Flying Adventure: Microlighting in Africa

PUBLISHED: 12:09 18 June 2014 | UPDATED: 12:16 18 June 2014

Charles Nagel 2013

A husband and wife volunteer their services as an aerial support team for animal wildlife conservation

Early morning, high on the Soutpansberg mountain range in the Limpopo region, South Africa nothing stirred, apart from strengthening gusts of wind from my right rear quadrant, threatening to ruin my departure. Sitting in my Shadow DD at the end of the runway, I was ready for takeoff. Mind you, using the term ‘runway’ for this sandy 300 metre strip was a slight exaggeration.

They say the thought of impending doom concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully, and my mind was indeed wonderfully concentrated! The last person who attempted a takeoff from here ended up in hospital, his weight-shift microlight a twisted wreck. No doubt there were bits of it still off the end of the runway, if I cared to look.

Not that 300 metres is short for a Shadow at sea level. However, this strip was on a small plateau, nearly 4,500ft up. Couple that with an outside air temperature of 22°C, and rising as the sun climbed higher, and you can understand my concern. There was also the matter of a seven- to eight-knot crosswind with a 45° downwind component, indicated by a portable windsock, and the garbage bag stuck on a pole by Peter, the lodge manager. Incredibly, these two could be pointing in different directions at times! The only positive was that the strip sloped slightly downhill in the direction of the takeoff run.

No matter that I had done rough calculations the previous night that indicated I should be okay, there is always that tight feeling when you actually have to go for it. The problem with density altitude calculations is that you need an accurate dew point, but I didn’t have that. I knew the outside air temperature and the altitude, but with no access to Internet, or even a cell phone signal, could only guess at what the dew point might be. Hence the reason my wife Anne was standing at the end of the strip. My intended passenger − until I’d realised that in all probability we wouldn’t make it, two-up − she was relegated to providing assistance in case things went horribly pear-shaped. “Time to bite the bullet,” I thought, as I selected takeoff flap, stomped on the brakes and advanced the volume control (sorry, throttle) on the little Rotax 582 to eleven.

Two years of planning, organisation and hard work were about to pay off (or not). We were on this plateau in the first place because we wanted to help with wildlife conservation in Africa. This is not as easy as it sounds, however. Since we were offering our services free (our ‘customers’ just had to provide fuel and accommodation), we’d expected to find plenty of interest, but even after a year or so of contacting various charities and organisations we still had no takers. Most just wanted us to send money! Finally − and much to our relief − Lajuma Research Centre in the Limpopo, run by Prof Ian Gaigher, came through with an invitation to do some aerial surveys of animals and habitats. Then Neil and Leisel Wright gave us the very kind offer of the use their airstrip at Sigurwana Lodge, staying with their Lodge Manager Peter, who in addition to putting up the above mentioned windsocks had also put a lot of work into preparing the strip, which hadn’t been used in years.

Given the flying conditions in Africa, we would have preferred an aircraft with a four-stroke engine, but the funds, such as they were, didn’t run that far. Eventually, we settled on a CFM Shadow, chiefly because they were available very cheaply second-hand in the UK and still had pretty good performance. I had checked the second-hand market in South Africa as well, but couldn’t find a suitable aircraft at a reasonable price, so we decided to buy in England and ship it down there. The upside of this was that I could hone my flying skills in the relatively benign environment of the Dordogne, where we spend our summers.

Firstly, the aircraft needed some modification. The Shadow is famous for its lack of anything approaching luggage space, and that needed rectification. Hence, I contacted Danny Crosbie to see if he still had one of those wing-root locker kits that he used to sell. Sadly, by now, all he had were the plans, but I had the enormous good fortune to find a retired ex-RAF engineer in the shape of Bob Thompson, who lived in the same area, and volunteered to help with the work; my DIY skills being almost non-existent. While we were about it, Danny still had some long-range pannier tanks that were left over from an attempt to certify them for Shadow use. This foundered years ago when the manufacturer ran out of money to fund the certification process. As such, I could not legally put them on a British-registered Shadow, but as I was in the process of switching to the French register − the French being a bit more relaxed about these things − it became a non-issue.

