African Skies

Al­ways idyl­lic, some­times dan­ger­ous, quite dif­fer­ent, and of­ten fun, African is­land liv­ing was cer­tainly never bor­ing. The first part of a new se­ries

Pilot - - AFRICAN SKIES - Words & Pho­tos Tim Cooper

In 2014 Tim Cooper and his wife sold their shares in the small avi­a­tion com­pany they had founded in Africa in 2008. This is the first part of the story of six years of ad­ven­ture, frus­tra­tion, learn­ing, war, peace, fun and some­times mad­ness.

Ididn’t in­tend to start an avi­a­tion com­pany, but there was this girl… OK, let me go back to the be­gin­ning. At the turn of the cen­tury I owned a trop­i­cal is­land in Africa with two part­ners. Sandy beaches, a tow­er­ing hill, rain­for­est, sa­van­nah, and a cli­mate to die for. An idyl­lic square mile of par­adise. We built a small tourist lodge and sold plots of land for pri­vate houses.

Af­ter count­less bang­ing, crash­ing thirty-mile re­turn trips to the main­land in speed­boats over choppy water my back was in agony. Many of our guests com­plained about the jour­ney too. It was worse still for our African vis­i­tors, most of whom couldn’t swim and had been brought up to fear the water. In­deed, the lake is named for the god which in­hab­its it and which is a greedy god, gob­bling up hun­dreds of hap­less fish­er­men each year. I reck­oned that travel by air would be less painful and not a lot more ex­pen­sive – speed­boats are not cheap to run. More­over I’d al­ways been a lit­tle airminded ever since school­boy cadet fly­ing in Chip­munks.

I sur­veyed the most likely look­ing run­way sites with a chum who ran the lo­cal aero club and who had a house on the is­land. We reck­oned we could squeeze in a one thou­sand me­tre run­way built on the flat­test part of the is­land−and, for­tu­itously, it would more or less point into the pre­dom­i­nant on­shore/off­shore wind sys­tem. Bet­ter still, it had a beach at the thresh­old and an un­ob­structed climb-out over water. My board of di­rec­tors agreed that a trop­i­cal is­land was one thing, but a trop­i­cal is­land with a pri­vate air­port was quite another, and the price of the plots we sold for pri­vate houses would get a real boost.

I re­searched how to build a run­way. In the ab­sence of guid­ance from our own CAA, I set­tled on the New Zealand CAA’S clear how-to doc­u­ments. A plan was drawn up and we started slash­ing and dig­ging. Well, when I say we I mean Team Bull­dozer. Team Bull­dozer con­sisted of a dozen men from a hill tribe from the far south-west of the coun­try. The tribe is

famed for its ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity to dig. And dig and dig and dig. And that is what they did. Us­ing ma­chetes they first slashed a sixty-me­tre wide airstrip out of the ele­phant grass and then dug out the run­way with their mat­tocks−a strip twenty me­tres wide and at least one me­tre deep for eleven hun­dred me­tres. The run­way had to be dug like a gi­ant cab­bage patch to rid it of the count­less ter­mite mounds. Team Bull­dozer turned over twenty thou­sand cu­bic me­tres of soil− about 1,300 lorry loads−over 100 lor­ries per man; an ex­tra­or­di­nary feat.

Wind­socks were knocked up by a lo­cal hab­er­dasher, con­crete edge mark­ers were cast and laid, and a park­ing area de­mar­cated. Half a year af­ter start­ing came the big day. My aero club chum made the first land­ing in a Cessna 172. It went well de­spite the run­way be­ing just a great long ex­panse of semi-dry mud; we’d have to wait a while be­fore grass took hold and bound the sur­face tightly. “Here’s to a suc­cess­ful and drama-free be­gin­ning!” we opened cold beers and con­grat­u­lated our­selves. Our toast tempted fate; it wasn’t long be­fore our first drama.

I used to trade joyrides in a mis­sion­ary-op­er­ated Cessna 185 float plane for full English break­fasts. The pi­lot, an old-but­not-bold hand from Jersey, would land in our kilo­me­tre-wide bay, taxi up to the beach and have a lazy break­fast. We would then clam­ber up into his float­plane and zoom around the lake and the sur­round­ing is­lands. Glo­ri­ous. Af­ter a while these vis­its stopped un­til one day a re­place­ment pi­lot ar­rived for break­fast. Same ar­range­ment as be­fore but a very dif­fer­ent way of fly­ing: much busier, much flap­ping of flaps to break free of the sur­face of the water, not the un­ruf­fled Chan­nel Is­lan­der’s la­conic econ­omy of con­trol. To be fair, the lake is at nearly 4,000 feet AMSL, the tem­per­a­ture is in the high twen­ties and be­ing a fresh­wa­ter lake there isn’t the buoy­ancy of salt­wa­ter, so there is al­ways an el­e­ment of chal­lenge.

