A pal of mine had once been a reasonably happy Cessna 210 owner. Visiting him at Wonderboom, South Africa (FAWB) in July 1998, I’d suggested we kill some time by talking to an aircraft broker – Johan Lottering (then of Blue Gambit) – and seeing what, if anything, was on the market. I was trying to talk him into buying a Saratoga, similar to the one I owned at the time, but Johan didn’t have anything at the right price or with the right equipment levels. He did offer us a 1980 A36 Bonanza, though, which he said was in excellent condition and on the market at a very good price. Nothing to lose by going to see it, so 30 minutes later we were airborne in the Cessna on the way north.
The Bonanza looked great. We crawled over it for a while, admired its condition and low hours, and thanked the owner for his time. On the way back to Wonderboom, I asked my pal if he was interested. “Not really,” was the reply. Well I certainly was!
A week later, after a frantic week of long-range faxes and Bonanza research, the deal was done and the planning started for the ferry flight back to Peterborough Sibson (EGSP) in the UK. I was keen to fly it myself if at all possible as I’d never done a long flight in a light single and it seemed wasteful to pay someone else to do it. Nevertheless, I contacted a ferry company and asked them for a quote: US$8,000 was the answer. Surely I could get the aircraft home for less than that.
Questions that needed to be settled included:
- Fly solo or with a copilot?
- The route
- Aircraft range with and without a ferry tank
- Overnight and landing clearances
- Export Certificate of Airworthiness
- Safety equipment
The first one was easy. The whole operation would run more smoothly with two pilots. In the air, one can rest while the other flies, longer legs are possible, and on the ground one can be refuelling and preparing the aircraft while the other checks the weather and files flight plans. A fellow A340 pilot, Steve Johnson, readily agreed to come with me “Out of curiosity,” he said…
The route wasn’t quite so easy to decide on. The traditional route seems to be up through Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt then across the Mediterranean to Europe, but that requires an awful lot of overflight and landing clearances. And the more times you land, the more likely things are to go wrong; not just predictable things like burst tyres and flat batteries, but bad fuel, corrupt officials, and rejected flight plans can all spoil your day. A quick look at the map confirmed that an aircraft range of 600 nm would be sufficient for this route but that more than 12 clearances would be required. The clearances for this route would be essential – no future in flying without a clearance and trusting to luck.
The problem with the west coast route, up through Angola then round the West African coast, are the distances involved. I readily accepted that planning to land in Angola would create a whole new set of problems, particularly with a couple of civil wars in progress not a million miles away. With the range to overfly Angola, however, the west coast route would be the better option. The two airfields closest to Angola to the south appeared to be Windhoek (FYWH) and Grootfontein (FYGF), both in Namibia, and the two closest to the north looked like Sao Tome (FPST) and Libreville (FOOL), in Gabon. Overflying Angola would therefore require a range of around 1500 nm.
What was a Bonanza capable of? I got hold of a copy of the A36 Pilot Operation Handbook (POH) to look at the performance. Internal fuel in a standard A36 is 80 US gallons (USG) with six unusable. Assuming minimum landing fuel of 10 gallons (say 45 minutes, quite low enough with light aircraft fuel gauges) that would give us 64 to burn.
Thirteen gallons per hour (gph) seemed a reasonable figure to work with and the handbook predicted True Air Speeds in the region of 150 knots. That crunched out to around five hours flying and a range of 740 nm. OK for the central route but nowhere near enough for the west coast route.
The engineers at Wonderboom reckoned they could get temporary approval for a ferry tank which would hold at least 100 US gallons. Added to the internal usable fuel of 74 gallons and the book fuel flow of 13 gph, that would give us an endurance of over 12 hours and a range of something like 1900 nm. That was more like it. The west coast route was becoming favourite. Beyond Sao Tome/Libreville the route more or less wrote itself. Abidjan (DIAP – Ghana) would be an easy hop and cutting the corner of the Gulf of Guinea would reduce further problems in that particular corner of Africa. Abidjan to Dakar (GOOY – Senegal) would be another easy hop and from Dakar an airport in Southern Europe should be reachable. Almost home!