So now, we had a reasonable little tourer, which was capable of some longish navigational trips, and that I could use to practice on the many short, hill-top strips that you find around our area. We also bought a gyro-stabilized zoom camera, to enable us to photograph animals from the air, and a GoPro camera to mount under the wing to record our flights. Along the way, Anne christened the aircraft Skubie and, after a short while, everyone referred to it as such. We decided to formalise the name by painting it on the pannier fuel tanks.

A major hiccup in the shipping process came when we found that the supposed ‘Shadow trailer’ I had bought from someone who swore up and down that he had actually had a Shadow in it, was found not fit for purpose, so some major modifications had to be made just a month before the shipping date. As if that wasn’t enough, shortly thereafter, I found on a run up test that one ignition circuit wasn’t working. This was a major headache because it was a stator issue would have meant dismounting the engine, which we didn’t have time for. Hence, we decided to ship the aircraft anyway, and hope to fix the stator in Durban.

It never ceases to amaze me that, when encountering seemingly insurmountable problems, someone always seems to step forward and offer help. As was the case with Dave Daniel from ComeFly microlights, situated on the Dolphin Coast near Durban, who offered to fix our stator issue. Dave was not only the Chief Pilot, but the Chief Instructor, Chief Mechanic and Chief Coffee Maker! The stator was resolved in about a week and, after some minor tweaking, we were ready. Then it was simply a case of packing Skubie back into the trailer and hauling it the 1,000km north to Louis Trichardt, the nearest town to our area of operations.

As is always the case with operations in Africa, our problems didn’t end there. The owners of Sigurwana Lodge had very kindly offered the use of a small strip with accommodation nearby to base ourselves whilst carrying out our survey work. At the time, I wasn’t aware that the strip was about 4,500ft up the Soutpansberg mountains, and had fondly imagined towing our trailer to the strip and parking it alongside; so we could have our spares with us and also emergency accommodation for the aircraft in case of bad weather. However, after having traversed just one kilometre up one of these African mountain roads, we realised it was a forlorn hope. There was no way either the trailer or the aircraft would survive the trip. Not to mention the fact that both Land Rovers at the lodge, which we had been relying on to tow us up, were unserviceable: one with a jammed starter motor and the other, a broken axle. The only option was to fly the aircraft up. The question now was what to do with the trailer? Imagine how long a trailer and spares would last at an unmanned airport in Africa! Yet again, one of the local pilots, Ant Scott, stepped forward with the offer of a hangar to store our trailer in. So with that major headache resolved, the flight up turned out to be the most uneventful part of the trip, and it was with some relief that I finally planted Skubie’s wheels on that dusty strip at Sigurwana.

So it came about that, after a not entirely uneventful journey of some 5,000 miles or so, I was sitting on the top of a mountainous plateau in one of the more desolate areas of the world, about to test if my back of the envelope calculations from the previous night were correct. I gazed down the length of the strip − which, frankly, did not now look nearly as long as when I had paced it out − then checked the revs and released the brakes, looking for the small stick that I had planted at the 200 metre mark. If I wasn’t airborne by then, the plan was to abort, giving 100 metres to stop, which should be no problem for a Shadow.

Using the standard Shadow take-off technique with the stick fully back, the nose came off the ground almost immediately. We were off… sort of! We bumped and bounced for a while and my 200 metre mark came and went before I knew it. “Crap!” I thought, as we roared past my self-imposed abort point, still not quite airborne. However, the aircraft felt like it was straining to fly, so I stayed with it. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta go with your gut feeling. Another twenty metres, then a final bump and we were away, climbing strongly at 500fpm. Not a bad climb rate on only 65 horses, which were more like fifty at that density altitude. It certainly helped to be solo, with minimal fuel for the sortie.

