My adventure – over Africa

Growing up in the north of Scotland allowed me to recognise I couldn’t find sufficient commitment to golf at our local golf club. While studying in Edinburgh, however, I was fortunate to be accepted by Edinburgh University Air Squadron (EUAS) and very soon discovered that the concentration I could not summon up for golf was readily available when it came to solo landing a Chipmunk!

Chipmunks on the line
An Edinburgh University Air Squadron Chipmunk squadron, 1954.

The Chipmunk was the RAF basic trainer – over the years it has almost achieved the iconic status of the Tiger Moth, its immediate predecessor. Allegedly the result of a design exercise during the war by an apprentice group in de Havilland, Canada, the Chipmunk still operates in its training role with the Northern Ireland Universities Air Squadron, more than 50 years later.

The railway forms the east boundary of Edinburgh Airport now as it did in 1954/56 – one critical difference is the absence of steam trains. The sudden sense of disappearing into fog at the end of a training approach as a steam train passed below was a real learning experience! Having survived my first solo at Perth Airfield (grass field with no runways therefore operating directly into wind meant no crosswind landings and takeoffs) I continued to build up flying hours and gain experience until I left the Heriot Watt College in 1956 to join the world of work.

Building dams, hydro-electric power stations etc. with a contractor in the north of Scotland left little time, opportunity or indeed spare funds and I did not fly again until I flew by BOAC VC10 to Nairobi in late 1965 to join Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners after four years in Arup’s Edinburgh office. There I joined the Aero Club of East Africa (ACEA) and enjoyed five years of wonderful freedom in the air, flying ex-Rhodesian Air Force Chipmunks for training and air shows and a variety of Piper, Cessna and Beechcraft single-engined cross country aircraft on cross country trips. The film Out of Africa was a nostalgic experience after I’d left Africa as they filmed exciting flying sequences over areas I used to regard as my territory.

Gibb’s work at that time, at the beginning of Kenya’s independence, was mainly to do with infrastructure – roads, sugar developments, improving communications for tourist access to game parks and similar activities in Kenya and other East African countries. The combination of site visits and flying ensured that Nairobi head office staff were easily persuaded to visit construction sites – and to respond at short notice to invitations to barbecues and parties many miles away at Resident Engineers’ site locations.

Lake Rudolf
Lake Rudolf, a memorable flying destination in east Africa.

Friendships made through flying in Africa endure to this day and conversations turn readily to flights to wonderful places such as Lake Rudolf – the legendary Jade Sea – (now shown on maps as Lake Turkana); the island of Lamu near Malindi, off Kenya’s east coast; the beaches of Kenya’s east coast; and game parks such as Amboseli, Tsavo, Samburu, Murchison Falls in Uganda and Lake Manyara in Tanzania.

There were many opportunities for flights which stay in the memory – a wild life photographer friend studying wild dogs in their natural environment on Ngorongoro crater floor had to have his exposed film taken to a Nairobi lab every weekend because of the heat and humidity at his camp. I will never forget my disbelief as I recognised that the stony track I was inspecting from the air was the airstrip on which I was to land on the floor of the crater. Competing in the East Africa Flying Safari in 1968 with a friend co-piloting Piper Cherokee 140 5Y-AGK was another memorable experience. Learning to operate into and out of short, unsurfaced strips was essential and flying members of the Aero Club became competent bush pilots.

The formation of the Rift Valley through Kenya is clearly visible from two to three thousand feet above the altitude of Nairobi’s Wilson Airport, the base of the Aero Club. Volcanoes, mostly extinct, have retained their shape, and the pattern of lakes on the floor of the Rift Valley is also easily observed. Much more so than travelling on land safaris where two or three days may be taken to cover the distance of a one- to two-hour flight, and many obstacles to ground travel have to be overcome.

Flying safari in Africa
A flying safari – a wonderful way to meet new friends.

Many years ago one of the private flying periodicals ran a series called “I Learned About Flying From That.” The tradition still exists in the flying community of sharing experiences in flying and one of my most effective learning experiences arose during a late afternoon flight from Nairobi to Malindi on the east coast of Kenya in a Cessna 182, with three passengers. The aircraft was returned late from its previous flight and had to be refuelled resulting in our taking off some 45 or 50 minutes later than planned. As we descended southwest along the line of the road and railway it soon became evident that the headwind was a lot stronger than forecast and forest fires were sending out thick smoke which reduced visibility.

Because Nairobi is at 5,500 ft above sea level, the sun sets earlier as the ground level drops sharply towards the coast. By the time it became possible to confirm ground speed, wind speed, drift etc. and establish a revised ETA at our destination it was clear we were not going to get there before dark and returning to Nairobi would have ended in darkness too. The nearest alternate landing strip was at Mtito Andei, a lodge and small community on the road and railway to the coast.

Fortunately I had landed there before in daylight and I was taken by surprise at how fast we were losing daylight on this visit. By the time we arrived overhead Mtito Andei, daylight had virtually gone and the temptation to go for a straight in landing was almost overwhelming. Wild game in East Africa finds landing strips to be cool and comfortable to lie on at sunset and we had to steel ourselves for a (very) low pass over the strip to frighten the animals away. As we flew along the strip, it was possible to see the shadowy figures of antelopes, ostriches and other game scampering away as this noisy alien intruded on their rest.