For the overflight and landing clearances I’d need outside help. Before committing myself to the (well-deserved) fees of a professional company, I called my airline’s Flight Planning Department and asked how the airline goes about getting the clearances. “We get them ourselves,” I was told. “Would you like us to try to get some for you?” This was too good to be true! I quickly faxed a copy of the provisional route requesting landing clearances for Namibia, Sao Tome, Gabon, Ghana and Senegal, and overflight clearances for Angola, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Gambia and Mauritania. I had no idea how long it would take for these clearances to come through, but with only four weeks to go before the planned flight it probably wasn’t too early to get that particular ball rolling.
The next ball to get rolling was the engineering side. I contacted Multi Aircraft Services at Wonderboom, who had been responsible for the Bonanza for the last couple of years, and asked them to get started on the Export Certificate of Airworthiness. An Export C of A certifies that the aircraft is as certified by the original manufacturer and it smooths the way for the issue of a new Certificate of Airworthiness. It’s only valid for 60 days, but is almost essential for the transfer of an aircraft from one register to another. It is possible to get an aircraft on a new register without an Export C of A, but it’s a very time-consuming and expensive business.
With around four weeks to go, there was also time to get some improvements carried out on the aircraft. Under the category of “cheaper to get done in South Africa” came new hoses throughout, new tyres, new wing bolts, fitting of Starter Warning and Low Volts Lights and second altimeter (required for the UK) and new 6-place intercom. Most of the safety issues would be adequately covered by the Export C of A inspection, but to cover unexpected faults I also ordered spare tyres and inner tubes, a spare vacuum pump, spare spark plugs and a plug socket, a tool kit with some spare bulbs, extra oil, extra hydraulic fluid and a maintenance manual.
Between Steve and myself we already owned a handheld GPS and a handheld transceiver, but if the worst came to the worst and we ended up in the sea or the jungle, we’d need a lot more than a couple of electronic gadgets to survive. Over the next few weeks I bought or borrowed a four-man life raft, a pair of life jackets, a tent, a pair of light-weight ponchos, a pair of handheld strobe beacons, a handheld Emergency Locator Beacon (one already fitted in the aircraft rear fuselage), mini flares, waterproof matches, torches, spare batteries, emergency blankets, whistle, heliograph, insect repellent, Immodium and a substantial first aid kit. In the unlikely event of an emergency, as they say, we’d try to get out an emergency call, include our GPS position, and trigger the aircraft ELT. Once in the dinghy we’d then be able to set off the handheld ELT and talk to overflying aircraft with the transceiver. I couldn’t think of anything else that would be useful except, perhaps, a satellite telephone. Steve said “Who are you going to call?” so the sat-phone got crossed off the list.
As you can imagine, I spent a great deal of time thinking about the flight during this period and trying to find out as much as I could about the Bonanza. Talking to a Bonanza owner revealed that there are GAMI-injectors available for the Continental engines which promise to lower fuel flow by leaning aggressively to the lean side of peak. I explored this issue a little more on the internet and, to cut a long story short, ordered the new injectors for direct delivery to Wonderboom. Other GAMI owners told me I could expect to reduce my fuel flow to at least 12 gph and, as the ferry tank had now grown to 112 USG, I reworked the range and endurance sums. Another look at the weight and balance suggested we’d be taking off at 4,000 lbs, some 10% over the normal MTOW of 3,600 lb, so perhaps 150 kt was on the optimistic side and 140 kt might be more realistic. We were now looking at a total of 176 gallons available to burn giving an endurance of almost 15 hours and a range of 2000 nm!
With that kind of range were we still planning a sensible route? Grootfontein (FYGF) had no fuel, so that settled the first leg as Wonderboom (FAWB) to Windhoek (FYWH). At 625 nm it would be a good proving leg, long enough to ensure that the aircraft was safe to operate over longer distances but short enough to return to Wonderboom if any major faults emerged. Sao Tome came back quickly with a landing clearance but it turned out they didn’t have any fuel either, so the second leg firmed up as Windhoek (FYWH) to Libreville (FOOL), 1460 nm and 10 hours or so. Libreville to Abidjan (DIAP) was only 850 nm but overflying Abidjan and continuing to Dakar (GOOY) would require 1830 nm.