Being unable to take off two up from Sigurwana, I was now heading to nearby Leshiba Lodge’s strip, which, at 800 metres and a similar height, was far more suitable. The researcher I was going to take flying was waiting for me there. We planned to search for some radio-collared hyenas they had lost track of. However, Leshiba was three kilometres to the east and, as I wanted Anne to measure my take-off run at this altitude, she was going to hike that three kilometres in the meantime. It took me all of about three minutes to get there by air, but I found a herd of wildebeest grazing on the fresh grass of the runway. This necessitated a buzzing of the strip and the agitated animals scattered in all directions. My intended passenger Sam, and his partner, were waving to me as I set up the approach.

I had counted on 45 minutes or so of briefing for the flight, discussing a suitable survey grid etc, by which point I expected Anne to show up and help buckle my passenger in. The briefing passed, but still no Anne, so as it was getting warmer by the minute I decided to proceed without her. We strapped Sam in, Yagi antenna included (for listening to the radio signals), and I asked Sam’s partner Kate to measure the take-off run by GPS. The extra weight had its anticipated effect and it seemed to take ages before we were airborne. Still, we made it with about 400 metres to spare, but a diminished climb rate, thus vindicating my decision to take off solo from Sigurwana. No way would we have made it two-up. However, we only had about 45 minutes on station, as I had severely rationed the amount of fuel for the trip due to the density altitude considerations. Although we criss-crossed the target area several times, sadly there were no hyenas in evidence. The brown hyena is active only at night, and perhaps late evening or early morning. My researchers asked me eagerly if a night flight might be possible. I had to immediately disabuse them of this notion. Apart from being illegal, flying a microlight around this rugged area at night just didn’t bear thinking about. It was tricky enough during the day, gorgeous though the scenery was. Anne eventually showed up after we landed, having taken a few wrong turns, and reported seeing leopard tracks on the road, but no rhinos, even though they were supposed to be in the area. Plucky girl!

It very soon became apparent that even the longer strip at Leshiba was not going to allow us to do much useful work, again, due to the altitude. In addition, the constant worry during every takeoff, as to whether I had got my calculations correct was starting to get to me. Also, we had a bit of an incident when we were returning from Louis Trichardt after flying down to pick up some supplies. We had to delay our return flight that afternoon due to high winds, and arrived back at the strip with probably less than ten minutes of light left. The wind was blowing in the wrong direction, so I had to set up a landing down slope. Unfortunately, from this direction, there were trees and shrubs right up to the threshold, so I was committed to touching down further in than I would have liked. Plus we were reasonably heavy with supplies, with density altitude probably adding five knots or so to our true airspeed as well, so when we touched down, even with heavy braking, things were looking a bit hairy. Then, the right brake began to fade so we started pulling to the left. Finally, we ran into the sand piled up along the edge of the runway, which stopped us; in a right wing low attitude, twenty metres from the end of the strip. Phew! No damage to the aircraft, but plenty to my ego.

Thus, after three weeks of distinctly marginal operations, and getting more marginal by the day, as the mercury rose moving into summer, we decided to move the aircraft back down to the 4,000ft tarmac strip at Louis Trichardt, situated 2,000ft below. Luxury! Prof Gaigher had very kindly offered us free accommodation at Lajuma when he heard of our issues. Although it was on the other side of the mountain and an hour from the airport it was much safer, although less convenient.

As so often happens, it is only after you have been doing something for a while that you find out you probably shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place. Talking to some local microlight pilots, they informed me that they never flew up there. The high altitude, plus the gusty wind conditions, made it too risky in their opinion!

