Africa from Above: a Guest Post by John

I am often asked what it’s like to be a bush pilot in Africa. Now that I have a few months of experience under my belt here, I want to share a little bit of my daily life with you.

The Aircraft

I fly a Cessna 210, which is a complex, six seat, retractable-gear airplane. Cessna produced the 210 from 1957 to 1986. It’s perfect for bush flying because it’s extremely durable and fast compared to similar aircraft. Being fast is important because my routes take me over hundreds of miles of uninhabited bush land, so I need to get from one place to another on schedule.

Fun Fact: There are more 210’s based in Windhoek than in anywhere else in the world. Pretty cool for a plane that was manufactured in Independence, Kansas.

Planning

The night before I’m scheduled to fly, I go into the office and prepare all of my flight plans. I look at where I’m flying, how long it’s going to take, how many passengers I’m taking. Based on that, I figure out how much fuel I should take and where I need to fuel up (if necessary). It’s a delicate balance of keeping the plane light enough to be fast, while still having enough fuel to get me where I need to go. To make things interesting, not all of the airstrips have fuel!

On a normal day, I wake up quite early, get ready and go to the airport at least an hour before I am scheduled to take off. Once I get to the plane, I have to ensure all of my maintenance and paperwork is in order.

Before Takeoff

After I finish my paperwork, there are a number of things that I need to think about before I can leave:

Fuel

Let me tell you, fueling in the African back-county can be interesting. Our fuel is stored in these bright blue 200 Liter (55 gallon) drums. The drums are very heavy and difficult to move so we use giant hand trucks that are specially made for fuel drums. Then, to get the fuel into the plane, we use a hand-powered pump. Fueling is difficult solo but, when you have an experienced guide there to help, it’s doesn’t take more than five or ten minutes.

Pre-Flight Inspection

After the fueling is done, I complete a pre-flight inspection of the aircraft. I check the cockpit, exterior, control surfaces, and engine. Then, I check the fuel for contaminants using a tool that looks kind of like a small turkey baster.

Passengers (PAX)

Depending on where I’m flying out of, I have to go pick up my passengers. I greet everyone and show them to the plane. When you’re a bush pilot, you have to wear many hats, including the one of baggage loader. So, I check to make sure everyone’s luggage meets our company’s requirements (size, weight, soft shell) and then load everything into the plane. I have flown people from all over the world

Before we get into the plane, I give a quick talk to the PAX about the safety features of the Cessna 210. I also answer questions, usually things like “Will it be turbulent?” and “Where are you from?”and “Which plane is ours….it’s not the tiny one, right?” (says a guy, longingly looking at a 737 parked nearby).

Most folks are comfortable flying in a small plane, but I’ve flown a few people who are very nervous. I try to make them feel as safe and comfortable as possible.

Then, I am ready to get going…

Unique Considerations

Runways

We fly off of almost every type of runway imaginable. Most of them are gravel, sand, dirt or, in the rainy season, mud. It’s not uncommon for a runway to be short and narrow or covered in baseball-sized rocks. Some runways are uphill, some are downhill, some end at the foot of a mountain. So, every takeoff and landing is unique.

Animals on the runways

A problem that pilots face in southern Africa is animals…especially on the runways. I know, it sounds kind of extreme…but you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve seen big animals out on the runway. In fact, there have been so many incidents, that my company put fences around some of the runways. Before I takeoff or land, a safari guide goes and checks the runway for zebra, springbok, and large cats. This keeps the animals and our passengers safe from harm. When guides are unavailable to clear animals, pilots do a runway inspection. I do a quick low fly-by to scare any problematic animals into the bush. This also gives me an opportunity to check the runway condition, since it can vary with weather and wear.

Hyenas! And more animals.

Animals can also cause problems with parked planes. Hyenas tend to pose the biggest threat to unattended aircraft. They have voracious appetites and will eat almost anything. They are the goats of the African bush (well, there ARE goats here, but you get what I mean).

I’ve heard of hyenas eating everything from antennas to tires. In fact, just last week a friend of mine had a considerable portion of the tail of his aircraft eaten clean off by a hyena. It’s become enough of a problem in Botswana that we put thorn bushes around the tires to keep the hyenas from consuming them.

In the Air

When the airplane is prepared and the animals are clear, we take to the sky.

Landscapes

Namibia is a truly a stunning place to see from above. The landscapes are like nothing I have seen anywhere else in the world. From the towering eight thousand foot mountains in the north, to the seal colonies on the Atlantic coastline, to the tallest sand dunes in the world in the south. Even though it’s bone dry most of the year, rainwater has carved it’s way through every hill and valley, leaving behind a network of channels and erosion marks.

Some days, I get to fly to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, where the you’ll find the largest concentration of big game in Africa. The delta is a massive network of swamps, all snaking together into a thousand glimmering streams. It’s stunning to see it from the comfort of a small plane.

Weather

You’d never know it, but Namibia is a very turbulent place! Because it’s hot and sunny, the ground heats up unevenly which causes air to rise at different rates. This means that the ride can sometimes be very bumpy.

During the rainy season, there are some wicked crazy thunderstorms. Although I can divert and avoid many of the storms, it’s inevitable that I have to fly through a few here and there.

On the Ground

I can’t forget to mention one of the biggest perks of this job…the lodges. When I’m not in town with Carrie, I spend my nights at some of the most luxurious bush lodges in the world. It’s not always relaxing, since most nights I have be in bed early and wake up before sunrise. There are also days when I miss home. But, staying at the lodges is something that I would probably never have the opportunity to do otherwise.

Flying in Africa has really been a great experience. Not only am I getting relevant aviation experience, I’m also making memories and having plenty of life adventures. Although it’s not always easy, I feel like this is the first time in my life that I can say I love my job.

Let me know if you have any questions. I would be happy to follow up with an email!

Cheers,

John

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