Across Africa on Vin­tage Planes

Jetgala - - CONTENT - by Ka­t­rina Bal­maceda Uy

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


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.


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

Im­age by Beatrice de Smet

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

Im­age by Pa­trick Wil­lis of www.he­li­paddy.com Im­age by Beatrice de Smet


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

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