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!
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.
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.
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.
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.