One of our missions was to try to locate some rare samango monkeys, believed to be residing in the Blauberg region, in the remote south west area of the Limpopo, an hour’s flight time away. The area is a massive, rugged plateau rising two thousand feet above the plains below, criss-crossed by savage gullies, 500ft deep. For this, I was glad to be able to carry extra fuel, as it was going to be at least a three-hour sortie. As the plateau hove into view, I remember thinking, “Bloody hell! I don’t remember signing up for this!” Rugged and forbidding, even at our transit height of 4,000ft, the plateau seemed to tower above us. I had to make an orbit to gain an extra 1,000ft or so to be able to overfly the target area safely. This gorge burst out of the plateau, and with its vertical sides and flat base, looked like it had been carved out of the living rock by a giant sculptor’s chisel. It was a mini Grand Canyon, with a small watercourse running sinuously down the middle, empty and desolate, apart from a few herdsmen watering their cattle. As we flew close to the canyon rim, we skirted huge inselbergs, remnants of ancient sedimentary erosion: great granite pillars rising hundreds of feet above the surrounding plateau, creating a truly bizarre, almost alien landscape. The monkeys had been seen there, three or four years before, and were believed to reside in the trees near the top of the canyon, but apart from catching a glimpse of a troop of baboons, and the aforesaid cattle, of samangos, there was none.

After patrolling up and down this bleak and forbidding landscape for the best part of an hour, two major issues began clamouring for my immediate attention: my bladder, which was filling up; and the fuel tank, which manifestly wasn’t. Hence, I reluctantly informed Berthe, my researcher for the day, that we would have to head back. After some initial protests that we hadn’t covered this or that gully branching off the main canyon, she acquiesced with good grace, especially when I pointed out what the alternatives were.

The trip back seemed to take an age. As so often happens, the tailwind I had expected to push us homeward, had turned into a headwind, and regardless of the height I chose, only seemed to get stronger. The last twenty minutes or so seemed unbearable, as our ground speed had dropped to a mere 40kt. Funnily enough there was hardly any wind on the runway, and we landed without incident, taxying in a tad faster than normal, stopping at the first available hangar, behind which I disappeared for a well-earned operational necessity stop.

One of the major highlights of our entire stay was conducting game counts and vegetation surveys at Moyo Lodge. This was situated about forty minutes north-west of Louis Trichardt, and had a 900 metre dirt strip. Again luxury, pure luxury! Also, it had, until recently, been a hunting lodge, before being bought by the son of Prof Gaigher, and was now in the process of being turned into an Eco Lodge. The modern drive-by, would-be hunter values creature comforts above all else, so the lodge was pretty much four star, with glorious four-poster beds and open air showers, Bali style. What a change from our Spartan quarters at Lajuma!

Animals are mostly active at dawn, so we would be up before first light, pre-flighting with the aid of torches, and getting airborne as the sun crept over the horizon. Moyo is a relatively small reserve by South African standards, but it was well stocked with game. Impala, wildebeest, kudu, gemsbok, giraffe, buffalo, eland and zebra plus many more, were all to be found. As the animals move around a lot, searching for new grazing, it is next to impossible to gauge their numbers from the ground. Even from the air, it can be difficult, as the herds tend to meld and merge temporarily. We covered the area with a very tight grid, and flew below 300ft so we could get a good view of the animals, to separate species from species. Swooping low-level over the African plains, watching herds of impala, wildebeest and zebra breaking cover in the early morning light is a glorious experience. We couldn’t get enough of it, and conducted several counts, one just for fun, and they all came up with more or less the same numbers of each species, giving us confidence that we had an accurate figure. This was more than academic, as Prof Gaigher was hoping for support from a leading university for his eco venture, so being able to show he had access to an aircraft, and accurate game counts, was a huge plus for him.

Thus the days blended into each other, as spring turned to summer and the temperature rose steadily. Dawn flights, followed by a sizeable breakfast, then spending the rest of the morning analysing videos and film from the flight. Then, after lunch, perhaps a snooze as the mercury climbed past 37 or 40 Celsius. It was too hot to fly, or do anything much, without air conditioning. In the evenings, we would congregate around the Braai, a circle of stones containing a crackling fire, swapping stories over a glass of excellent South African wine. They were magical days and nights, which came to an end far too soon.

Before we knew it, our three months were up and we were removing Skubie’s wings so that we could store it in a smaller space in Ant’s hangar, readying ourselves for the final trip to Jo’berg and the flight back home. It had been a wonderful adventure, but the best part was that we have been invited back next year, and our plucky little Shadow; which had performed well above and beyond the call of duty in a very challenging environment, will be waiting, ready to continue the conservation work which we had begun.

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