Vintage aircraft armada heading for the Cape
A flock of intrepid birdmen are recreating history, using the aircraft of the day, writes IAN WILLIAMS Tiger still burning bright
TRAVELLING these days is easy. We can relax in comfortable seats in an aluminium tube and fly from Cape Town to Europe in comfort in 12 hours. But it hasn’t always so easy, and in the next month, a bunch of adventurous airmen will be recreating the fledgeling efforts of the early trans-African aviators and bringing an armada of historic aircraft from Crete to Stellenbosch.
Thirteen biplanes dating back to the 1930s, a gaggle of single-engined monoplanes and three helicopters will be undertaking the flight, and while modern technology and communications will make their life easier, it will still be a long haul, with the same perils that faced pilots over 80 years ago.
Five participlants will fly De Havilland’s legendary Tiger Moth, which is immortalised in popular culture for its roles in The English Patient, Out of Africa, and a recent Taylor Swift music video, Wildest Dreams. But what is little known is its importance in the history of flight in Africa, as well as an unsung role in Allied victory in World War II.
These – and other biplanes – were the type of aircraft the aviators used to fly in the early years of aviation exploration and in most cases were little more than powered kites made of wood and canvas.
The route has historic significance because it recreates the first flights over Africa in the 1920s, used by Imperial Airways from Britain to South Africa. Stopping at Empire outposts en route, the “formal” route was established in 1931. The chain of airfields was originally created in 1919 by the Royal Air Force and was put in place to ensure the delivery of airmail and passenger services down the length of Africa.
As aviation technology progressed and aircraft designs (airframes and engines) were gaining in reliability and maximum operating distances, adventurous aviators found they had the perfect route to put themselves and their aircraft to the test. The 1930s became known as the Golden Age of Aviation in part because of pilots who were able to complete the arduous journey with their machines – they lived to tell the tales of the greatest aviation challenge they had ever overcome.
Jeremy Martin, of Vintage Air Rally, explains the odyssey will be made as authentic as possible, although safety will be paramount.
“Obligatory equipment will include a sleeping bag, full black tie and a beginners guide to Swahili (all three items will be needed at some stage or another, perhaps simultaneously!)”
With the journey an incredible 11 000km, it is a wonder that aircraft so old can survive the trip, but Martin believes proper preparation is key.
“The airplanes are coming from all over the world,” he says. “After having been shipped in containers and rebuilt, they all have passed through a vigorous maintenance check in order to be sure that they are airworthy and reach the aviation standards. In addition, we’ll be travelling with back-up and mechanics in helicopters and the Antonov.”
The Antonov AN2 he refers to is an anachronism itself – a post WWII utilitarian Soviet biplane which was manufactured right up until 2001, and which can haul two tons of cargo. Having been designed for harsh Siberian THE BATTLE of Waterloo, said the Duke of Wellington, was won on the playing fields of Eton.
Likewise, it could be argued, the Battle of Britain was won earlier, by De Havilland’s Tiger Moth trainer.
Thousands of military pilots got their first taste of flight in this robust little machine, known as the “Yellow Peril”, which enjoyed a career in the RAF for over 25 years.
Roald Dahl, who learned to fly in Nairobi soon after the outbreak of World War II, wrote: “The Tiger Moth is conditions, a trip through Africa should be a stroll.
For the most part, though, the airplanes are over 80 years old and lovingly cared for.
“The only modifications are adding extra fuel tanks and improved radios,” Martin says. “Most of these aircraft were built before radios were standard.
“Obviously new technology like GPS will play a part, but the pilots will still be doing a lot of compass work and visual navigation. There will be some formation flying, and some independent ‘trips’.
“All pilots taking part come from different backgrounds. We have airline commanders, bush pilots, ferry pilots… but despite the difference, each one of them is perfectly able to fly with only a compass and map as in the old days, but are very comfortable with a GPS as well.”
This bodes well for keeping the gaggle in the right direction, especially as their top speeds vary, with some barely able to make 170km/h and a cruising speed closer to 100km/h.
“All take-offs will be at the same time, but with the fastest aircraft first so there is going to be a natural gap at the destination,” Martin says.
Also, the flight path may vary from what is planned, in case anything “interesting” happens.
“We’ll play it by ear – or because of any incidents or security concerns. We have the opportunity to fly past the Pyramids of a thing of great beauty. Everybody who has ever flown a Tiger Moth has fallen in love with it.
“You could throw one about all over the sky and nothing ever broke. You could spin her vertically downwards for thousands of feet and then all she needed was a touch on the rudder-bar, a bit of throttle and the stick pushed forward and out she came in a couple of flips.
“A Tiger Moth had no vices. She never dropped a wing if you lost flying speed coming in to land, and she would suffer innumerable heavy landings from incompetent beginners.” Giza – which hasn’t been done in 80 years. Besides, we will visit the most scenic places of Central Africa – Ngorongoro, Victoria Falls and the Zanzibar Blue Mountain Valley.
“The schedule is pretty flexible. Obviously if the weather turns nasty, there’ll be no flying. Most flying will be done at low or very low level. Headwinds will cause considerable stress though, watching fuel burn!”
The rally departs from Sitia in Crete on November 12, via Cairo, Luxor, Khartoum, Gambella, Nairobi, Zanzibar, Lusaka, Victoria Falls, Bulawayo, Gaborone, Baragwanath near Soweto, Bloemfontein, Graaff-Reinet and Plettenberg Bay to Stellenbosch, with many other stops along the way. The final flight into Stellenbosch is scheduled for December 16.
Several special events are planned, including a trip to Wilson Airfield in Kenya in homage to novelist Roald Dahl, who learnt to fly there in the Tiger Moth as a RAF trainee, before entering squadron service, which saw him crash in the desert, and later, take part in the Battle of Greece. This year is the centenary of his birth.
But the biggest question in my mind is what happens in the event of an emergency landing… how much support is available and how quickly?
“With three helicopters, it could be within minutes… by road? It could be weeks!”
A Tiger Moth over Victoria Falls.
Tiger Moth ZS-UKW over Hartbeespoort Dam.