Stories from Africa

 A slightly new twist to the blogs is about how people at the Gliding Club got into flying! For Roger Fothergill, it was through being a commercial pilot. Here is tells us his tales of being a bush pilot in Africa. He then went onto fly big jets in the UK and is now happily retired and flies the Robin at Feshiebridge and has the occasional glider launch. Here is his exciting account of one particular bush flight in Africa which sounds not too dissimilar from some launches at Feshie! 

Photo by Andrew Miller. 

"Sarah has asked me to submit something for the club’s blog. I had no idea what to talk about, but

then recently remembered some of the amusing situations I got myself into during my six years flying in remote parts of Africa with MAF. (Mission Aviation Fellowship: using small single-engine aircraft in remote parts of the world to bring aid, medical help etc etc and landing on dirt village airstrips).

One such situation was in the Sudan (1982-4). We were based in Malakal (on the Nile, approximately halfway between Juba and Khartoum) and I had to get some folk from Mundri (to the west of Juba) to Nairobi. Having to position from Malakal to Mundri rather meant that the four-and-a-half hour leg from Mundri to Nairobi would be somewhat later than desirable. It was the rainy season and a typical day would be to fly as early as possible before the gigantic cumulo-nimbus clouds began to be a threat, and which could seriously impede our progress.

I arrived at Mundri with the passengers waiting for me. A glance at the horizon in the direction of Nairobi displayed a row of growing cauliflower tops rather blocking our route – no time to linger! I loaded up and then looked along the airstrip. MAF regulations wisely made it mandatory to “walk the strip” before take-off on remote airstrips as holes frequently appear, or patches of sand or long grass can impede the take-off and so on. Another glance at the growing CBs and I decided not to delay our departure by walking the strip.

Another factor here is that operations in Africa in single-engine aircraft are day VFR only and after four-and-a-half hours flying there would not be much space between the sun and the horizon. Looking down the strip it was obviously kept in good condition, with small bushes at the far end. It was a fairly long strip compared with others, so I had no qualms about the departure.

We got in and fired up the trusty steed, one of our six seat Cessna 206 aircraft, and I taxied to the take off position. All the gauges looked good so I opened the throttle fully and with take-off power set released the brakes. The gritted airstrip meant that acceleration was good, but then to my astonishment the airstrip suddenly dipped down significantly, revealing the fact that the small bushes at the far end were not small bushes at all…but the tops of rather tall trees!! A Sunday afternoon walk in the park had suddenly changed into an ascent of Everest!!

We got airborne but with a non-turbocharged fully laden 206 (full of fuel) the climb rate wasn’t spectacular.

One thing I have noticed about myself in such situations is that when I get really scared my left leg begins to shake uncontrollably – which it proceeded to do with increasing intensity!

As so often in the past (and still to this day) the Almighty came to my rescue in the form of a large gap in the trees to the left of the climb out path which I flew through seconds later. Once clear and climbing I looked right to the passenger who was sitting next to me (a seasoned traveller, fortunately) who was

reading the paper. He looked at me and smiled, obviously enjoying the flight and the break from his busy schedule. I smiled back benignly!

With the shaking in my left leg easing off, we proceeded onto the bright lights of Nairobi. As far as I can remember there were no CBs to block our route fortunately and prolong the excitement of the day!"


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