African Skies

Once again we needed to ex­pand our small fleet, this time to cater for the de­mands of an oil boom. Part six of the series

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words & Pho­tos Tim Cooper

Part six: As the oil boom struck, we needed to ex­pand – but in a way that made sense eco­nom­i­cally

Our small coun­try in the mid­dle of Africa be­gan to at­tract at­ten­tion when im­prob­a­ble quan­ti­ties of crude oil were dis­cov­ered. Imag­ine, if you can, a patch of jun­gle wal­low­ing about on top of a large bowl of black trea­cle−well that was us, so we were told.

The small wild­cat ex­plo­ration com­pa­nies who had got in early and−at great risk− struck lucky, sold their in­ter­ests to larger com­pa­nies. These, in turn, sold por­tions of their new in­ter­ests to big­ger play­ers with house­hold names. Where the wild­cat ex­plor­ers were rough and ready the new boys on the block were ob­ses­sive about health and safety. Not that this was bad for us: all jour­neys out­side the cap­i­tal city would soon be made by air as the health and safety peo­ple said our roads were too dan­ger­ous−quite true, in fact.

With just a soli­tary Pi­la­tus PC-12 and a pair of four-seat Fu­jis, we clearly needed more aero­planes if we were go­ing to grab some oil busi­ness. We al­ready had a plan: we would man­age other peo­ple’s air­craft rather than fi­nance our own. Our first stab at this had nearly led Madam to her demise when a du­bi­ous Boer tried to have us man­age his ex­ten­sively−and il­le­gally− mod­i­fied Cessna 402. It was now time to try again.

The Big Fella, our South African client and owner of the PC-12, landed a lo­gis­tics con­tract with a new Euro­pean Union mil­i­tary mis­sion which was to train So­mali sol­diers in our coun­try. The EU of­fi­cers run­ning the scheme would be based at a train­ing camp deep in the bush, a long way from any town. A con­stant con­cern with this sort of mis­sion is a ‘green on blue’ at­tack−trainees turn­ing their weapons on the train­ers. Be­cause of this risk a full-time mede­vac ser­vice was pro­vided for in the con­tract.

Nat­u­rally there were chal­lenges. The train­ing camp was lo­cated in a re­gion of thou­sands of mod­estly-sized vol­canic hills and didn’t have a run­way, the near­est be­ing sev­eral hours away. Madam and I went for a shufti in a Fuji. We flew up and down and around and around. Even­tu­ally we found a rea­son­able place for a run­way. Rea­son­able that is other than there be­ing the top of a smallish vol­cano at one end of it and an­other smaller one in the mid­dle. The lo­ca­tion was par­al­lel to a straight stretch of road at the con­flu­ence of two val­leys, with a small vil­lage on the north of the road.

This turned out not to be a real chal­lenge. The Big Fella didn’t un­der­stand the con­cept of prob­lems and the EU had the panacea to all prob­lems in Africa−a bulging wal­let. Within weeks other South Africans, beck­oned by the Big Fella, turned up with bull­doz­ers and the moun­tains were moved. A few short months later an airstrip ex­isted. Amaz­ing stuff, money.

Land­ing on the airstrip was a weird ex­pe­ri­ence. It re­sem­bled less a run­way and more a rail­way cut­ting, due to the amount of soil that had been moved in its con­struc­tion. Upon touch­down a hori­zon was vis­i­ble on both sides of the air­craft, but the very next mo­ment a high earthen bank rose up at the edge of the run­way, un­com­fort­ably close to the wingtip. It was like ap­proach­ing a tun­nel in a train.

While the run­way was be­ing built we con­sid­ered mede­vac air­craft. The ac­tual op­er­a­tion was to be con­tracted to us, as the AOC holder−but the Big Fella would buy the air­craft and make his mar­gin by

leas­ing it to us. Air­craft op­er­a­tors ap­ply the sim­ple prin­ci­ple that rev­enue per seat-mile must be greater than cost per seat-mile: if so they are happy, if not they go broke. The cir­cum­stance of this mede­vac con­tract was un­usual, and so were the maths.

Our job was to have an air­craft and pilot on a per­ma­nent fif­teen-minute standby, ready to scram­ble a mede­vac flight any time be­tween dawn and dusk, seven days a week. The key propo­si­tion here is that aero­plane and pilot are stand­ing by on the ground. We es­ti­mated we were likely only to fly in anger once a month at most, plus reg­u­lar, short train­ing flights for the pi­lots, so in to­tal we would ex­pect to fly fewer than ten hours each month. In com­mer­cial terms, that’s pretty much the same as not fly­ing at all.