East Africa air transport
Airport transportation – East Africa style.

Residents in the lodge had heard our approach and rushed out in their land rovers and trucks to light up the threshold of the runway and its direction and we landed safely. There was much learning from this experience, the most significant being the need to recognise when it makes sense to wait till tomorrow. Another aspect of learning was the importance of presenting a calm front to passengers, already concerned, to avert panic inside the very small cabin of a light single engine aircraft – even, or especially, when recognising that panic may not be far away, for the pilot as well as the passengers!

I then moved to the Athens office of Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners where my work included the new terminal building and other facilities at Nairobi for the imminent operation of Boeing’s 747, and other projects in Botswana and Sudan. However, holding PPLs for Greece, Kenya and Botswana extended my flying opportunities. My flying in Greece and, later, after my return to UK, was very different from flying in Africa, including flying sky divers in Strathallan in Scotland and, most recently, in Florida. Now that I have decided to allow my license to run out of hours and not renew, old pilot’s reminiscences come to the fore in flying circles. Some of that may appeal to the editor for a future article – but none of my subsequent flying has, for me, the excitement of my time over Africa.

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12 Comments

  • Africa is Africa. It needs only one flight over that continent and you are in love forever. The sky is bigger.

    • Couldn’t agree more – my flying after I left East Africa never had the impact that Africa had. I’m very distressed to read about terrorist attacks at the coast of Kenya where I flew to for many a fun weekend from Nairobi

  • I too had the distinct pleasure of flying in Africa. Not general aviation, but with the 1370th Photo Mapping Wing. I flew out of Asmara, Ethiopa and Roberts Field, Liberia. Not your general USAF mission. We were there three months at a time mapping both countries. Air drops, dirt strips and every thing in between. I still have a smile on my face.

    Punta Gorda, huh? Love to meet up sometime. I’m in Naples with my Cessna 170B. You have my email.

    Dan

    • You got it all – in a much shorter time. It was great fun and used to be so free to go. My Nairobi friends tell me that Regulation has invaded East Africa like just about everywhere else.

      I’ll keep your e-mail available for my next trip. I go more north these days to Anna Maria Island – wonderful place. I used a modified 170 (CSU, Rheims Rocket) for pararopping jhere in Scotland – the modification made a wondeful difference.

      John

  • Lake Rudolf – what an awesome beautiful view!
    Perhaps John met Dr. Michael Wood, who started the Flying Doctors Service (AMREF) out of Nairobi. His ‘Adventures and Reflections of a Flying Doctor’ under the title of ‘Go an Extra Mile’ (COLLINS, London 1978) capture a similar spirit of adventure as reflected in John’s story.

    Bill

    • Bill – right, and Lake Rudolf was only one of many beautiful locations. I once met Michael Woods and more recently met some of the maintenance men in Nairobi looking after Missionary Aviation Fellowship. I must get ‘Go an Extra Mile’.

      John

  • I was looking through my lost photos and came across 5Y-AGK which I used to hire from Aero Club of East Africa. Out of curiosity I googled the registration and came up with an accident report and this article by John Grant. I was an Army guy, often on duty in Kenya but able to fly in my free time (and a bit on business too) I have some photos and reminiscences that I wanted to share but not sure how to post them easily.
    Agree with all that has been said about Kenya and flying – I remember my instructor there was called Pat Innocent I think.
    Chris
    chris@seebafilms.co.uk

  • Found your site while searching for 5Y-ACY, a Piper Cherokee, in which along with my father and sister I was taken for a flight at the age of about nine, in about 1968. Our pilot was a friend of my dad’s called Tony South. Is that him on the left in your picture of 5Y-AGK? We went south from Wilson Airport (Aerodrome?) towards Lake Magadi. I too have fond memories of VC-10s from Heathrow to Nairobi, both BOAC and East African. A few years ago I was able to talk my way aboard an ex-EAA VC-10 on an RAF refuelling exercise over the North Sea in order to write about it for Aircraft Illustrated. That aeroplane, ZA-148 (ex 5Y-ADA) is now a museum exhibit in Newquay, Cornwall.

  • Tony South was my co-pilot flying the East Africa Flying Safari in 1968 or 1969. I wonder if I met your father – I was certainly around the Aero Club at that time and Tony and I flew many safaris together – to Lake Rudolf, Lamu, Malindi etc. Unfortunately I have lost touch with him, much to my regret. I used to fly the Church of Scotland minister to the ICI community at Lake Magadi for his monthly appearance there.

    It was great to get your note

    Best wishes

    John Grant

  • I came across this post while researching a possible stay at the Aero Club for an upcoming trip to Nairobi. I’m not a pilot, but after reading this, I certainly would like to be!

  • Hi Audrey

    It’s a good feeling that my enthusiasm for flying in Kenya could encourage someone else to get behind the controls! Life goes on but I would love to fly some more there and don’t think I can make it happen….? I hope you made it to the Aero Club and enjoyed your stay in Nairobi

  • A few years ago I was on a trip from Kajansi Airstrip at Kampala to Bunia, DRC and on to Butembo, DRC. The plane was a MAF Cessna Caravan. Wonderful trip across Africa, birdstrike on takeoff and lots of jungle thereafter. Flying in Africa is wonderful. Ive been a turbine fan since that experience!

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