A cou­ple of weeks drifted by and the weather changed. The lake has the high­est count of light­ning strikes in the world and vast cu­mu­lonim­bus clouds reg­u­larly top out well over 50,000 feet. When the in­ter-trop­i­cal con­ver­gence zone moves over­head these mon­strous storms seem to in­ten­sify. While ut­terly awe­some and quite beau­ti­ful to watch, they can be lethal−in Africa beauty of­ten sig­nals dan­ger.

We had had a fort­night of se­vere storms and the lake was in tur­moil. We hun­kered down on our is­land and en­joyed more cold beer and ad­mired the skies. Then came a phone call from my mis­sion­ary friends, “Our float­plane is stranded”. “Where?” I en­quired. “Two is­lands to the south of you.” “What hap­pened?” I asked. “One of the floats is holed and the pi­lot and two pas­sen­gers are stranded. Can you help?” “Oh dear!” I said.

Oh dear, in­deed. Look­ing at the ag­i­tated state of the lake I de­cided to take our stur­di­est boat, one of our sol­diers (we had been is­sued with a de­tach­ment of those), our main­te­nance guy and a glass fi­bre re­pair kit from our stores. A fright­en­ing fif­teen-mile trip fol­lowed be­fore we found the small is­land. An elon­gated rec­tan­gu­lar shape, the is­land was only a cou­ple of hun­dred me­tres north to south, but about a mile from east to west.

The great thing about a small is­land is that there is al­ways a lee shore and al­ways a wind­ward shore close at hand giv­ing shel­ter from storms−which is ex­actly what our new pi­lot had dis­cov­ered. He had flown in with two young mis­sion­ar­ies who were look­ing for a site for a new mis­sion. On ar­rival the weather and the lake’s sur­face state were ac­cept­able and the float­plane had tax­ied to the vil­lage on the north shore where it beached with­out in­ci­dent. When it came time to leave a storm cell had whipped up the waves and a take­off in the me­tre high chop was im­pos­si­ble.

The pi­lot re­alised that if the north shore was un­ten­able then the south shore would be the wind­ward shore and would be calm. Hav­ing told the mis­sion­ar­ies to walk across to the south shore, he set off cau­tiously to taxi around the is­land in the air­craft. Too slow! By the time he had made it around the is­land another pass­ing storm cell had whipped up the wa­ters on the south­ern shore. Or­der­ing the mis­sion­ar­ies back to the vil­lage on the

north shore he set off once again to taxi around the is­land. He was now play­ing cat and mouse with storm cells but de­cided that if he was quick he could man­age a de­par­ture.

Mis­sion­ar­ies loaded aboard, he set off, turned his air­craft into the wind and opened the throt­tle. Un­for­tu­nately the wind from yet another Cb was gain­ing strength and with its winds re­volv­ing rapidly the 185 would not un­stick. In­stead, barely on the step and be­ing jolted and tossed around, she smashed straight into sub­merged rocks, open­ing a great jagged hole in the star­board float and yaw­ing her to an abrupt stop. To add in­sult to in­jury the heav­ens opened, the rain poured down in tor­rents.

Leav­ing my main­te­nance guy to patch the hole, and the sol­dier to en­sure there would still be an aero­plane when we re­turned, we set off back in our boat in the dark. The lake was worse than I had ever seen it, with steep choppy waves on top of a swell that tow­ered above us. While the pi­lot looked merely de­jected, the mis­sion­ar­ies looked pos­i­tively ter­ri­fied; hav­ing sur­vived an air­craft crash they were now go­ing to be ship­wrecked and prob­a­bly drowned. Their faith was be­ing tested−or their sins pun­ished.

A hearty sup­per and clean, dry beds re­stored morale. The fol­low­ing morn­ing− the lake now calm and idyl­lic−the pi­lot set off by boat to fetch his patched-up float­plane. The mis­sion­ar­ies had sub­char­tered my aero club chum to re­turn to the main­land. A Cessna 210 duly ap­peared, alighted care­fully on the soggy run­way and cau­tiously tax­ied off the now very muddy run­way into the park­ing area. The mis­sion­ar­ies were loaded aboard and the 210 started to taxi for de­par­ture when all of a sud­den the poor aero­plane

All of a sud­den the poor aero­plane dis­ap­peared nose­wheel first into the mud, nearly up to her cowl­ings

dis­ap­peared nose­wheel first into the mud, nearly up to her cowl­ings, the pro­pel­ler fur­row­ing a trench in the soft earth. The rain had flooded a ter­mite nest, buried deeper even than Team Bull­dozer’s dig­ging, and cre­ated a gi­gan­tic un­der­ground cav­ity cov­ered by a thin crust of damp soil.