Definitely possible, and with a landing clearance from Abidjan already in the bag, we decided to plan Libreville (FOOL) – Dakar (GOOY) direct but take a close look at the fuel flow and ground speed over Abidjan. From there, Faro (LPFR) in Portugal was an obvious choice, some 1500 nm, leaving a relatively short hop of 1100 nm home.
The Air Test
Two weeks before the planned flight we still didn’t have all the overflight clearances. Angola was the big one and we decided we wouldn’t attempt to overfly Angola without a clearance. Other countries, perhaps, but not Angola, so I fired off another request and hoped for the best.
At about this time I found myself rostered for a London – Johannesburg flight (day job: Virgin Atlantic A340). On arrival, I rushed up to Wonderboom to check on the engineering progress. The Export C of A was progressing well, but not complete, and the ferry tank was finished and awaiting approval and fitting. I also took the opportunity to get airborne in “LOJ” for the first time.
An hour later I landed with a short list of snags but with the knowledge that the aircraft was performing well. At a medium weight and published power settings, the TAS worked out at 148 kt at 13.2 gph, close enough to the book figures to validate my flight planning. Of course, we’d be flying higher, heavier, and with new fuel injectors, and the first chance I’d get to discover the performance would be on the Wonderboom – Windhoek leg.
Travelling to Johannesburg
Steve Johnson and I boarded the overnight Virgin Atlantic Flight 601 to Johannesburg with rather more baggage than we’d planned on.
With all the expensive safety equipment (handheld radios, GPS, life jackets), I chickened out of putting it all in the hold, so we quickly repacked the expensive stuff into our hand baggage. I’d also had second thoughts about the amount of cash we should take – originally we’d thought US$1,000 would cover fuel and any unexpected “expenses” in Africa, but what if it didn’t? I drew out another US$1,000 and distributed it between ourselves into various nooks, crannies and money belts. And on top of that we’d bought two cartons of Benson and Hedges and a couple of bottles of Scotch for those awkward negotiations.
We flopped into our seats and ordered a couple of drinks. I wanted to get to sleep as soon as possible. After all, I’d operated the New York – London service that morning, got home at 1pm, and then spent the afternoon checking and packing our kit.
But there were too many thoughts flashing across my frazzled brain for sleep to come easily. What if the Bonanza went u/s in Libreville? Our company had kindly arranged our rosters so we had eight days off and the ferry flight was planned to take five. Some slack, but not much. We were pretty confident we had the spares and knowledge to fix any small problems that would arise, but we had our fingers crossed that we’d at least get the aircraft as far as European airspace before any major snags developed.
Would the aircraft be ready to leave when we got to Wonderboom? I still hadn’t received confirmation that the Export Certificate of Airworthiness (C of A) had been signed off. If it hadn’t, there were no two ways about it – we couldn’t depart. There was no way the UK authorities were going to certify an aircraft without an Export C of A.
Would the ferry tank work? Sandro (Multi Aircraft Services Wonderboom) had assured me that the tank was installed and working fine, but the real test wouldn’t come until we used it on our first leg to Windhoek.
Would the GAMI-injectors work as promised? If the fuel flow wasn’t close to 12 gph we’d never make Libreville – Dakar non-stop. No real problems in that – we had a landing clearance for Abidjan – but another landing is another chance for things to go wrong.
Would we get the ATC clearances to leave each airfield on time? The plan for days 2, 3 and 4 required us to take off close to dawn each day in order to arrive before dusk – any ATC hold-ups would screw up the whole day and, combined with an engineering problem, could jeopardise our ability to get the aircraft to Europe in the eight days we had available.
The A340 settled into the cruise at FL 330. Captain Bob Wilson came back, wished us good luck, and said he’d be listening out for us on 126.9 northbound back from Jo’burg! On that reassuring thought I finally drifted off to sleep.