We couldn’t sup­ply just any old air­craft for the con­tract. It was vi­tal that the ma­chine was pres­surised (for med­i­cal rea­sons, es­pe­cially eye in­juries), could fly quickly, and had a cabin big enough to take a spe­cial stretcher, ex­tra oxy­gen, a doc­tor and a nurse. It also needed a range, when loaded, of at least 800 miles as it was as­sumed that mede­vac flights would go di­rect to Nairobi where there were proper hos­pi­tals with fa­cil­i­ties not avail­able in our cap­i­tal. And since the flights were con­sid­ered to be com­mer­cial, a Pi­la­tus PC-12 or Cessna Car­a­van wouldn’t be el­i­gi­ble since sin­gle-tur­bine IFR was still pro­hib­ited, and a late af­ter­noon mede­vac would in­volve a night flight to Nairobi. So we needed a twin. We ap­proached the co­nun­drum of what air­craft was re­quired by us­ing a cut­ting edge an­a­lyt­i­cal man­age­ment tech­nique: we opened some cold beers and sat around chat­ting about aero­planes. (Well, it works for me.)

Our dis­cus­sion started rea­son­ably enough−we prob­a­bly needed some va­ri­ety of Beech King Air. That’s what every­one else used. We pored over per­for­mance fig­ures. Then we pored over prices for high-en­gine-life mod­els (we would only add very few hours) and dis­cov­ered that the Big Fella would have to pay some­where be­tween $750,0001,500,000 for a suit­able but prob­a­bly ratty ma­chine. This seemed like a lot of money to have just sit­ting on the ground most of the time. Our par­tic­u­lar con­sid­er­a­tion was that the more ex­pen­sive the air­craft, the more the Big Fella would have to charge us for the use of it and the less prof­itable the con­tract would be.

So we opened an­other beer… and in­spi­ra­tion struck. Flash­heart blurted out, “Cessna 421s−golden Ea­gles. They’re OK. Think I’ve got a cou­ple of hours in one of them.” We looked it up. He was right. Two great big 375hp geared pis­ton en­gines, very fast for a pis­ton, prop­erly pres­surised, big enough cabin, and amaz­ingly cheap to buy. High av­gas prices in Europe and the States had caused the value of big pis­ton twins to tank. The re­sult­ing price dif­fer­ence be­tween pis­ton and tur­bine twins had changed the sums. Tak­ing into ac­count

Rev­enue per seat-mile must be greater than cost per seat-mile...

both the op­er­at­ing costs and the ini­tial cap­i­tal cost, pis­ton twins could in cer­tain cir­cum­stances make a lot of sense − a mede­vac con­tract, for in­stance.

A cou­ple of weeks later I found my­self in Bournemouth look­ing at a beau­ti­fully main­tained, pri­vately owned and flown Cessna Golden Ea­gle. A quick test flight was flown in the murk of an English winter. I sat be­side the owner, my eyes on stalks at all the con­trols and levers and gauges that are needed to make a big, old-fash­ioned twin fly. I did no­tice that the Garmin 430s would ease the nav­i­ga­tion load in a sin­gle-pilot op­er­a­tion. But how on earth would I know if the air­craft was any good? Aha! Sim­ple. I con­sulted my brother, Nic, a non-avi­a­tor, but a con­nois­seur of the finer things. What he liked, the Big Fella would like. He had driven me down from Lon­don and in re­turn I’d in­stalled him in a club seat in the cabin for the sales flight.

“Well, what did you think of the aero­plane?” I asked him. “Very com­fort­able,” he pro­nounced. I re­layed this to Madam. I could hear her roll her eyes. Nev­er­the­less, money was wired from deep­est dark­est.

Our Cessna 421 turned out to be per­fect for her new mede­vac role. In time we got our Golden Ea­gle a mate. Our char­ter work had been build­ing steadily and the Cessna 421 ticked most of the boxes for our op­er­a­tions, and when the mede­vac con­tract be­came a long-term com­mit­ment we needed a sub­sti­tute air­craft for main­te­nance cover. That’s an­other ax­iom in com­mer­cial avi­a­tion: if you want one aero­plane to be ser­vice­able all of the time then you’re go­ing to need two. Mean­while, our pair of Fu­jis turned out to be ad­mirable lit­tle air­craft, ide­ally suited for aerial ad­ver­tis­ing, aer­o­batic joy rides and char­ters. Their ex­cel­lent range meant we could fly a hol­i­day­ing cou­ple di­rect to a num­ber of dis­tant na­tional park sa­fari camps which our com­peti­tors could reach only with big­ger and more ex­pen­sive Cessna 210s − their C172s hadn’t the legs to cover the dis­tance. Cost per mile ver­sus rev­enue per mile; very im­por­tant, that.

De­spite its ver­sa­til­ity, it’s worth men­tion­ing that at max all-up weight − and even well within C of G lim­its − a Fuji gets alarm­ingly pon­der­ous. We be­came care­ful about fol­low­ing the op­ti­mistic POH too slav­ishly. An aero­tow can have much the same ef­fect on a Fuji as a full load, as Madam dis­cov­ered one dawn.

