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
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...
Bulldozers literally moved (small) mountains to create this new airstrip in a few short months
Checking the new strip, with friends and Fuji
The Cessna 421 Golden Eagle was perfect for the medevac role
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
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