OUT ON AFRICA
Across Africa on Vintage Planes
ANTIQUE AIRCRAFT WITH RUDIMENTARY INSTRUMENTS. A 12,000-kilometre route passing over conflict-torn areas and through sunlit regions, some prone to sudden thunderstorms. Around 20 pilots who have never before travelled together as a group. Ten countries in 35 days. What could possibly go wrong?
Simply put, a lot — and Sam Rutherford, organiser and mastermind of the Crete2Cape Vintage Air Rally, knew it well. Years ago, Rutherford retraced the first airmail route in Africa, pioneered by Imperial Airways in 1931. He started from the Greek island of Crete, ended up in Cape Town, and decided to hold an air rally along the same flight path. Later, he added a requirement that increased both the event’s novelty and difficulty — only aircraft built before 1949 could be used.
Fortunately, Rutherford is no stranger to challenging flights. He is the founder of Prepare2Go, a company that provides logistics support to journalists, TV producers, government agencies, and organisations in hostile places
“SOUNDS LIKE A CRAZY IDEA — TO CROSS AFRICA WITH AN OLD-TIMER”
around the world. Be it aerial filming over Papua New Guinea or locating stray weapons in Libya, Prepare2Go makes a living out of complex aviation missions. “I’m a big fan of doing things that haven’t been done before. I like the challenge,” says Rutherford.
Pilot teams comprising spouses, fathers and daughters, and friends took up the Africa Route challenge, taking off on 12th November and finishing up on 17th December. Rare aircraft included 1928 Travel Air biplanes, Stampe & Vertongen aeroplanes, a Bücker Jungmann trainer, and a Boeing Stearman. “Sounds like a crazy idea — to cross Africa with an old-timer. Your life is at stake every day. But I think if you want to do something that you really love, you have to accept that small amount of risk,” says Cedric, a pilot of one of the Stampe biplanes.
Using such old aircraft without modern avionics meant flying could only be done in VFR (visual flight rules) conditions, in which pilots could clearly see where they were headed. Pilots would sit in tight, open cockpits where knees sometimes got in the way of joysticks, with faces exposed to the sun and wind in temperatures of 25 to 35 degrees Celsius.
“IF IT WAS EASY, IT WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN WORTH DOING”
With their small fuel tanks and low speeds, the vintage aircraft could only travel as far as 500km before needing more fuel, which meant the pilots made more than 30 stops throughout the rally. Only a specific type of fuel, though, could be used for most of the aircraft — Avgas, which is extremely difficult to find in Africa. To resolve this hurdle, Prepare2Go partnered with Puma Energy, which prepositioned trucks and drums full of Avgas at every stop after Tanzania.
But one can only prepare so much — there will always be circumstances beyond one’s control. On 22nd November, as the aviators flew into Ethiopia from Sudan, they found themselves detained for supposed illegal entry into the country. They were freed after two days, but had to skip scenic tours in Kenya to go straight to Nairobi and remain on schedule. Two weeks later, an intense gust during a thunderstorm caused a parked Tiger Moth biplane to careen into a helicopter, damaging both aircraft.
It’s moments like these that make you appreciate the high points more, says Rutherford, adding: “If it was easy, it wouldn’t have been worth doing.” Spotting the Big Five from the air in Botswana, flying low over the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, landing on the rim of the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania, chasing the sunset in the Sahara — these were only some of the rewards of joining the rally. One of the biplanes landed at the Pyramids of Giza, the first time in 80 years that an aircraft was permitted to do so. Casual campfires and black-tie events capped off the evenings.
“To fly these [vintage aircraft], you need to be flexible, resourceful and imaginative, and have a lot of stamina. It’s very hard work,” says Rutherford. The rally even ended with an award for the team with “the most exemplary behaviour”, as well as for the pilot who most accurately calculated the estimated time to each destination.
There were rewards for others, too. The pilots joined seed bombing campaigns and helped raise funds for conserving African vulture species, among other causes. Rutherford also hopes that the air rally awakened a desire in young onlookers to become aviators one day. And it’s not only those in Africa who might discover such a yearning. Upcoming Vintage Air Rallies will trace a route from Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of South America, to New York in 2018, as well as from Sydney to London passing through Asia in 2020.
Alaskan teams’ 1928 Travel Air 4000 biplanes — including one that was used in 1931 to smuggle alcohol from Canada to the US during the prohibition
A Tiger Moth biplane, flown by O Team from South Africa, passes over the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe
Local Sudanese greet the pilots with traditional music, with an Antonov An-2 single-engine biplane in the background
All teams at Mersa Matruh in Egypt, their first stop in Africa. In the background is the German team’s Bü 131 Bücker Jungmann The vintage aircraft were met by vintage cars at Giza A warm welcome for the pilots in Ad-Damazin, Sudan Tiger Moth biplanes flown by teams from South Africa and the United Kingdom
UK and Botswana crews prepare to take off from Sitia, a port town in Crete, the rally’s starting point