Day One – Wonderboon to Windhoek
VS 601 landed in JNB on time, for a change, and after a short argument with Customs (who were determined to confiscate our safety equipment and hand it back when we left the country – “But we’re leaving this afternoon from Wonderboom!” I protested!) we were on the N1 to Pretoria and Wonderboom. We stopped in Pretoria briefly to buy a few gallons of water and survival food (peanuts and chocolate, mostly!) and arrived outside the MAC hangar at around 11:30 in the morning. ZS-LOJ was outside, as promised, with Sandro making soothing noises about paperwork and fuel tanks. He’d collected the Export C of A half an hour earlier (talk about leaving it to the last minute), the logbooks and other aircraft documents were all together in a neat package, and he talked me through the snags that he’d fixed after my air test a couple of weeks earlier. We also installed the GAMI-injectors that had just arrived from the States.
There followed two hours of loading the aircraft. We hadn’t given it much thought up until then, but with the ferry tank taking up the front half of the rear cabin, we had to find room for four passenger seats as well as everything else. Some things needed to be stowed forward, within easy reach (life raft, charts, water); other less critical items could be further aft but even then the heavier items needed to be as far forward as possible to keep the centre of gravity within limits. It took us far longer than we’d planned to load up, so as soon as we’d finished we filed our first flight plan and taxied over to the fuel pumps.
The first leg was planned at just over four hours so it made sense not to fill the tanks all the way. We filled the wing tanks but only half-filled the ferry tank just to prove it worked. What a pleasure to refuel at US 26 cents per litre! And they accepted my Air BP card so some important emergency cash was saved. A few minutes later we completed the Customs formalities and checked in with ATC for our IFR clearance to Windhoek. An IFR clearance can often take 10 or 15 minutes to arrange so we were both surprised when the clearance came back almost straight away, “Cleared to Windhoek via HBV then as filed, 8000 feet, 124.3, squawk A2523.” A good start.
We rolled down runway 24 at 1232 Zulu, half-past two local to the rest of us, not bad considering we’d arrived at Johannesburg International at only 9:30 that morning. Acceleration was sluggish, as you’d expect at a density altitude of over 6,000 feet in an overweight Bonanza, so I raised the nose at 50 kts and waited for the aircraft to decide when to fly. It eased itself off at 90 kts and I gently raised the nose a little more and brought the gear up. Levelling off at 8,000 feet, I closed the cowl flaps and let the aircraft continue to accelerate as we checked in with Jo’burg Radar. Time to take a close look at the fuel flow and the GAMI-injector performance.
Leaving the throttle wide open, I first reduced the RPM to 2300 and glanced at the digital fuel flow: 13.5 gph. I started leaning slowly. The GAMI manual recommends leaning at a rate which gives a cylinder head temperature rise of four degrees per second, but we had no way of reading the CHT that accurately, so I leaned off in 0.2 gph increments. And leaned. And leaned! The engine started complaining at 10.4 gph so I richened it until it was running smoothly again: 10.8 gph! Amazing! There was a small airspeed penalty – our groundspeed had reduced by about 10 kts – but even so, the fuel flow was way lower than we’d planned on. Passing Gaborone (FBSK), Steve recalculated our distance and endurance with full tanks: assuming six gallons unusable in the mains and leaving 12 gallons in the ferry, it came out to an endurance of 16:05 at 145 kt and a range of 2330 nm, or a comfortable 2190 nm with one hour’s reserve – wow! Plenty for the Libreville – Dakar leg. We started to relax a little more and watched the Kalahari Desert float beneath us.
It started to get dark an hour out from Windhoek and Steve started to abuse my planning skills. I assured him that I’d checked my trusty Psion handheld and it would still be light when we got to Windhoek – wrong! It was thoroughly dark as we landed but with 15,000 feet of runway we weren’t concerned. The fuel truck turned up promptly so we topped off the tanks, again paying with the Air BP card, secured the aircraft and jumped into a cab for the 40 km ride into Windhoek. Another planning error – I thought Eros, the local airfield at Windhoek, was prohibited to international traffic but ATC assured us that we could have landed there. Oh well, on balance still a good first day. The ferry tank was working as advertised, the GAMI-injectors were working better than we could have hoped, and we had four days’ flying left and seven days to achieve it. We had wiener schnitzel for dinner at the Hotel Turinger, washed it down with a couple of Pils beers, and slept well that night.
