From the archives: Wolfgang Langewiesche flies across Africa

From time to time, we revisit an original Air Facts article that we think would make enjoyable and worthwhile reading today. Today we are pleased to republish “140 in Africa,” a delightful article that will take you back in time. Legendary author Wolfgang Langewiesche shares the simple pleasures of flying low and slow across a vast continent. This originally appeared in the March, 1951 edition of Air Facts magazine.  –Ed.

I had an errand to do in Africa. A magazine assignment would take me to out-of-the-way places, strung out along some 20,000 miles. Here was a chance to practice what we preach: personal flying for serious transportation. Public transport is slow in Africa when it is cheap — river steamers, or slow trains twice a week, or a bus once a week. Driving is difficult, nerve wracking and slow. On some routes, only a jeep or command car is practical. The airlines have quite a network, but still they don’t go everywhere nor every day, and they are expensive. By flying my own, I would save money and time: and, with so big a chunk of flying to do, even the expense of crating the airplane and shipping it to Europe would not be out of line. Then, too, flying my own, I could carry my secretary, who is also my wife. This would make my work more efficient; or so I had better persuade myself, as she refused to stay home.

Stick and Rudder

Langewiesche, best known for the classic book Stick and Rudder, wrote for Air Facts, Reader’s Digest and many other publications.

So now The Bird in Hand, our Cessna 140, sits here in the country of King Solomon’s Mines, 100 zig-zag flying hours from Belgium where she came off the steamer. She is a bit dirty under the belly. Behind each exhaust stack, there is a streak of tattle-tale grey. It’s lead deposits, and it tattles that we have been running most of the time on 100 octane gas. The ceiling windows and the top part of the windshield are masked, on the inside, with wrapping paper scotch-taped against the plexiglass. That’s to keep the sun out and is the only tropicalizing we have done. Apart from that, she looks, feels and flies like new. Total mechanical work so far: an oil change at Dakar, one at Kano, one at Stanleyville. At Kano also, a spark plug change — I carry a spare set so that I can always run on clean, correctly-gapped plugs, without having to do the cleaning and regapping right on the spot. At Timbuctu, a small oil leak developed between the oil tank and crankcase. A nut had backed off a little. I tightened it and the leak stopped. At Lake Chad, some insects got into the pitot tube, and put the airspeed indicator on the fritz. But they left voluntarily the next day, before I had a chance to blow them out. A few times we have had to take the wasps’ nests out of the engine. In the Congo, I had a blowing valve. It stopped after a Sabena mechanic sprayed the inside of the offending cylinder with a kerosene mist. For doing this quickly at a time when he was over-worked, I paid him ten dollars; and that is all I have so far paid for maintenance.

That is the most important thing we have to report — how well a small airplane works on this big big continent. Sometimes the Cessna seemed to be just about the only machine that did work — the cars didn’t start, the toilets didn’t flush, the gasoline lamps didn’t light, the river steamers were late, the roads were washed out: the radio beacons were always “en panne;” but the airplane always started on the first pull of the knob, always went where you wanted to go when you wanted to go, always smooth, clean, cool — and private.

And very fast. We did the 100 hours from Brussels to here in 61 days. Of these, 38 days were spent entirely on the ground, working. On 11 more days, we were through with flying by lunch time, and did real work in the afternoon. And of course every day we finished in time for at least a stroll through the native town, or something — something of value to me as background impressions. By comparison: we met here a man who had left London when we left Brussels. He had followed much the same route; he had arrived here three days after us. He had driven every day all day; and his car, new in London, was more than half used up.

We picked our airplane for this job only after many long stew sessions. I am an old friend and former pilot of the Cessna people. At the same time, I am an important stockholder in Piper’s (important to us — 200 dollars worth it was when I last checked the stock market page). I admire the Clipper and the Pacer. I have never known an airplane so relaxing to fly as the Aeronca Sedan. I am intrigued with the Bellanca, (which I can’t afford). I mean, I was torn.

Here is what decided us. First the 140 was all metal, and could stay staked out on the desert or in the equatorial rains. Second, it had an eight-hour tank as CAA approved equipment. Third, this extra gas did not take up any luggage space — it’s all in the wings. Fourth, the 140 is a remarkably quite and vibration-less ship, with a low fatigue factor. And finally; it was the smallest airplane that would do the job. We would be pushing no waste bulk through the air, no waste weight, no waste seats. Nor, for that matter, would we be pushing at waste speed — and high airspeeds are wasted on a flight like this, where ground-delays determine your week’s mileage. We would make the trip on the least possible fuel — and fuel is expensive in out-of-the-way places. In short, we would get 100% utilization.

Or really, 110% utilization. With our big tanks full, and all the extras we have installed, my wife and I just bring the gross weight up to the licensed 1500 pounds — if we don’t wear shoes. Luggage? We laid our case before the CAA, and asked for an extra 100 pounds. We claimed we were old enough to know the effects of load and altitude and air temperature on takeoff. We promised to slow up in rough air; and to stay out of spiral dives on instruments. We argued that the extra gas was a big safety factor. We said the rest of our overweight would also consist mostly of safety factors: an ADF, big tires and tailwheel, food and water, only the most Spartan luggage. The CAA came back promptly and helpfully with a letter authorizing us (under certain conditions) to fly the airplane at 1600 pounds.

So there were our shoes and our luggage.

Cessna 140

The Cessna 140 turned out to be a perfect airplane for Africa.

100 pounds sounded like a lot, but it shrank fast. Our maps and pilot handbooks alone weighed twenty pounds! A set of spark plugs, a couple of pincers, a spark plug wrench: it adds up fast. We did not even try to carry any real “spares.” Should we need parts, we would just cable, sit and wait. But we thought we should carry everything we knew we would need. We were right. You can’t rely on finding a tool, a map, or even a wiping rag when you need it. As you go from America to Europe, from Europe to the African coast cities, and from there into the bush, everything becomes more rare and hard to get and finally priceless: everything, down finally to a piece of paper or a bit of string. We took some spare tubes for the radio, because they were so light: a few feet of safety wire; some spark plug lube; a few fuses; a “cigarette;” a spark plug gauge; a wire brush for cleaning spark plugs; a gasoline funnel with wire screen. We took three feet of the flexible tubing Cessna uses to duct carburetor air, etc. (We thought we might have to rig a blast tube to cool the cabin or the accessory compartment or perhaps the oil: we have never used it.) Well, and so on: four of those “daynite” signal flares; my seven-pound Swiss typewriter. Pounds of documents, customs carnet, health certificates, police certificates, licenses, waivers to go without licenses, policies, amendments to policies, letter of credit, gasoline credit cards, foreign flying permissions, inoculation certificates, bills of lading for the airplane, bill of sale, registration certificate, airworthiness certificate, travelers checks, and the key to the whole thing — the CAA’s 1600-pound authorization.

By that time, the allowance left for luggage was Spartan and no fooling: thirty pounds for two people for three months in three different climates: the European winter, the desert and the moist-hot equator.

We went around the New York stores with a “Fisherman’s De-Liar,” to buy things by weight, or rather by lightness. The clerks often would start out by being nasty and then turn very kind and patient: I think we stayed out of the loony-bin only because we didn’t go back to many stores twice. I dug up a wartime plastic razor. We found a shoe, moccasin-type, that is amazingly light and tough (“Mathews Guild” at Abercrombie and Fitch). We snorted at all so-called airplane luggage and got canvas bags: even so, our bags empty, weighed five pounds! By the time we got them filled, bulk became as bad an enemy as weight itself. Have you ever noticed how light and small the business end of things is and how heavy and bulky the packing and the handle? Half of the weight of a toothbrush is in the handle: I sawed mine off.

We got to Brussels with 99 pounds of stuff, plus the clothes on our backs. We picked up this and that little item. A Swiss milk can in which to carry water. Two canteens, some drugs. A flitgun, an alarm clock. Some pills for purifying water. Sunburn lotion. A sewing kit and some spare buttons, a book. We had it neatly planned. We should leave our winter clothes and city shoes at Casablanca; and so we would get capacity to carry food and the 25 pounds of water which are required from there on while you fly between the Sahara and the deep blue sea.

This did not work out. When we found how hard it is to get anything — you might easily kill a whole flying day just by hunting up some item — we bought our food in Belgium. Then, at Casablanca, customs considerations make us hang onto our winter clothes. So for a stretch (we might as well confess it) we flew the airplane with 150 pounds of overload. The limiting factor turned out to be not weight, but space: the stuff was falling down our necks. It was just as Dwane Wallace had claimed; the 140 will carry anything you can cram in it.

Timbuktu aerial photo

Timbuctu, not the best place to develop an oil leak.

Since then, we have left caches of our stuff here and there. We carry less food and no water, as the country is inhabited and the climate moist. With full tanks, our overload is now only 60 pounds. And here in mile-high Central Africa, airports are closely spaced. We can operate with half tanks (four hours) and stay well below gross. So on the score of carrying capacity, the 140 has been a little giant. True, we could easily use 100 more pounds — our survival equipment is skimpy: we have no axe, no guns, no mosquito netting, no snake-proof knee high boots, and so on and on. But it would not be worth the price; the bigger airplane, the higher consumption, and so on.

That leaves the problem of speed — or rather, of slowness. A 100 mph. airplane may be fast compared to a river steamer, but it is slow when you sit up there and look down. You sit a long time looking at the same terrain (which may perhaps be a little scary to look at, like the equatorial forest). You don’t have that sense of mastery of the situation a faster airplane gives you. A detour around a thunderstorm is a bigger proposition. Wind effects are bigger, and make navigation more precise. But a slow airplane has its good points, too.

First; you see more. We fly very low. What we have learned about Africa from the air you could not learn on the ground in a year. And when we talk to people and do our research, this background is most valuable. When the man says, “…in the villages…,” or “…irrigation scheme…,” or “nomads,” we know exactly what he means. We have seen it.

Second: in a slow airplane, you are rid of many gadgets a faster airplane needs — controllable prop, retracting gear, fuel pump, electric flap. You could operate without brakes, in a pinch. It’s not that those gadgets are especially liable to failure — they are not. But any mechanical thing can give trouble. The more you have, the more likely one of them will act up. In the U. S., this doesn’t matter — you get it fixed. Here in the backwoods of Africa, even a ruined tire could set you back hundreds of dollars and many weeks — what with export licenses and import licenses, cable charges, customs formalities, air express charges.

Thirdly: the slow, simple airplane is so much cheaper. Compared to the cost of flying a faster airplane with more luggage, this one leaves me hundreds of dollars with which to rent a car once in a while, or perhaps a native boat, or a couple of bicycles and a guide. So I figure — the 140 is a roadable airplane!

All of which is a sermon on the theme — don’t use the most airplane you can get — use the least airplane that will do the job and use it hard.

We put a lot of special equipment on the airplane: the eight-hour tank already mentioned; the new Lear ADF; oversized tires; and the oversized Scott tail wheel. Also a pretty full panel, including a DG driven by a big ugly venturi. The weight and drag has slowed the airplane up a little, and of course, the equipment has cost a lot, compared to the value of the airplane itself. Was it worth it?

The big tank — yes, yes, a thousand times yes; in America, Europe, Africa, Asia or Australia; in good weather or bad; contact or on top; a big tank is the greatest single improvement you can make on the standard light airplane. It is worth much more than a little added speed would be; more than any instrument or radio, it is worth more even, I say, than a second engine.

For us in Africa, it pays off in two ways — one real, one potential. By “real”, I mean this: every once in a while there comes a hop you simply could not make with standard range. In the total picture of a long trip, these longer hops are like links in a chain: if one is broken, the whole chain is busted. Some of these hops have saved us long detours — detours that would have taken days, would have meant customs and visa problems, or would have taken us into the rainy season.

Wait a minute. Don’t get the wrong idea. A light airplane with a standard five hour tank can penetrate to practically any point in Africa, and do so by a reasonable straight route. There are enough airports. But most airports are mere emergency fields — to get gas at them would take you from half a day to several days. Some are hard to find. Many are not on existing maps. Some that are on the maps don’t exist, and never did.

Now, the local pilot, doing regional flying, knows all the fields, knows how to get gas, and can work with standard range. For example, at Kano, in Nigeria, the Sudan Interior Missions use a Family Cruiser and a Cessna 170 with two full-time pilots. Both ships have standard tanks. Both are efficient on the Lord’s business. But for the stranger, it’s different. By the time you get reliable local information to check your maps in a particular colony, you are leaving it, and the problem begins all over. But with big tanks, we can simply base our operation on airline fields where we know we can get gas, and we still can penetrate into the small places. So the advantage of the big-tank airplane over the standard one is like that of an amphibian over a seaplane: you service where it is convenient; but still you go where you want to.

