Out of Africa, Four days in a Cat – By Chuck Ellsworth.
The sun was just rising as I finished scraping the frost off the windshield of the P.B.Y. Catalina with a credit card. This is not the picture one would have of Africa, however it is Thursday July 22/99 and it is winter in Johannesburg. After eighteen days trying to find the cause of a high oil temperature in our right engine and fixing some other mechanical problems the decision has been made to leave so as to have a chance of making the Oshkosh Airshow.
Today’s flight will be six and half-hours to Lilongwe Malawi and we have an all up takeoff weight of twenty seven thousand nine hundred pounds, including a crew of five, fifty four hundred pounds of fuel and nine hundred pounds of oil. Lanseria Airport is forty five hundred feet above sea level with ten thousand feet of runway, with the temperature at two degrees C. take-off poses no problem.
The weather en-route is excellent and we have filed V.F.R. for to-days trip. Whenever possible I have found it easier to fly V.F.R. in most of Africa due to the difficulty with radio communications at the altitudes we normally fly this type of aircraft. The terrain from Johannesburg is sparsely settled with low mountain ranges through Zimbabwe, Mozambique and into Malawi. The dense jungle we think of associated with Africa occurs only in a relatively narrow band at the equator, A lot of Southern Africa is quite barren until you get into the central part of the continent.
A highlight of this trip was crossing the Zambezi River half way through Mozambique. Not only is the Zambezi famous for its Victoria Falls but it was especially important to both me and my wife Pene who was with me on this ferry trip. We had canoed part of the river In Zimbabwe two years previous to this flight. We arrived Lilongwe at three fifteen in the afternoon and two hours later finished fuelling and had cleared customs and immigration. We had no trouble finding a cab, however finding a hotel was another matter.
In the end all we could find was a very poor quality cheap hotel and when we asked if there was a restaurant nearby the desk clerk informed us the hotel had a restaurant just outside next door. Judging by the quality of the hotel we thought maybe we could wait and eat the next day, hunger finally decided for us and it turned out to be the best meal of the entire trip. It was a Korean restaurant and the food was diverse and delicious, you just never know until you try sometimes.
I have been in over twenty countries in Africa and Malawi is by far the best, the people are not only very friendly but everywhere you go it is absolutely clean unlike most of Africa there is no garbage or junk anywhere. As well the plants and trees are very colourful and well looked after in the city.
After the easiest customs, immigration and fee-paying routine I have experienced anywhere in the many countries that I have flown in we were airborne For Nairobi Kenya at seven thirty A.M. Once again we had perfect weather for our trip which took us up through central Tanzania.
Shortly after departing Lilongwe we flew across Lake Malawi which is famous for its diverse species of fish. There cannot be a better way to sightsee than from the big blisters on the P.B.Y. Catalina the view is spectacular as you can see not only ahead and behind but straight down as well. Again the countryside is similar to the previous days flight. We decided to take the Eastern route into Kenya so as to see Mt. Kilimanjaro this however was not to be as most of the mountain was hidden in cloud cover. Approaching Kilimanjaro we contacted their arrival controller to position report and were advised to report ten minutes prior to the Kenya F.I.R..
Next we were given a handoff frequency for Nairobi radar, we were unable to raise Nairobi due to our low altitude and the distance I gave this no thought at the time as I had not expected an answer at that altitude. Crossing from Tanzania into Kenya we were able to identify many kinds of wildlife from our altitude of fifteen hundred feet above ground, the minimum allowed when flying over the African plains so as not to disturb the wildlife. From this height the bigger game such as Giraffe, Rhino, Buffalo, Zebra, Elephant etc. are easily identified and plentiful on the vast plains such as the Serengeti and once again the Catalina is perfect for sightseeing.
Our arrival at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport, elevation 5300 feet was uneventful until ground control advised me that arrival requested I go to their radar room as they wished to talk to me. Before leaving the airplane I told the rest of the crew that this might take some time as I suspected this would be another typical African shakedown. Sure enough the controllers wanted to know why I had not reported the Kenya F.I.R. on their frequency, when I explained the altitude problem they asked why I did not call on H.F. I informed them I did not have H.F. however I had brought my overflight and landing clearances for all the Countries we were fly into or over including their airport.
