Part seven: Once safely ferried over from the UK, the modifications we made to our second Golden Eagle got the local CAA into yet another lather
Part seven: We gain a second Golden Eagle and, even without trying, fox the local CAA – again!
We were on final for Runway 09 and had just been switched to Tower. “Djibouti Tower, Golf Mike Uniform Victor Golf is with you, Cessna 421 inbound from Jeddah at three thousand feet and six miles out for Runway zero nine.”
“Victor Golf you are number one, QNH one zero zero five.” The controller sounded a little testy, and his Arab-english was a little quick and accented for our ears; perhaps he’d had a long day. “QNH one zero zero five, number one for zero nine, thank you, Victor Golf.”
We had heard a lot of Djibouti traffic on our inbound journey, but it had dwindled in the last twenty minutes as dusk set in. With the sun at our back, the rugged, barren moonscape that is Djibouti was burnished glorious shades of gold. We’d had a long day and were looking forward to a hotel, a beer and a shower, in that order.
Suddenly, a superior English voice out of the blue: “Djibouti Tower, Expeditor Three One is on final. I think we are number one, actually”. Jolted from our reverie, ferry pilot Steve and I peered down our crepuscular path to the threshold of the three thousand metre runway and saw nothing. We craned our necks and looked behind as best we could, Steve to the left, me to the right. Nothing. We looked below. Still nothing. A military call sign. Did we have a fast jet on our tail?
Steve shrugged his shoulders and nodded at me, “Djibouti Tower, Victor Golf has no traffic in sight. Please advise,” I requested. “Golf Victor Golf, you are number one. Proceed!” came Tower’s reply, now irascible and assertive.
The laconic English voice again, cucumber cool, “Djibouti Tower, Expeditor Three One is number one; we have the other traffic in sight.”
“No, no, Expeditor. Victor Golf is number one, you are number two!” Tower was clearly and emphatically in no mood for this. “Victor Golf, you are cleared to land Runway zero nine!” Not far from the threshold now, with no traffic in sight, and with a clear instruction from ATC, I keyed the mike, “Cleared to land zero nine, Victor Golf”.
Steve concentrated on landing our Golden Eagle close to the numbers. We turned onto the first taxiway at speed, unsure of what was following us, but realising that vacating the runway pronto was probably A Good Thing. “Tower, Victor Golf has vacated the runway,” I said as soon as we were off it.
Did we have a fast jet on our tail? We craned our necks and looked...
Steve steered Victor Golf along the taxiway, reciprocal to Runway 09, towards the terminal building. We squinted into the sun waiting for Expeditor Three One, whatever that mighty flying machine may be, to appear. The sun was bisected by the horizon; it was impossible to see for the glare. Recalibrating our sight, so to speak, we watched amazed as a large, armed drone went sailing down the runway in a high speed rollout. The pilot, we realised, was probably sitting in an air conditioned container at Creech AFB in Nevada. Steve and I looked at each other. “What a prat,” we said in unison.
I have since discovered that there is a history of issues with drones at Djibouti.
Our small adventure was just the very tip of the iceberg. A small country, sitting just across the Red Sea from Yemen, Djibouti’s government agreed to an American airbase to be co-located at its international airport in return for cash and protection. Rather than tell the story here I urge you to Google ‘crashes Djibouti’ and click on the Washington Post article that you will see. I assure you that your eyes will open wide, and that never ever again will you complain about ATC in Europe. You will also read in the Post that at least five drone crashes, including one into a residential area, happened there. It certainly makes one question the promotion of pilotless airliners.
Madam had ferried over our first Golden Eagle from Goodwood with a ferry pilot who held a UK licence some months earlier. She had FAA and African licences that didn’t match the Uk-registered aeroplane’s tail number so we needed a UK pilot whose licence did. That C421 was now in service in a Medevac contract and was making a good, steady profit for our company.
We had settled on the C421 Golden Eagle because it was reliable, brilliant to fly, fast, pressurised, air conditioned, well built, had excellent cabin comfort for upmarket safari clients, and−did I mention−was loved by our pilots. Compared to turbine aircraft, the rock
Our speedy Golden Eagle left us with a greater profit margin...
bottom acquisition costs of piston twins offset their higher operating costs per mile, especially when the monthly hours to be flown were relatively low. Although a little more expensive to run per hour, our speedy Golden Eagle left us with a greater profit margin than the slow-and-steady B-N Islander run by our competitor on the same routes. The C421 isn’t too bad as a bush plane and could land and, more importantly, depart from anywhere we needed to go.
We had assembled a syndicate of high rolling local businessmen to buy a second, Shoreham-based, Golden Eagle. The consortium jointly possessed an ego the size of a small planet so we had cunningly bagged the ultimate registration for them: 5X-VIP. Since neither Madam nor any of our other pilots had the requisite UK licence, I decided I would bag the ferry flight of the second C421, reasoning that my non-licence was every bit as valid as their non-compliant licences. Seemed reasonable to me.
So we hired Steve, who is a proper, sensible UK pilot, for the ferry trip, with me along to lend a hand once we’d left Europe and had descended south into the madness. Although it sounds like a great adventure, a ferry trip to Africa in a well-equipped twin is a breeze in terms of the actual flying. Our route was, Shoreham, Cannes, Naples, Rhodes, Luxor, Jeddah, Djibouti and home. The real challenge was avgas availability once out of Europe. Unlike the first Golden Eagle, our new one did not have longrange tanks, so we loaded a flexible bladder tank into the cabin, filled it up in Luxor (at great expense), landed in Jeddah (where there is no avgas) and pumped the fuel from the bladder into the tanks. Hot and sweaty work with an outside temperature to rival Hades.
