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

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - IAN WIL­LIAMS

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.

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