Day Two – Windhoek to Libreville
We were back at Windhoek International at a comfortable 7:30 local with an hour to go to our planned departure time. I filed the flight plan, paid the landing fee and checked the weather (severe clear as far as the local met-man could tell), while Steve pre-flighted the Bonanza and then set off on an expedition to refill our coffee flask. This he achieved by walking up the steps of a parked Air Namibia Airbus and scrounging the coffee from the inflight galley. I was then able to blame him for the ten-minute delay in our departure, but at least we had coffee!
We both wore uniform shirts on this leg because we didn’t have a visa for Gabon. Sometimes a uniform helps.
“LOJ” felt even more sluggish on takeoff with full tanks. We estimated it to be 10% overweight – around 4,000 lbs – so again we handled the aircraft as smoothly as possible while we got the feel of it. The C of G was some way aft, within limits, but giving a definite light feel in pitch. ATC weren’t too bothered about what altitude we flew, so before entering Angolan airspace we experimented a little. At 12,000 feet the aircraft was wallowing slightly and as there was no appreciable wind difference between 10,000 feet and 12,000 feet, we eased back down to ten and set cruise power.
The time in Angolan airspace had given us the greatest cause for concern at the planning stage. The overflight clearance had come through very late but we still wondered if the message had been passed on to ATC. We’d also realised by now that the reason our IFR clearances were being issued so promptly was that there was no coordination between adjacent FIRs, and our initial clearance had been only as far as the boundary. So did Luanda actually know we were coming?
We entered Angolan airspace two and a quarter hours after takeoff at position ANVAC on airway R987F. The cloud gradually thickened beneath us until we couldn’t see the surface anymore. With a layer above us as well, we speculated that even if they did scramble a MiG after us, he’d have a hard time spotting us (wishful thinking probably). There was no reply on VHF until an hour or so out from Luanda. I held my breath as Steve made the call, but all was well as Luanda ATC cleared us through the area at FL100. Still, it was a relief to leave Angola behind and enter Gabon airspace. We’d spent five hours over Angola and only been in communication with ATC for the last two hours.
It was starting to get dark as we descended towards Libreville. The cloud had increased considerably but we got VMC downwind and flew a visual approach to runway 16, landing after a flight time of 9:57. Taxying slowly down the long parallel taxy-way we were surprised to see a Westerner run out and marshall us into a parking position close to a hangar. To cut a long story short, the marshaller turned out to be the local Beechcraft agent who really helped smooth the way for us at Libreville. The refueller arrived straight away, the agent drove us through a hole in the airport fence (uniform shirts not required!), checked us into the airport hotel, then joined us for a drink and promised to send a driver to collect us in the morning. Apart from an extravagantly expensive bottle of wine that Steve insisted I bought with dinner, it had been a very successful day.
Day Three – Libreville to Dakar
An early start this time, with a planned 0530 Zulu takeoff and estimated 12:15 flight time. Again, I checked the weather and filed the flight plan while Steve looked over the aircraft.
We were pleased that we’d refuelled the night before as a steady drizzle was falling. The forecast was good though, with the lower cloud clearing an hour into the flight and no significant weather until the thunderstorms started building later in the day.
Sure enough, we climbed up through the overcast and emerged into the sunshine at 6,000 feet. The airway R979D runs almost directly from Libreville to Abidjan, an overwater leg of 850 nm and up to 250 nm off the coast. The risk level on this leg was obviously high, but we reasoned that we’d be able to get a radio call out to someone if the engine failed, pass an accurate GPS position, and then be able to talk to overflying aircraft from our dinghy on the handheld. We also had a handheld GPS and a handheld emergency locator beacon, so overall we considered it a risk worth taking. The alternative would have been to follow the coast around to Abidjan which would have required overflight clearances from at least Benin, Nigeria and Ghana.
Naturally, the aircraft knew we were on a long overwater leg. A couple of hundred miles out the rpm started fluctuating slightly, maybe plus and minus 50. We were running off the ferry tank at that stage so perhaps the gravity feed wasn’t producing enough pressure or there was some kind of cavitation in the fuel line? Sandro had fitted an electric pump in the fuel line from the ferry tank, so we decided to switch it on to see if it made a difference.
It did. I switched on the electric pump and the rpm dropped straight down to 1500! The engine carried on running but my heart nearly stopped. I banged the pump off, let the engine settle down again, and looked across to Steve who was looking at me disapprovingly. What had we been thinking? Why on earth start experimenting with electric fuel pumps 200 miles off the coast of Central Africa?