I never did really understand exactly what obscure rule of theirs I may have violated resulting in their threat to charge me and seize the airplane. One only has to understand the game being played which is finding a way to receive forgiveness for your stupidity in having done whatever it was they decided you are guilty of. In this case after over an hour of arguing, pleading and going around in circles one of the controllers went for a walk with me. In return for a gift of one hundred and fifty U.S. dollars to show how happy I was with his decision not to charge me I was free to go.
I couldn’t believe how cheaply I had gotten away this time; I must be getting good at the game. Kenya is one of the most corrupt countries in the world; it is everywhere especially the police. We better hope that some of our Canadian politicians do not decide to vacation there, as they will really get a chance to polish their skills in how to extort money out of us. Allow me to diverse for a moment while I am on this subject and compare the police in Africa versus British Columbia where I live.
The way I see it in Africa the police extort money holding an A.K. 47, in B.C. they are holding a radar gun, just a slightly different method. We had planned on a one-day layover in Nairobi before continuing on to Djibouti our next fuel stop. This became a five day delay due to the first officer deciding he was returning to California and several days later Dudley Lieveaux our engineer had to return to South Africa due to the time restraints on his being away from his maintenance business in Cape Town. I was really sorry to lose Dudley as he was a very experienced pilot and engineer and we would have to wait until London to replace him.
We now had several days to spare so Pene and I decided to take a day Safari and see more of Kenya and its wildlife, it was really worth the three hundred and fifty U.S. dollars as one never sees too much of Africa. All of the African game guides have an incredible knowledge of their country and its wildlife and vegetation, there is no better way to explore the country. On Tuesday five days after arriving in Nairobi our new first officer Richard Maier arrived from Johannesburg . We were unable to depart the following day due to a low ceiling which prevented us from navigating the route V.F.R. as it is very mountainous to the North East of Nairobi. It was not possible to file I.F.R. as the M.E.A. is 21,000 feet and the P.B.Y. will not reach this altitude. Our greatest concern now was the new overflight and landing permits running out as the time frame is four days after which you must reapply for the entire route. In our case this would include Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen. Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Not only is there a lot of time involved in getting the clearances for the route it is very expensive costing several thousand U.S. dollars each time one goes through the process and this would be our third set of clearances.
It did not help knowing that at this time of year Nairobi can be low overcast for weeks at a time. But we were to finally have a change of luck as the next day dawned clear and no wind.
We were up at four A.M. checked out of the hotel hoping to get all the paperwork and fees paid in time. For the first hour it went good we managed to pay the landing, parking and departure fees, then it was off to the weather and flight planning a walk of about half a mile. Weather was no real problem typical Africa, very little weather available for our route, so you take what you get and go. Flight planning is where we came up against the mind numbing stupidity of the African system. We were asked for our landing permit, I told them in the process of dealing with the air traffic controllers it got lost, the last time I saw it the controllers had it. Furthermore it was a departure clearance we were after today, we landed a week ago.
No amount of reasoning moved them, no landing permit no departure permit so another half mile walk back to the airplane and a search of every conceivable place it could be. Finally I found it in the Malawi file how the hell it got there I have no idea.
Half way to the control tower I see Richard coming, and he said lets get out of here I have the permit. What had happened is he had called the person in charge of Kenya C.A.A. and solved the problem paid the two hundred and fifty U.S. dollar navigation fee and lo and behold we had our departure permit. By now it is coming up on eight A.M.
We are running out of time to make Djibouti with some safety margin before dark, I will not fly in that part of Africa V.F.R. after dark it is bad enough running the risk of being shot down without adding another problem to the flight. We start up and ask for taxi clearance only to be told there was no departure permit for our airplane. We informed the tower we had the permit and they said not for that airplane, so I get out of the seat and get the paperwork give them the permit number and the problem was solved, our airplane was N9521C they thought we were N9525C so off we go.
Now we are in the holding bay for the runway and ask for take off clearance, only to be told we could not depart as they needed our landing permit number.
Lucky for us I had it and we were cleared for take off.
The usual radar vectors to clear their terminal area and good bye Nairobi and our friends in the radar room. The flight from Nairobi to Djibouti is planned for seven hours and thirty minutes, we now are in the most dangerous part of the trip. Due to the many local wars only one route was available to transit central Africa. We had to stay on the flight planned route or risk being forced down or shot down. Our route was through central Ethiopia and less than an hour into our flight low stratus started to form and soon it was at our altitude 7,500.
Eventually we were able to remain on top at 11,500 where we remained for the next four hours. With the help of high flying airliners we were able to report our position, altitude and estimates to Addas Ababa. The further we flew into Ethiopia the less our choices of where to go became in the event of an engine failure or any other problem that could force us to land. To the west of our track were the central mountains of Ethiopia and the southern Sudan, which is at war and a no fly zone. To the east is Somalia also a war zone not to mention the airplane we were flying was painted in U.S. Navy colours with a big U.S. star on it, to land in Somalia would be suicide.
Just prior to Djibouti we were approaching Eritrea another no fly zone. The Ethiopian controllers monitor the last one hundred miles into Djibouti and they allow zero deviation from the airway and are continually asking for estimates for the fixes ahead of us. Finally the cloud cover disappeared and we once again could map read. Our airway passed directly over Ethiopia’s biggest military airfield and they were the controllers we had been talking to. After we passed the airfield Pene came up and asked us if we saw all the Jet fighters on the airport we just passed and we said yes, they looked like Russian Migs but at least they knew who we were. Prior to our arrival Djibouti we received the landing information and as expected the temperature was 42 deg. C. now we find out if our engine oil temperature problem is still with us. It was, by the time we were parked it had already climbed into the caution range.
We had fuel drums waiting for us and wouldn’t you know it their hand pump quit after three drums, we left for town after dark not knowing when if ever we would get our fuel out of the drums. The taxi ride to the hotel was Pene’s first real introduction to the real Africa first it ran out of fuel just out side the airport, he had a small can with enough fuel to get us to a gas station. The cab was a real beauty no door handles and no lights except one parking light on the right front. But all was not lost as Pene saw her first two camels, the driver slammed on the brakes and lo and behold there they were two camels we had just barely missed them. Djibouti is about as run down as any country can get and still have people live there, the hotel was a Sheraton the best in town, dirty run down and only one tap had water in our room.
We were to stay two days in this hotel waiting for our fuel. There was no thought of sightseeing as it is very unsafe for foreigners even in the daytime especially if you have a white woman with you, but she wanted to go on this trip so caused us no real problem. By dark on our second day in Djibouti we had our fuel and were ready to depart at sunrise.
Up at four A.M. and the usual run around to finish the paper work and pay the charges we had not paid the day before. The plan was to get airborne when the temperature was at its lowest just at dawn. We had talked to the tower people and they agreed to allow us to depart with no delay so as to keep our oil temperature as low as possible.
This was our last problem with no fly airspace all we had to do was fly 65 miles east to an airway intersection then follow the airway up the middle of the red sea. Once again we must stay right on the centerline as we can see Eritrea just off our left wing and it is for sure a no fly zone. Somehow Eritrea has Mig 29’s and all kinds of missles it is amazing that these countries have very little food or any other necessities of life that we here in North America take for granted, yet they are armed with the most modern of weapons. The right engine oil temp was a real problem but using minimum power with it we managed to get into cool air at 9,500 feet after one and a half hours of slow climbing.
The red Sea has the most beautiful coral reefs that extend for miles and miles just prior to entering Saudi Arabian Airspace. Our fourth day ended in Jeddah Saudi Arabia temperature 47 deg. C and once again no fuel available until tomorrow. We have done it in four days of flying, we are through the entire difficult airspace in Africa. This was to be the end of our trip to Oshkosh, we could not get fuel until three P.M. on our second day in Jeddah. When we departed at dawn the next morning the air temperature was over 30 deg. C. shortly after take off the right engine oil temperature could not be controlled leaving us no choice but to shut it down and return to the Jeddah airport. We stayed a further four days, we were on a general declaration visa which has a seventy two-hour time limit.
After two extensions we were deported to apply for a visa outside Saudi Arabia to fly the airplane out of the country when it is repaired. We flew to London stayed three days then home to Vancouver Island, I will return to Jeddah and ferry the airplane to London England where it will be stored until a sale is found for it.