Once home, our comedic CAA soon managed to distinguish themselves with the Golden Eagles. Looking for an advantage, I had researched the benefits of vortex generators. Dozens of centimetre-
high, shark-fin-shaped plastic mouldings are superglued to the leading edge of the main and tailplanes at slight angles to the longitudinal axis. The idea is to keep airflow attached at higher angles of attack. The benefits are higher gross weight, slower landing and takeoff speeds, and no discernable loss of speed in the cruise. It’s a simple concept and it really works: Boeing and Airbus both use them. The Vg-equipped Golden Eagles slashed a seriously impressive 200 metres from their takeoff runs and, significantly, were much easier to land, being controllable to lower speeds. VG kits are available off the shelf in the States, and they come with STCS (supplemental type certificate). It takes less than a day to fit a full kit.
Our CAA accepted STCS from other competent aviation authorities. So it seemed a simple matter to go-ahead, submit the FAA STC paperwork to our CAA, and then glue on the VG kits. So that is what we did.
Some days later we discovered an Airworthiness Inspector prowling around one of the C421s. He had some paperwork in his hand and he was looking furtive. Intrigued, our wonderful Kenyan engineering apprentice went over to him to see what he was doing. She came back giggling. The inspector said he had outwitted us at last. He told her he was going to write up his report and submit his findings and then we would be in big trouble: we had installed all of these generators all over the aeroplane and yet there was no wiring diagram. Would I bore you if I said, once again, “only in Africa”?
Weeks later, an hour before sunset, the aerodrome is quiet, just birdsong and the whine of insects in the late heat. A CAA Operations Inspector sits with me on a bench outside our small terminal building on the edge of the grass runway. A yellow Fuji starts up, enters the runway and backtracks. Canopy slid back, I see Flashheart, bound by parachute harness, unsmiling, grim determination etched on his face. Our Telecom client, MTN, had a programme of roadshows all over the country. With a specially converted disco truck loaded with merchandise and amplifiers, they safaried upcountry for a couple of weeks at a time. They would go to a town and announce themselves on the local FM station. Come the day, they would offer free sodas, hats and T-shirts, and telephone airtime offers, and play unpleasantly loud, coarse popular tunes to the excited populace.
We had promised MTN that we would fly our yellow Fuji aerobatically and energetically above these road shows, thereby massively increasing their subscriber base. When I had made this offer I hadn’t known anything at all about aviation. Blissful ignorance. Indeed, we didn’t have an aerobatic pilot until Flashheart joined us.
Reading the regulations I saw that to fly aerobatics over an assembly we’d need the pilot to have a Display Authorisation. I contacted our CAA. They had never heard of such a thing. I showed them the regulation. ‘Ah’, they said, ‘that is for America’. I closed the book and showed them the cover−this was their regulation. Weeks later, using UK CAPS and a barrage of letters I had finally persuaded them that we had a right to have a pilot issued with a DA. I even produced the template for the certificate.
The regulation stated that the authority had to observe a flight before issuing a DA, and the DA would contain the restrictions placed on the pilot. Flashheart said he’d
had a UK DA, but couldn’t produce it. No matter, it wasn’t relevant. For weeks he’d practised a routine for the observation flight. Each display edged ever closer to mother Earth. He was really quite good; a Fuji used aerobatically in hot and high conditions requires very careful energy management indeed.
The yellow Fuji trundled down the runway and climbed away. Flashheart’s application to the CAA stated that he wanted permission to display to zero feet. This was going to be interesting.
The CAA inspector, an agreeable, avuncular character, was not the sharpest blade in the drawer. He had been a career co-pilot in big jets before age overtook him. He began to reminisce. Between sips of tea from the mug we had proffered he told me how he too had flown light aircraft at Prestwick when training in the ’60s. He had enjoyed Scotland.
While we talked we kept our eyes on the Fuji, slowly climbing in circles in the late afternoon heat. The Fuji straightened out, waggled its wings and started trailing smoke. The next five minutes was a virtuoso example of what could be done in a modestly powered trainer. The Fuji started drifting down, all the while rolling and looping and stall turning. Finally, from a stall turn, Flashheart came screeching down to the tops of the adjoining papyrus swamp and pulled up− i saw he was going for a final loop. My heart stood still. If he hadn’t hit 150 knots on that last run in then it would be impossible to complete the loop above the ground.
The Fuji was at the top of its loop and started down again. He was going to make it. And he did, skimming the papyrus tops. Smoke off, he climbed away into the circuit. I turned to see the reaction from the Inspector.
He had gone into the office to add sugar to his tea and had missed the whole display. “I remember,” he said, coming back outside to our bench, “they used to make us bank even as much as sixty degrees at Prestwick. Very dangerous, you know.” He nodded ruefully and sipped at his tea.
A week later we received a letter from the CAA. I read it once, then once again, very carefully this time. I showed the letter to Madam. Our entire company had been issued a Display Authorisation with no restriction on height.
From a stall turn Flashheart came screeching down... going for a final loop
Transferring fuel at Jeddah from the flexible fuel bladder was very hot work
ASOLE — an interestingly-named waypoint
Our small fleet of C421s
Refuelling at Djibouti, with the US base in the background
A suitable registration for our big-ego syndicate
Below: the second Golden Eagle arrives at its new home after a long ferry flight from Shoreham
Right: our two Golden Eagles lined up and ready to roll
Dancing Fuji: Flashheart practised his Display Authorisation aerobatic sequence for weeks
A pensive Flashheart strapping on his parachute