Ter­mites and their holes gave us prob­lems for years. Team Bull­dozer started dig­ging at any sign of the ter­mites and it was an end­less task. Over the years the ter­mites bagged a cou­ple of C206s, a Fuji (twice), two C210s, a Car­a­van, an An-2, an Mi 17 heli­copter and a Parte­navia P68. The lit­tle bug­gers also got the Pres­i­den­tial heli­copter−with the Pres­i­dent on board. Mostly air­craft gently dropped a wheel into ter­mite holes when stopped or when turn­ing and were easy to lift out, no dam­age done. The enor­mous An-2 bi­plane took a lit­tle more time to lift out by hand.

Other vis­i­tors graced our new is­land aero­drome. One in par­tic­u­lar stands out. Let us call him Mon­sieur Diplo­mat to save his blushes. He had brought a fab­u­lous lit­tle ul­tra­light mo­tor-glider with him from Europe when posted to Africa. He had be­come known for the Gal­lic in­sou­ciance which char­ac­terised his avi­a­tion. For ex­am­ple, in those PRE-EASA days, when asked why his mo­tor-glider car­ried the regis­tra­tion marks of both the cen­tral Euro­pean coun­try where it was made, and the Euro­pean coun­try where he lived, he would sim­ply ex­plain that he could choose which­ever reg­u­la­tions suited him best at the time. He sprung to no­to­ri­ety in my chum’s aero club when he ex­plained that he had taken his son for a quite se­ri­ous and sev­eral hours long jolly in the mo­tor glider, but couldn’t un­der­stand why the poor boy, no more than ten years old, had failed to ap­pre­ci­ate the trip−he had sim­ply slept most of the way. Mon­sieur Diplo­mat went on to ex­tol the virtues of his mo­tor glider’s per­for­mance which had given him and his sleepy son a glo­ri­ous van­tage point from over 18,000 feet up.

On another oc­ca­sion, Mon­sieur Diplo­mat had flown a fe­male com­pan­ion to the is­land for the day. She ended up re­turn­ing by boat af­ter Mon­sieur Diplo­mat’s wooden pro­pel­ler came off worst af­ter a tus­sle with an Egyp­tian goose when tak­ing off for home. I my­self ex­pe­ri­enced Mon­sieur Diplo­mat’s won­der­ful in­sou­ciance when he of­fered me a joy ride. We man­aged to do some quite se­ri­ous ther­malling−with the en­gine turned off−well out of glid­ing dis­tance of any land and, bet­ter still, bang in the mid­dle of the vis­ual ap­proach into the only in­ter­na­tional air­port in the coun­try. When I gently men­tioned this to him, he shrugged, cranked the small ul­tra­light onto its side and headed for the deck. He then de­cided that he should show me some more tricks. These were semi­aer­o­batic, the fi­nale of which was to carry out a se­ries of what I now know as a fall­ing leaf, the last of which ended just a lit­tle be­low the top of the 350 foot high hill on the is­land. Ooh la la!

The run­way on the is­land was my en­try into the world of avi­a­tion as a busi­ness ac­tiv­ity. Life changed un­ex­pect­edly when one day a C172 rolled into the park­ing area. Out stepped my wife. Not that I knew that at the time. Be­fore mat­ri­mony came an avi­a­tion com­pany and six years of great ad­ven­ture.

...’af­ter’ — a Cessna ag­plane ar­rives at the im­mac­u­late strip

Flush con­crete edge mark­ers pro­vided a neat fin­ish­ing touch

Quite a con­trast be­tween ‘be­fore’ and, op­po­site...

Sandy beaches, rain­for­est and sa­van­nah — Tim’s ‘idyl­lic square mile of par­adise’ only lacked easy ac­cess

‘Team Bull­dozer’ in ac­tion, cut­ting a sixty-me­tre wide swath through the ele­phant grass

‘A trop­i­cal is­land was one thing, but a trop­i­cal is­land with a pri­vate air­port was quite an­other’

Idyliic al­though it ap­pears here, storms can whip up the placid wa­ters of the lake to the point that the swell tow­ers above a small boat

Bent pro­pel­ler, the price of dis­cov­er­ing the un­der­ground cav­ity cre­ated by a ter­mite nest

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.