up and taxi out, watching for animals. Rolling down the red gravel strip, I take off to the southeast toward Tanzania.
I haven’t told anyone where I’m going, so I’m on my own. I don’t know if I can walk out, but I think of my friend and student (a term I use loosely in his case) Danny Woodley. He’s a third-generation Kenyan, warden and pilot, who once walked from the coast of Kenya to Mount Kilamanjaro, over 300 miles, and is better suited for this country than I am, but it gives me hope.
I fly low, skirting across the plateau, watching water holes for elephant, giraffe and zebra. At the crest of a plateau, I push the stick forward and dive down a cliff into the valley below where I’ll see six— maybe eight!—hippos and three or more huge crocodiles bathing in a series of shallow pools.
Ahead are the Ngulia and Kichwa Tembo, but today, I’ll turn to the south, fly through a narrow pass under broken misty fog, and descend again into a lush green Jurassic valley.
I fly close, but not too close to the trees, so I don’t disturb the elephants and other animals standing under the branches. I follow the river for a while, then turn another corner and get my first glimpse of “Kili” not far in the distance. There’s still some snow on its peaks, but not much.
Then, I start climbing toward the Chyulu Hills, past the volcanic Mzima Springs, toward a landmark of twin hills and into Kilaguni to land. It’s time for breakfast, and my day is just beginning.
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.
At the end of a long day, I walk into the lodge and see our group of pilots silhouetted by Mount Kilimanjaro, enjoying a cold beer, describing maneuvers with their hands. I’ll join them, but sometimes just sit back to watch this exquisite camaraderie. I smile with joy at the transcendent power of aviation.
The KWS is the only official paramilitary Airwing in Africa. The pilots may be called upon for animal tracking census, mountain rescues, veterinary support services, transport of supplies and more but, no doubt, their most important mission is in being a critical deterrent in the ivory wars.
Driven by greed, poachers are always armed and dangerous. Airplanes are fired upon. Rangers on the ground are killed in the line of duty every year.
The demand from Asia for elephant ivory and rhino horn has escalated at such an alarming rate that it’s not inconceivable to imagine Kenya without wild animals in just a few years. For anyone who has seen elephants and witnessed their majestic presence and emotional intelligence, it’s beyond heartbreaking. Poachers kill elephants with poisoned arrows that kill slowly, leaving baby orphans standing alone. The thought of an elephant with its faced hacked off with machetes makes me want to scream in horror.
The first time I visited Kenya, it felt Disney-esque and surreal, as if someone were behind a curtain directing animals to appear especially for me. I’ve seen lions, hartebeest, wildebeest, elephant, rhino, many types of antelope, two types of giraffe and zebra, hippo, white and black rhino, 30-foot-long crocodiles, wild dogs and foxes, and more cape buffalo than you could imagine. I’ve been on walking safaris so close to elephants you could hear their stomachs growl.
I’ve flown a Husky to 18,000 feet, to the top of Mount Kenya on the equator, and felt like I could reach out and touch its face. I’ve landed a Super Cub on an uphill dirt dogleg strip at 10,400 feet mean sea level. I’ve flown an open cockpit Waco on the Laikipia Plateau. I’ve had a martial eagle with a snake in its talons whoosh right above my head and I’ve had problems getting to my airplane because a lion was lying underneath it.
I’ve never lived there, but I’m often homesick for Kenya. It’s where my DNA began. I think of the pilots there often and hope they aren’t in harm’s way. They must stay safe and skilled to do their work, and the precious airplanes that they use to fight the ivory wars must be kept flying.
In the past we’ve been supported by contributions from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Friends of Animals and other organizations. Companies, including Bose and Champion Aerospace, have provided funding, and we also receive private donations, most recently from Dr. Rich Sugden and the Lindbergh Foundation.
If you’d like to help fund a future training session, please email me at [email protected]