'There are no atheists at 30 degrees west': Winging it in light aircraft.

A life aloft


In 1959 and 1961, I went on camping safaris in East Africa, visiting the northern Kenya desert and southern Tanzania woodland. It was pristine country teeming with wildlife, which was expected to disappear within 30 years as increasing numbers of cattle herders and farmers competed for the land and poachers took their toll. Kenya was moving toward independence. I waited a few months for things to settle down, and then I came to stay on Easter Sunday, 1964. I wanted to be a free-lance journalist specializing in wildlife conservation and tourism. I had never done any journalism, but hadn't Miss McBride told us we should teach ourselves to teach ourselves?

In 1969, I learned to fly, originally to avoid dangerous drivers on Kenyan roads. One evening just as the daylight was fading, I was driving along a tricky section of the escarpment road. A lorry driver overtook me on a blind curve with a 1,000-foot plunge to the valley floor on one side of the road. I thought that whatever dangers there were in flight, they couldn't be as bad as this. I later met others who had come to the same conclusion while driving the same stretch of road, and had also learned to fly.

Besides, what better way was there to enjoy the extinct volcanoes and flamingo-streaked alkaline lakes of the Rift Valley, the mirages of Lake Amboseli, lava and cinder cone landscape of Kenya's border with Uganda, the unobscured peaks of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya, or the majesty of the wildebeest migration from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania into the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya!

Once I learned to fly, I organized some of the lady pilots I met into an active group based at Wilson Airport in Nairobi. We came under the umbrella of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization started in 1929 by Amelia Earhart and 98 other licensed women pilots (hence the name). In the early 1970s, there were 5,000 members worldwide. (Husbands and male friends were called 49 1/2s and had no vote.)

Our most distinguished Ninety-Nine, Dr. Anne Spoerry, had been active in the French Resistance during World War II. She was captured and sent to RavensbrFCck for several years, was freed after the war, finished her studies, and became a doctor with a burning ambition to bring medical help to the disadvantaged in remote parts of Africa. (Her father had been a friend of Albert Schweitzer.) She shared her great knowledge of the airstrips in the Kenyan northern desert with us, information which would prove invaluable to me when I flew for Sight by Wings and Mission Aviation Fellowship in the 1980s. She died at 80, in 1999, flying and doctoring to the end.

Like a flying insect
In the 1970s I was getting in stride, writing dozens of wildlife articles. My subjects included Dr. Tony Harthoorn, inspiration for the television series, "Daktari," about a biologist/veterinarian who devised a formula for tranquilizing wild animals so that they could be treated or transported to other areas when they came into conflict with settlers. Dick Denney, who had been lassoing deer and elk in the western United States, was working with a film production unit making "Cowboy in Africa." An Englishman, Nick Carter the Darter, shot tranquilizing darts from his cross-bow while standing on the strut of a helicopter.

Pioneer country
Kenya was pioneer country. One either toughened up or moved on. In 1982, Kenyan air space was shut down after a coup-d'etat in Nairobi, leaving me and a group of students on cross-country certification flights stranded for four days 300 miles to the southeast. When we returned we heard many stories of the coup.

Beryl Markham, author of West with the Night, had been stopped by police that very day. She was driving across town to the Muthaiga Club when the police forbade her going. She went anyway, shouting over her shoulder, "But I always go to the Muthaiga Club on Sundays." Dr. Anne Spoerry received a message that a child had been bitten by a rabid dog on an island in Lake Victoria, and airspace closed or not, she was airborne with the necessary anti-rabies vaccine.

Among many intrepid women pilots, Heather Stewart stands out in my memory. She used to fly into Sudan at tree-top level and at dusk so that she would not be spotted and fired on by helicopter gunships. In case of fire from below, she sat on a bullet-proof vest. Her philosophy? "The danger comes with the job."

Political events aside, there are many dangers in flying in high altitude places like East Africa. Pilots accustomed to flying over low flat terrain are in desperate need of orientation before taking it on. At Wilson Airport, which lies at 5,500-feet elevation, our engines lose approximately 15 percent of the power we would get at sea level, depending on humidity and temperature.

I was finishing my flight training and writing a long series for Safari Magazine on the insects one encountered in tents, feeling very like a flying insect myself, when Kenya's Immigration Department told me that by writing for local magazines, I was taking a job away from an African and should find something else to do. Fortunately, I already held an instrument rating and a commercial pilot's license, and needed only an instructor's rating when the ideal job landed in my lap: chief flying instructor and manager of a Cessna Pilots' Center owned by Safari Air Services. (At last I would be using my degree in psychology from Bryn Mawr!) A year later, the com-pany closed its flying school, but I was able to set up the Ninety-Nines Flying Club and run it for 19 happy years until I left Kenya in 1999, with 9,600 hours of "bush flying" in my logbook.

Transatlantic delivery
A January 10, 1975 flight across the Atlantic was a mentoring experience for me, an important transition to flying to far-flung destinations with missionaries, tourists and student pilots. I carried the Charter for the Ninety-Nines East Africa Section, presented to me earlier in Wichita, KAby Ninety-Nines president Patricia McEwen, while a new Cessna 206 was being prepared for transatlantic flight.

The plane, a six-seater weighing in at about 3,600 pounds, had been bought by a German Time-Life photographer, Goetz Dieter Plage. He wanted it delivered first to Nairobi, where it could be put on Kenyan registry and then flown to Nepal, where he was filming from his base at Tiger Tops Hotel, Kathmandu. It was customary when one bought an aircraft to have it flown to its African destination because if it was crated, it could be badly damaged in shipment.

St. John's, Newfoundland, was our starting point. It was dark on the deserted ramp leading to the taxiway, outlined by a swarm of friendly blue lamps. We stopped taxiing for a few seconds to adjust the altimeter, and almost immediately the main wheels froze to the asphalt.

We couldn't help remembering Charles Lindbergh's magnificent flight in 1927 from Roosevelt Field, NY, passing over Newfoundland on his way to the west coast of Ireland and France. Our flight would take half as long as his 30 hours, owing to a slightly faster airplane and leaving out the New York to Newfoundland leg. Why couldn't we have crowds cheering us?

We thought we had fuel aplenty. At the factory in Wichita, mechanics had added two auxiliary tanks to the wings and installed a 150-gallon ferry tank behind us where the rear four seats had been. (They were folded and stored in the tail.) Our life raft was also stowed behind pilot seats, and we hoped between the two of us we could successfully ditch the airplane and inflate the raft if the engine quit. Ground Control cleared us: "taxi to Bravo, left turn on Charlie, to the holding point of runway 20." It took a long blast of power to unstick the frozen tires, and we waddled like an over-fed duck, tail-low from the weight of all the fuel, to the run-up position.

All systems had tested ok except one-when we turned on the high frequency radio (HF), the automatic direction finding (ADF) circled aimlessly when it should have been pointing to the nearby beacon we had selected. Had the HF "killed" our ADF, which until now (flying across the United States) had performed flawlessly and could have picked up BBC's radio station a few hours into the flight? Navigation for most of the trip would be based on the wind and weather briefing the Meteorological Department had given us an hour earlier. Such briefings were marginally accurate at best. "There are no atheists at 30 degrees west," a pilot friend with an RAF mustache had said to me at the Aero Club of East Africa, referring to the frigid, wind-swept middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

"I suppose we need to get it fixed." I ventured. "Heck no! There's a snowstorm behind us and we'd be stuck in St. John's for days. Don't worry, the ADF will come on line when we need it." Bill Holz, a Nairobi-based spray and charter pilot, was in command. He had flown a single-seat crop-sprayer Gruman Ag-Cat from Sudan to Germany with only a compass and a map. Our VHF Omnirange (VOR) was good for only 150 miles, whereas the ADF could have picked up BBC radio station from halfway across the ocean. I gritted my teeth.

Takeoff time was 05:41 Zulu (local time 1:34). Before you could cheer "Banzai!" we merged with the starry sky above the pinpricks of lights in St. John's harbor. Nowadays ferry pilots carry GPS (Global Positioning System), which reads out latitude, longitude, groundspeed and hours to destination; whereas we aimed to hold our course, compensating for forecast wind and magnetic variation, which averaged about 35 degrees. Lindbergh had a special earth induction compass on board, preferring it to a navigator, but where he didn't have a soul with whom he could talk, we hourly spoke to airline pilots relaying for us to Air Traffic Control in Gander, and after passing 30 degrees west (halfway), to Shanwick Oceanic, because we were too low to give them our estimated position.

By 8:40 Zulu, we were eating our chocolate bars to stay alert. Bill leaned into the back with a flashlight. In three hours' flying, we had exhausted a third of the ferry tank, 50 gallons. We were at flight level 110 (11,000 ft.). Shamrock (Irish Airlines) relayed for us, adding, "Juliet's beacon will be on the air between 1400 and 1600 Zulu."

Juliet, the only Coast Guard weather ship, equipped with radar, that remained under our route, was 1600 nautical miles from St. John's. It would be nothing short of a miracle 12 or more hours into the flight, if we were close enough (within 150 miles) to receive her. Juliet was not an option.

Daylight revealed an indistinct gray ocean. It made me smile to think that I never liked to fly over Lake Victoria, which had hippos and crocodiles, unless I was high enough to be within gliding distance of the shore. It was raining and a mantle of gleaming ice was forming on the wings. We had no anti-icing or de-icing equipment. Before long it would deform the wing and tail surfaces and cling to the propeller making flight impossible. Speedbird 509 (British Airways) answered us; we needed Shanwick's permission for a lower altitude where the air was warmer. Down we plunged to 1,000 feet above the ocean to melt the ice.

Later, at 5,000 feet, the air was smooth, and enchanting hues of gray, blue and mauve-pink surrounded us, reminding me of the tones of Copenhagen china. Seaboard was relaying. "What kind of airplane are you flying at 5,000 feet? How many engines? Do you have inertial navigation system? Doppler radar? What do you have?"

What we didn't have was a map. Bill reached into the borrowed Jeppesen Manual which housed all the charts we'd brought with us from Nairobi. Neatly folded in the pocket labeled "Europe" was the Middle East map. Without a map we had no navigation or communication frequencies.

A TWA captain was relaying for us. In the wonderful way pilots have of helping each other, he told us to stand by while he found all of the frequencies we would need.

We had drifted 225 miles off course. The first three hours we'd had a northerly wind. About the time we were checking the ferry tank, it shifted to the southwest. (No mention of that in the forecast.) Ours was one of the more fortunate flights. A pilot aiming for Shannon had landed on a beach in Portugal with three gallons in his tanks, and there were others who ran out of fuel and were never found.

After checking in with Approach, we switched to Shannon Tower in time to overhear the controller warn a Clipper (Pan Am) Captain about heavy rain, which had only just finished. "Be advised the runway may be slippery." "You're right, Tower, it's slippery," the Captain replied in a gravelly voice after landing.

By the time we landed the runway would be dry. We were flying over the emerald fields of Ireland like a horse headed for its pasture. At 22 miles north, the Tower cleared us for descent. In moments we were refueling, filing a flight plan for Nice for the following afternoon, and I was looking for a ladies room. We planned the remaining legs of the flight so as to arrive in Nairobi as quickly as possible, though we anticipated waiting in Athens for the difficult Egyptian flight clearance. For tonight, it was Durty Nellie's, a Pub in nearby Limerick frequented by ferry pilots. (I would be drinking an enormous pot of tea.) First we had to send a telegram to my mother so she could stop praying and go to sleep. We had landed 14 hours and 45 minutes after takeoff from St. John's. No signs of scurvy in the crew.

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