The rpm resumed its slight wobble and we decided that was fine. Coasting in over Abidjan, I swear, the needle nailed itself to the 2300 mark and we never saw another fluctuation again. Spooky, or what?
The flight across the Ivory Coast and Guinea was surprisingly hard work. The thunderstorms were developing fast, huge columns of unstable air which we had no desire to see the insides of. We had no comms with Guinea until we almost left their airspace so we zig-zagged our way in a general north-westerly direction, avoiding the build-ups visually. Later on in the afternoon, as the temperature dropped, the thunderstorms died away giving us clear and smooth air on the descent into Dakar.
Flight time for day three was 12:13; fuel remaining was 40 gallons.
Day Four – Dakar to Faro
The bowser driver had already gone home when we’d parked “LOJ” the night before so we weren’t away quite as quickly as other days. We still had plenty of cigarettes to give away so a couple of packets went the driver’s way once the refuelling was complete.
Airborne at 0750 Zulu with a straight out climb to the north towards the Canary Islands, today’s flying would be almost entirely over water, but somehow it didn’t seem as intimidating as the leg across the Gulf of Guinea. In fact, it turned out to be the easiest day’s flying of the trip. The weather was clear the whole way, and although we picked up a slight headwind to start with which put us 13 minutes late over Tenerife, it later changed to a tailwind and we landed in Faro only two minutes later than planned, at 7 pm local. Flight time for day four was 10:11.
Faro is “light aircraft friendly” and has a highly efficient Flight Planning Office. They accepted our next day’s flight plan and promised us a full briefing pack in the morning. The final consideration before finding accommodation for the night was refuelling. The Air BP card came good again, but we made sure the ferry tank was only half full. It was going to be removed on arrival in the UK so there was no point in landing there with fuel still in that tank.
Steve tried to talk me into spending the next day on the beach so I had to buy him another expensive bottle of wine. What the heck, we were nearly home!
Day Five – Faro to Peterborough Sibson
The planning didn’t work out too well on the last day. My family was expecting us to arrive at Peterborough Sibson (EGSP) at 4:30 local and I was determined to land as close to that time as possible.
The estimated flight time was 7:36, so a takeoff at 0755 Zulu would be spot-on. Just to be safe, we took off five minutes early, figuring it would be easier to lose the time than make it up. Northbound over Portugal, the headwind component got stronger and stronger and we slipped from five minutes up to 15 minutes down. “Don’t worry,” said Steve, “It’ll change to a tailwind as soon as we set out across the Bay of Biscay.” “Yes, but what if it doesn’t?” I replied, easing the rpm up to 2500.
As usual, he was right and I was wrong. By the time we crossed the French coast and turned at Nantes we were 15 minutes ahead of schedule, despite reducing the rpm back to 2200 and, for the first time ever, reducing the manifold pressure in the cruise back to 22 inches. After turning at Jersey, we were talking to London, probably the first time they’d heard a “ZS” callsign from a light aircraft.
We cancelled IFR over Compton VOR and let down for a quick flypast at Denham (EGLD) before turning north again, now at 2,000 feet, for the last 20 minutes up to Sibson. We got there at 4:20 local, and after five days’ flying, it seemed ridiculous to fly around in circles just to land at half past, so I gave up gracefully and we landed just as the family car drove onto the airfield. We didn’t drink red wine that night, we drank champagne!
Planning, planning, planning. Talk to everyone you can think of before embarking on a long ferry flight in a single. Instructors, ferry pilots, commercial pilots, charter pilots. Pick their brains, ask about routes, weather, admin problems, accept their good ideas and reject their bad ones. Start collecting overflight and landing clearances as early as possible – it always takes longer than you’d think. Get a fuel card or two. Fly IFR if possible. Take lots of safety equipment and don’t forget spare batteries for the gadgets. Safety equipment is insurance that you probably won’t need, but there again… Don’t trust a Psion for dawn and dusk calculations, and finally, don’t fiddle with fuel pumps 200 miles out to sea!
Just under 45 hours total:
Not as expensive as expected?
After a new panel and a new pain job, here’s what LOJ looks like: