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Flying To East Africa

What was I doing in Djibouti?

East Africa
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As I stared out at the desert sun barely blistering above the Red Sea, I was overjoyed that the trip was nearly over. It was the ninth day of what seemed an interminable delivery from Santa Monica, California, to Nairobi, Kenya.

The day before, the leg south out of Luxor, Egypt, paralleling the coast of Sudan and Eritrea, was a nightmare of 115-degree heat, controllers trying to give me vectors to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and a cylinder head temp that was pegged as far to the right as it could go much of the time.

When we left the luxury of Luxor at 8 a.m. the previous day, the temperature was already pushing 100 degrees, and the airplane obviously didn’t appreciate the heat during the extended climb. I left the mixture full rich to keep the big Lycoming as happy as I could, but because of the fuel overload, we couldn’t climb much above 7,000 feet, and the controllers insisted we continue to our filed altitude of 11,000 feet.

There seemed to be a half-dozen aircraft that needed to transition through our little patch of Middle East airspace down the middle of the Red Sea, flights coming out of or going into Cairo, Luxor, Port Said, Riyadh and other places I couldn’t pronounce. Though I had flown this route twice before, I couldn’t believe the amount of traffic in this corner of the eastern Sahara.

At least the Lance was a good airplane for the trip, even if it didn’t have a turbocharger or air conditioning. The clients had called six months earlier and asked if I could find them a reasonable-condition, six-seat single that could cruise over 150 knots and manage legs of 600 to 700 nm. It had to have a big cargo door, a gentle stall and not be afraid of dirt strips.

I had found this 1976 Piper PA-32R-300, had it painted and reupholstered to the owners’ specs, and now we were about to complete the delivery to Nairobi. The owners were flying throughout Central Africa for education and medical care, and the Lance would be their mode of transport.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the Lance’s retractable gear, the airplane was an excellent choice for the mission, a cross between speed and carrying capacity, easily and quickly converted from one configuration to another and talented enough to do both jobs equally well. 

It was fitted with a durable and seemingly bulletproof 300 hp, Lycoming IO-540 engine and a large, double cargo door on the aft left fuselage directly behind the wing. Standard fuel was 94 gallons, but the total capacity could be increased to as much as 150 gallons or more, if necessary. In our case, we had about 180 gallons total to allow us to make as few stops as possible on the ferry flight.

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That’s because avgas, outside the U.S., was becoming a rare commodity in many parts of the world, where volume is perhaps limited to a handful of airplanes a day. Since volume governs price and profit, many airports have long since dropped avgas availability altogether.

At the time, the South Pacific was an especially tough place to find avgas, as Mobil, once a prime supplier, simply stopped refining the type and left much of the Pacific low and dry. The islands are often so far apart, clients are literally few and far between. The only alternative is to use auto fuel and reduced power for all phases of flight.

(One of my first airplanes was a 1951 Bellanca Cruisemaster, and I was amazed to discover it was approved for 73 octane fuel. Today, there’s hardly any piston petrol that’s rated for less than 80 octane.) 

When you can find avgas in some rarely traveled places, it’s often ridiculously expensive. Most of Greenland’s airports charge about $17-$18 a gallon for 100 LL, and some places at even more remote locations exceed $25 per gallon.

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At 15 gallons per hour across the Atlantic and Europe, we had about 12 hours’ endurance for a theoretical range of 1,700 nm. The ferry flight never demanded more than nine hours, so the only real challenges on the final leg into Nairobi were strong headwinds, rising terrain and a lack of options on the route, mostly the steeply rising Ethiopian mountains. We left Djibouti with perhaps 11 hours of fuel for what I flight planned for a seven- to eight-hour leg. Except for the winds, the weather was good. Now, if the damned wind had just backed off from 25 knots on the nose, I’d have been a lot happier.

Back to the story: We finally managed to land in Djibouti after circling for a half hour looking for traffic we never saw. The airplane was none the worse for wear, but the crew was pretty well frazzled after seven hours of dealing with angry controllers, abysmal heat and the occasional chop that jarred our teeth.

Eventually, we were sequenced behind a gargantuan Russian Antonov An-124, among the largest airplanes in the world. After landing, we were directed to park under the Antonov’s left wing, a contrast between the gargantuan and the miniature. There was no other shade available on the ramp, and the controller generously commented that we would be fine under the An-124’s 250-foot wingspan if we snuggled up to the giant, as long as we were gone by 9 a.m. the following morning.

The Russian crew was staying at the same hotel, and we tried to exchange notes on flying south to Nairobi at breakfast the following morning. Several crewmembers spoke English, but, surprisingly, the captain didn’t. Our knowledge of Russian was nonexistent, so we concentrated on our breakfast.

The airplane’s owner and I would fly his totally refurbished Piper Lance 800 miles south above Ethiopia’s Ogaden Desert to Kenya. At least, that was the plan. Like all flights in Africa, we had a new set of challenges. The Lance would be loaded about 700 pounds over gross (with ferry fuel and ocean/desert survival equipment) on a Special Airworthiness Certificate, so reaching the MEA would be a challenge.

The terrain sloped significantly uphill as we tracked south. That meant we would have to climb to keep pace with the mountains of the Ethiopian highlands as we proceeded toward Kenya.

Accordingly, I would normally have been tempted to route along the coast, but we had Somalia along the way, and the country’s contentious political climate proved dangerous to overflying planes.

Additionally, there was very little in the way of radio navigation in much of eastern Africa. Flying south out of Djibouti, there was a total of one VOR and a sprinkling of NDBs (assuming someone remembered to turn them on) scattered along the east coast of the continent. Fortunately, the lack of established, ground-based navaids is probably irrelevant, as practically everyone in that part of the world flies by GPS.

In our case, the trip progressed more or less normally, though the heavy overload and heat never allowed us to come anywhere near our assigned IFR altitude. HF radio is required in this part of the world for IFR communications, assuming you can count on the receiving station system to be up and working. (I use a 100-watt, Kenwood TS50S converted HAM system that works well under most conditions. I once contacted Rio de Janeiro control from Reykjavik, Iceland.)

(I wandered into the communications shack at Guadalcanal airport in the Solomon Islands a few years ago and noted that they had three huge racks of HF radios, yet hardly any of them worked. No big surprise; they were all WWII, tube-type, military surplus, at least 60 years old.)

As we proceeded south toward Ethiopia’s southern border with Kenya, things began to improve. The GPS suggested the wind was dying down, the temperature was dropping slightly, and we were able to ascend to our approved cruise height. Just as I was beginning to relax, the engine gave out with a ratty “Brrrt.” Recovered. Then did it again, recovered and finally began to run rough. Fuel pump, changing and adjusting mixture had no effect. Not good.

Regular readers of this column may recognize that I had been there before. With 250 international trips in my logbooks, I knew it was almost bound to happen at least once. In fact, I’ve had four total engine failures on ferry airplanes, two on a twin on the west coast of Africa.

Next month, we’ll let you know how we fared with those airplanes, and how the problems were resolved.

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