An airline pilot leaves the automated flight deck behind for a flying adventure in Zambia
By Mawgan GraceSince leaving university my best friend and I went in totally different directions to achieve a career in aviation. I took the airline path, whereas Mark became a ‘bush pilot’. At his invitation, I joined him for three weeks in Lusaka Zambia to find out what he was up to.
The company Mark works for, that would take me under its wing for the next three weeks, was ProFlight Commuter Services, based at Lusaka International Airport. They offer a range of aircraft for varying airfields and operational requirements. The Britten Norman Islander and Cessna Grand Caravan are used mainly for small dirt bush strips, with the Beechcraft Baron and Piper Chieftain offering economy on scheduled services where the loads are too light for their biggest aircraft, the Jetstream 32. My first experience was to fly with Mark in the J32 to Mfuwe game park, situated next to South Luangwa National Park. Newly acquired, and flown by Mark himself from the United States only two months previously, the J32 is well suited to this region. A sturdy British design with external baggage pod, pressurisation and good short field performance means economical transportation for up to twenty passengers on one to two hour routes. A BREAK FROM THE NORM
Take off was delayed as the half dozen workmen painting the runway centreline and edge markings by hand vacated the runway. This was something I was going to get used to in Africa. At about 100 knots, and after smudging a few white lines, we were airborne. After helping assist our passengers through the airport to the waiting lodge vehicles we had time to sit and relax with a soft drink in the shade of the local thatched bar. Being used to twenty minute turnarounds, this was a pleasant and welcome surprise. Our return was uneventful apart from the family of suicidal baboons that decided to run across the runway right in front of us at V1. Next, I flew in the right hand seat of an Islander from Lusaka to Jeki and Royal Zambezi, two dirt bush strips in Lower Zambezi National Park. Trying to help as much as possible, I finished writing up the operations white board and set to preflighting the Islander before collecting our six passengers from the domestic departures hall. Dressed like extras from an old Michael Caine movie in khaki with a multitude of cameras, binoculars and fishing rods, our troops boarded the aircraft. Once the standard retorts about the size of the aircraft, location of the rubber band and movie playing on the flight were dispensed with, Andrew took off. He seemed to lift the nosewheel almost immediately and at about 50-55kt we were airborne. It was 40�c on the ground with an airport elevation of almost 4000ft. Climbing to flight level 070 we cleared the escarpment and descended gently towards the great Zambezi River. The colours were incredible as this huge royal blue river meandered gently between lush green grasslands and forests, themselves surrounded by arid yellow and red bush. WHERE’S THE LANDING STRIP?
Peering at the GPS indicating only 5nm to run, I scoured the terrain for a landing area. Somewhere down there, on the dried flood plain was a 600m dirt landing strip. Suddenly it became visible, only recognisable by an old tattered and sun bleached windsock and the markings 05 at the end of a compacted mud clearing. As we descended, Andrew explained that due to the large amount of game sometimes wandering on the runway a fly-by of the strip is always performed. After our low pass Andrew casually selected the fuel pumps on, brought the propeller RPM up to maximum and configured flap while pointing out herds of game outside. The visual aiming point is the numbers, not the usual 1000ft point that I was used to only a few days ago. With a trickle of power Andrew expertly flew us onto the runway with surgical precision. With a short rumble and the whine of retracting flaps we had arrived. But what kind of lunar landscape was this. We were in the middle of dried out mud with sparse, thirsty bushes baked in the current 43�c heat. Under the only large tree were two large local Park Wardens armed with old Russian AK-47’s who would shortly be claiming their landing fee. Around us the runway was littered with heaps of elephant dung and some gazelles stared at us from afar. As I marvelled at my new surroundings, Andrew explained that we were not at the top of the food chain and talked about a lion roaming the landing strip just five minutes after the passengers had finished boarding. Be vigilant and be careful. A ROYAL ENCOUNTER
Our next stop was Royal Zambezi bush strip. Although only fifteen minutes away, it was to be a real contrast with a red dusty runway set amongst a dense Mopane forest. Although a little longer than Jeki, ‘Royal’ is very narrow with a V shape runway profile and deep piles of dust at the edges as if snow had just been cleared. Luckily for me, we were to transit empty to Royal to collect passengers so it was my turn to show what I had learned. After a magneto check on taxi, we lined up and set power on the roll to reduce the possibility of picking up stones and FOD with the props. At 30kt I brought the nosewheel off the ground, pointed the beast skywards and again at 50-55kt we were airborne. What a fantastic machine. Passing blue line speed and raising the flaps we turned towards the Zambezi River and levelled at 1500ft agl, the National Park’s restriction. Now deep into the dry season with most watering holes cracked and dusty memories, the animals had to choose the great river to drink and cool off. With the midday sun approaching, we witnessed a wonderful spectacle all the way to Royal. Hippos floating in the river huddled together, some thrashing about surrounded by giant Nile crocodiles. At the water’s edge and on the riverbank we spotted buffalo and elephants, some in large groups. A broad smile broke out on my face, and I knew this holiday was something really special. All too soon Royal Airfield appeared and we cruise descended to over-fly the runway. With a run and break into a teardrop, concentrating on wind effects and using the constant sight line method, I reduced energy and configured rolling wings level at short final. WORTH EVERY SECOND
After a fluky smooth landing having mentally told myself not to flare at 20ft, I took a large breath of air and started to backtrack towards the improvised apron. The approach and landing had seemed to take more concentration and skill than I could remember but the satisfaction I felt was worth every second. I was hooked! In retrospect, maybe I take flying at work a little for granted. As I become more familiar, the satisfaction has reduced, even though I fly more manual ‘visuals’ and raw data approaches than most. New challenges in aviation certainly keep your interest and satisfaction high and isn’t that why we all started flying in the first place? Over the next couple of weeks I stayed at a couple of game lodges situated near both Royal and Jeki on the banks of the Zambezi. I was expecting staff quarters but the tent I was escorted to was truly spectacular. With unmatched opulence I sat on my veranda with a cool Mozi beer absorbing the stunning view of this great river only twelve feet away. This is like no night stop I’ve ever been on. At 4pm tea was served and I was asked if I wanted to partake in the evening game drive with the other guests. It wasn’t until walking back to my tent that night that I appreciated the extent of my false sense of security. While concentrating our torch light on a close grazing buffalo we failed to spot the hippo right in front of us. As soon as we saw him he was only a few feet ahead facing the other way. How a two ton hippo can spin around on the spot so quickly is amazing. My guide launched one arm across my chest as if to stop me moving forward and fixed his beam on the insane-looking eyes of the huge hippo. Racing through my mind as we slowly backed up was the fact that in Africa more people are killed by hippos than any other animal. With its huge interlocking tusks and powerful jaws combined with serious territory issues, I could believe it. Slipping around the back of my tent I eventually made it to bed. That night I maybe slept two hours. Every snap of a branch, rustle or growl was enough to send me sitting bolt upright in bed. After two weeks I really felt at home in Zambia and could sleep through a herd of elephants passing through my camp. I felt comfortable flying the Islander into the shortest of strips. Later I flew the Cessna 206 for aerial photography with a weight shift microlight at dawn over the hippos in the river, later still, the BE55 Baron over Lake Kariba and Victoria Falls. My experiences in Zambia were truly life changing. I found that spark again that had originally destined my life as a pilot.