The sun was ris­ing and the dew lay glis­ten­ing thickly on the grass: it was go­ing to be a scorcher of a day. Our aerial ad­ver­tis­ing con­tract for the tele­com com­pany was in full swing and the mis­sion to­day was to fly a ban­ner over the morn­ing com­muter traf­fic jams. The ban­ner was care­fully laid out on the grass at the thresh­old (as de­scribed in an ear­lier episode) and the yel­low Fuji tax­ied to the end of the run­way. Madam turned into wind and edged for­ward, wait­ing for the crew­man to wave her off once the ban­ner was clipped on and streamed out safely be­hind her.

At the other end of the run­way I watched as she started her take­off roll. She rolled and rolled, and at about the 600 me­tre marker − much later than usual − stag­gered into the air. Some­thing wasn’t right. The ban­ner trun­dled be­hind her on its ny­lon disc wheels and as the Fuji climbed the ban­ner lifted slowly out of ground ef­fect and ro­tated through ninety de­grees, but in­stead of snap­ping briskly like a flag in the wind, as it should, it drooped down like a damp towel. De­spite the Fuji’s 180hp of Ly­coming might and the pro­pel­ler ur­gently chant­ing “I think I can, I think I can…” the ban­ner re­fused to go higher.

I twigged at once. The ban­ner was sod­den with dew − and very, very heavy. At the far end the run­way con­tin­ued straight into a pa­pyrus swamp. Pa­pyrus is a type of grass that grows to four or five me­tres high. Each stalk is at least the thick­ness of a man’s fin­ger. It is a dense and im­pen­e­tra­ble bar­rier. The swamp ex­tended from the edge of the run­way for nearly a kilo­me­tre into the lake.

Help­less, I was frozen to the spot able only to watch as Madam burned up all the

run­way in front of her. The Fuji was per­haps fifty feet up and clear of the pa­pyrus but not climb­ing, and the ban­ner, a cou­ple of hun­dred feet be­hind the air­craft, was at most fif­teen feet above the ground. I had vi­sions of the ban­ner snag­ging in the pa­pyrus and the Fuji be­ing brought up short and crash­ing to a stand­still. This wasn’t good. I was rather fond of Madam, and I quite liked our Fuji too.

I watched, hor­ri­fied, as the ban­ner be­came en­tan­gled in the pa­pyrus and was then dragged lower and slower. The noise of the ban­ner snap­ping the pa­pyrus stems sounded like the noise of scrunch­ing a crisp packet. Then it dis­ap­peared from sight. The noise stopped. From where I stood, close to the tow­er­ing pa­pyrus, I could now see nei­ther ban­ner nor aero­plane. My heart sank. My mouth went dry. After an age − three or four sec­onds, prob­a­bly − i caught the beau­ti­ful sound of a Ly­coming en­gine. And then a chirpy yel­low Fuji ap­peared, climb­ing up. I had for­got­ten that the tow sys­tem in­cor­po­rated a weak link. It had worked! Thank God the Ger­mans had the good sense to fit one − when the pull on the tow rope be­came too much the weak link snapped, free­ing the en­tire tow line at the air­craft end.

In the cock­pit, Madam had no­ticed that the lit­tle yel­low aero­plane was wal­low­ing more than usual and had left the run­way much later than nor­mal, but was un­aware of what the ban­ner was ac­tu­ally do­ing be­hind her. And while I watched the en­tire in­ci­dent in slow mo­tion, Madam was only con­scious of a very slug­gish climb rate un­til, with a lurch, the Fuji started climb­ing prop­erly. She re­alised what had hap­pened soon enough and landed back in time to dis­cover our mad, loyal, mostly hun­gover but ever-en­thu­si­as­tic fu­eller, Wil­liam sit­ting like an ea­ger spaniel at the thresh­old close to the dreaded pa­pyrus swamp. He was tak­ing off his Welling­tons in prepa­ra­tion to re­triev­ing the ban­ner from the swamp.

“Why are you tak­ing off your Welling­tons, Wil­lie?” asked Madam, cu­ri­ously. Wil­liam re­garded her with a hurt and slightly baf­fled look. He hated to be dis­re­spect­ful, but surely even Madam could un­der­stand this. He smiled broadly and said, “But my gum­boots will get wet if I wear them in the swamp.” And with that he leapt up and bur­rowed his way bare­foot into the pa­pyrus.

Only in Africa...

Above and left: Our re­fu­eller Wil­liam at work fill­ing up the Golden Ea­gle, African-style

Take­off with the ban­ner run­ning on its side is usu­ally sim­ple, and then it streams out be­hind

The Cessna 421 Golden Ea­gle was per­fect for the mede­vac role

Check­ing the new strip, with friends and Fuji

Bull­doz­ers lit­er­ally moved (small) moun­tains to cre­ate this new airstrip in a few short months

A nice, dry ban­ner stream­ing cor­rectly in per­fect op­er­at­ing con­di­tions

Madam comes in to land, sans ban­ner. The weak link (inset) snapped — just as it was sup­posed to do

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.