By “potential,” I mean — with, say four hours excess gas in your tank, almost nothing means anything. You can’t get lost; you can always find the coast or the Big River. You can fly into entirely different terrain and different weather. You can go and take a look at the weather or at the airport or whatever it is — and if you don’t like it, you can come back. You are never committed. You are a free agent.

Wolfgang Langewiesche and Leighton Collins

Air Facts founder Leighton Collins with Langewiesche, a longtime contributor to the magazine.

As for the ADF, it is of course a luxury. An ordinary loop receiver does almost the same thing. But not quite — and the difference is important when the going gets tough. The ADF has no ambiguity — you know whether the station is ahead or behind. The ADF works, once tuned, without further attention, leaving your mind free for thinking and your ears for communications from the ground. So the ADF was more important to us in the U. S., and on a trip we made to Newfoundland, than it is here — because the weather here is so much better, and there is practically no ground-air communications, except by telegraphy. For U. S. flying, I would never want to be without the ADF. I would be willing to come here another time with just a loop. But a loop receiver would have to have a feature which we also put into our ADF — a so-called CW oscillator, to make audible so-called A-1 transmission. Get a radio man to explain this properly — I can’t. All I know is that many beacons outside the U. S. transmit a kind of signal that simply cannot be heard in an ordinary receiver. With an ADF, the needle points, but you hear nothing and can’t identify the station. With a loop, you hear nothing and hence can’t get a null. Well, this CW oscillator makes this sort of signal audible. Ours was designed and made by the Radio Division of Usher Aviation in New Haven, Connecticut. It weighs maybe two ounces and costs not too much. Any airplane being equipped for foreign flying should have one. We met up a few times here with a Belgium-owned Stinson that lacked this gadget and could therefore often not use its loop.

About big tires, I wouldn’t know. Soft fields or sandy fields or rough fields have simply ceased to exist for us.

To sum up — I think that with my 140, as equipped, I have an airplane that can make any flight a ten thousand dollar airplane can make, and still is, with respect to simplicity and inherent safety and small field ability, almost a Cub; an airplane which cuts worry, uncertainty, work, risks, expense of flying perhaps as low as it is possible to cut them.

And therefore also the fatigue. This is important to us because we are flying for business, not for sport and our business is on the ground. Our actual flights in the 140 are quiet, peaceful interludes. Once down, we enter a torrent — a torrent of strangers, strange language, new ideas, interviews, personalities, facts, sights, noises, smells, meals, drinks, — a torrent we can’t turn off until, days later, we pull the starter knob again.

8 Comments

  1. Dreams were made out of this man’s writings. Thanks.

  2. ginny wilken says:

    A great reminder of what planes are meant to be. It makes me love my Skyhawk, with many comfort and performance bells and whistles, still a simple, easily repairable aircraft that will go anywhere, if you grant it the time:)

    I was introduced to Stick and Rudder after my first hundred hours or so. How I wish I had that knowledge from the beginning!

  3. Mike Barlow says:

    Wow, so nice … thanks for republishing!

  4. John Hunter says:

    A very readable account of exploration and early flying in Africa can be found in Osa Johnson’s “I Married Adventure”. My mother, who was “Medevaced” in Haiti in the 1920′s introduced me to the book. It’s good stuff!

  5. John Sheehan says:

    Delightful!

  6. Phil says:

    Great article. For those interested in a beautifully-written book about life as an African bush pilot, check out West With The Night by Beryl Markham.

  7. MORT MASON says:

    Loved flying the very economical Cessna 140. Trimmed, and even flown to Alaska’s usual overloaded conditions, a 120 mph cruise is within the realm of probability. Burning only 4.5 gallons of avgas per hour, it is truly an economical airplane. The biggest drawback? The tapered shaft, which seems prone to oil leaks on account of worn seals. Routine maintenance will take care of that. All in all, a small airplane that is truly hard to beat.

  8. Larry Banas says:

    Great adventure. I re-lived my time & training in the metal wing 1946 Cessna 120 our University of Detroit flying club had. The 120 of course has no flaps, so proficiency with slips was helpfull for dropping in over tall trees at the approach end of a short strip. This was the first plane I flew & soloed in 1961. That was at Wayne Major Airport, now Detroit Metropolitan ( KDTW ). When I last checked, N72264 was still registered somewhere outside of Michigan. Larry, CFIA&I